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The Pan-African Pentatonic Project: An Exciting mix of music from the Niger and the Nile rocks Nairobi’s crowd

Published: The East African (Nation media) 23 Marc 2019

For the first time (20 March 2019) 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 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.

Alhousseini Anivolla-Anewal from Niger - Credit Alliance Française (800x533)

Alhousseini Anivolla-Anewal from Niger – Credit Alliance Française

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’s a rare instrument 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.

On stage the Pan-African Pentatonic Project Ethiopian muscians - courtesy Alliance Française (800x533)

On stage the Pan-African Pentatonic Project Ethiopian musicians – courtesy Alliance Française

For the next three hours the six-men entourage played music from their roots – introducing traditional instruments like the Ethiopian masinko that’s a traditional violin and the five-stringed krar (similar to the Kenyan nyatiti) to the guitars – both electric and acoustic – played by the lead musicians Anewal and Girum Mezmur, the Ethiopian jazz guitarist and the brains behind the project – to use the language of music to bridge cultures.

The Pan-African Pentatonic Project

Girum Mezmur, the Ethiopian jazz guitarist - courtesy Alliance Française (800x533)

Girum Mezmur, the Ethiopian jazz guitarist – courtesy Alliance Française

Speaking after the concert – the group had to take four standing ovations and return to stage to perform, overwhelmed by the crowd’s response – Mezmur remarked,  “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 l incorporated the Kenyan benga something l have never done before.”  And never been done before in a concert.

Benga has its origins in Nairobi particularly the Luo between the 1940s and 1960s influenced by Congolese guitar and other African genres of the time including Cuban dance music.

Mezmur explained about the project that’s pan-African.

Pan-African Pentatonic Project Ethiopian muscians - courtesy Alliance Française (800x533)

Pan-African Pentatonic Project Ethiopian musicians – courtesy Alliance Française

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 l 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.”

That’s the statement that hit the note to create the project.

“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.

Playing the Ethiopian traditional musical instrument being played during the Pan-African Pentatonic Project - Credit Alliance Française (800x533)

Ethiopian musician playing the Ethiopian traditional musical instrument during the Pan-African Pentatonic Project – Credit Alliance Française

The project aims to have more musicians perform in Africa instead of travelling out of Africa for fame. “It’s easier for African artists to go to perform in Europe and America,” continues the Ethiopian musician. “But it’s harder in Africa.

“With this project we want to have more African mobility.”

The musician sees this gaining momentum where there will be music workshops, seminars and performances within Africa.

This inaugural tour is a testimony to the musicians strong will having to crowd-fund and look for donors to support the tour. “We are grateful that Alliance Franciase in Nairobi allowed us to perform and that Kenya Airways flew us here because we are not a big name.

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

Asked about the future of the project, Mezmur hopes that the youth will develop an appetite to draw on music from their roots and not only pop. “African music,” he says “has been neglected in the name of modernity. Countryside music should come out because it has so much colour, versatility and history.”

Pan-African Pentatonic Project muscians - courtesy Alliance Française (800x533)

Pan-African Pentatonic Project musicians after the show – courtesy Alliance Française

“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.

Nairobians dancing to the music of the Pan-African Pentatonic Project Ethiopian muscians - courtesy Alliance Française (800x533)

Nairobians dancing to the music of the Pan-African Pentatonic Project – courtesy Alliance Française

The one-night stopover in Nairobi was part of a seven-concert in four African countries playing in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Niger. Annually in March, Alliance Française celebrates the French language and la Francophonie and hence the performance by the Pan-African Pentatonic Project.

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