Disclaimer: all new music is reviewed on the stock stereo of my 2008 Toyota Camry.
Things were not well at the Bird Cave this winter. A grim unease hung over everything; bad omens were everywhere, and every corner of the house seemed to be suffused with uncertain anxiety. The skies were gray, the wind was fitful, and huge, black ravens took to the trees at the edge of the woods. Soon, strange, inexplicable things began to happen; cabinets opened by themselves, lights flickered on and off. Food turned to ash in my mouth. When I could sleep, my dreams were difficult and upsetting. I caught friends speaking about me in hushed tones. Soon, they began to grow distant. Something was terribly wrong.
In Feburary, I began to feel disturbed. Visions plagued me; in the face of my fellow man, I saw only evil. The ravens began to follow me, watching me through the windows of my house and at work, waiting for I-know-not-what. Soon, I felt I was losing my mind - but my therapist began to ignore my phone calls, fearful that my madness was contagious. Desperate, I sought answers from a priest. We agreed to meet, but when I arrived, the church was gone. All that was left was a concrete foundation and a sign that read, CLOSED FOREVER.
The cause of all this? Simple, and tragic. My copy of Etran de L'Air's No. 1 was scratched, and would not play.
My constant companion, burned to CD-R in the early days of COVID, was now an inert disc - a scratch across its silver surface had silenced it forever. I tried to put it in the CD deck of the Camry, but I was met only with the final judgement of a vengeful God: CD ERROR.
With my eyes full of tears, I turned the thing over in my hands. Where its mirrored surface once held seven all-time jams, it was now just a vessel within which I was forced to contemplate my own reflection: haggard, alien, perhaps some kind of monster. No more supernatural Nigerien boogie. The music was over.
The disc sat on the floor of my car for a month, until the first sign of thaw, when I went down to the Lamprey River and let it float out to sea. I was very sad. Yet, do not weep for me - for a glimmer of light now shines down upon my melancholy: a new Etran de L'Air record is out.
Trying to describe this music in mere words is like trying to charge your cell phone by plugging it into the sun. Terms like raw power come close, but ultimately the meaning disintegrates before the zillion-watt brillince of the band itself. It's intense; it compels you to move. It reignites parts of your body and brain in ways that a lot of so-called psychedelia cannot. But it is psychedelic in the sense that it is powered by - but does not reveal - spiritual realities normally shrouded by the banal fog of mere existence.
At least, I think. Because I'll be real and say that I do not know what these dudes are singing about.* All I know is that as soon as I put this shit on I am a goddamn Sunshine Superman. It gets my heart rate up, dusts off the cobwebs of my mind, and realigns my outlook on the sacred potential of all life (on this planet and others). I mean, how often do you come across something like this - something that has the same potential health properties as a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail? (Do not say LSD. Please do not fill the comments with facts about LSD - I think my Mom is reading this.)
All this thanks to Etran de L'Air, a family band from Agadez, Niger, that has three outrageous guitar players and performs mostly at weddings around the Sahara. They come to us through Sahel Sounds, a Portland-based import label that promotes a lot of unbelievable West African bands and has a logo that looks suspiciously like a fart-powered camel:
Probably best-known on this label is Mdou Moctar, a Tuareg guitarist who has been a darling of the music press lately and is famous for his Tamajeq-language remake of "Purple Rain." They are also responsible for the Western release of Music From Saharan Cellphones, a compilation of lo-fi Saharan music that was collected from cell phone memory cards that were distributed around West Africa.
I probably don't have to tell you that almost all of this stuff is unbelievable. Sahel Sounds itself, especially in its Bandcamp incarnation, is a powerful antidote to the whole world-music-as-capitalist-utopia industry that began in the 1980s and 1990s and repackaged/recontextualized a lot of non-Western music for Western ears. Instead, Sahel brings the music to us out of the box, and in turn pays the artists profits from their own international releases. That is very groovy. So is the music itself, which ranges from hypnotically folky to straight-up mind melting depending on what you've got on the stereo. All of what I've heard contains traces of 21st-century global culture's DNA (hip-hop, rock and roll) but - thankfully - remains stubbornly regional.
I burned No. 1 to disc at the beginning of the pandemic and played it until it wouldn't play anymore. It was recorded live, on a cell phone, and still sounds transcendental. That’s how powerful this band is - it’s a full-body listening experience. So when I read that Etran's new record utilized a studio, I immediately ran out and got my car inspected. Who knew what kind of power I might be ushering into those old speakers? The whole vehicle - and by extension, my life - could be at risk. I will admit, I was a little anxious.
When the day came, I cued the record (Agadez) up, eased my car down to the road, and cautiously turned the stereo volume up to 64. And holy cow.
Let me get one thing straight with you people: this is music that is meant to be played loud. If you only have access to laptop speakers, do not listen to this until you have access to something loud enough to upset your neighbors. Find that piece of equipment, then put Agadez on. When your neighbor texts you asking to quiet down, turn it up. When the police arrive to settle the noise complaint, let them in - they will hear this record and take your side. When the record ends, get everyone a beer (the neighbors, too) and start it again. Repeat this process for awhile. If you and all your friends went and did this right now, we would have total world peace in about four days. I'm serious - this record is that good.
*They are singing about a lot of things, including the traditions of nomadic life in the Sahel, and the bitter realities of migrants trying to reach Europe. Sahel Sounds splits profits 50/50 with their artists. Check out their Bandcamp - a CD is worth every penny.