It could've been the peaceful sway of the lead guitarist/singer as he strummed extended passages of squeaky-clean electric guitar. Maybe it was the distinctive color palette worn by the Wodaabe and Tuareg group members in the Niger-based quintet. Or possibly, it was the sepulchral sounds coaxed out of the calabash drum, the gourd of the West African percussion instrument that's traditionally used in preparing millet and other grains.
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Whatever the reason, Etran Finatawa's music seemed to be laced with heavy traces of hypnotic medicine, an alchemic formula that definitely altered normal mind-body-spirit functions during a meditative two-hour, two-set concert at the Musical Instrument Museum Saturday night.
The five-piece ensemble showcased its mid-tempo "nomadic blues" in a setting that included electric and acoustic guitars, African rhythm handclaps and foot stomps, and various percussion instruments in the calabash family. The lyrics, sung in the group's tribal languages, documented life's changes and why it's important to honor and celebrate elder traditions.
The group members' traditional African dress accompanied the tunes, many which are featured on Etran Finatawa's latest release Tarket Tajje (Let's Go) (2010). Three members of the group belong to the Wodaabe tribe so their look consisted of plush face paint and head feathers. The remaining two members come from the Tuareg ethnic group, and they're known for its Islam influences and camel nomadism. (Both the Wodaabe and the Tuareg are itinerant tribes concentrated in the Sahara Desert region.)
Apparently, Etran Finatawa's partnership is the first time that the two ethnic groups have bonded sonic efforts. Aside from electric guitar-driven passages that piggybacked the early '70s West African sound, the performance proved that there isn't another mainstream-esque ensemble out there making this type of art.