Haunting, Wildly Psychedelic East African Sounds Rescued From an Obscure Archive in Djibouti

by delarue

Many emerging African nations in the 60s and 70s had a national band. Those were typically established by newly independent regimes, to help concretize a national identity in areas which had been balkanized by Western imperialists. While those groups may have been founded and then exploited for propaganda purposes, their music was often very good, and fascinatingly cross-pollinated. One of the most intriguing was from Djibouti.

That country’s group, 4 Mars’ bandname commemorates the founding date of the ruling People’s Rally for Progress party there. What makes this music so unique is not only the haunting chromatics common throughout what is now Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, but also the global influences that passed through Djibouti’s ports. For centuries, the region has been a major Indian Ocean commercial hub: no wonder the Chinese Communists are building a naval base there.

In a much more fortuitous and peaceful development, the American firm Ostinato Records recently gained access to the massive archives of Radiodiffusion-Télévision de Djibouti and is mining the collection for all sorts of treasures never before heard outside the country. The new 4 Mars compilation Super Somali Sounds From the Gulf of Tjadoura – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first release, comprising both studio and concert recordings made by the regional supergroup between 1977 and 1994.

A couple of the cuts here are questionable: how appropriate is it to include a tribute to a repressive political figure? Sure, the praise-song tradition in Africa goes back centuries. But comparatively speaking, does the inclusion of Dixie in an anthology of American folk songs enhance the album’s historical value…or compromise it ethically and esthetically?

The album’s opening track, simply titled Natesha (Compassion) sets the stage: a Bollywood-influenced, melismatic chanteuse out front of what sounds like a lo-fi, vintage synth-driven roots reggae band playing a dark minor-key groove. That beat is actually dhaanto, an ancient East African rhythm that eventually made its way to Jamaica.

The quasi-reggae pulse gets more organic, with swirly organ, spare bass, trebly tremolo guitar and one-drop drums in the epic, almost ten-minute Hobolayee Nabadu (Hello Peace). The group’s saxophonist, Mohamed Abdi Alto – who now leads the excellent Groupe RTD – plays spare, biting minor-key riffs and remains an often haunting presence on many of these tracks.

Dhulika Hooyo (Motherland) is cheerier, with more surreal harmonies and a massed choir which could be half kids: at their peak, the group comprised more than forty members including dancers. How powerful is Tamarta (Power)? Not so much: this is one of the more synthy tracks, guy/girl vocals matched by tradeoffs between flute and keys, shifting to an unexpected latin soul-inflected groove.

Daroor (rough translation: Drought) has a loping, vaudevillian beat behind the Bollywood-style vocals. The number after that is faster: imagine Fela playing rocksteady. The song for an iron-fisted Djiboutien ruler has more of a strut and is a lot shorter. Likewise, the pulse of Lana Rabeen Karo (It Cannot Be Desired), a long one-chord jam which seems less forced: one thing that definitely can’t be desired is having to sing for a dictator.

Tellingly, the female singers are missing until a couple of minutes into the even more disturbingly titled Tilman Baa Lagu Socdaa (Follow the Rules). Like several of the reggae-ish tracks here, Inkaar Walid (The Elders’ Curse) could be a Burning Spear anthem with surreal Chinese flute and Balkan pop influences.

The broodingly catchy Abaal (Gratitude) seems to be of the same early 80s-tinged vintage as the album’s opening number, with flaring metal guitar, warpy synth and hasty, overcompressed lo-fi production. An acerbically modal traditional wedding song gets a bouncy, electric update with keening flute and synth along with more Ethiopian-flavored vocals: it’s arguably the catchiest track here. The concluding epic is a real departure, a melancholy, pentatonic Chinese ballad. Goes to show what a range of flavors the trade winds will blow in. Let’s hope for winds of trade rather than winds of war in that part of the world in the coming years.