Africa's Tartit Steps Up Its Musical Game

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The mostly female African musical troupe Tartit was formed in the 1990s to play the European folk circuit. But these days, they're louder and faster.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The mostly female African troupe, Tartit, who was formed in the '90s to play the European folk circuit. Our music critic, Robert Christgau, says these days, they are louder and faster and better.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: The world's billion plus Muslims have created enormous variety of music the Judaeo-Christian world continues to ignore - from the Sufi ecstasies of Qawwali, to the West African Wolof rhythms that fed into blues.

For me, some Islamic styles - from Indonesia, for instance - are indigestible. But a strain that's gotten the spicing right recently is one of the eeriest -the Saharan strain.

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTGAU: That's Tartit keeping time on a snatch of 2003's "Festival of the Desert" sampler that with its drums and outcries and heavy breathing fairly represents a track that sticks with you. But earlier, in 2000, Tartit put out an album of chants and grio(ph) songs called "Ichichila," that to my ears was much too arid.

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTGAU: Tartit are Tuaregs - Saharan nomads. The best known Tuaregs are the mostly male musical collective Tinariwen, which has gained a worldwide reputation by honing its membership, tending its beats, and fortifying its guitar sound. And now, Tartit, too, has muscled up.

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTGAU: What a difference some well-placed guitar can make. And that bassist, a young Tuareg named Nasser(ph), is the secret weapon of two tracks. Afel Bocoum takes lead vocals and guitar on another.

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTGAU: I've read a little about the Tuaregs. I know they ended a 30-year rebellion against the Malian government about a decade ago. I know they maintain a modicum of gender equality. I know that a magnificent Saharan singer named Mariam Hassan was permitted to divorce her husband and pursue her music, that she just disapproved of.

That's not much. But the comfort level I achieve enjoying Tartit's music for its formal qualities prepares the way for deeper understanding. The process is deexoticizing, not exoticizing. This song, "Chargouba," does nothing more than celebrate the wealth and cattle of two prominent men, but there's a life and confidence in these women's praise that wasn't there back in 2000. That's the musical effect of muscling up, but it's also the cultural effect of their autonomy as musicians. Forgive me for believing or hoping, but that means we've all progressed a little bit.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Our reviewer, Robert Christgau, is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone Magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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