How much damage has the global lockdown done in Djibouti? That country has suffered enough without everybody having to wear those stupid masks. And if the digital gear necessary to record Groupe RTD’s new album The Dancing Devils of Djibouti existed on the band’s home turf last year, it wasn’t available at the time. A portable studio had to be flown in to catch the group’s marathon three-day session, fueled by high quality weed and qat (the national drug of Yemen, whose popularity extends to Barbary Pirates territory). The result is an ecstatically slinky mix of music with echoes of Ethipiques, but also roots reggae, Bollywood and Middle Eastern habibi pop. It’s streaming at Bandcamp.
In the album’s opening track, The Highest Mountain, guitarist Abdirazak Hagi Sufi runs reggae skank and big stadium hooks over keyboardist Moussa Aden Ainan’s keening multitracks backing frontwoman Asma Omar’s expressive, Bollywood-influenced delivery. This is insanely catchy minor-key music.
You Are the One That I Love (sticking with the English translations of the song titles here) is sort of reggae, sort of ska. Omar’s insistent intensity rises over sax player Mohamed Abdi Alto’s looming lines and the bubbling groove of drummer Omar Farah Houssein and dumbek player Salem Mohamed Ahmed.
The soulful, suave Hassan Omar Houssein takes over the mic on The Pearl Necklace, a pouncing minor-key ballad, followed by The Queen, a mighty, deliciously swirly anthem with some spectacular organ work from Ainan.
Alto’s Interlude turns out to be mostly a haphazard guitar -and-synth tableau in the blues scale. I Want You has the kind of stampeding drive that you would expect, with guitar, sax and rapidfire organ lines behind Houssein’s chill, melismatic vocals. That’s Where You”ll Leave His Reward (a religious reference, maybe?) has hints of a 70s disco strut and a warm major-key pulse.
Look at Me, with its catchy minor-key blues riffage, is more reggae-ish, validating any argument that both reggae and blues came from this part of the world. Joy could be a great lost classic from Jamaican reggae legends the Abyssinians’ iconic first album, more or less: it validates both that group, and this one here. They close the record with a gnawa-flavored shout-out to the spirits. How serendipitous that music from this part of the world could possibly be available at such a twisted time in global history.