Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Jun 29th 2010 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
"It's a project that we have been planning for a couple of years," says band manager Sandra van Edig. "We have done many workshops abroad, school workshops in Europe and England and the US. There's always that question when you're traveling a lot and you want to bring something to help the people of your country as well."
The group, whose unique lineup includes members of both the Tuareg and Wodaabe clans, with music both hypnotic and involving, had seen other African artists channel resources from international success into building schools, drilling water wells and other development projects in their home countries. But while Etran Finatawa had traveled the globe, they did not have the funds to launch such efforts.
"So the idea came up, 'Why not bring something for the children here and do the same kind of workshops?'" van Edig says. "Suddenly, we realized it is so necessary, urgent even. The children are losing their cultural identity. They don't think of tradition. The Internet and TV are changing everything, and the value and importance of culture is not there any more."
With no funding, in early 2009 the group headed out to several cities and villages in Niger and "just went to different schools and improvised" programs to teach about the music and traditions in a way that might excite the kids. They focused on schools mired in poverty, with gratifying reactions from teachers, administrators and, of course, the children.
That emboldened van Edig and the band to seek funding to make the program more concrete, and three UK organizations with which the group had worked before came through: the El Sayed Foundation, the Sarah Fox-Pitt Foundation and the Al Madad Foundation.
"So now we are able to do what we want to do," van Edig says. "It's still very low budget, but we are able to travel to five different cities and realize the project in 10 schools. We reach out to about 2,000 children – the classes are very big, between 100 and 200 in each workshop. Then we do a concert in the afternoon for the whole school, all the classes, sometimes 600 students and teachers."
The support has allowed them to bring along some other artists, including Mamane Barka, a master of the traditional biram harp that the group is hoping to give international exposure, as well. And van Edig recruited a German filmmaker friend, with a short documentary of the schools venture in the works.
All this is very tied in to the music and inspiration of the latest Etran Finatawa album, 'Tarkat Tajje.' With the door for Saharan music to go to the world having been opened by the phenomenal success of Tuareg ensemble Tinariwen in recent years, Etran Finatawa have worked hard not just to share the further riches of their cultures – the combination of Tuareg and Wodaabe blending for a dynamic tapestry of textures and tones – but to grow in their ability to express and communicate. On one hand, there's a modern edge to the electric guitar grooves the band crafts, such as on the album's opening track, 'Aitimani':
Etran Finatawa, 'Aitimani':
But EF also draw heavily on the earthier traditions of the desert, as on the more acoustic, percolatingly percussive 'Daandé':
Etran Finatawa, 'Daande'
Behind it all, van Edig says, is a growing mission as the group has come to understand the position it holds with its rising renown both globally and at home.
"It's a dream with the new album as well as the traveling, a kind of development in the band members," she says. "They are so conscious now of their role. Not just observing and crying about what is going on but taking action. The title means, 'Let's Go.' Action. Not just showing the beauty of the desert and singing about how sad it is that things are gone – but action. These guys are still very hungry, hungry for new experiences. It's good, very dynamic. They have matured so much and what we wanted to show with the new album and now with the workshops is 'We are here, we won't go, we will do something and we want to do something and we try, at least.' If it's changing anything, we don't know. But at least we're not just sitting here and crying. And showing the children and anyone else that even if there's no money you can do something, you don't have to wait for someone to give you money to start something. We started last year with no money and now there's very positive evolution."
Thus far, the steps have outweighed the challenges forward.
"On one hand, it's very sad to see the children who could be musicians, the next generation, and they have already forgotten so much about their culture and country, their heritage," she says. "On the other side, we feel we can really do something, and it's not too late, just to show the children that it's worth keeping and interesting. It's so nice to see the children dancing and enjoying the music and asking the question and really following what we are talking about."
The questions might be the most important, and encouraging, part.
"Some ask why we are doing this. That's the main question. Sometimes they ask about what people are like when we have been abroad. They ask a lot about the instruments, as well, about the costumes. The Wodaabe people are not really well known. There's a lot of discrimination in the south, a lot of prejudices. One girl was asking, 'Why do you put makeup on like a woman?' The answer was explaining that it's the tradition. The questions are very different than what European children ask. Very good to animate the children to ask about the ethic groups of their country, of which they know so little. Good to confront them with the culture they have in their own country."
At the same time, they are well aware of the growing encroachment of cultures from other countries.
"It's not moralistic, not 'You have to keep this!' You can't do anything against these kind of developments," van Edig says. "But you have to give a positive sign. This is one of the poorest countries in the world. But we have entitled the program 'Our Culture, Our Richness.' Just a way to change this idea that people here are just poor. We're giving them something so they can be proud of what they are and don't have to try to be American. They should be proud of what they are."