Walker Art Center

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Hamoye, from Ichichila (audio clip)
Ensemble Tartit
Photo courtesy the artists
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Ensemble Tartit

lives and works in Northern Mali, Africa

The men and women of Ensemble Tartit are Tuaregs residing in the Timbuctoo and Goundam region of the Niger River basin in Northern Mali. The nomadic people of which they make up a part has been present in the vast territories of the Sahara and the Sahel in Africa for thousands of years. They are related to the great Berber community that dominated Northern Africa until the arrival of the Arab conquerors in the seventh century. They share the basis of their culture and language with the Berbers, although they alone have preserved the use of the ancient rifinagh alphabet that was once employed by all the Berber peoples. It is thanks to the Tuareg that the different Berber races can therefore once more use this alphabet to transcribe their language.

Political events pertinent to the formation of Tartit occurred in the 1960s when the Tuareg society was divided and absorbed into the five new states of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali, and Upper Volta (now known as Burkina Faso). The Tuaregs rebelled, once in 1963 and again in 1991. These rebellions were in response to the fact that the Tuaregs were deprived of their traditional economic bases, circumscribed by new frontiers, oppressed and bullied by neighbors to the north and south, and racked by terrible droughts. The Tuaregs seemed condemned to a slow decline and to an irreversible settling process. Their nomadic way of life now became a pathway into exile. The Moorish and Tuareg peoples of the Timbuctoo and Gao regions fled and took shelter in camps in Mauritania, Algeria and Burkina Faso, where their survival was dependent on international aid. Events took an even more tragic turn in 1994, when the Mali an army encouraged militias to exterminate all whites, Tuaregs and Moors in the region. Today peace seems to reign once more, the Tuareg and Moorish movements have laid down their arms and been integrated with the Malian army and administration.

Many Tuaregs fled the repression of the Malian army to various refugee camps. It was at the refugee camp in Bassikounou, in far eastern Mauritania, where Tartit was formed. Originally numbering more than twenty people, the touring ensemble now numbers 8 musicians and one tour manager. The word Tartit means union; it symbolizes the link that exists among these musicians, and because these musicians represent different confederations that make up the Tuareg society.

Tartit is committed to performing, recording, and presenting their music, to as wide and diverse an audience as possible. Their first European performance took place in Belgium in 1995. Since then they have continued to build their audiences in Europe, and are now prepared to bring this music to North America. They are eager to respond to the requests from these several Canadian presenters who are committed to presenting them since the MASA conference in Abidjan three years ago.

Music, song and poetry occupy an extremely large and fundamental place in Tuareg society. Their music is characterized by the importance given to the voices and by the reduced number of instruments. Their social structure has traditionally had a great influence on their music: only women of the noble or the vassal tribes were once permitted to play the imzad, the small one stringed fiddle that is the symbol of Tuareg society. Good players of the imzad are today becoming ever rarer and its repertoire is inexorably becoming smaller.

The other instrument that is played exclusively by the women is the tinde, made from a small wooden mortar that the women use to grind grains, and which is covered with a goatskin. Until recently only women from the servant tribes were allowed to play the tinde; now, any woman may play it. The percussive sounds of the tinde and the soloist's song are generally accompanied by a female chorus and by hand-clapping on the off-beat. The imzad and the tinde are both instruments that are made from every day objects, a gourd and a mortar respectively, and they can once again be used for their normal functions after they have been used as musical instruments.

The Kel Antessar (confederation of Tuaregs to which several members of Tartit belong) were among the first Tuaregs to use the teharden, the three stringed lute that resemble instruments used by other Africans. The teharden consists of a canoe-shaped wooden resonance chamber covered with a goatskin. A neck supports three strings that were once horsehair but are now synthetic. The teharden is only allowed to be played by men.

Tartit is unique in that it is bringing the music from the Tuaregs to an international audience. The group's repertoire consists of both traditional pieces (some more than a century old, respecting the forms of both words and music) and more recent compositions (created by improvising and taking inspiration from contemporary events to pay homage to men and women who serve their community). The music from the Tuaregs is very earthy, yet embodies a sense of ritual through spare yet haunting melodies and rhythms. The music emphasizes the voice (as soloist or chorus), with the occasional addition of instruments: the imzad (violin), teharden (lute) and tinde (percussion). Certain pieces played by the Tartit group mingle the sound of the teharden and the tinde with the voice of the male or female soloist, with a singer's commentaries, and with a female chorus. These are pieces which might be heard on festive occasions such as marriages, children's ceremonies, various tributes, and also in honor of a woman just divorced. The material submitted on the accompanying CD represent only a small portion of the repertoire Tartit may perform. Members of Tartit are well-versed on their instruments, and in the musical traditions of their culture. Issa Amanou is one member of the group who was first trained on the teharden by his uncle Khama ag Akouka, one of the greatest experts on the instrument. Issa sees himself both as musician and raconteur. His words are cast in the present tense, yet evoke a glorious past recalling the heroes who opposed the French in order to encourage the listener's honour, bravery, and spirit of resistance. It is perhaps interesting to note here that the role of music in Tuareg society is, like much of Africa, as normal to them as breathing, and not separated into "performance" as is often the case in the western world. One very much appreciates that integration when witnessing Tartit make music.


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. . . there is a connected response to globalization between performative and discursive practices. To move from the proliferation of noncritical J-theater practices to serious responses to globalization means to negotiate with the world, to move from a self-inflictive, self-affirmative practice to a realistic art practice.