The men and women of Ensemble Tartit are Tuaregs of the Kel Antessar confederation residing in the Timbuctoo and Goundam region in the basin of the Niger River of Northern Mali. They belong to a nomad people who currently comprise between one and two million people and have 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, therefore, making the Tuaregs cousins to the Rifain of Morocco, the Kabyles of Algeria, and to the former Guanches of the Canary Islands. They share the basis of their culture and language with the aforementioned, although they alone have preserved the use of the ancient tifinagh alphabet that was once employed by all the Berber peoples. It is thanks to the Tuaregs that the different Berber races can once more use this alphabet to transcribe their language.
The 1960s saw the division of the Tuareg society into the five new states of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali, and Upper Volta, known since 1974 as Burkina Faso. A Tuareg rebellion broke out in 1963 in the Adagh Mountains in northern Mali and was violently suppressed by Modibo Keita.
Deprived of their traditional economic bases, circumscribed by their new frontiers, oppressed and bullied by the new Arab states to the north and by the settled Black populations to the south, and racked by terrible droughts, the Tuaregs seemed condemned to a slow decline and to an irreversible settling process. It was in 1991 that young men, some of whom had returned from exile or who had deserted the Libyan army, which they previously joined in large numbers, unloosed armed struggles in Mali and in Niger. The armies of these countries were routed and took reprisals on the Tuareg and Moorish populations of the towns and camps., pillaging and massacring as they went. 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, in Algeria and in Burkina Faso, where their survival was dependent on international aid. Events took an even more tragic turn in 1994, after many vain efforts to apply a peace treaty: the Mali army encouraged the Songhais, a settled Black people of the river region, to create a militia force that would exterminate all whites, Tuaregs and Moors that had either remained or returned. The victims were numbered in the hundreds. Today peace seems to reign once more, the Tuareg and Moorish movements have laid down their arms and been integrated with the Mali Army and administration. The civilian populations, however, were the greatest victims of the struggles and are now slowly and painfully trying to return and begin a new life.
The members of the Tartit group fled the repression of the Mali army and joined refugee camps in Mauritania and Burkina Faso. A Belgian aid worker heard their music and encouraged them by organizing a tour in Europe including the Voix des Femmes Festival in Liege, Belgium. The year was 1995. The following spring they returned and performed in Belgium again, Holland, and France. They collaborated on a CD with the group Zap Mama, recording Jogging to Timbuktu.
Their first CD, Amazagh: Ensemble Tartit, Tuaregs Kel Antessar, was released on the Fonti Musicali label in 1997. At the time the recording was made at the beginning of 1996, Amano ag Issa was still living in the Mauritanian camp; Fadimata Walet Oumar, Fatma Walet Mohamedoune and Fatimata Haidara live in Bamako, and Mahassa “Mama” Walet Amounine moved to Belgium. The word Tartit means union; it symbolizes the link that exists between them and between all Tuaregs in general. Tartit has since added a second musician on the tehardant, Idwal ag Mohamed; two male dancers/vocalists: Ag Mohamed Aboubacrine and Mohamed Issa Ag Oumar, who also plays guitar. Tafa Walet Alhousseini has joined the group on the imzad, a one stringed violin that is extremely difficult to play.
Music, song and poetry occupy an extremely large and fundamental place in Tuareg society. In all the chaos that this century and its struggles have caused, they have remained a constant mark of Tuareg identity. The Tuareg confederations have as a whole certain musical practices in common, as well as the rules that guide them and the themes of the poems that are sung. 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, but now any female musicians can teach the instrument to any woman. The imzad is made from half a calabash or from a wooden bowl, covered in goatskin, and attached to a neck that supports one string of horsehair. The imzad players were greatly renowned and could play many melodies, those evoking past events or the high deeds of a hero whose name they bore by the richness of their variations; they could also accompany a man’s singing and also displayed therapeutic powers by curing melancholy and apathy. Good players of the imzad are becoming more rare, and its repertoire is decreasing.
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 covered with a goatskin. The Kel Antessar have two types of tinde, a small takabart and a large aghelaba, whose higher and lower sounds complement each other. 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 well adapted to normal life. Both 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 Tuaregs do not, however, have a monopoly on such instruments: the Haoussa and the
Djerma have one stringed fiddles resembling the imzad and many African peoples use percussive instruments related to the tinde. The Tuaregs, therefore, have been either a constant influence on or have been constantly influenced by the peoples that live around them.
The traces of this inter-cultural borrowings are particularly visible with the Kel Antessar. They were among the first Tuaregs to use the tehardant, the three stringed lute that resemble instruments used by the Songhais, the Peuls, and the Moors. A permanent instrument, the tehardant 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 tehardant along with the Tuareg flute, are the only instruments allowed to be played by men. Amongst the Kel Antessar the tehardant is played by professional musicians, although this circumstance does not occur in other confederations. Amano ag Issa belongs to the aggou (pl: aggouten) caste, one that corresponds to the griot of settled peoples. The aggouten belong to the most extended part of the ighadan, the smith’s or artisan’s caste. The majority of poets and raconteurs traditionally meet at the homes of the above, they are exempt from observing certain rules of behavior and they can skillfully handle criticism and provocation. They are sometimes distrusted and often feared, notably because of the power as smiths they have over fire. The Tuaregs of other areas have also adopted not only the text and music of the tehardant, but also the songs of the aggouten, satirical and critical of the powers that be; it is now therefore possible to hear tehardant music also in Gao and Niamey.
Amano was first trained on the tehardant by his uncle Khama ag Akouka, one of the greatest experts on the instrument. Today it is Amano who has taken up the challenge, he sees himself both as musician and raconteur. His words are cast in the present tense, and evoke a glorious past, notably recalling the heroes who opposed the French, Ingonna in particular, in order to encourage the listener’s honour, bravery, and spirit of resistance. Certain pieces played by Tartit mingle the sound of the tehardant and the tinde with the voice of the male or female soloist, with Amano’s commentaries, and with a female chorus. Such pieces are played on festive occasions such as marriages, children’s ceremonies, various tributes, and also in honor of a woman just divorced. The men and women dance seated, cross-legged opposite each other, moving and twisting their arms and their hands, playing with glances and being free with their smiles. The music provided by the tehardant and the imzad that now supports the tales describing historical incidents will later also be performed in circumstances that will inspire gravity and calm during assemblies or talks.
Tartit presented Tuareg music from Mali for the first time in Europe during the Festival Voix de Femmes in Liege, Belgium in December 1995. They have since toured in over 20 different countries on three continents, and continue to take great joy and pride in introducing audiences to Tuareg culture and music.