The music of Terakaft, the Saharan group fronted by Sanou Ag Ahmed and Liya “Diara” Ag Ablil, was born of turmoil. An offshoot of the celebrated desert blues outfit Tinariwen (Diara was a longtime member of that band), Terakaft reflect the hardships suffered by the Tuareg people of North Africa, who are perennially caught between warring factions in their desert home. The conflict reached a perilous peak in 2012, when insurgent groups waged a war against the government of Mali, during which a hard-line Islamic faction attempted to impose Shariah law throughout the region. The group’s latest — and best — record, the tense, grinding Alone, is an attempt both to come to terms with that struggle and to map out a way forward through perseverance and community.
But what came through most clearly over the course of their engrossing hour-long set at Joe’s Pub wasn’t a sense of grief, but a feeling of pure joy. The darkness that hangs over Alone was replaced by songs that felt light and loose — celebratory instead of troubled. Unlike Tinariwen, whose tightly coiled creations become almost hypnotic as they progress, Terakaft’s music remained airy and bright, sparkling guitars pinwheeling above slack, clattering rhythms. They set the mood early: “Tafouk Tele” worked an easy, relaxed groove, Ag Ahmed and Ag Ablil’s vocals gliding smoothly through the center of the song like two boats on a calm bay. Throughout the night, the band operated primarily in three modes. There were steadily cruising numbers, where the guitars performed a kind of melodic needlepoint, stringing together quick single notes to create liquid, lyrical melodies. There were compact, pulsing numbers that bore hints of Western rock music, where the guitars were little more than taut scratches and Ag Ahmed and Ag Ablil pulled the song forward with bold, defiant singing. And then there were giddy, spiraling songs, not unlike dance music, where notes appeared in frenzied clusters and the vocals skipped giddily between them. What remained constant were the songs’ linear structure: There were no choruses or mirrored verses. Instead, each one ambled forward from start to finish, vocals bobbing gently above a latticework of guitar.
On “Anabayou,” they employed a drum track that sounded like a firecracker going off in a trashcan, Ag Ahmed and Ag Ablil’s voices disappearing into one another as the guitars surged and pulsed. By contrast, “Aima Ymaima” was almost prayer like, a gently winding vocal melody snaking its way through darting guitars. It was here that the group’s “desert blues” designation felt most apt: Ag Ahmed worked a pained, heaving vocal melody that his guitar mirrored note for note. “Djer Aman” had the quick two-step of country music, casually loping from side to side, guitars sawing like fiddles.
The faster numbers were also the strongest. “Tirera” was breathless and ecstatic, Ag Ahmed and Ag Ablil vaulting their voices upward as their guitars raced and scrambled beneath them; the song was joyous and frenetic, and at times seemed to mirror the breathless ferocity of punk, hurtling forward powered by nothing other than its own momentum. It was during this song that a few members of the audience, who had remained, for the most part, politely seated, finally rose to their feet and found an empty spot near the stage to start dancing. If Terakaft noticed them, they didn’t let on — they were lost in their own reverie, ecstatic and transported.