Ostinato Records negotiate release of Groupe RTD’s music from Djibouti government – another landmark release

Ostinato Records have pulled off a major musical coup by recording and releasing the wonderful music of Groupe RTD: The Dancing Devils of Djibouti some of Africa’s most globally underheard music – a result of state control in the Republic of Djibouti.

The exhilarating three-day, khat fuelled session will be released worldwide next month.

While the music of Somalia is widely celebrated – particularly by Ostinato – its neighbour, formerly known as French Somaliland, on the mouth of Red Sea, is home to anther treasure trove of its own unique Somali music. The small but culturally enriched place is still one of the few 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.

In 2016, Ostinato Records met with senior officials of Radiodiffusion-Télévision Djibouti (RTD), a.k.a. the national radio, to discuss a vision for sharing their music with the rest of the world. It is a young country of less than a million people and is increasingly opening up to the world. In 2019, Ostinato became the first label to be granted full authorisation to access the national radio’s archives, one of the largest and best preserved in Africa, home to thousands of reels of Somali and Afar music.

Djibouti is influenced by music from East Asia, the Arabian peninsula, India, and even more distant sounds – situated on the Bab El Mandeb (Gate of Tears) strait, a historic corridor of global trade connecting the Suez Canal and the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. Djiboutian music, particularly of Groupe RTD, is: “the juncture where Indian Bollywood vocal styles, offbeat licks of Jamaican dub and reggae, sleek horns inspired by Harlem’s jazz era, and haunting and joyous synthesizer melodies of the Red Sea collide,” the label explains.

“In RTD’s recording studio, a world class band entirely unknown outside the country, whose songs are a living embodiment of the archives, lay in waiting. Composed of sensational new, young talent backed by old masters, the band – Groupe RTD – is the national ceremony outfit. By day, they perform for presidential and national events and welcome foreign dignitaries. By night, when no longer on official duty, Groupe RTD is clearly one of East Africa’s best kept secrets.”

All photos © Janto Djassi

One key player is Mohamed Abdi Alto (above), an unheralded saxophone virtuoso and perhaps one of the best in Africa. He was mentored by Mogadishu-born guitarist Abdirazak Hagi Sufi – both of whom feature as instrumentalists on Ostinato’s Grammy-nominated Sweet As Broken Dates compilation – another crucial project by the label (covered by WTM previously). Mohamed – who added “Alto” to his legal name – immersed himself in John Coltrane and Charlie Parker as part of his musical education. Abdirazak’s Jamaican guitar style can be admired again on this release.

Young singer Asma Omar (above) won a youth talent contest to join the band and performs alongside Hassan Omar Houssein (below), both are fluent in the classic hits of Bollywood and Indian music.

Synth player Moussa Aden Ainan brings a distinctly dexterous Somali touch, reminiscent of the exceptional keys work of Somalia’s Iftin and Waaberi Band. The Tadjouran rhythms of drummer Omar Farah Houssein and dumbek player Salem Mohamed Ahmed are the essential backing.

The label continues: “But recording this album was Ostinato’s biggest challenge yet. A web of bureaucracy and strict rules had to be navigated. Djibouti’s authorities gave us only three days to record the entire set, with no extension. Up for the task and eager to deliver, 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, unleashing the very reason the band was founded: to strut Djibouti’s majestic music on the world stage when the opportunity arrived.

Abdo Houssein Handeh (Bass) – all photos © Janto Djassi

“The recording equipment in the radio had not been upgraded in decades and technical neglect meant we had to devise a novel approach to ensure the highest quality recording possible. With the help of Djibouti’s head of customs, we flew in a state-of-the-art mobile recording studio, replete with the very best audio interfaces and carefully positioned microphones around a less than soundproof room, to achieve a vibrant, professional sound, while maintaining the analog warmth of decades prior.

“This game-changing setup, a far cry from the old days of field recordings, is Ostinato Records’ vision for the future: to capture the contemporary sounds of Africa and the world flawlessly, in any environment or circumstance.”

For more, go to Ostinato Records.

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