A blend of Niger and Nile music charms Nairobi revellers

Friday March 22 2019

Alhousseini Anivolla-Anewal

Alhousseini Anivolla-Anewal from Niger in his traditional Tuareg outfit performs at the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi on March 20, 2019. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT  

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For the first time Nairobians were treated to the sounds of the Sahel flowing with the Nile and as the full moon rose the crowd took to the floor.

The minute Alhousseini Anivolla-Anewal stepped on stage at Nairobi’s Alliance Francaise on Wednesday he held the audience captive. For almost everyone, it was the first time to see a Tuareg man dressed in his traditional long flowing robe, pantaloons, slippers and that turbaned head with a veil in the indigo colours that gives the nomadic people of the Sahel the name – the blue people.

Veiled to keep safe from the Sahelian sun, the blue colour rubs off on the skin and hence the name. Anewal is the lead singer and guitarist of the internationally known Desert Blues Band Etran Finatawa from Niger.

Seated on the floor, the Tuareg musician teased the takadebena, a one-stringed harp from the Niger that is rare and played by only a few.

In his deep soulful voice he sang of the camels racing across the desert in Arabic before the group stepped on stage and introduced to Nairobi the Pan-African Pentatonic Project that melds the sounds of the Niger and the Nile.

For the next three hours the six-men entourage played music from their roots introducing traditional instruments like the Ethiopian masinko, a traditional violin, and the five-stringed krar (similar to the Kenyan nyatiti).


Anewal and Ethiopian jazz guitarist Girum Mezmur were the lead musicians. The troupe was forced to return on stage by the crowd.

“In Ethiopia or Niger, this would never had happened (dancing) because there the culture is melody based. But Kenyans love to dance and their dance influenced us. And it was amazing because I incorporated the Kenyan benga something I have never done before,” Mezmur said after the concert.

Revellers enjoy the music at the Alliance
Revellers enjoy the music at the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi on March 20, 2019. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

Mezmur is the brains behind the pan-African project, which he says is aimed at using the language of music to bridge cultures.

In 2005, Mezmur heard Anewal play at a music festival in Holland. “It was the first time for me to hear music from Niger and I was struck by the similarities in our cultures.”

In 2017, Mezmur invited Anewal to play in Ethiopia and “it was natural for us to play together because the instruments are complimentary.

“It was as if we knew the songs because of the notes.”

“In Ethiopia, our music is the five-note scale and so is the Niger music. We share the scales, the singing and the sounds.” The five-note scale is the pentatonic scale.

The band at the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi
The band at the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi on March 20, 2019. Ethiopian jazz guitarist Girum Mezmur third from left. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

African tour

That is when he came up with the project and aims to perform in many African countries.

“It’s easier for African artistes to go to perform in Europe and America.

“But it’s harder in Africa. With this project we want to have more African mobility.”

Through the project, the hope to hold workshops, seminars and performances across the continent.

The band performing at the Alliance Francaise
The band performing at the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi on March 20, 2019. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

Nairobi is the inaugural tour with support from sponsorships and crowdfunding.

“We are grateful that Alliance Française in Nairobi allowed us to perform and that Kenya Airways flew us here.

“That’s the kind of support that artistes need to grow.”

Concerning the future of the project, Mezmur says he hopes the youth will draw musical inspiration from their roots.

“African music has been neglected in the name of modernity. Countryside music should come out because it has so much colour, versatility and history.”

“Our music is very interactive which gives it room to take its own course and be innovative. It does not have a defined structure which sets it apart from western and pop music.

“So despite colonial borders that had no room for music, music has remained one of the cultural elements that has kept us connected.

The one-night stopover in Nairobi was part of a seven-concert tour in four African countries - Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Niger.