Music Interviews
5:15 pm
Sat July 27, 2013

In A Desert Encampment, Songs Of A Vanishing Way Of Life

Originally published on Sat August 3, 2013 7:20 am

In January, English musician and record producer Colin Bass found himself in the midst of an extraordinary assignment. Bass had traveled, with microphones and recording equipment in tow, to the Sahara desert to meet up with a musical group called Etran Finatawa.

"They come from Niger, next to Mali, in West Africa," Bass says. "Etran Finatawa is a band that is made up — unusually — of two sets of musicians, who stem from nomadic tribes. On the one side you've got the Tuaregs, and on the other side you've got the Wodaabe. Normally they didn't mix together because they would be rivals in the old days, when they could live their nomadic lifestyle."

Bass was there to oversee what would become The Sahara Sessions — an album recorded in a tent under the stars. Its central theme hinges on what all the musicians in Etran Finatawa have in common.

"They've come together because the nomadic peoples, as a whole, are actually threatened — their lifestyle is threatened," Bass says. "All the songs are about this disappearing lifestyle. It's a plea for tolerance and it's a plea for the various peoples of the area to come together and live together."

Colin Bass spoke with NPR's Linda Wertheimer; click the audio link to hear their conversation.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

COLIN BASS: OK. Ca roule.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Colin Bass is an English musician and record producer. That was his voice we just heard - a quick OK and "ca roule" - that's "it's rolling" - to the players surrounding him. Bass was in the middle of an extraordinary assignment. In January of this year, he set up his microphones and recording equipment in a tent under the stars in the middle of the Sahara Desert to capture the sounds of the group Etran Finatawa. Their new album, "The Sahara Sessions," comes out on Tuesday.

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Colin Bass joins us from the studios of the BBC in Bangor, Wales. Welcome to our program.

BASS: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Tell us about this group - where they come from and what they sing about.

BASS: Yes. OK. How long have we got? Actually, Etran Finatawa, they come from Niger, next to Mali in West Africa. Etran Finatawa is a band that is made up unusually of two sets of musicians who stem from nomadic tribes. On the one side, you've got the Tuaregs, and on the other side you've got the Wodaabe. Normally, they didn't mix together because they would be rivals in the old days, when they could live their nomadic lifestyle. But they've come together because the nomadic peoples as a whole are actually threatened, their lifestyle is threatened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing in foreign language)

BASS: All the songs are about this disappearing lifestyle and it's a plea for tolerance and it's a plea for the various peoples of the area to come together and live together. Lyrically, it's a very bluesy album. It's quite dramatic. It's quite dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WERTHEIMER: Now, we'd like to play a clip of one of the group members. This is in an interview from 2008. Here they are.

ALOUSH: (Foreign language spoken)

WERTHEIMER: Now, he says that he listens to three musicians, and he names as his inspiration Jimi Hendrix...

BASS: Ali Farka Toure, yeah.

WERTHEIMER: Santana and Ali Farka Toure, as you say, from Mali. Why do you think Etran Finatawa consider these people their greatest heroes?

BASS: Well, why not? Music is an international language. And Aloush has grown up hearing cassettes of Santana or Hendrix and...

WERTHEIMER: Aloush is the leader of the band.

BASS: He's the leader of the band, yes, and he recognizes a good guitarist when he hears one. You know, also, he's listening to, you know, the desert blues of Ali Farka Toure, and it's very much related to what Etran Finatawa are doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: There is sort of a mixture, though, don't you think, in their music between things that sound traditional - instruments, even, that sound traditional - but the singing and the rhythms sounds Western to me.

BASS: Yeah. Well, you know, there's a lot of connections, and I think that that's the way that music develops anyway, isn't it? Because don't forget that, you know, Africa is the source for most of the rhythms that are part of popular music today. All those grooves - rock 'n' roll - that's where it came from.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Let's play another track from the new album. This is called "Bakuba."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAKUBA")

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: You know, at the top of that track, we heard what sounds like kids.

BASS: Yeah, they're kids. Especially in the evening, they would come over, drawn by our activities. They'd build a bonfire outside the tent and they would just sit around. So, we put some microphones outside and recorded them, got them to clap along on some things. And it's a kid's song, anyway, "Bakuba," or it's a refrain that everybody knows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAKUBA")

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: What was that percussion instrument that I could hear, that sort of clicking?

BASS: Yeah. That was - it's a calabash, a dried gourd, played with the dome side up. It's often played with just the palms and the fingers. But the guy we had playing on that, he was playing it with sticks.

WERTHEIMER: Don't they also play the calabash with the palms in their hands in a bucket of water?

BASS: Oh. That's the bass drum. It's the same thing as an upturned gourd in a larger gourd, which is sort of a basin full of water. And it creates this sort of boom, boom, boom - this sort of bass drum sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: Was it a challenge, technically, to do something like that, to have microphones standing outside in the desert with a big fire and a lot of people wandering around?

BASS: Yeah, of course it was. You know, I had to choose my microphones carefully just in case, you know, they all got filled up with sand. And I would go, oh my God, my best microphone. But it worked. I had to record the whole thing on a machine that actually I could power by batteries because I wasn't sure that we'd actually have power. As it was, we did have this enormous battery from a lorry that we managed to drive a small generator for a while. So, it kind of all worked out.

WERTHEIMER: I mean, it sounds very romantic that, you know, you're in a tent in the desert and it's night and the stars.

BASS: It was. Yeah, it was actually. It was very, very nice. I mean, you know, and that made the atmosphere of it for the band as well. And there's something about the sound. You know, the sound inside that tent, this big leather, dried skins sort of all sewn together draped over sticks, that's all. And the sound in there was very dry, of course, and outside, the sand is dry, the desert is dry. So, you had this very dry sound that was very pleasant.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Now, in that part of the world, especially in Mali, which is next door, there've been all kinds of trouble. The Festival in the Desert, which is usually held in Timbuktu, was cancelled because it wasn't considered safe for musicians and tourists to gather there.

BASS: Correct, yeah.

WERTHEIMER: What kind of future do you think musicians have in this part of the world? What about Etran Finatawa?

BASS: Yeah. Well, this is the tragedy. You know, you've got these Islamists who took over in North Mali, and Aloush feels he has a mission to carry on and to get people to talk to each other and come together. That's what all the songs are about and that's the future, isn't it? You know, you just keep fighting for what you want, and you fight with music instead of weapons. That's the best thing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Colin Bass is the producer of "The Sahara Sessions," the new album by Etran Finatawa. Colin Bass, thank you very much.

BASS: Thank you. Great pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ETRAN FINATAWA: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: You can hear more from "The Sahara Sessions" at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.