Thursday, May 29, 2008

ETRAN FINATAWA - Desert Crossroads (Riverboat)

Part of the appeal of the desert blues music from West Africa is its sheer simplicity, with circular guitar lines, handclaps and call and response vocals all buttressed by a lurching camel-gait drive that feels like the very essence of the peripatetic, communal lifestyles of the artists involved.
So, with Tinariwen having buttoned down the electrified Hendrix-inspired trance-rock end of the spectrum, Tartit the traditional end, and Toumast making a sterling attempt at filling a more experimental gap somewhere in between, where does that leave Niger’s Etran Finatawa, whose impressive debut album Introducing ran the risk of being crowded out of this relatively narrow field?
The answer, judging from this follow-up, is in a place where a lighter, peppier take on the genre is punctuated by a series of more traditional, meditative tunes. Allying Tuareg rhythms with the call and response vocals of the Wodaabe tribe from which a number of members come, the band employs acoustic instrumentation (percussion, flute, acoustic guitar) around a single crisp, melodic electric guitar line. The result sounds more spacious and unfussy than the band’s debut release, with many a catchy hook raising the up-tempo numbers into best-in-class territory. Kel Tamashek in particular has everything a desert blues addict needs - a snaking electric guitar motif, chunky acoustic guitar rhythms, a bouncy, rocking beat and a chorus to draw the most reluctant of phonetic singers-along out of their shells.
The stripped back but catchy Amidinine also begs audience participation, and on the more traditional side, the three snapshots entitled Tea Ceremony I, II, and III allow an ambient, atmospheric peek into a simpler past where music and mealtimes drew nomads together in communal contemplation.
With many of the lyrics reflecting similar deep concerns to those on Tinariwen’s recent offerings (the community's place in the world now seemingly as important as the everyday boy-meets-girl stories of Etran Finatawa's debut), there’s a sense of a group determined to put across weighty messages in as accessible a manner as possible, and those listeners who have yet to reach their personal Tuareg tipping point will find much here to savour.

Worldmusic website

This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.

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