By Steven Wiens/ KUGS

It’s impossible to separate the contemporary music of the Tuareg, a minority ethnic group of West Africa, from their troubled recent decades, which have brought drought, poverty and war. For millennia the Tuareg had enjoyed high status in the region as trans-Saharan caravan traders and camel herdsmen with a distinct and proud group identity, and their vigorous (if unsuccessful) resistance to French colonizers -- particularly in the Ahaggar region -- is the stuff of legend.

In the colonial years and afterward the Tuareg became politically disenfranchised. The borders drawn in the independence era to form modern North and West African nations such as Mali and Niger awkwardly divided Tuareg territory, and increasing drought and desertification caused devastating poverty and unemployment. Many young Tuareg were radicalized by their increasingly marginal place in West African society, and clashed violently with soldiers in Mali and Niger during the Tuareg Rebellion of 1990-1996.

During the Rebellion Tuareg rebels and refugees alike fled north en masse to camps in neighboring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Libya. The music of Tartit, one of the most successful Tuareg bands, evolves directly from the protest music its members sang in those camps –- where the electric guitar also was first widely introduced among Tuareg musicians.

With Abacabok, Tartit’s first album in six years, the ensemble has collaborated with Congotronics producer Vincent Kenis to record a set of performances that far surpass the already broad scope of their 2000 release Ichichila. Tartit’s ever-stronger repertoire includes an increasing variety of traditional Tuareg rhythms and compositions, most featuring dynamic and beautiful female voices over minimal instrumentation.

The call-and-response chants of songs on Abacabok like the buoyant “Eha Ehenia” are similar to West African vocal forms, but Tartit has more in common musically with traditional Berber and Arab styles. “Tabey Tarate,” Abacabok’s first number, makes this point emphatically at the album’s outset with serpentine instrumentation under wailing male vocals.

Like many Tuareg groups Tartit has incorporated electric guitars into its ensemble with stunning results. Abacabok also prominently features an array of traditional instruments, including the violin-like imzhad that provides the lilting rhythm for “Al Jahalat,” the tehardent lute, and spare tinde drum rhythms and hand claps throughout. The arrangements are minimalist and deftly executed.

The well-rehearsed feel of the compositions on Abacabok are likely a natural result of Tartit’s growing commercial success as a recording and touring ensemble. Susan J. Rasmussen, a longtime field researcher of Tuareg communities in West Africa and elsewhere, wrote a lengthy article on this aspect of the Tartit experience in a recent issue of Anthropological Quarterly, focusing part of her analysis on a Tartit performance at the University of Washington.

“What occurs when local residents travel, but also continually return home, and become increasingly self-conscious about their culture and history and how these are represented?” Rasmussen asks.

On Abacabok, Tartit seem more conscious than ever that they are performing their culture as well as their music when they record albums for international distribution, despite the accessible and genuine character of the recordings themselves.

Tartit is often compared with another Malian Tuareg band born of the guerilla and refugee camps of the 1990s, Tinariwen, who will soon complete their third American release. Tinariwen write rock songs in a more modern format than Tartit, and play more fast and loose than the steady, practiced Tartit. Together they are the two most successful contemporary Tuareg ensembles, and they have shared the stage during events such as the annual Festival au Désert, (“Festival in the Desert”) a celebration of Tuareg culture in remote Essakane, Mali. The Festival includes performances by Tuareg musicians as well as bands from around the world, and is sponsored by Mali’s Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Artwork and Tourism.

Government funding of Tuareg cultural events such as Festival au Désert demonstrates an increased willingness from West African nations to reach out to Tuareg communities and offer them greater representation. After all, how can one resist the spirit of the dramatic 1996 public burning of 3,000 guns at the end of the Tuareg Rebellion that began in 1990? Although the cease fire has mostly held, the situation remains tense as Tuareg continue to face poverty and the loss of their nomadic lifestyle.

Music has always been a core aspect of Tuareg cultural life, and while so much Tuareg culture is being threatened, at least the music seems destined to remain, if Tartit’s global audience is any indication.

Frustrated by their marginal cultural and economic status in West Africa and preparing to wage armed struggle, a generation of Tuareg found new pride during the 1990s. The Tuareg Rebellion was one important expression of this revitalization, but to many the reworking of traditional Tuareg music as ichumar (“rebel music”) was equally significant. Tartit’s fine new album Abacabok is one of the most focused expressions of this view available to the world, and also one of the best of a precious few recordings of Tuareg music available to us today.