If the opening track, "Etran Hymne," on Etran de L’Aïr’s first album sounds like a tape of a DIY show—beginning in a haze of buzzing amps, tested guitars and warm up vocals—it’s because that’s pretty much what it is. The band set up outside of their family compound in the outskirts of Agadez, Niger, and got down to business. For this band, “business” is a playful, buzzy electric version of Agadez’s wedding music. It’s like the desert blues popularized by Tinariwen or Ali Farka Toure but without the blues. These songs start with dueling lead guitars winding through the pentatonic scale and, in the course of their three to nine minutes, somehow build to towering climaxes.
Sahel Sounds, which released the succinctly titled No. 1, on June 4, has a great roster of contemporary musicians from around the Sahara. Etran de L’Aïr (meaning Stars of the Aïr, a region in northern Niger) fits right in with Mdou Moctar and Les Filles de Illighadad, artists who take tools that Western audiences are familiar with—guitars—and play them in culturally specific ways. The results expand the world and add complexity with the extremely familiar tool of a Fender Stratocaster.
Etran de L’Aïr’s record has a good amount of grit all over it—somewhere in the land of field recordings and punk tapes—and the album’s mileage for you depends on whether you think that’s a bug or a feature. For this reviewer, the looseness is one of the record’s best traits, even if you can tell that the microphone was right next to one of the drum kit’s ringing toms. You’re going to let something like fidelity keep you from riding these swells?
All seven tracks--and the lulls in between--feel like friends getting together. Guitars are carelessly riffed in between songs as delay pedals and reverb are adjusted. You can hear chatting amongst the crowd and band members. They aren’t a band that belongs in a hushed concert hall. Their reputation suggests that out among their neighbors is where they belong, ideally at a celebration.
“They make music for people who don’t have money,” the band’s manager Madassane says in a press release. “If a wedding can’t afford the expensive musicians, they hire Etran.”
The drum beat and guitars rhythmically pull against each other. It’s impossible to say who is leading whom. The vocals aren’t mixed high enough for the lyrics to factor into it, even if you spoke their language. Melodies, from voice or guitar, bound along the swaggering beat, rising in intensity until the guitar lines finally meet each other high up the fretboard, and meld into in a shared, ecstatic blur. It’s fun! And improbably enough, they’re available for parties and weddings.