The Republic of Djibouti is a small country located in the Horn of Africa, bordered by Somaliland to the south, Ethiopia to the southwest, Eritrea to the north and the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to the east. Interestingly, on the eve of the small East African country’s independence, a densely packed archive was pieced together in a quiet corner of the national radio. And over the years, it became an outstanding yet largely unknown archive that housed thousands of master reels and cassettes of some of the region’s finest sounds.
The archive has survived and endured fires and even theft of invaluable recordings. Those scars linger on the delicate films of quarter-inch reels and cassette tapes. And yet, it remains one for he most expansive, well-maintained archives in Africa — but it’s simultaneously been one of the most restrictive: for decades, the archives remained off-limits to foreign entities of any kind until 2019.
As Ostinato Records explains in press notes, they operate on the guiding principle that no physical historic recordings should leave a country and agreements with archives should be a win-win trade, not aid. Part of the deal for archival across and licensing rights included a finely refurbished Technics reel-to-real player from the ’70s with upgraded software to replace a worn-out model for RTD to continue their digital preservation of the entire archive in high quality.
Although it took several years of negotiations Ostinato Records became the first label granted access stop the archives of Radiodiffusion-Télevision de Djibouti (RTD), a vault of secrets and stories from East Africa, including Somalia, Ethiopia, and of course Djibouti.
Somali supergroup 4 Mars, the act behind one of the most popular songs on their Grammy-nominated Sweet As Broken Dates compilation is the first chapter of their “Djibouti Archives” because of their incredibly rich, globalized sound reveals a new history of the world — and of music. For centuries, all roads lead to Horn of Africa. As a a major port and transit point connecting African, Asia and the Mediterranean, goods, ideas, foods, people and culture were briskly exchanged: Musically, Egyptian, Turkish, Arab, Persian, Indian and Chinese traders and tastemakers dropped anchor in Djibouti’s Gulf of Tadjoura, with each arrival influencing the region’s sound and aesthetic.
Today, a third of all world trade passes through Djibouti’s straits and a similar mix of diverse and eclectic characters roam the streets and docks. Reportedly, a South African diplomat pointed to Djibouti and told the folks at Ostinato “This is the future.” But for the sake of this post, let’s talk about 4 Mars. 4 Mars offers a bright window into Djibouti’s past, when the country was starting from scratch. Their name — Quatre Mars in French — refers to March 4, 1977, the founding date of The People’s Rally for Progress, the political party in charge of the small East African country since its independence. And interestingly enough, 4 Mars was the party’s band.
New countries are in desperate need of unity — and of unifying ideals. The country’s leaders saw music, and 4 Mars especially, as the ideal soundtrack to an independent era. Almost all music was brought under the state’s wing. But interestingly enough, it wasn’t propaganda music — not in the sense as we would understand it. Music was seen as a way of quickly building a national identity and to instill values. And acts like 4 Mars were seen as having a key role in nurturing and teaching a new nation.
4 Mars is largely unknown outside of Horn of Africa region because it was a massive 40 member entourage featuring actors, singers, dancers, musicians and percussionists. Only super wealthy leaders like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi could invite them to tour. But in Djibouti, they played at the once-lavish national theater, developing a reputation for amazing live shows, some of which were recorded by RTD.
Slated for a February 19, 2021 release globally and a February 26, 2021 release in the States, (Djibouti Archives Vol. 1) Super Somali Sounds from the Gulf of Tadjoura: 4 Mars was authorized by booth RTD and The Palace of the People, which founded and overseas 4 Mars. Compiled from master tapes and reels recorded at RTD Studios and from live performances at the national theater between 1977 and 1994, this collection is a seminal anthology that offers a perspective shifting journey through East Africa.
So, to build up buzz for the compilation Ostinato Records released three singles off the compilation — “Hoblaayeey Nabadu! (Hello Peace!),” “Dhulka Hooyo (Motherland)” and “Aabo Usha Noohaay (Father Hold the Stick for Us).” These three tracks are a wonderful example of 4 Mars’ sound — a sound in which disparate and eclectic sound and ideas mesh into something familiar yet completely new. The songs are a heady and mind-bending mesh of Afrobeat and Bollywood-inspired vocals, shuffling off-beat reggae licks, which some will argue came from Jamaican reggae while others will say come from Somali Dhaanto rhythm, Egyptian and Yemeni rhythms, Sudanese song structures, American jazz and funk-inspired horn lines, Turkish-inspired synth melodies, Egyptian and Yemeni rhythms and so on delivered with a feverish intensity and urgency.
While the material has an old and dusty analog sound, it’s a bright vision of a genre-less, border-less future ruled by the exchange of ideas and sounds and drive by funky groove — 40 years before anyone here dreamt of it. Djibouti past and is the world’s future, indeed.