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Bagui Bouga: Master of the 'nomadic blues'


When the Niger-based band Etran Finatawa ("stars of tradition") made their memorable UK debut at the Womad festival in Reading in 2006, those in the audience could have been forgiven for believing there had been some sort of mix-up backstage, and two groups were performing together at the same time. The reality is not so far from this, since Etran Finatawa draw their members from two of Niger's very different ethnic groups.

Half the band are Touareg nomads, with the turbans and long, flowing robes typical of these people. The others sport gracefully swaying ostrich feathers that sprout from their turbans, and wear embroidered tunics, plus leather hose. In typical Wodaabe style, they are made up with black kohl, black lipstick and brilliantly contrasting yellow make-up that lightens their skin and divides their features to enhance the symmetry of their faces. Their slow-motion dancing often mimics or suggests the movements of animals such as the cows they herd over Niger's parched savannah.

The music is a mesmerising mix of electric and acoustic sounds propelled by bounding, elastic rhythms and topped by hypnotic call-and-response vocals. This lively addition to the "desert blues" genre has been dubbed the "nomadic blues". Traditionally, both the Touareg and Wodaabe live as nomad herders on the fringes of the Sahara (the Sahel), sharing pasturelands and waters with each other. Tension between the two has often led to feuds over scarce resources. So there was some controversy when Etran Finatawa came together, uniting the members of two ensembles invited to Mali's Festival in the Desert in 2004.

The group was founded by Bagui Bouga, who has died of an asthma attack while staying with friends in Switzerland. The idea got off the ground at the home of Sandra van Edig, a German expatriate and former anthropologist living in Niger's capital, Niamey. She became their manager, and after the success of their debut album (recorded as a demo on the terrace of her home) Introducing Etran Finatawa, released on the World Music Network label in 2006, there soon came an invitation from Womad, which initiated a new kind of nomadic lifestyle for the group and saw them tour as far afield as the US, Canada and Australia, although they had started touring Europe in 2005.

Bouga was born in 1978 in the town of Tchintabaraden. His parents were nomadic herders and lived with their animals, so Bouga never attended school. He was partly brought up by his grandmother, from whom he learnt about nature and traditional medicine. His friend and colleague Alhousseini Anivolla recalled him as someone who loved being a herdsman and was passionate about animals and the freedom of his life in nature, and knew much about trees, plants and stones.

He came to town when he was almost 20 to join a group of Wodaabe dancers who were invited to several international festivals, including one in Switzerland. During this period Bouga saw the capital, Niamey, for the first time, and made his first trip to Europe. After this he habitually spent several months each year in Niamey to earn money to send home.

The formation of Etran Finatawa was controversial: many in the community did not like the idea of combining two tribes, but Bouga was resolute. Alhousseini Anivolla said: "Bagui loved his culture and tradition so much that he always enjoyed talking about it during interviews, festivals… he enjoyed learning about other cultures and tried to understand and see his own culture in an universal context. Etran Finatawa have fought together for the question of being a nomad in modern times… Bagui always followed what he had in mind, he was very determined."

Etran Finatawa released three more albums after their debut; Desert Crossroads (2008), Tarkat Tajje/Let's Go! (2010) and The Sahara Sessions (2013). They last appeared in the UK during London's Celebrating Sanctuary festival in June this year.

Jon Lusk

Bagui Bouga, musician: born Tchintabaraden, Niger 1978; married Fati Agonla (two daughters); died Switzerland 2 August 2013.