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Tag: 4 mars band

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

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.

An Amazing New Compilation Album of Rare, Magical Sounds Never Before Available Outside of Somalia

Thousands of years before the medieval European patronage system took shape, African dictators made it a practice to surround themselves with the best musicians they could find. Somalia’s Said Barre, no doubt inspired by Haile Selassie’s campaign to blend big band jazz with indigenous sounds in adjoining Ethiopia, set up a culture ministry of his own. Barre’s motivation was to help solidify Somalia’s status as a new nation-state. Beginning in the late 1960s, the result was some of the most amazing music to ever come out of Africa. Less than twenty years later, in a stroke of colossal irony, the dictator tried to destroy it when he realized that great art is always opposed to tyranny.

In 1988, the northern city of Hargeisa was a stronghold for freedom fighters working to bring down Barre’s reign of terror. Barre was worried that Radio Hargeisa, the local branch of the state radio network, would rally the opposition. Realizing that the station would become a target of the dictator’s bombing raids, personnel there worked furiously to remove fifty years’ worth of priceless archival recordings.

And then buried those cassettes and master tapes deep underground, where the bombs that eventually destroyed the city wouldn’t get them. Some of those recordings were spirited across the border into neighboring Djibouti and Ethiopia. Now, Ostinato Records have put out an incredible compilation, Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa (streaming at Bandcamp) that draws from those archives. None of the album’s fifteen tracks have been released outside of Somalia, and very few have ever been heard outside of East Africa. This collection could do for Somali music from the 1970s and 80s what Barbes Records’ Roots of Chicha anthologies have done for cumbia. Maybe in five years’ time the whole world will be listening to dhaanto.

That’s the slow, loping groove that propels the album’s first track, Nimco Jamaac’s  Buuraha U Dheer (The Highest Mountains). It starts out with an uneasily wavering, microtonal vocal improvisation and then morphs what sounds like roots reggae, except that this is a native Somali beat rather than slowed-down ska. It validates any argument that reggae isn’t a western hybrid but an original African rhythm!

Like many of the other tracks here, the instrumentation is spare: in this case, lo-fi synthesizer patches, guitar and drums. The flutter and wow from the original cassettes is still present, an early example of the longstanding African tradition of making albums on the best-available technology, in this case probably a boombox recording of a live show or a rehearsal.

The rest of the album is a mix of ballads and dance numbers. Bollywood-influenced high-soprano songbird Aamina Camaari’s Rag Waa Nacab iyo Nasteexo is translated as “Men Are Cruel and Kind” – maybe we should take that as a compliment! More likely, it’s a coded political message. Lyrics were censored under the Barre regime, so many of these lost-love songs are laments for a time free of repression or enemy invaders.

Calm crooner Ali Nuur sings a number whose title has been lost,  pouncing along with clangy, trebly guitar and ominous minor-key organ. Hibo Nuura’s acerbic, brassy, Afrobeat-influenced Haddii Hoobalkii Gabay (If the Artist Lets You Down), a late 80s tune, speaks to the perils of selling out at the worst possible time.

Gacaltooyo Band, fronted by chanteuse Faduumina Hilowle, are represented by Ninkaan Ogayn (He Who Does Not Know), a slow, haunting mashup of noir soul, Bollywood balladry, Ethiopiques and what sounds like J-pop – Somalian pentatonic scales come across as positively Asian in places here.

Iftin Band were one of the most popular state-sponsored acts from the 70s. They have two tracks here. The first is a similarly haunting, slinky duet by popular singers Mahmud Abdalla “Jerry” Hussen and Maryan Naasir,  Xuduud Ma Leh Xubigaan (This Love Has No Boundaries). The other, Anaa Qaylodhaankaan has snappy bass, smokily ominous organ and a guitar line that’s a dead ringer for Mark Knopfler.

Another popular early 80s group, Dur Dur Band have singer Muqtar Idi Ramadan crooning the gritty, soul and Ethiopiques-influenced Duruuf Maa Laygu Diidee (Rejected Because of My Situation), a smash hit about a romance imperiled by class discrimination. And one of the era’s biggest Somali singers, the stunningly tender-voiced Sahra Dawo, delivers Gorof (Elixir), which could be Men at Work with infinitely better vocals.

Watery chorus-box guitar, punchy organ and woozy, echoey vocals permeate Xasan Diiriye’s Qaraami (Love) – it’s one of the most psychedelic tracks here. Sharaf Band have Xaawo Hiiraan singing Kadeed Badanaa Naftaydani (Life is Full of Trouble), an aptly plaintive mashup of what could be I-Threes songstress Judy Mowatt and a Bollywood ballad.

4 Mars – another state-sponsored group – contribute Na Daadihi (Guide Us), an insistent Afrobeat-tinged number with blippy keys and brass. Danan Hargeysa. a northern band with Mohamed “Huro” Abdihashi out front, contribute the upbeat Uur Hooyo (Mother’s Womb), raising the question of whether or not Dr. Dre might have somehow discovered this stuff and nicked the keening synth for his own shtick.

Sharero Band, with the darkly nuanced Faadumo Qaasim on vocals,  deliver Qays iyo Layla (a Somali counterpart to Romeo & Juliet) with Afrobeat, roots reggae and Bollywood tinges. And Waaberi Band chug their way through the trippy Afrobeat instrumental jam Oktoobar Waatee? Waa Taayadii (What’s October? It’s Ours).

Much as many of these songs and artists have been iconic in the global Somali community for decades, this is brand-new to most of the rest of the world – and one of the best albums of 2017. And it’s available on double gatefold vinyl with a fascinating and informative thirty-page booklet.