The stripped-down, energized North African desert sound, with its hypnotic percussion pulse, spiky guitars and, wide-open vocals, has been getting a lot of attention of late. For non-Africans it’s perhaps a spacious and easy-to-grasp style, with familiar touches of American delta blues and appealing dry washes of desert color in the instrumentation. Made up of members from both the Tuareg and Wodabe cultures, Etran Finatawa make it quite clear that their music is about celebrating their roots in an ancient nomadic culture––and also about protesting the pressures that endanger that traditional way of life.
Etran Finatawa take a slightly different approach than their more famous fellow travelers Tinaiarwen, and this, their second album, goes well beyond being a high-resolution audio document of a powerful band, attempting in addition to paint a sonic portrait of the place and society that engendered it. To that end, producer Paul Borg has provided a sparkling clarity of presentation and a spacious soundstage, letting each element have its own clear space, while still allowing for the inter-lock and lift of voices and instruments.
Etran Finatawa are a tight and passionate ensemble: the deep bass and percussion grooves and deliciously just-over-driven-enough electric guitar flights are honed to perfection. But the band’s secret weapon might well be the variety of voices and attitudes given expression in their line-up. Ghalitane Khamidoune provides the most up-front presence, with the richly imaged storytelling of his songs, his proud and imploring vocals, his tough-as-nails electric guitar. But other band members get chances at the fore, too. Alhouseini Mohamed Anivolla drives the band with intensity both on bass and rhythm guitar; when he steps up to sing his own songs, it’s with a laid-back, bluesy grace that is quietly captivating as it summons memories of home. Percussionist Bammo Agonle offers a traditional healing song, and his vocal style—pinched and from the throat, yet soaring—sounds ancient indeed. Bagui Bouga, player of calabash and flute, gives us an audio verite soundscape from home, followed by a song that’s a rippling, joyful celebration of the herdsman’s life.
With the power and finesse of the rhythms beneath their performances., Etran Finatawa show musical muscle and solidarity. They also show great instincts for presentation: Desert Crossroads documents many facets of a band that finds ways to keep their roots alive in the face of change and motion.