Etran Finatawa, literally “stars of tradition,” fit within the realm of desert rock music, one of the most successful genres of African music in recent years. Two things differentiate this band from Niger from their Malian counterparts like Tinariwen and Toumast. First, they combine two ethnic traditions, Touareg and Wodaabe. Both are nomadic, Sahara Desert groups known for pentatonic melodies, laid back, hypnotic grooves, and a philosophical poetry of hardship in a forbidding land. (The Wodaabe are also known for their striking tradition of colorful face painting.) Wodaabe rhythms seem to be more upbeat as well. The song “Ndiiren,” for example, has a fast, tripping beat that will have you toe-tapping, if not on your feet, whirling around the living room. It’s propulsive, but light as air, and quite irresistible.
The other differentiator is this group’s emphasis on percussion and vocals over guitars. Where Tinariwen hits you with a weave of electric guitar and bass melodies, and groups like Toumast and Tamicrest go even more strongly for the power rock thrust, Etran Finatawa’s songs are really about deep, throbbing hand drum grooves and reedy forthright vocal melodies, through which a single guitar line weaves and wanders. “Gourma (forest)” is the exception, featuring a two-guitar drone as its spiritual center. But on the whole, where this band is concerned, think less rock and more desert.
The band formed in 2004, and this their 3rd release finds them at ease and in excellent form, and thoughtful. The song texts are rooted in local concerns—drought, deforestation, the education of children. But now, seeing themselves as ambassadors to the world, the songwriters try to apply their ideas on a global scale, addressing “those who are leading the world.” This is a music of tremendous sincerity and directness. Translated to words on a page, the songs may appear a little simplistic, even naïve. But experienced simply as sound and sentiment, they are clear, dry-eyed, and profoundly affecting.