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"Ichichila" from Ichichila
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Tartit, Ichichila (Network) The Off-Beat Path & Wooden Mortars of Nomads

"Tuaregs" in America, Spring 2003

“Splendid!”–Robert Plant, upon seeing Tartit at the Festival in the Desert, Mali, January 2003

If everything you owned had to fit on the back of a camel, what would you keep? What instrument would a musician treasure enough to justify taking up precious space? The members of Tartit play the instruments of their Tuareg—or Kel Tamashek, as they prefer to be called—heritage. The tinde, played exclusively by women, is made from a small wooden mortar that the women use to grind grains, and which is covered with a goatskin. Only women of the noble or the vassal tribes were once permitted to play the imzad, the small one-stringed gourd-fiddle that is the symbol of Kel Tamashek society. Both instruments are easily disassembled for use in other daily activities. But their most important instrument is also the most portable one of all: the human voice.

Music, song, and poetry occupy a large and fundamental place in Kel Tamashek society, as can be heard on Tartit’s only US release, Ichichilla (Network, 2000; distributed by Harmonia Mundi) and in the repertoire they will be performing on tour in the U.S. in March/April, 2003.

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. These voices and instruments are joined by the electric guitar and the tehardent, a three stringed lute that resembles instruments used by other Africans. The tehardent—the ancestor of the banjo—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 tehardent is only allowed to be played by men.

The men and women of Tartit come from the Timbuktu and Goundam region of the Niger River basin in Northern Mali. The Kel Tamashek have lived in the vast Sahara and the Sahel for millennia. They are related to the great Amazigh (Berber) community that dominated Northern Africa until the arrival of the Arab conquerors in the seventh century. The Kel Tamashek alone have preserved the use of the ancient rifinagh alphabet that was once employed by all the Amazigh peoples. As a result, the different Amazigh peoples can once again transcribe their language.

Political strife led to the formation of Tartit. In the 1960s, Kel Tamashek society was divided into five new states: Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). The Kel Tamashek 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 Kel Tamashek rebelled, once in 1963 and again in 1991. They seemed condemned to a slow decline and irreversible settling process. Their nomadic way of life became a pathway into exile. They 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 Malian army encouraged militias to exterminate all whites, Kel Tamashek, and Moors. Today peace reigns once more, and the Kel Tamashek movements have laid down their arms and been integrated with the Malian army and administration.

Many Kel Tamashek fled the repression of the Malian army to various refugee camps. It was in these refugee camps where Tartit was formed. 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 Kel Tamashek society.

The women of Tartit formed a U.N.-recognized association dedicated to preserving and raising awareness of their music and culture, and developing educational opportunities for children and economic opportunities for the women.

This spring’s tour of Tartit offers a rare window into their fascinating and beautiful music and culture.