In comparison to its neighbors on the Horn of Africa — Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia — or those on the nearby Arabian Peninsula, the Republic of Djibouti is small. With under a million people spread out over 9,000 square miles, it is perhaps best known by outsiders for the foreign military bases strategically located at its eponymous capital city, a port located just where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea.
Less prominent in the international mindset is a sense of the oft-overlooked local music scene. This unfamiliarity has a post-colonial aspect that overlaps with the roadblocks imposed upon the music industries by the authoritarian national government, which has long kept a tight grip on recording albums for extranational export. Djibouti gained its independence in 1977 after nearly a century of French occupation as French Somaliland. No album has been recorded in Djibouti for circulation outside of the state thus far until now.
Ostinato Records entered talks with state-run media outlet Radiodiffusion-Télévision Djibouti in 2016, beginning three years of negotiations that would ultimately lead to the government allowance of three days — a timeline strictly enforced — of recording with Groupe RTD, nothing less than a Djiboutian supergroup. Resulting from these fast-paced sessions is new album The Dancing Devils of Djibouti, the first release to come from the nation with the intent of reaching a global audience.
The reason all of this — the history, the geography, the background — is important is because of how richly they all come through in Groupe RTD’s sound, a cosmopolitan blend of East Africa, the Arab world, ports along the Indian Ocean, and the current historical moment of increasing globalization. Intercontinental dance and dub sounds burst forth from both rising and well-established artists. Moussa Aden Ainan’s skillful synth playing is evident from the opening of “Buuraha U Dheer”, where they evoke vintage Somali tracks and meld with the powerfully melismatic vocals of young singer Asma Omar. Both alternating and duetting with Omar throughout the album is the equally charismatic vocalist Hassan Omar Houssein, his delivery reminiscent of old Ethiojazz sensations. Omar Farah Houssein’s drums and Salem Mohamed Ahmed’s dumbek hold down a dynamic percussion line. The group’s most veteran players, though, are guitarist Abdirazak Hagi Sufi and saxophonist Mohamed Abdi Alto, both of whom play with outstanding versatility.
Together, the group makes outstanding, engaging music. “Buuraha U Dheer” and its irresistible hooks give way to the weighty, swinging reggae of “Raga Kaan Ka’Eegtow”. Abdirazak’s guitar adds a tropical touch to the opulent synths of “Kuusha Caarey”, the lightness of which carries over to back nimble runs of sax and keys on “Raani”. “Alto’s Interlude” lays a foundation of warbling synths and twilit guitar ostinati that serves as a stage for the titular saxophonist to bring forth a brief, impassioned melody. “Uurkan Kaadonaya” starts with Bollywood-ready rhythms made especially seductive by growling guitar flourishes. “Halkaasad Dhigi Magtiisa” and “Iiso Daymo” sway, the latter sounding like it could have come straight out of Sinkane’s heavily Sudan-influenced catalog. Penultimate “Suuban” offers a chill taste of dub before the final track, the more intense “Wiil Wille”, whose roots in Arabic traditions make for a stripped-down and still exciting end to a thrilling album.
The Dancing Devils of Djibouti may be historic, but it’s also a phenomenal release in its own right, with retro sensibilities and diverse influences. Groupe RTD know how to start a party, keep it going, and at the same time, invoke the host of places and styles that have shaped each of the top-tier musicians that work confidently together to make ecstatic new sounds. Once again, Ostinato Records has opened up new pathways for global musical connections. Groupe RTD march down them, lighting them up, and showing the world how they see Djibouti — not just as a slice of the Horn of Africa or a port on the Bab-El-Mandeb or a place of constant foreign flows, but as a place where all of these happen while Djiboutian citizens live and create, and sometimes make fantastic music.