In the United States, blues music is literally dying as a social art form — we lost another master guitarist of the genre, Magic Slim, just last month. But in Saharan Africa, simultaneously stoked by centuries-old cultural traditions and headline-inducing conflicts in 2013, the blues is ascendant, resplendent and vividly relevant.
In the vanguard of this “desert blues” brigade is the band Terakaft, which will appear Monday at the Cedar Cultural Center. A core trio composed of friends and a former member of the better-known group Tinariwen, Terakaft — which means “caravan” is the Tamasheq language — deploys driving blues-rock riffs that fans of John Lee Hooker and Ali Farka Touré will recognize. But these phrases coalesce into ululating and circular rhythms that swirl into gusting, hypnotic patterns.
Terakaft, like Tinariwen, are nomadic Tuareg people from the region around northern Mali in the Sahara, so it is hard not to liken this evocative music to the ever-shifting sands and landscape of the desert.
The intensity of the music is also derived from real-world experience.
In recent years, the Tuaregs have been enmeshed in political events that have disrupted their existence in Mali. Some have battled the Malian government in a bid for independence. Islamic extremists capitalized on this instability in their own bid to take over the government. With the help of France, the Malian government has driven these extremists into the country’s Azawad province, where many Tuareg live. Among other repressive measures, the Islamic militants have banned all nondevotional music and threatened to cut off the hands of anyone who plays it.
“Times are changing, but we are not sure about the way it goes,” said the group’s elder statesman, Liya Ag Ablil, in an e-mail interview. Commonly known as Diara, he and other members of the group engaged in a back-and-forth e-mail exchange, translated by their manager.
Diara understands the uncertainties surrounding nomadic people in strife. A founding member of Tinariwen, he said he was living in a remote part of the Sahara when that group “had its international takeoff” to global success nearly a decade ago. So he joined Terakaft, founded by his two nephews, whom he had taught to play guitar.
Today, Diara lives in Timiaouine, a town in central Algeria.
“Most of our families in north Mali have flew,” he writes. “Here in Timiaouine, we have welcomed so many refugees. They are safe here.” Asked about the impact of this turmoil, he replies, “I am not sure it will change our music. But I suppose many of our songs will talk about these times.”
Of course they will — and do. The title track to the group’s fourth and latest album, “Kel Tamasheq” (which translates as “people who speak Tamasheq”), opens with a call for their people to stand up and not be invisible to the world. The lyrics over the braided guitars in “Imad Halan” (“The Volunteers”) seem to caution against involvement in the turmoil in Mali, while the closing acoustic blues tune “Bas Tela Takaraket” (“There Are No More Morals”) proclaims, according to one translation, “We will not submit / Nor will we make alliance with the enemy.”
As with all great blues-oriented music, you don’t have to know the language to feel the passion. On the opening track, “Tirera,” a halting guitar line quickly gathers steam and settles into an intoxicating canter, goaded by hand claps and vocal whoops. It’s a classic desert blues tune, reveling in the unbridled joy of the expanse, satisfying a yearning for freedom and independence that is as old as the hills.