The word "nomad" might make us dream about freedom, but in the southern Sahara it describes a man locked in an epic struggle against drought, locusts and oblivion. The scrubland of the Azawak, an immense, table-flat plain in north-west Niger, is home to two nomadic peoples, the Tuareg and the Wodaabe, who have been intimate with this daily grind for centuries. Their origins are bipolar: the Tuareg come from Berber, North Africa, and the Wodaabe, who are a sub-division of the ubiquitous Peul or Fulani race that peppers West Africa, from somewhere in the east. They speak two totally different languages, Tamashek and Fulfulde. They have always traded with each other and often fought over wells and salt deposits, the two essential prerequisites of the errant pastoral life. But until now they have never made music together.
"We hadn't thought of creating a group when we travelled together to the famous Festival in the Desert near Timbuktu in 2004," explains Etran Finatawa's bandleader Ghalitane Khamidoune, a diminutive Tuareg with a gentle, purposeful manner. "The two musical cultures are very different, different instruments, different vocal styles. We'd only written a couple of songs together back in Niamey, which we wanted to perform as a kind of finale at the Festival to show the Malians what musicians from Niger can do. It was only when we saw the joy of the audience response, and found that people were congratulating us all the way back home, that we felt there was maybe something there."
This hunch received an overwhelming endorsement with the recent release of Etran Finatawa's debut CD Introducing. Reviews have been sprinkled with words such as "unearthly", "hypnotic", "haunting" and "compelling", accolades which justify themselves within seconds of pressing the play button.
Powered by the perpetual motion of the Tuareg tindé drum, the Etran Finatawa groove possesses a kind of inexhaustible inner dynamo, a sublime transport that carries a cargo of joyous call and response vocals, booming bass and effortlessly intricate electric guitar licks, all of which reinforce the wide linear horizons of the music and echo the endlessly horizontal skyline of the group's desert home. This sound was captured with sensitivity and expertise by producer Chris Birkett at his Château Richard studios near Bordeaux last summer.
On stage, Etran Finatawa come across like an enthralling Saharan fashion display. The three Tuareg members look stately in their top-to-toe indigo robes, while the tall, slender-armed Wodaabe disport the intricate and strangely effeminate make-up which has made Wodaabe menfolk a byword for African masculine beauty.
Although Etran Finatawa are proud to give the world a glimpse of this ancient beauty, what they really embody is the painful clash between nomadism and the modern world. Like so many of his Wodaabe kin, percussionist and vocalist Bagui Bouga was forced by drought and desertification to move to the polluted streets of Niger's capital, Niamey, to seek work. "Times have changed," he rues. "Nomads suffer now. There isn't enough water or good pasture for the animals. Grain is expensive. A majority of people prefer to live in the towns, because you can find food there, and water from a tap, and soap to wash yourself. But in the towns we suffer, too. We can only find menial jobs as watchmen and caretakers, for 10,000 CFA (about £10) a month. We have to sell our cattle and camels to pay debts."
In the early 1990s, the Tuareg launched a rebellion against the central governments of Niger and Mali in an attempt to wrest back a modicum of self-determination and find their own solutions to the problems facing the people of the southern Sahara. It was an upheaval of cataclysmic proportions that produced few positive benefits, one of which was a flourishing modern desert music scene in which time-honoured traditional instruments were ditched in favour of the electric guitar, and old tales of heroism and natural beauty replaced by rebel songs.
"The first cassettes I heard featured Inteyeden and Kheddou, who were members of Tinariwen back then," remembers Bagui. "We really liked them and it gave us the idea of doing the same thing with our Wodaabe songs and poetry." Meanwhile, Ghalitane had also taken up the guitar, inspired by the music of a rebellion that was ignited by an army massacre in his hometown of Tchin-Tabaraden. When peace came in 1995, he moved to Niamey and started his first group Etran N'Guefan, the Stars of the Dunes. Bagui was a member of Kaouritel, the first self-consciously performance-orientated Wodaabe troupe ever to exist, before leaving to form his own ensemble Finatawa. "It's the collective word for all our traditions and customs," explains Bagui. "And all those aspects of our culture that belong to every child who is born Wodaabe." After that fateful rendezvous at the Festival in the Desert in 2004, the two struggling musical entities fused to become Etran Finatawa - the Stars of Tradition.
For the jobless desert migrants of Niamey, music is an antidote to the hopelessness of sitting around all day and shooting the breeze. Encouraged by their budding international success, Etran Finatawa harbour ambitious plans to shake up the Niger music scene for the benefit of all. "We hope in the future to create a recording studio, a record label and distribution system, not just for the Tuareg, but for all musicians," says Ghalitane. "The music scene in Niger isn't in very good shape. There's no infrastructure and the whole question of composer's rights hasn't been sorted out. The government do very little to help because unlike the Malians, they haven't understood the importance of music for developing the image of the country. We want to show the world that Niger is not Nigeria, and that it has nomads who make great music!"
These plans have an aura of dire necessity about them. All the members of Etran Finatawa clearly miss their spacious homeland when they're holed up in European hotel rooms. "Back home we love to take our time to eat, to chat and to drink tea. Here there's always a programme," admits Bagui. "When I'm in Europe it feels like I'm permanently shut up inside. I can't see the horizons and there's so much noise. Back home we're free."
But that freedom is under threat. The droughts and famine of 2005 in Niger rang alarm bells throughout the world. Those same alarm bells chime in the minds of Ghalitane and Bagui. "In my opinion, I can't talk about the others, we're in danger of losing our nomadic culture," Ghalitane declares. "Education poses a huge dilemma for us. We need to educate our children, but once we're gone, what will they become... bureaucrats and administrators. They won't go back to the bush. And the desert is growing every day. Animals can't eat sand. Once sand gets into the stomach of a cow, that's it. She dies. There's nothing you can do."
It seems Etran Finatawa are on a mission of far greater urgency that just making us dance to their gorgeous grooves.
Etran Finatawa perform live in the Siam Tent at 1pm on 29 July at the Womad Festival in Reading (0118-939 0930; www.womad.org)Reuse content