“Etran Finatawa”

Etran Finatawa is one of my very favorite bands. The name means “the stars of tradition.” They started as a group of 10 musicians who wanted to unite two nomadic cultures as a symbol of peace and reconciliation — the Wodaabe and the Tuareg. It was the first group to place Wodaabe music in a more modern setting. In Niger, Wodaabes and Tuaregs share the desert, sharing pastures, water sources, and when conflict arises, sharing blame for the ensuing feud. The music of these two ethnic groups is actually completely different but the way this group has managed to combine the component parts produces a fresh yet traditional musical style which some call Nomad Blues. In Niger, the band is wildly popular, especially among the younger set.

Traditional Wodaabe chants blend choral polyphony with tenor solos. They wear their traditional ornate clothing and make-up, and accompany the music with calabash drums and handclapping.

Tuaregs play several string instruments, tende drums and ululations. For the past 45 years they have started to add guitar. The guitar style of choice is called Ichumar, and its roots can be traced back to rebellion and exile in Libya. They dress in Tuareg garb including their long flowing garments and turbans.

They compose/sing in each of the two languages — Tuareg Tamashek and Wodaabe Fulfulde. Their songs tell tales about their lives: struggle, isolation, poverty, harsh weather, grasslands, freedom to move from place to place, animals as their source of currency, the stars, desert storms, healing… The music involves handclapping, intricate percussion, the solo guitar of Alhousseini Mohamed Anivolla, and the blending of Wodaabe singers, Bammo Agonla and Bagui Bouga, Alhousseini Mohamed Anivolla, and a polyphonic chorus.

If you are looking for a new sound (defined as new to your ears, not to those living in the northern part of West Africa), then you really owe it to yourself to check out this band.

But what I love about them most is the sound of peace. When two groups who often are in conflict with one another come together to make music, the result can be electrifying. Yet in the familiar components of sounds one hears in this band, there is something comforting as well. Am reminded of one of my favorite poems by Tagore, where he writes: “I am uneasy at heart when I have to leave my accustomed shelter; I forget that there abides the old in the new, and there there also thou abideth…” But the one thing I feel strongly in all this is whether we feel uneasy or not, we must leave our accustomed shelters, each and every day, in order to truly live, and to grow. Etran Finatawa is a very enjoyable place to start (or continue with) that journey…

Humanist, social scientist, pianist, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, tenured/commissioned U.S. Foreign Service Officer, widowed father and knowledge seeker.