The Dancing Devils Of Djibouti

11/06/2020Ostinato Records Releases The First-Ever International Album From Groupe RTD

The BBC's Focus on Africa programme called this "a very special album" and we couldn't agree more. While collecting music to put on our "Greedy for May" playlist on Spotify a few weeks back, we previewed the first available tracks of "The Dancing Devils of Djibouti" by Groupe RTD, aka "one of East Africa's best kept secrets," and were deeply impressed. Now fully released and available via Ostinato Records, we can't wait to share the story of the first-ever international album from Djibouti with you. 

While Somalian music has enjoyed more widespread acclaim and popularity, the neighbouring Republic of Djibouti (formerly French Somaliland) has somehow fallen into obscurity. Wrongfully so. It turns out that "the small but culturally grand country on the mouth of the Red Sea remains one of the few places in the world where music is still entirely the domain of the state. Since independence in 1977, one-party rule brought most music under its wing, with almost every band a national enterprise."

However, to this day, no foreign entities had been permitted to work with Djibouti's very own rich repertoire of Somali music. Enter the Grammy-nominated, New York-based imprint Ostinato Records, who met with senior officials of national radio Radiodiffusion-Télévision Djibouti (RTD) in 2016 "to discuss a vision for lifting the shroud on Djiboutian music." Three years later, they were officially granted access to the national radio's archives, "home to thousands of reels of Somali and Afar music."

But the best was yet to come: Next door to the archives, the label discovered the national radio band, "a world class band entirely unknown outside the country, whose songs are a living embodiment of the archives." Led by Mohamed Abdi Alto on saxophone, this ensemble of young talents and seasoned veterans ably forge a brand of music "where Indian Bollywood vocal styles, offbeat licks of Jamaican dub and reggae, sleek horns inspired by Harlem’s jazz era, Somali funk and the haunting and joyous synthesizer melodies of the Red Sea collide."

Adding to the challenge, the label was granted three days to record the album on location and even had to fly in a state-of-the-art mobile recording studio "to achieve a vibrant, professional sound while maintaining the analog warmth of decades prior [in a less than soundproof room]." But Groupe RTD was "up for the task and eager to deliver, [as] the musicians promptly tore down the 'no smoking or chewing khat' sign in RTD’s recording studio and began a heated, three-day, khat-fueled devilish feast of music amid a smokey haze."

The result is the label's first-ever studio-recorded album and an absolute stunner. Plus, the sound is breathtaking. This album may have been recorded in a studio, but it's brimming with energy, captivating spontaneity and a sense of artistry that is increasingly hard to come by in today's oversaturated music industry. It's almost as if we were witnessing a live performance in the comfort of our own home, which is just what we needed during these times.

Groupe RTD's "The Dancing Devils of Djibouti" is definitely one of our favourite albums of the moment and boasts a spectacular array of styles. Hats off to everybody involved for making this possible. You can stream/buy the full album below.

Groupe RTD are:
Mohamed Abdi Alto (sax)
Asma Omar (vocals)
Guessod Abdo Hamargod (vocals)
Hassan Omar Houssein (vocals)
Omar Farah Houssein (drums)
Moussa Aden Ainan (keys)
Abdirazak Hagi Sufi “Kaajaa” (guitar)
Abdo Houssein Handeh (bass)
Salem Mohamed Ahmed (dumbek)

AUTHOR: Lev Nordstrom