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'Etran Finatawa' and the Music of Niger

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now to African music. The West African group Etran Finatawa has blended the traditional rhythms and sounds of Niger. They just debuted their first international CD. Critic Sarah Bardeen has a review.

SARAH BARDEEN reporting:

Sometimes you put an album in the stereo, and it grabs you from the beginning, as soon as the first few bars.

(Soundbite of music)

BARDEEN: Introducing Etran Finatawa is that album for me. I've been spending much of the last few weeks trying to figure out why this album has such a visceral impact. Why even my infant son gets mesmerized when I play it.

(Soundbite of music)

ETRAN FINATAWA (African Music Group): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SARA BARDEEN (Independent Music Critic): There's something stately and even graceful about Etran Finatawa. They blend the musical traditions of two of Niger's historically antagonistic ethnic groups, marrying the striking bluesy guitar with the Tuareg with the polyphonic singing of the Wodaabe people. The result moves at a distinctive pace that mimics - depending on your perspective - the deliberate lope of a camel, or the pulse and throb of a human heart.

(Soundbite of music)

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

BARDEEN: Sometimes it feels as if the music is shifting your body's own rhythm, even slowing your breathing. Several tracks are traditional songs of healing. The song Ronde's pulse is so powerful that the music impregnates even the pauses. While bandleader Ghalitane Khamidoune's reedy voice leads a calling response session that bears a strong family resemblance of the work songs of America's deep south.

(Soundbite of song, Ronde)

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

BARDEEN: It's sense of time and space is not urban. This is the pace of life in the desert and grasslands of the Sahel, where Etran Finatawa was born. Inspired by the success of Tuareg bands like Tinariwen, the group formed in 2004 in an effort to heal the historic racism between Niger's nomadic Tuareg and Wodaabe people. In the process, they found a way to preserve their distinct cultures while forging an intriguing hybrid that incorporates both traditional and original songs.

The lyrics, while usually simple, occasionally blossom into poetry, when songwriter Hamidoom(ph) is given free reign.

(Soundbite of song, "Aliss")

BARDEEN: In the song, Aliss, a man lifting his marriageable traits, suddenly finds a group of jealous men on the road before him. Lyrics that had been plain-spoken suddenly turn stark and gorgeously terrifying.

(Soundbite of song, "Aliss")

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

BARDEEN: They carry the flame of misery with them, sings Hamidoom of the man's enemies. And they are not laughing.

(Soundbite of song, "Aliss")

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

BARDEEN: In the love song A Dunya, a lover sings to his beloved: you want to know what I thing of you? You're even more beautiful than a cloud. People say your teeth shine like sugar when it is breaking.

(Soundbite of song, "Aliss")

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

BARDEEN: The best thing about this release is that a song that last five minutes could last 25 and you wouldn't mind, or even notice. Etran Finatawa's chief glory is that rather than feeling foreign and exotic in our world, they draw you into their world and make it feel absolutely, gloriously natural.

(Soundbite of song, "Aliss")

BRAND: The album is called Introducing Etran Finatawa, by the group Etran Finatawa. Independent music critic Sara Bardeen lives in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Bardeen
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