Niger's Etran Finatawa bridge the very old musical and linguistic traditions of the Arabs of North Africa and those of the sub-Saharan regions. As the only band in the world to combine the cultures of Niger's Wodaabe and Tuareg peoples, their sound and style reflect the especially fertile artistic way of life in this part of Africa.
Among 11 tribes in the area, the customarily nomadic Tuareg and Wodaabe have lived side by side for centuries, and the significance of their collaboration as a band is profound. While they've rarely come into conflict over anything more serious than water rights, they speak different languages and have diverse cultural traditions.
Sandra van Edig, a former cultural anthropologist who helped form the band in 2004 and serves as manager/spokesperson, regards the alliance between the two groups in Etran Finatawa (which means the Stars of Tradition) as a symbol showing that, by working together, the nomadic people can gain a bit of power, and a chance to help preserve some very distinct cultural practices.
"They share a lot of things, like the same environment, and they also share the same problems," she says, "especially nowadays when you have a lot of drought, and famine and poverty."
The five-member band recently released a new album, Tarkat Tajje/Let's Go (Riverboat), a gently percolating trip typified by nimbly complex tribal percussion and electric guitar interlacing deceptively lilting vocal polyrhythms. The album features songs performed in both the Tuareg's Tamajaq language (part of a large linguistic group shared by the Berber people of North Africa, such as the Moroccans and Algerians) and the Wodaabes' Fulfulde tongue, which can be found all over West and Central Africa. While they'll often mix the two languages in their songs, more often they'll keep them separate — for a reason.
"We try to use characteristics from every culture," says van Edig, "but we don't try to meld them together and find something 'new,' because each culture represented is so rich."
The same is true for the group's onstage gear, where the Wodaabe musicians are garbed in their traditional embroidered tunics and stunningly painted faces, and the Tuareg sport their own trademark indigo turbans.
Etran presents a series of juxtapositions between the polyphonic vocal customs of the Wodaabe and the propulsively spidery guitar of the Tuareg, which bears a familiarity with the angular/lyrical guitar melodies of their superstar Tuareg brethren, Mali's Tinariwen. The percussive polyrhythms are a hybrid of rhythms traditional to North African nomadic tribes, rapped out on calabasse gourd drums, ayakure metal percussion (sometimes worn on the legs) and the giant, goatskinned bass drum known as the tende.
The band has toured to great acclaim all over Europe and America, and has now turned its attention back to Niger, bringing a series of workshops and performances to schools and community centers across the country, where the kids are fast forgetting their people's customs and traditions — if they ever learned about them at all.
Etran Finatawa, says van Edig, is more than just about making music.
"It's a mission, and even an obligation, for the youth of Niger, and for humanity."
Etran Finatawa perform at Levitt Pavilion in Memorial Park, 85 E. Holly St., Pasadena; Friday, June 16, 8 p.m.; free. (626) 683-3230, levittpavilionpasadena.org.