The first Djiboutian album recorded for international release, Groupe RTD announce a fascinating music culture onto the global scene
Located in East Africa in between Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, Djibouti’s coastal location on the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb has meant it was prized for its easy access to the Middle East, as well as Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian trade routes, and as such, this history of trading and encountering different peoples has left a mark on Djiboutian music, which takes as a base the traditional music of Somalia and Ethiopia, but has plenty of other outside influences. However, due to Djibouti’s colonial past, a music industry distinct from its larger neighbours only began in earnest in the 1940s, and since independence from the French was achieved, music became the domain of the state, with many, if not all bands, in this small nation becoming an arm of the government. Groupe RTD is one such band, who are the official band of the Djiboutian state broadcaster, Radio Television Djibouti, and as such they are one of Djibouti’s most famous bands. While this complete state control of music meant that some musicians kept gainful employment, it had the other effect of completely shutting off Djibouti’s music scene to the West, as no foreign companies were allowed to come and invest in the music industry.
This is where New York-based label Ostinato Records broke the mould, when in 2016 they entered into negotiations with the Djiboutian government to help bring the music of Djibouti to a global audience. After three arduous years, they eventually came to an agreement in 2019. Initially content with simply searching through the RTD archives, they became interested in the house band of the station, and decided to ask for an opportunity to record new music with them for a global audience. Though met with scepticism, they were granted an insanely tight three-day window in which to complete the task, which the record label themselves have described as a “khat-fueled devilish feast of music amid a smokey haze”. The Dancing Devils of Djibouti is the result, Djibouti’s first recorded album for international release.
“Elements of a myriad countries are found in Groupe RTD’s music, from Ethiopian tizita to Bollywood music, West African Afro-pop to Middle-Eastern oud music, it’s all to be found in this magnificent confluence of sound.”
The story behind the album is a fascinating one, and a very evocative one at that. It can be easy to get lost thinking about all the events that might have been unfolding in that recording room for those fabled three days. With a nine-piece band, many producers, officials, translators, and other assistants in what must have been a pressurised and somewhat volatile environment, there must have been arguments, miscommunications, creative differences, all the while the clock is relentlessly ticking and they’re running down to the wire. It’s like 12 Angry Men – ideally filmed in a grainy monochrome, everyone in close quarters, in a small, smoky room, sweating profusely as the tiny blade fan works overtime to spit out small gusts of warmish air – but they have to compose and perform an album instead of debate a murder case. Or it might have been a breeze, with no major hiccups or problems. Who knows? What I do know is that this unusual and engrossing circumstance should not take the focus away from the music itself, though it is crucial to understanding why it even exists at all.
First and foremost, the album is vibrant and fun, with every song a beautiful introduction to Djibouti’s music culture. You can understand exactly why the American music executives would be intrigued by their music. Elements of a myriad countries are found in Groupe RTD’s music, from Ethiopian tizita to Bollywood music, West African Afro-pop to Middle-Eastern oud music, it’s all to be found in this magnificent confluence of sound. This does perhaps mean it is difficult to pinpoint a specific element that is Djiboutian, and indeed I have nothing with which to compare it, but first and foremost it is the specific mix of elements that make this stand out, and that may well be the defining feature of the album and Djiboutian music in general.
There is a lot to admire on the record, but one musical element does stand out is the saxophone played by Mohamed Abdi Alto, who is apparently so skilled at the sax that “they added ‘Alto’ to his legal name”. This endearing fact was rather amusing to me, as it begs the question of who are the ‘they’ who demanded it be added onto his name? The band? The executives at RTD? The people of Djibouti themselves? Again, who knows, and it’s another morsel of mystery to tantalise the listeners. Whatever the facts, he is a great saxophonist whose jazzy riffs and solos pepper the songs with whichever groove is necessary. Look to Uurkan Kaadonaya, Buuraha U Dheer, and Raani for some examples of his skills. All the musicians are excellent, with the dumbek player Salem Mohamed Ahmed providing irresistible beats and rhythms, and the vocals from Asma Omar, Guessod Abdo Hamargod, and Hassan Omar Houssei all working together in harmony.
The album is of high quality and it is very consistent, and there’s an infectious sense of rambunctious fun that runs through it, perhaps an unintended side effect of the Djiboutian government’s insistence on a tight recording schedule. I would struggle to pick a song that was noticeably better or worse than any of the others, and while that’s something to be admired in and of itself, I also don’t finish the album humming any of the tunes. Listening to the album when I did all those months ago, when I knew far less about world music than I do now, I did enjoy it much less than I did on the relisten for the review, and I think that’s partially an exposure thing to the music of that region that I enjoy very much, but also, I think it’s an album that does well to percolate in the mind. There’s a lot going on here on a musical level, and it’s not always apparent on a quick listen. So, give it time, and I hope it will reveal itself to you. In addition, it completes its task of displaying the music of Djibouti to the world. In that, it’s a ground-breaking world first that will hopefully open up Djibouti’s music scene to more people, with more opportunities to record there that aren’t as arduous a journey as this one.
All quotes were taken from this link, where more information on the circumstances surrounding the creation of the album can be found, including the excellent fact that the head of Djiboutian customs is personally thanked due to his expedition of the customs process on importing the recording desk, without which they couldn't have recorded the album. Someone make this into a film!