Etran de L’Aïr
Since the emergence of the sublime Tuareg guitar band Tinariwen at the dawn of the 21st century, Saharan West Africa, particularly the nation of Niger, has produced a steady deluge of remarkable, entrancing sounds that often summon the sound of vintage electric blues. Few individuals have helped introduce this music with greater prescience and ardor than Portland’s Christopher Kirkley, whose Sahel Sounds label has brought us the Music From Saharan Cellphones series in addition to releasing the first international titles from artists such as Mdou Moctar, Les Filles de Illighadad, and Wau Wau Collectif among others. In 2014, on one of his trips to Agadez, the capital of Niger, Kirkley encountered the musicians in Etran de L’Aïr and offered to release the group’s music on his label.
He has subsequently released several of their albums, including the 2022 title Agadez, which stands as the group’s most assured and focused effort. The aerated lattice of intersecting guitar lines unfurls over stuttering, rapidly clattering percussion that evokes the cantor of camels moving through the desert. The group is rooted in Tuareg musical traditions, but that doesn’t stop them from letting other influences subtly bleed through, including the liquid shimmer of Congolese rumba and the hypnotic, circular grooves of Malian Wassoulou music. The incantatory singing, often several voices crying in casual unison, tends to serve as an additional sonic layer more than a narrative focal point, adding to a swirling, hypnotic din that can’t help but pull listeners into its cosmic orbit.
Aquarium Drunkard wrote of the album, “There is a giddiness to Etran’s hymns, guitar riffs sneaking out from behind the band’s wall of sound and sliding back seamlessly into place. Each solo is eventually eclipsed by the whole, every song gathering power atop steady, rapid percussion.” The group only began touring outside of Africa in 2021, and this Big Ears performance is part of the band’s first-ever US tour.