Tag Archives: touareg

Etran de L’Aïr – No. 1

etran

We’ve just wrapped up the new album from Agadez wedding band Etran de L’Aïr. Recorded in 2014, and featured previously here on the blog, it’s been a long time coming. Even longer, if you consider the history of the band.

The music scene in Agadez is still dominated by weddings. While the religious marriage is private, the party is a fête for whomever is in earshot. Bands play for a fee, supplemented money that is showered over them whilst playing. The down side to this lucrative scene is a cut throat competition with espionage, theft, and even black magic, creating a very peculiar undercurrent. Etran de L’Aïr remains largely outside of this surly competition: the best wedding contracts are awarded to musicians with social standing, tribal affiliations, and family connections, and Etran does not belong to the upper class. “They make music for people who don’t have money,” says Ahmoudou Madassane. “If a wedding can’t afford the expensive musicians, they hire Etran.” So while the band continues to gig constantly, outperforming all other bands, they still find themselves in dire straits, confined to a DIY aesthetic of out obligation. Their drum kit is dented and the cymbals are cracked, with bites taken out of them. The amplifiers could just have well have been excavated from desert sands. Nevertheless, the band not only makes the equipment work, they make it sound amazing.

Etran also has a unique solidarity that’s missing from other groups with their revolving door of contract musicians. Etran is not just a musical group, but a family collective. The group was formed in 1995. Agadez was much smaller then, few homes were electrified, and guitars were rare. “When we first started to play in weddings,” Abindi explains, “we only had one acoustic guitar, and for the percussion, we hit a calabash with a sandal.” As new technology found its way to Agadez, they band adapted, amplifying the acoustic guitar with a transducer microphone, acquiring electric guitars, and finding a drum set. As the family grew, so did the band, integrating the younger siblings into the musical group.

Their music is also distinctive and different from the typical Tuareg wedding band. Etran plays a style that captures the contemporary sound of Agadez, incorporating vastly different ethnic musics into their repertoire. While Tuareg guitar follows a predictable format, Etran breaks convention and throws a third guitar into the mix. The two lead guitars solo on top of one another, in constant dialogue, with a crashing response from the drum. There is a bubbly underwater warble that emerges from reverb and crackly amps. It’s electric party music, surf rock, from a place that is all beach. They differentiate themselves from the other wedding bands: “We play our own folklore, not like the other artists in Agadez. Our music is based around traditional Takamba…and we listen to a lot of Malian music. Not Tinariwen, but musicians like Ali Farka Touré and Oumou Sangaré.”

This is Etran de L’Aïr’s debut record. They claim to have written over 40 songs but none of them have been released until now. This session was recorded live, outside of their family compound in the outskirts of Agadez. The impromptu performance drew the entire neighborhood out of their houses, eliciting the audible clapping, shouting, and ululation. It is here as it was played, with all the enthusiasm and passion of an evening at the end of the raining season one day in Agadez.

The limited edition of 1000 featured hand-assembled offset covers from Stumptown Printers, created in true analog style with a throwback to 1960s West African cover design, with exacto cut letters, hand-drawn illustration, and litho-masks. There’s a lot of variation, and no two jackets are identical (more info on the printing process here).

You can grab the album now from our shop or bandcamp.

lack of better words


Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud, photo by Ibrahim Ag Aminy

Isswat, for lack of a better word, is what people have the habit of calling this particular music from the desert. It’s a style that like many things, seems to be localized and specific to one particular region of the world – a tiny circle of Azawad, North of Mali, in the Adrar D’Ifoghas. The Adrar is desert, but instead of the Sahara of dunes, it is a landscape of vast open sky, wiry bushes and twisted trees scattered across a surface of parched earth. There are low mountains, rendered spectacular in the otherwise planar landscape. In comparison, they seem enormous. It is nothing like the mountains of Air with mountaintop villages and citrus filled oases, but there is a rugged beauty to the emptiness and repeated motifs that you can name and comprehend – seven types of tree, three types of bush, three type of wild animal, four directions. But innumerable starlight.

Isswat comes from here (I’ve spoken of the music before 1, 2) Musically it consists of what a friend calls “the four elements”: singing, clapping, stomping, and drumming. There is always a woman singing a melody that dances over a constant droning hum that is maintained by a group of young men, each picking up the spaces when the other one takes a breath.

There are few recordings of Isswat. Perhaps some exist in archives somewhere. Two very unique recordings, certainly the only studio recordings of Isswat, were made at a small studio in Kidal in 2008. They were released on cassette and CD, sold locally in Kidal, and distributed via mp3 on memory cards and cellphones. A few years ago, the first cassette by Idassane Wallet Mohamed was reissued. This is the second one – recorded by a young woman from Adrar, Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud.

This time, we were able to translate the songs, courtesy of Ibrahim Ag Mouhamadine, a Tamashek speaker and Portland resident, and researcher Nadia Belalimat. Translation is an art, and nowhere is that more apparent than translating from a distinctly different culture. My contribution was clarifying some words and cleaning up grammar. Since there is no objective translation, these err on literality, and may read as cumbersome. They demand a certain acceptance, a willingness to be baffled and confused, and suggest the path to profound understanding is not just in language, but culture itself.

In one case, we struggled with the translation “tarha n ibliss” which literally translates to “love of the devil.” In Tamashek, this is the term for romantic love, as opposed to the “pure” love for one’s family. However, calling it simply “romantic” would be stripping away all of the structure and poetry of language. In the end, the translation reads as “devil’s love,” so as not to confuse the reader that the singer is praising the devil. Such are the difficulties of translations.

Translation booklet available here.

One thing is sure – the songs here are all about love, and are full of the passions and follies of romance. However, while it is easy to envision these songs as archaic poems of the desert with imagery evoking tradition, they are firmly contemporary. There are lines that compare beauty to a Toyota 4×4. There are lyrics that compare love to Kalashnikovs. Heroism and power are illustrated by comparisons to the “Americans who came looking for Saddam Hussein”.

I’ve written before about the two worlds, that of the small cities and villages and that of the bush. There are vast differences between the city and the bush, but my interpretation has always been filtered through the lens of language – the cities, with French speakers that I can understand, the bush with Tamashek speakers that I cannot. It is clearly more complicated than a division of language. But there is certainly a two world dichotomy at play. In the global movement of people from rural to urban lives, there is no more striking example than trading a nomadic tent for a house. There are too many differences between the city and bush to name, but suffice to say that in the camps, there are no guitars. There is only music, or for lack of a better word, isswat.

The reissue of Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud’s 2008 cassette is now available on bandcamp and vinyl.