The Stars of Tradition: a meeting of two very different desert cultures from Niger (First published in The Independent, July 2006)
The word ânomadâ might make us dream about freedom, but in the southern Sahara it actually describes a man locked in a pitiless and epic struggle against drought, locusts and oblivion.Â The scrubland of the Azawak, an immense and table-flat plain in the northwestern corner of Niger, is home to two nomadic peoples, the Touareg and the WoodabĂ©, who have been intimate with this daily existential grind for centuries.Â Â Their origins are bipolar; the Touareg come from Berber North Africa, and the WoodabĂ©, who are a sub-division of the ubiquitous Peul or Fulani race that peppers the whole of West Africa, from somewhere in the east.Â They speak two totally different languages, Tamashek and Fulfulde.Â They have always traded with each other and often fought over wells and salt deposits, the two essential prerequisites of the errant pastoral life.Â Â But until now they have never made music together.
âWe hadnât thought of creating a group when we travelled together to the famous Festival in the Desert near Timbuktu in 2004,â explains Etran Finatawaâs bandleader Ghalitan Khamidoune, a diminutive Touareg with a gentle purposeful manner.Â âThe two musical cultures are very different, different instruments, different vocal styles.Â Weâd only written a couple of songs together back in Niamey, which we wanted to perform as a kind of finale at the Festival to show the Malians what musicians from Niger can do.Â It was only when we saw the joy of the audience response, and found that people were congratulating us all the way back home, that we felt there was maybe something there.â
This hunch received an overwhelming endorsement with the recent release of Etran Finatawaâs debut CD âIntroducingâ on the World Music Network label.Â Reviews have been liberally sprinkled with words like âunearthlyâ, âhypnoticâ, âhauntingâ and âcompellingâ, accolades which justify themselves within seconds of pressing the play button.
Powered by the perpetual motion of the Touareg tindĂ© drum, the Etran Finatawa groove possesses a kind of inexhaustible inner dynamo, a sublime transport that carries a cargo of joyous call and response vocals, booming bass and effortlessly intricate electric guitar licks, all of which reinforce the wide linear horizons of the music and echo the endlessly horizontal skyline of the groupâs desert home.Â Â This raucously poised sound was captured with sensitivity and expertise by producer Chris Birkett at his Chateau Richard studios in the heart of the dreamy wine-growing country of St Emilion near Bordeaux in the summer of 2005.
Onstage Etran Finatawa come across like an enthralling Saharan fashion display.Â The three Touareg members look stately in their top-to-toe indigo robes, whilst the tall slender-armed WoodabĂ© disport the intricate and strangely effeminate make-up which has made WoodabĂ© men-folk a byword for African masculine beauty.Â Back home in the desert, at certain key traditional gatherings, young WoodabĂ© men gather in their hundreds to go through this laborious beautification process, delicately daubing their faces with a combination of natural dyes and the highly toxic black powder of used batteries, before lining up to roll the whites of their eyes and flash their teeth in the hope of being chosen for a night of passion by one of their female âjudgesâ.Â Â Itâs the most famous dating ritual in the world, a magnet for generations of anthropologists, travel photographers and film-makers, like Werner Herzog, who captured the process on film in his opus âThe Herdsmen Of The Sunâ.
Although Etran Finatawa are proud to give the world a ravishing glimpse of this ancient beauty, what they really embody is the painful clash between nomadism and the modern world. Like so many of his WoodabĂ© kin, percussionist and vocalist Bagui Bouga was forced by drought and desertification to move from his ancestral pastures to the polluted streets of Nigerâs capital Niamey in search of work.Â âTimes have changed,â he says ruefully. âNomads suffer now.Â There isnât enough water or good pasture for the animals.Â Â Grain is expensive.Â A majority of people prefer to live in the towns, because at least you can find food there, and water from a tap, and soap to wash yourself.Â But in the towns we suffer too.Â We can only find menial jobs as watchmen and caretakers, for 10,000 CFA (about ÂŁ10) a month.Â We have to sell our cattle and camels to pay debts.â
In the early 1990s, the Touareg, who have always been more politically engaged than their WoodabĂ© neighbours, launched a rebellion against the central governments of Niger and Mali in an attempt to wrest back a modicum of self-determination and find their own solutions to the seemingly insurmountable problems that were facing the people of the Southern Sahara.Â It was an upheaval of cataclysmic proportions that produced few positive benefits, one of which was a flourishing modern desert music scene in which time-honoured traditional instruments were ditched in favour of the electric guitar, and old tales of heroism and natural beauty replaced by rebel songs.
âThe first cassettes I heard featured Inteyeden and Kheddou, who were members of Tinariwen back then,â remembers Bagui.Â âWe really liked them and it gave us the idea of doing the same thing with our WoodabĂ© songs and poetry.âÂ Meanwhile Ghalitan had also taken up the guitar, inspired by the music of a rebellion that was actually ignited by an army massacre in his hometown of Tchin Tabaraden.Â When peace came in 1995, he moved to Niamey and started his first group Etran NâGuefan, âThe Stars of the Dunesâ.Â Bagui was a member of Kaouritel, the first self-consciously performance-orientated WoodabĂ© troupe ever to exist, before leaving to form his own ensemble âFinatawaâ.Â âItâs the collective word for all our traditions and customs,â explains Bagui.Â âAnd all those aspects of our culture that belong to every child who is born WoodabĂ©.âÂ After that fateful rendezvous at the Festival in the Desert in 2004, the two struggling musical entities fused to become Etran Finatawa, âThe Stars of Traditionâ.
For the jobless desert migrants of Niamey, music is an antidote to the terminal hopelessness of sitting around all day, shooting the breeze and knocking back cups of bittersweet gunpowder tea.Â Encouraged by their budding international success, Etran Finatawa harbour ambitious plans to shake up the Nigerien music scene for the benefit of all.Â âWe hope in the future to create a recording studio, a record label and distribution system, not just for the Touareg, but for all musicians,â says Ghalitan.Â âThe music scene in Niger isnât in very good shape.Â Thereâs no infrastructure and the whole question of composerâs rights hasnât been sorted out.Â The government do very little to help because unlike the Malians, they havenât understood the importance of music for developing the image of the country.Â We want to show the world that Niger is not Nigeria, and that it has nomads who make great music!â
These plans have an aura of dire necessity about them.Â Â Itâs clear that all the members of Etran Finatawa miss their spacious homeland when theyâre holed up on tour in European hotel rooms.Â âBack home we love to take our time to eat, to chat and to drink tea.Â Here thereâs always a programme,â admits Bagui.Â âWhen Iâm in Europe it feels like Iâm permanently shut up in side.Â I canât see the horizons and thereâs so much noise.Â Back home weâre free.â
But that freedom is under serious threat.Â The droughts and subsequent famine of 2005 in Niger rang alarm bells throughout the world.Â Those same alarm bells chime incessantly in the minds of Ghalitan and Bagui.Â ââIn my opinion, I canât talk about the others, weâre in danger of loosing our nomadic culture,â Ghalitan declares.Â âEducation poses a huge dilemma for us.Â We need to educate our children, but once weâre gone, what will they becomeâŠbureaucrats and administrators.Â They wonât go back to the bush.Â And the desert is growing every day.Â Animals canât eat sand.Â Once sand gets into the stomach of a cow, thatâs it.Â She dies.Â Â Thereâs nothing you can do.â
It seems that Etran Finatawa are on a mission of far greater urgency that just making us dance to their gorgeous unstoppable grooves.