Djibouti is a small country. But then the Gambia is smaller, and we know quite a bit about its musical history, despite the fact that much of it is a river. Djibouti is different. Aside from having a name that makes little English speaking boys titter when they hear it, and often being written about as nothing more than a strategic place for the French, who claimed it as a territory for closer to 100 years until 1977, to place military bases, general knowledge of its history and culture tends to get overlooked. Yet this fetus-shaped country, sandwiched as it is by Somaliland, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, has much more to offer. Aside from including the lowest point of elevation on the African continent, it also contains one of the most well preserved state archives in all of Africa, where endless recordings of music made by the two cultural groups who make up the country, Somali and Afar, are housed.
Since 1977, Djibouti has been under single party rule, and music is run entirely by the state, which means bands are all naturally part of state propaganda. Yet, this has not meant a lack of creativity or expression; rather, it’s merely kept the rest of the world from getting their hands on it. Yet, hours of Radio & Television Diffusion Djibouti (RTD) video clips, including music are readily accessible on youtube, so it’s not like one can’t find vintage performances of, say, Fadumo Ahmed with a quick google search. What this has meant as that no one has been able to secure an international release of music from the country, much less a visit into the archives. Until Ostinato paid them a visit in 2019, that is. Aside from getting to dig deep into RTD’s recordings and video, the label discovered a band operating in the station’s studio who played daily national events; yet, at night, no longer on duty, they perform away from the control of the state. And are we ever lucky to finally hear them!
Ostinato has also recently brought the vintage 1970’s and 80’s-era Somali pop grooves to Western ears via the Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa compilation. And if you’ve reveled in it, and you should have, this will be welcome addition. Sweet as Broken Dates is also the closest available musical point of reference in terms of a documented release to be found in the west. The influences of everything from Bollywood to reggae are certainly mixed in here somewhere, but anyone who’s listened to music from Africa’s horn knows there’s something about it not found anywhere else, and this record is no exception. Besides, the Somali culture has Dhaanto, a local rhythm often mistaken for reggae due its similarity. Horn and keyboard lines work in minor-key unison over rhythms that only become more hypnotic with each moment. Vocals weave between the notes, reassuring, smooth.
After much red tape, Ostinato managed to get a mere three days to record Group RTD for this release, but the group came in ready, and according to the LP’s notes, “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, unleashing the very reason the band was founded: to strut Djibouti’s majestic music on the world stage when the opportunity arrived.” The results speak for themselves. And this shouldn’t surprise anyone, as a number of these musicians have long, storied careers, in some cases even appear on tracks from the Dates compilation, as is the case with saxophone master Mohamed Abdi Alto. Other older players, such as guitarist Abdirazak Hagi Sufi and Omar Farah Houssein, allow this music a direct connection to Somalia’s past musical glories, as Somalis make up the bulk of Djibouti’s population. But the band also introduces young singers Asma Omar and Hassan Omar Houssein who take turns driving this music home. While Djibouti and Somaliland clearly share the same culture, governments differ, and it’s nothing short of incredible that Ostinato has chipped away at one-party rigidity long enough to allow the rest of us a chance to hear Group RTD in hi-fi. - Bruce Miller