The country of Niger in West Africa sits at the crossroads of age-old caravan routes connecting the north of Africa with the south. While its economic importance has long since faded, it’s now one of the three poorest countries in the world. However, the country’s history of being a convergence point for the Arab and Berber peoples of the north and the Sub-Saharan people of the south makes it one of the most culturally diverse nations in the region, with 11 distinct ethnic groups calling it home. Anyone familiar with the region will know the nomadic Tuareg are one of the people living there and of their conflict with the Niger government over the loss of their traditional territory.
The Tuareg aren’t the only nomadic people who try to eke out an existence in this harsh environment. Living side by side with the Tuareg in the desert are the Wodaabe, tending their herds and trying to raise what crops they can. While in the past there might have been clashes over land and water, today the two people share common cause in trying to preserve their way of life. In 2004 musicians from each came together to form the band Etran Finatawa, which translates literally into English as “the stars of tradition”. While the band’s numbers swell to as many as 10 people on occasion, the core touring and recording group consists of three Wodaabe and two Tuareg. The band combines the musical traditions of both people and sings in both the Kel Tamashek language of the Tuareg and the Fulfulde of the Wodaabe.
As is the case with Tuareg bands in other regions, one of the major focuses of Etran Finatawa is to try and help preserve the traditions of their people. To that end, many of the songs they create deal with their history and cultures. For their latest release, The Sahara Sessions on Riverboat Records, part of the World Music Network, the band eschewed the studio to record in their desert homeland. Sitting under a lean tent made from animal skins and sticks, surrounded by recording equipment and looking out into the desert, the band recorded all 18 tracks on the album under conditions much the same as those their people have lived in for centuries.
With the distinctive Tuareg style guitar weaving through every song, listeners may well notice similarities with the work of other bands from the region. However, they will also hear some differences. The style and the sound of the percussion played on both Tuareg and Wodaabe drums gives these songs something of a different flavour. One of the drums, the azakalabo – a calabash suspended in water – has a much deeper and resonate sound than most hand drums. Unlike a bass drum, it doesn’t drive the music; rather, it seems to give those songs it’s utilized on a kind of depth. The sound it produces almost surrounds the other instruments in a kind of three dimensional cocoon and helps the rhythm permeate deeper into the bones of the music.
You’ll also notice a sizeable difference in sound when the vocals switch between Alhousseini Mohamed Anivolla of the Tuareg and Bammo Agonia of the Wodaabe. This is especially obvious on tracks 5 (“An Mataf Germanawen”) and 6 (“Eldam”) where the former is sung by Anivolla and the latter by Agonia. Anivolla’s voice moves along in the lower registers, keeping time with the steady rhythm of his guitar and the beat of the drums. As with other Tuareg music, there is an almost trance-like quality to the song and the voice is a big part of creating the soothing nature of its sound. However, there’s also an underlying sense of urgency to his voice which ensures people will listen to what he’s saying at the same time they’re being eased into moving to the music. The music and the voice combine to pull you into the song and then fill you with both the sound and the message.
Agonia’s voice, on the other hand, lives at the higher end of the scale and has a distinct nasal quality to it. At first it’s quite jarring in contrast to Anivolla’s mellow sound, but Agonia has a power you can’t ignore. Although he’s not singing loud, his voice is pitched to carry over almost any ambient noise the desert has to offer. You can almost imagine him singing at the head of a caravan snaking across the desert and his voice being the line holding the string of people and animals together. There’s something so compelling about his voice that you hang on his every syllable in spite of not understanding what he’s saying.
According to the liner notes, the band set up camp just outside the town of Korey Gourou in Niger and had a constant stream of visitors stopping by to check out what they were doing. Not only did the band welcome the visitors, they also figured out ways of including them in the recording process. The guests included a group of curious children whom the band spent an afternoon rehearsing in the hand-clapping percussion of traditional songs before recording with them. Then there was the night a Tuareg percussionist showed up on his motorcycle with his drum. His playing can be heard on three tracks.
At one point the band was joined by a local Tuareg griot – an oral historian who sings histories instead of telling them – and he joined them in an improvisation of which “Wa Oyan A Wa Imouss I Bastila”, track 4, is a short excerpt. The song’s lyrics focus on the importance of the Tuareg culture and how it must be kept alive through singing and by ensuring the spread of music and the arts. While this song refers specifically to only one of the two peoples represented on the disc, the message could just as easily refer to either of them. As the years pass it becomes harder and harder for both the Tuareg and the Wodaabe to continue their traditional ways of life.
While the troubles in Mali in 2012 and 2013 – a Tuareg rebellion taken over by Islamic fundamentalists resulted in the banning of all music and the outlawing of any deviation from their interpretation of Islam which would have spelled the end of not only the Tuareg culture but many others – didn’t directly effect Niger, it reinforced the precariousness position of the nomadic culture. The music of Etran Finatawa is an attempt to not only remind their own peoples of the importance of their traditional way of life, but as an example of what can be accomplished when they join forces to speak up for themselves.
Not being able to speak the language means we might not be able to understand the specifics of the messages behind the songs, but we can appreciate the music for its sound and the passion inspiring it. When art is inspired by belief, it can reach across the barriers of language and culture to touch our hearts. This album is no exception, as each of these songs has a power that has to be heard to be believed.