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SXSW: Terakaft

March 18, 2013
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You hear at lot of complaining from musicians at South by Southwest. They complain about declining CD sales, meager download royalties, dwindling live venues and younger audiences who don’t appreciate “good music” (i.e. their music). But all these complaints seem petty compared to the troubles of the band Terakaft.

In the Saharan desert of northern Mali, the Tuareg independence movement has derived much of its inspiration from desert-rock bands such as Tinariwen and Terakaft. In the most terrible of ironies, that movement has recently been taken over by Islamic fundamentalists who have banned music in every town they’ve taken over. And because foreign countries are understandably nervous about letting in strangers from North Mali, the musicians now have trouble getting visas.

Thus only two of the four members of Terakaft were able to appear at SXSW Friday night, but they were the original co-founders. Liya Ag Ablil had been a co-founder of Tinariwen before forming Terakaft in 2001 with his nephew Sanou Ag Ahmed. As they prepared to take the stage at the Speakeasy, an Austin college bar most of the year, Liya looked like a Parisian in his long black leather coat, while Sanou looked like a Baltimorean in his afro and patched jeans. But when they donned their traditional black cloaks and black scarves that wrapped around their foreheads and necks, they were once again the desert nomads of their youth.

Joined by American bassist Manny Flores, the two Malians both played electric guitar, generating push-and-pull rhythms with short bursts of melody burbling on top. Most of the songs, drawn from their latest album Terakaft kel Tamasheq (World Village), were minor-chord vamps that created a trance-like intertwining of the guitar parts. The album title can be translated as The Caravan That Speaks Tamasheq, and the two leaders sang their droning, mesmerizing vocals in the Tamasheq language, praising God, family and the desert in a sound as strange and seductive as the Sahara itself. There was nothing else remotely like it in all of South by Southwest.

Following Terakaft at the Speakeasy was Red Baraat, the hottest band in world music. It’s actually a Brooklyn band, but leader Sunny Jain has built their sound atop the traditional horns-and-drums street-parade bands of his family’s traditional home in the Punjab. Jain himself plays the double-headed red drum called the dhol, and he’s backed by a trap drummer, hand drummer, soprano saxophonist, trumpeter, bass trumpeter, trombonist and sousaphonist. Though the group’s roots are in northern India and Pakistan, the arrangements and vocals owe just as much to American funk bands.

The result is a dance party every time the music starts, and the audience was shaking shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor. Playing the songs from their January release, Shruggy Ji (Sinj), Red Baraat created rolling, rumbling waves of rhythm with chant-like vocals on top, like a cross between New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Prince George’s County’s Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. When sousaphonist John Altieri began bouncing up and down to the infectious groove, much of the crowd did the same.

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