This is the third album Etran Finatawa has released through World Music Network. I didn’t think they’d make it past the first one. That has nothing to do with the quality of their music, and everything to do with commonly held ideas about what people will like or, specifically, what an English-speaking audience will buy. The core idea is: this audience is not supposed to like music in foreign languages. If the music is in a foreign language, then they are supposed to prefer it if it sounds like a different, English-speaking genre with which they’re already familiar: Central Asian rock music rather than Central Asian folk recordings; Albert Kuvezin’s Re-Covers rather than Dust-to-Digital’s Melodii Tuvi. It helps if the frontman has a recognised name. Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra has an advantage over a plain Symmetric Orchestra. It should have a photogenic face to represent it. A woman’s is nice. Call her a diva. Else, it should come with an exciting story: bold joyous Gypsies, rebel Tuareg, a blind couple. These bits of wisdom are repeated so readily that you can start believing in them, cynically: ah, people won’t buy that, it’s too strange for them … ah, those bloody people! Forgetting that you are one of the bloody people.
Etran Finatawa only barely fills these criteria, and so this third release, which doesn’t differ massively from the two that have come before, is surely evidence that the bloody people do, they do buy those bloody albums. They do! Somewhere out there, there they are — doing it. The group doesn’t cross over, in the way that other bands from their native Sahara have crossed over. It has an electric guitar, but otherwise it is not all that much like Tinariwen, not even close enough that I’d say, “If you enjoy one you’ll enjoy the other.” You might, you might not. The group doesn’t have a solo frontman, or a famous name. It’s a collaboration between three Tuareg men and three Wodaabe-Fulani, and neither side takes precedence. This is true, musically, on the albums, and it has also been true when I’ve seen them live. The Wodaabe, with their paint and feathers, are more striking than the robed Tuareg, but, even so, photographs tend to show the band members scattered evenly across a landscape, or standing together, not arranged at a distance behind one startling face. The cover of this album is an exception.
They’re not loud, they’re not obvious, they’re not a squeaky wheel shouting for oil, they don’t punctuate their songs with choruses you can dum-de-dum, they shouldn’t be three-album popular outside the Sahara, but they are.
It’s dry-boned music, moving along with the lollop of Tuareg guitar on one hand, and clicking pat-a-cake percussion on the other. This is accompanied by a deep thrum from one Wodaabe calabasse, a noise so persistent and subtle that it always takes me a while to notice it’s there. The gourd rests in a wide bowl of water, and the vibration it generates is a deeper version of the wail you set off when you run your wet finger around the top of a wineglass. The Wodaabe who plays it sits on the ground, smiling, and your attention is drawn to the space of his lips by a yellow line painted vertically down his nose and chin. The pat-a-cake seems simple until you realise how much is being wound around it, how many curlicues it supports, how many extra tendrils of guitar, of voice, of percussion, deep, thick, intense, all growing around like vines embracing Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or weeds penetrating bones. One of those tendrils is the Wodaabe singing-voice, pepper-sharp as a sheep’s bleat, striking as a falsetto in a rock band.
A man stamps his feet. There is a shock of noise from the bells around his ankle.
On and on they go, in calm pursuit of a distant speck named album number four.