Graded on a Curve: Groupe RTD,
The Dancing Devils
of Djibouti

Ostinato Records, the New York City-based label dedicated to uncovering “Afrophone sounds from across the Atlantic and Indian Ocean” is back with their first studio-recorded release, sourced from Djibouti, an African nation where music is under complete control of the state. The Dancing Devils of Djibouti, by Groupe RTD is the first international release from the country, with its Bollywood-ish sax-infused funkiness captured in the compact recording timeframe of three days as allowed by government officials. However, the album never sounds rushed but is instead full-bodied and intense. It’s out digitally now and on 2LP with gatefold and in a hardback CD bookcase on June 19.

Groupe RTD, the creators of this set’s ten songs, aren’t just any band. They are described in the promo lit for this album as their country’s ceremonial outfit by day, performing as part of national events and welcoming foreign dignitaries, and as a vibrant groove machine by night. They consist of saxophonist Mohamed Abdi Alto, vocalists Asma Omar, Guessod Abdo Hamargod and Hassan Omar Houssein, drummer Omar Farah Houssein, keyboardist Moussa Aden Ainan, guitarist Abdirazak Hagi Sufi (aka “Kaajaa”), bassist Abdo Houssein Handeh, and Dumbek drummer Salem Mohamed Ahmed.

In 2016, Ostinato Records, founded and headed by Vik Sohonie, met with those in charge of the national broadcast organization Radiodiffusion-Télévision Djibouti (RTD) about raising the curtain of secrecy on the music of the young country (which only realized independence from French colonial rule in 1977). It took three years for the label to gain access to the vaults, which are described as holding thousands of reels of Somali and Afar music.

But that’s not what’s heard on The Dancing Devils of Djibouti, as Groupe RTD is an active outfit combining young talent and older masters. Since those archival reels have been assessed by Ostinato as some of the best preserved in Africa, their focus sensibly shifted to documenting the contemporary music of Groupe RTD before the opportunity passed, and in the process have brought wider exposure to a band that, up to now, has been completely unknown beyond Djibouti borders.

The state authorities’ three-days rule (no extensions) didn’t make it an easy endeavor, particularly due to the label having to fly in a high-tech mobile recording apparatus since Radiodiffusion-Télévision Djibouti’s gear hadn’t been well maintained. Everyone was up for the challenge though, as the band reportedly ripped down the sign prohibiting the use of the khat plant (which is smoked or chewed as a stimulant) and got right down to business.

The music Groupe RTD play is openly influenced by Bollywood singing, Jamaican dub and reggae, and jazzy saxophone, with keyboard textures, often synth-like, blended in. All this can be heard in the set’s first track “Buuraha U Dheer (The Highest Mountains),” especially the impact of Indian cinema as expressed through Omar’s vocals, though perhaps the strongest characteristic is the rhythmic foundation, audibly reggae-tinged but cranked up to the point that it’s downright funky.

Extending to nearly seven minutes, it’s a superb opening statement, with Omar’s voice also up front in the next cut, “Raga Kaan Ka’Eegtow (You Are the One I Love).” Here, the Jamaican influence intensifies, the groove heat doesn’t diminish, and the saxophone gusto thickens. Ostinato explains that Mohamed Abdi Alto, heard previously on the label’s Sweet as Broken Dates compilation, might be the “most unheralded saxophone virtuoso in all of Africa,” and hearing him play, it’s easy to understand the esteem and to make a further loose connection to the earlier jazzy excursions from bordering Ethiopia.

Hey, the guy considered such an ace they added Alto to his legal name, and he blows heartily across the comparatively compact “Kuusha Caarey (The Pearl Necklace).” For this track, the vocals duties shift to Hamargod and the synthy keys rise in prominence, but “Raani (Queen)” is a mini showcase for Alto’s skills, with nearly a minute and a half elapsing before singer Houssein enters. The band cooks until the seven-minute mark and then moves into side two’s closer, the short instrumental “Alto’s Interlude,” which serves as a proper sax (and keyboard) spotlight.

A few listens to the whole of The Dancing Devils of Djibouti reveals “Uurkan Kaadonaya (I Want You),” with Houssein returning to the mic, as the record’s apex of intensity; again, they dish it out for nearly seven energetic minutes. There are flashes of rock guitar throughout, but mostly the track just illuminates Groupe RTD as an unflagging rhythmic machine. With “Halkaasad Dhigi Magtiisa (That’s Where You’ll Leave His Reward)” the vocal duties remain in Houssein’s capable hands, though the keyboard sound becomes more recognizably organ-like, which manages to amplify a ‘70s feel.

This instrumental adjustment expands into “Iiso Daymo (Look at Me),” which after a rehearsal-like interlude at the start delivers the set’s catchiest selection, with Hamargod back up front. But worry not, as melodiousness is abundant across all four sides, as Houssein steps up one last time for the penultimate cut, the downright reggae-fied “Suuban (Joy).”

The two-minute finale “Wiil Wille (The Jumping Man)” is a taste of what Ostinato calls Danse Traditionnelle, revealing Groupe RTD’s sound in the daylight hours and pointing toward the possible delights in that aforementioned trove of archival tapes. Rather than just anticipating what Ostinato have in store, we can soak up the strains of The Dancing Devils of Djibouti in the meantime. It’s an absolute knockout.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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