The Tuareg people have been desert traders since prehistory, following the camel routes that connect the Meditarranean with sub-Saharan Africa. Like them, the Wodaabe are nomads, though they are more likely to trade cattle than camels. The two groups’ territories overlap in Niger and Nigeria, and it was in Niger that representatives of these two very distinct groups (six Wodaabe and four Tuareg) first met in 2004 to form Etran Finatawa or “Stars of Tradition”. The group gained fans, first in its native Niger, later in Africa, and made a swing through Europe in the summer of 2005. The band’s excellent first CD, Introducing Etran Finatawa, was recorded in France during this European tour, laid down mostly live and at leisure in converted wine chateaux.
Fans of Tinawaren will immediately recognize the hypnotic proto-blues grooves of Tuareg music, its plaintive call-and-response structure that seems to anticipate everything from field blues to American spirituals to Motown singles, its incorporation of electric guitar and bass into traditional melodies. The Wodaabes’ music is less well known, less instrumentally based. It is characterized by multilayered vocals and handclaps, and always accompanied by slow-motion, costumed dance. Etran Finatawa merges the two traditions, laying Tuareg beats under trance-inducing polyphonies, embellishing communal reveries with blues-leaning electric guitar.
Music is an integral part of both tribes’ daily lives, serving both mundane and supernatural functions. These nomads use music to pass the time on long journeys or in the fields and forests with their livestock, as in the rock-steady “Iledeman.” They incorporate it into their healing rituals, as in “Maleele”, a Wodaabe traditional song, which calls out the spirit of a beautiful girl to treat the sick. They employ percussive, headlong chants like “Heeme” to speed their camels as they compete in races. And, like people everywhere, they use it to communicate with the ones they love and hope to love. “Iriarer”, perhaps the most beautiful song on the disk, is utterly foreign in the way it balances drone, interlocking vocals and rollicking rhythms. Still its lyrics, about love and women troubles, would fit right into any culture’s pop charts. “Aliss,” which has a good whiff of porch blues around its guitars, could be a ladykiller song in any genre, except, perhaps for the last couple of lines, “But already his enemies are coming together/They want to kill him/They are so jealous/They say, ‘We will cut off your member.’” You’re reminded that, while people are the same in many ways everywhere, these musicians come from a very different place than we do, one violent enough to make music all the more precious.
But for the most part, unless you speak Temajeg or Fulbe, the lyrics are a secondary part of this experience. It’s interesting to learn that “Anadjibo” is about the Wodaabes’ struggle to incorporate Islam into their traditional belief system, but maybe not necessary. You can get lost, just as easily, in the shaken and pounded rhythms, the sing-songy-guitar that follows the vocal line, the sheer mesmeric repetition of plangent phrases. In the end, Etran Finatawa celebrates not a particular time or culture, but the way that music can transcend ethnic lines and bring people together in hip-shifting harmony. Tuareg, Wodaabe, French, American, whatever… we can all learn from that.