The men and women of Ensemble Tartit are Tamasheks (Tuaregs) residing in the Timbuktu and Goundam region of the Niger River basin in Northern Mali. The nomadic people of which they make up a part has been present in the vast territories of the Sahara and the Sahel in Africa for thousands of years. They are related to the great Amazigh (Berber) community that dominated Northern Africa until the arrival of the Arab conquerors in the seventh century. In the 1960s the Tuareg society was divided and absorbed into the five new states of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Deprived of their traditional economic bases, circumscribed by new frontiers, oppressed by neighbours to the north and south, and racked by terrible droughts, the Tuaregs rebelled, once in 1963 and again in 1991, and were confronted with the cruel force of the Malian army in response. Their nomadic way of life now became a pathway into exile.
Today peace seems to reign once more, with a decentralised administration helping Tuareg life to return to stability, but during the war Many Tuaregs fled the repression of the Malian army to various refugee camps. It was at the refugee camp in Bassikounou, in far eastern Mauritania, where Tartit was formed. Originally numbering more than twenty people, the touring ensemble now numbers 8 musicians. 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 Tuareg society.
Music, song and poetry occupy an extremely large and fundamental place in Tuareg society. Their music is characterized by the importance given to the voices and by the reduced number of instruments. Only women are allowed to play the most characteristic of the Tuareg instruments, the imzad (the small one stringed fiddle that is the symbol of Tuareg society) and the tinde (a small wooden mortar covered with a goatskin). Both instruments 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. By contrast, the teharden (a three stringed lute) is only allowed to be played by men. The percussive sounds of the tinde and the soloist's song are generally accompanied by a female chorus and by hand-clapping.
Tartit is unique in that it is bringing the music from the Tuaregs to an international audience. The group's repertoire consists of both traditional pieces (some more than a century old, respecting the forms of both words and music) and more recent compositions (created by improvising and taking inspiration from contemporary events to pay homage to men and women who serve their community). Other pieces might be heard on festive occasions such as marriages, children's ceremonies, various tributes, and also in honour of a woman just divorced.
The music of Tartit is very earthy, yet embodies a sense of ritual through spare yet haunting melodies and rhythms. Both their music and their captivating visual presence offer a rare glimpse into the ancient traditions and culture of these desert people. To hear their 'desert blues' is to be transported into the endless expanses of the Sahara.