The wanderers from Niger

Nigerien band Anewal eschews explicit politics and sings mostly of harmony and brotherhood.

Image Credit: Zach Isaac.

The Nigerien band Anewal’s sound is rooted in the Tamasheq musical tradition of ishumar. The term, a play on the French word chômeur (unemployed), characterizes a genre of songs and poems born out of the Tuaregs mass exodus to cities in southern Algeria, Mali, Niger in the 1960s and 1970s. There they found limited job opportunities, and music became both a way to lament the loss of their way of life and to inflame nationalist passions.

Tinariwen, a band from Mali, was among the first to popularize the genre abroad. Describing themselves as militant musicians, the Malian band was upfront about its willingness to pick up arms to defend the creation of a Tamasheq state (which, if ever realized, would take up 60 percent of Mali). Much like their vocal neighbors, Anewal sings of a utopic and simple nomadic way of life, but unlike them, they stray away from divisive politics preferring instead to preach a message of harmony and brotherhood.

Anewal made its U.S. debut early this month at the Rockwood Music Hall in a concert organized by the World Music Institute. The trio, led by frontman, Alhousseini Anivolla, stepped on stage in bright three piece bazins, their faces wrapped in turbans, transporting the predominantly white audience straight to the Sahara desert. I suspect not many faces were familiar with the band’s repertoire —  but its mesh of percussions and guitars (both electric and acoustic), charmed the crowd who awkwardly flailed their limbs and thumped their feet to the rhythm. Anivolla, pleased and perhaps overwhelmed,  by their response, made a point to thank them after each song: first in English, then in Tamasheq and lastly in French.

Image credit Zach Isaac.

In their first song of the night, Anewal sang of truth, urging us all to speak with honesty and integrity to the sound of an acoustic guitar and tinde drums. As the set progressed, the musicians picked up the pace and Anivolla traded his acoustic guitar for an electric one, scolding in his lyrics those who are easily swayed into conflict.

I met Anivolla, the band’s lead singer, at the cafe of the Edison hotel, a couple of hours before the concert and he struck me as a man of few words. Sipping on mint tea, dreadlocks hanging past the middle of his back, he explained that he picked up music early, first singing and playing the musical bow, and later on as he discovered Ali Farka Touré and Jimi Hendrix, the guitar. The name Anewal, which means wanderer, was a tribute to his grandfather and a wink to his nomadic heritage. “As soon as you forget where you’re from, you forget who you are,” he told me.

Anivolla is convinced that much of the world’s problems lay in governments wish to police humans. Migrants drowning at sea, slave markets in Libya, all created because of lack of free movement. “If we made it easier for people to move, they would take a flight let’s say to Paris or London, spend the night, a day, realize how life is, and they would come back home,” he said. He’s been living in Berlin for the past five years and misses Niger every day. While living in Europe, he’s refused to change the way he presents himself. “I’ve been in Europe for eight years now, but I still dress like this,” he said pointing to his white cotton tunic “Why should I wear a suit and tie? I keep the way I look because it shows who I am.”

The band played for two hours when from the sidelines the manager signaled them that they were running out of time. They abruptly finished their last song, Anivolla put down his guitar and thanked the audience one last time. Thank you, Tannamert, Merci.

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