This Saturday night July 27 brings the Festival au Desert: Caravan for Peace tour with Tartit (pictured above), Mamadou Kelly, and Imharhan to Tropicalia. The show is a tribute to the event that took place among the sand dunes outside Timbuktu, Mali for twelve years until the recent upheaval that led to Islamic radicals taking control of north Mali. Although the French have since driven the radicals largely into hiding, portions of Mali remain unsafe due to suicide bomber attacks and economically damaged with the Festival postponed indefinitely. More than human interest stories, these performers merit interest for their music alone. Tartit’s five women vocalist/percussionists chant drone-like Tamashek lyrics aided by the minimalistic stringed instrument rhythms of four veiled male players. Mamadou Kelly played guitar with the late Ali Farka Toure, and like him, Kelly’s brand of fingerpicking axework seemingly evokes the blues, even if it’s Malian grown. His vocals aren’t melismatic, but they convey a somber power. Imharhan, led by electric guitarist Mohamed Issa with members of Tartit, envelopes listeners with Tinariwen-like buzzing guitar that they meld with contemporary, personal lyrics about love, war and life as refugees.
In preparation for my Washington City Paper preview, I interviewed via email Fadimata walet Oumar (aka Disco) of Tartit; Mamadou Kelly; and Mohamed Issa ag Oumar of Imharhan(he’s Fadimata’s brother). Not speaking French or Tamashek, I relied on the tour manager to translate the questions and answers.
1. Where do the bandmembers live now?
Mamadou Kelly: I have returned to Goundam in the north of Mali with my family. My band members live in Niafunke and Segou. We stay time to time in Bamako when we have concerts there.
Fadimata Walet Oumar(of Tartit): The group Tartit lives in three countries at the moment: Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Mali
2. How does your songwriting process work?
Mamadou: My music is based on traditional song styles but I elaborate and change the lyric and song to suit the circumstances and the times. i then create arrangements with traditional and contemporary instrumentation.
Fadimata: Tartit sings traditional songs that we arrange for the group. We also compose new material in traditional style with stories and messages that are give opinions, histories and comments on contemporary situations.
Mohamed Issa Ag Oumar: Imharhan uses a more contemporary method of composing lyrics and music. Our lyrics are about love or nostalgia as well as about contemporary values, the current situation of the Tuareg and the wider issues of the world.
3. Are their any women ngoni players or do women play imzad and tinde only?
Fadimata: In our group the women play the imzad and the tinde only.
We do not know any women who play the ngoni [we call that instrument the tehardent in tamacheq]
4. (For Fadimata of Tartit): Tell me about the status of your United nations-recognized association dedicated to developing schools and jobs and preserving Malian music and culture.
Fadimata: It is difficult for this foundation to operate and function right now. The crisis in the north has brought much suffering and deprivation to the local people.
5. What have you enjoyed seeing when traveling with the band; or do you just mainly stay at hotels and not have time to see things and meet people?
Fadimata: We travel alot for our concerts, in Europe, in Africa. Now in the US. We mainly stay in hotels resting from out performances and the travel but we enjoy meeting people and our family members and the Tuareg people who live around the world.
6. Are you working on new songs and do you have plans for a new album?
Mamadou Kelly: We are constantly working on new songs and listening to all kinds of music.
Mohamed Issa: I have been composing songs along the route and think of musical ideas all the time.
Fadimata: Tartit spends alot of the time singing together and improvising. We have a new album of live recordings about to be released. And we are working on another.