The Global Journey (and Music) of Two Nomadic Tribes

Globalization, despite the frequency the word is used, is really a rather nebulous term.

There are people who rail against it - how it is making the world all the same; diluting or destroying culture; oppressing the poor; increasing poverty. And there are valid points.

And then there are the positive aspects of globalization - increased understanding, awareness and empathy; greater shared knowledge; hybrid cultures; the blurring of once rigid boundaries; openness... and music.

Up until yesterday, I did not know anything about landlocked west African country of Niger. But on the urging of a friend, I went to listen to Etran Finatawa perform in their first ever tour of the U.S. And thanks to globalization, for an evening, I was transported to the Saharan crossroads of Niger while still physically located in my neighborhood in Santa Monica. The music they sang is described as Nomad's Blues. It is born out of the melding of the diverse cultural traditions of the Berber and northern African (Tuareg) cultures and sub-Saharan (Wodaabe) cultures of the south. The Tuareg and Wodaabe are nomadic groups that continue to this day to herd cattle in sub-Saharan Savannah. And while they have always traded with each other, they have also fought over the highly valued wells and salt deposits. The formation of this group served as a conscious effort to unite these two cultures as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.

The group Etran Finatawa consists of 6 musician, 3 are Tuareg and 3 are Wodaabe. The Wodaabe do not use musical instruments but sing very polyphonic songs. The Tuareg have always used instruments (drums, violins and since the 1970's guitars) to animate their music. Etran Finatawa's songs combine the rigorous drum beat and rhythm of the Tuaregs with lyrical voices of the Wodaabe.

I had absolutely no understanding of what they were singing about and the sounds could not feel more distant. The two languages in which they sang (tamashek and fulfulde), could not be more foreign to me. Their costumes were rich and beautiful but unfamiliar. But somehow today, the day after the performance, I am still utterly mesmerized and entranced by their music. There is a longing and emotion in their music that crosses national boundaries or ethnic or cultural divides.

I read that their songs are about nomadic life, isolation and liberty, extreme hardship and poverty, harsh climate, beautiful women, happy days, the desert and the stars....

Globalization is making life for the nomads increasingly tough. Natural resources are limited and grain is expansive. Niger experienced droughts and famine in 2005. More and more nomads are selling their cattle to survive and filtering into the capital city of Niger in search of employment - leaving behind traditions.

And yet, at the same time, if it was not because of globalization, most of the world would have never had the opportunity to hear them play and learn their stories.

(For more information or to hear their music also check out: www.myspace.com/etranfinatawa)

* The bottom two pictures were taken by Joaquim Coelho

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