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Music Review: Etran Finatawa – Desert Crossroads

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Etran Finatawa means ‘The stars of tradition,’ and that’s what this group is doing, trying to keep their traditions alive. While the typical Earthling is trying to shuck his traditions off as quickly and as quietly as possible in order to blend in, this group is proud of theirs, advertising them.

The first thirty or so seconds of the CD is narrative. “If this is a language,” you think to yourself, “it’s one that sounds as if the speaker has a mouthful of pebbles and is trying to speak around them.” After just a few seconds, percussion comes in, and, somewhat disconcertingly, in spite of the unfamiliar sounds, you feel yourself drawn in, helpless yet electrified and excited, holding your breath. You know something wonderful is rolling toward you, preparing to wash right over you. And that’s OK. It’s good.

Etran Finatawa come from Niger, a landlocked country in West Africa, just below the Sahara Desert. The group is a mix of Tuareg and Wodaabe, two of the eleven major ethnic groups in Niger, many of whom still tend their camels, long-horned cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys, combing the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert in search of the green, succulent pastureland that their charges require for sustenance, so they, in turn, can provide sustenance.

A combination of war and drought brought these two groups that form Etran Finatawa together in the capital of Niger, Niamey. Two musical groups, the Tuareg Etran N’Guefan (‘the Stars of the Dunes’), teamed up with the Wodaabe performance group Finatawa, and decided to put on a joint performance at the renowned annual Festival in the Desert in Tombouctou, or as we say it, Timbuktu, a city in the adjoining country of Mali, in 2004. The move was risky, considering the two groups spoke different languages and came from different cultures, but when you’re running from war and drought, a lot of things look promising. The merged groups were so well received at the festival they decided to make the bond more permanent, and began making appearances in various places in Europe and the US, where they’ve been enthusiastically received. They’re on tour in the US as of right now.

This area of Africa is probably the poorest on the entire continent, but it’s also probably the richest in poly-culture, as it sits more or less on the crossroads between the Arabs from the north and the Africans from the south. In more recent history, it’s an area from where many musicians and musical groups have made, or at least attempted to make, their jump onto the World Music scene. A few have made it even farther, landing performances and collaborations with blues luminaries such as Ben Harper, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, and others.

This CD contains 16 cuts, and totals out at over 64 minutes. Excellent value for the price. It’s some excellent, easygoing Central African music, mostly guitar and acoustic with vocals. It’s the type of music that you sit and listen to intently, or just use as background when you’re working or driving. It fits in anywhere, and it’s both soothing and invigorating simultaneously. It all depends on how you listen!

There’s no denying that the guitar work you hear on this CD could, with some English words rather than native African, become modern blues standards. On the other hand, overall the music is unmistakably Central African. It would be a loss to the world if no current prominent blues performer made an overture toward them.

If you like the music of Etran Finatawa, look into Tinariwen and Tartit, two other groups that came out of sub-Saharan Africa, and who’ve also made a splash in the World Music Scene.

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About Lou Novacheck