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Desert Groove
From the far southern reaches of the Sahara, a musical trio brings Tuareg culture to China
By François Dubé | NO. 23 JUNE 8, 2017

EZZA’s music combines old Tuareg traditions with contemporary influences (AMOR)

Born to a family of blacksmiths in the city of Agadez, on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert in Niger, nothing predestined Goumour Omar Adam to become a musician. In fact, his journey into music was strewn with pitfalls and marked by the rejection of his family and a move away from his homeland.

But when Omar and his band EZZA stepped on the stage at the Dusk Dawn Club in Beijing, there was nothing but pure joy.

"This is our first concert in China and even in Asia, so we're a little nervous about people's reactions here; but on the other hand, we believe our music is universal, and that everyone can appreciate it," Omar told Beijing Review shortly before the show.

Warmly acclaimed by the crowd, the trio—dressed in emblematic colorful Nigerien clothing—took their audience on a two-hour mesmerizing musical trance to the far-off lands of the Sahara Desert, with their music combining old Tuareg traditions with contemporary influences. Tuaregs are semi-nomadic people, thought to be descendants of the indigenous Berbers of North Africa, and are widely known for their blue traditional clothing.

Inherit and innovate

With a shy smile that clashes with his strong presence on stage, Omar recounts the hardships he encountered in pursuit of his passion for music.

At 11 years old, he first came in contact with music through a cassette player given by his father. Captivated by this discovery, he decided to build his own guitar with salvaged scraps. Worried that this passion for music could prevent Omar from learning the craft of his family, his father later smashed his guitar and forbade him from ever playing music again.

"I was forbidden by my parents and by the whole of society. I come from a caste of blacksmiths, and it is not allowed for us to make music," said Omar. He obeyed his father and eventually learned blacksmithing, but never forgot his love for music.

In 2010, at 30 years old, Omar moved to Toulouse, in south France, where he made and sold Tuareg jewelry in a public market. Far from his family, he was now free to indulge in music. Completely self-taught, Omar learned by strumming his guitar and jamming with other musicians when clients were scarce.

This is how Algerian Menad Moussaoui, now the band's bassist, spotted him. Drummer Stéphane Gratteau later joined them. Thus was born EZZA, an eclectic trio made up of a Nigerien Tuareg, an Algerian of Kabyle origin and a Frenchman raised in jazz music.

"Only after coming to France did I realize you could write down music. I still cannot read sheet music, but I can distinguish the notes and harmonies," said Omar. It is perhaps this lack of formal training that makes EZZA such a breath of fresh air on the Tuareg music scene.

Since March 2013, the band's popularity has grown rapidly and now extends far beyond Africa. The group has performed in a long list of countries, to which China is the latest addition. Their electric performance in Beijing marked the launch of an eight-city tour across the country, organized by Tsong Dao Production, a booking and production agency strongly connected to China, Asia and the Pacific.

Spotlight on the desert

Wherever they go, the band members try to raise awareness of Tuareg culture. Before each performance, the trio takes part in a one-hour workshop during which they respond spontaneously to questions from the audience, explaining the intricacies of the harmonies, scales and rhythm of Tuareg music.

"This music comes from the desert, where the horizon extends indefinitely. This has deeply influenced Tuareg music. It's pure. It's self-explanatory. It's like a trance," said Gratteau. "When we started we had difficulty understanding each other's rhythm; but now we found our own polyrhythmic harmony."

While always on the lookout for new influences, the band takes pride in remaining firmly grounded in their roots.

"We create our own songs, but we do it on a foundation of traditional music," said Moussaoui. "We add our influences, but we are very careful about keeping the traditional sound. This is a kind of 'law' in our band."

According to Gratteau, this is possible because of Omar. "We are professional musicians, but Omar was a blacksmith, so his ears tell us if it's the real stuff or not," added Gratteau. "It's important to do so, because there is a very special feeling to traditional music, wherever it is from. That is why we want to spread it to others."

The reaction back in Omar's home country has been ecstatic. "Tuareg people in Niger are very impressed, they like our music and it plays on the radio there. It's a new kind of sound for them, but they still can recognize their traditional rhythm and harmony," said Omar.

"They are particularly impressed by the fact that we can sing in their language, Tamasheq. When Omar's brother saw me, a French guy speaking a Tuareg language, he thought it was extraordinary. They were very happy," said Gratteau.

Omar's parents have finally accepted the fact that their son might not be cut out for blacksmithing after all, and are now very supportive of their son's musical career.

"When my family first heard our music, they were shocked. 'How did you learn?' they asked me. I told them I just learned by myself, because I like the music, and if you like something, you can do it. Today my family is very happy to listen to our songs," Omar said.

The band has yet to play in front of Omar's family, but it might only be a question of time. "It has not happened yet, but it will one day," he said with a smile.

Deep meaning

The Sahara Desert has made the headlines on several occasions over the years, though not for the best of reasons. The region has been a hotspot of unrest and violence since the first Tuareg rebellion (1990-95) and again in 2007-09, resulting in an influx of thousands of refugees in Omar's hometown of Agadez.

The band is not indifferent to these tragic events. The name EZZA itself is steeped in meaning, as it designates the last letter of the Tuareg alphabet, a symbol of freedom and resistance. This aspect of their music is reflected in their lyrics, such as in the song Izalan Manino, an anthem denouncing forced marriage.

"Our message is peace, child education and women's rights. In Niger, the situation for women is not very good. Women cannot travel, cannot go to school or play music, and we would like to change this. It's not easy to change, but we wish to convey the message of women's rights," said Omar.

"In Africa, music is always political. If you talk to people, they will not listen to you. But if you play music, they will. It is easier to convey a message and exchange ideas through music than by speaking or being violent," added Gratteau.

Although the Beijing audience might not have fully understood the deeper meaning behind the lyrics, they clearly enjoyed the show, falling under the spell of the three musicians' desert groove.

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