At the Desert Crossroads in N22
A Producer’s account from the front
My first encounter with Etran Finatawa (Stars of the Desert) was a purely visual experience. “Look at this lot,” exclaimed a colleague as he pushed a copy of the Introducing album (2006) across my desk. “Wow, they look good!” Although I did not have time to listen to the album that particular afternoon, I did spend a few moments examining the photograph on the CD cover. Apart from the obvious distraction of yellow face paint, feathers and the distinctive Tuareg head dress (tagelmoust) I was intrigued by a guitar held by one of the figures in the photograph – a right handed Stratocaster style body with the neck from a left–handed guitar bolted on – creating the effect of an ‘upside–down’ guitar when held by a right–handed musician. A right–handed Jimi Hendrix fan perhaps?
Six months pass and I am in a meeting with Phil Stanton director of Riverboat Records. I met Phil through my work with Mory Kante and Abdel Gadir Salim, when I had rather unwittingly demonstrated an ability to deliver potentially complicated recordings while working under extremely limited time constraints. Once again, I find myself looking at the CD cover of the Introducing album – the man with the upside–down guitar is still there – only this time I am obliged to listen to the recordings. It is an immediately engaging sound: impressive North African blues guitar, underpinned by acoustic percussion and a melodic sensibility that is unnervingly familiar and yet quite foreign. I detect another unusual element that offers something strangely unique from other similar electro–acoustic Saharan bands that I am already familiar with. I soon discover that this unique quality is partly a result of the band’s Wodaabe contingent. Wodaabe music is largely a traditional vocal pedigree, though when fused with the electric guitar and musical arrangements of the Tuareg, an utterly compelling sound is produced – and that sound is Etran Finatawa.
Would I be interested in producing their next album? Almost without any hesitation I jump at the opportunity of getting into a recording studio with such an interesting subject. Where, when and how long have I got with them? “Ah, well that’s it you see Paul – we only have a small window of opportunity when the band are next touring Europe.” Exactly how small is this window – and can we get an album of 12 songs through it? “Four days actually.” This is all sounding very familiar. My initial enthusiasm is quickly replaced by a more pragmatic and sober mind set as I consider likely logistics.
While it is true that a record producer is largely responsible for the more practical aspects of recording an album – and the producer will be acutely aware of these responsibilities when faced with a four day ‘window of opportunity’, part of the brief is also to consider the stylistic influence of the production approach. The production approach is largely dictated by the nature of a project, and in the case of Etran Finatawa – an apparently traditional electro–acoustic group with no obvious desire to embrace music technology beyond a guitar amplifier – it seems appropriate that the production should also take a more traditional approach. Given the aforementioned time constraints I take much comfort in those stories about how The Beatles recorded most of their debut album (Please Please Me) in one day. Then an unusual thing happens while I continue to refer to the Introducing album as part of my pre–production and research. I realise that I am becoming a real fan of these recordings – enthusing to all about ‘my new discovery’. Not good! Now I feel under even more pressure, as I will no doubt have to produce an equally engaging album.
In early July 2007 and just two days before we start recording, I meet with sound engineer Sandor Jozsa at a small live venue in London’s West End. Etran Fintawa are performing a set that includes some of the new material they will be recording with us – as well as other titles that I am already familiar with from my now ‘favourite album’. Once I am over the initial visual impact of the group I start to focus on the sound that Etran Finatawa create when performing together. I deconstruct and isolate the various percussive elements and try to match what I have heard on record (CD) with this now physical incarnation. It occurs to me that what I now hear is similar to, though sonically quite different from the group’s existing recordings. While it is still a thrill to hear ‘live’ some of my favourite cuts from Introducing, the live sound – as is often the case – offers quite a different listening experience from that of the recordings. As I continue to watch and listen, I also begin to define – in my own mind at least – a concept for the production. Without this, I will not be able to articulate my ideas or offer visual analogies to the artist and production team. It is worth noting that – a ‘production concept’ is not the same thing as an ‘album concept’, which one would expect, or hope, to be largely defined by the artist themselves.
It is the first day of recording at Livingston studios in North London. Sandor is trying to locate the nearest garden centre as we have been informed that the tendé-drum (Tuareg percussion) requires two sixteen-kilo bags of earth to keep it secure when being played. The studio assistant is collecting buckets of water from the kitchen to fill the water-calabash (azakalabo) up to the required level – as instructed by Mamane (Wodaabe percussionist & backing vocals). Bammo (Wodaabe Lead vocal) is jangling away in a corner of the room as he ties the Akayaure (small metal rings on metal plate) to his right leg. I approach Ghalitane (Tuareg vocals & electric guitar) and offer him my Fender Stratocaster to try out. He reaches forward to take it while speaking his first English words to me: “Ah, Jimi Hendrix” – I knew it!
Most of the group are in position. They begin to rehearse while the engineer checks his levels. I stand in front of the group and listen. The sound is even more impressive without the distraction of a nightclub environment. The percussion has a dynamic quality and impact that I had not expected. The dry-calabash and water-calabash are stage left and right respectively – they play unusual counter rhythms, rather like stereo kick–drums. The water-calabash is keeping straight down beats, while the dry-calabash seems to work off this more regular rhythm part. Ghalitane seems content with the Fender Strat and Alhousseini (acoustic guitar, bass guitar & vocals), plays a distinctly Tuareg rhythm on an acoustic guitar. Every now and then one of the group will sing a few tantalising lines before breaking off. It is a quite breath–taking sound, and I want to try and capture an audio image that is as close to this first–hand experience as possible.
Recording sound will only ever produce an interpretation of the event – or how we think that event actually sounded. Some recordings almost sound like an audio snapshot, or ‘picture–postcard’, of the actual performance and experience – and though we may get a sense of the spirit and energy from that original performance, often we miss resolution, dynamics and presence.
The recording process is almost the same as it was when I began working in the recording industry some twenty-five years ago. The band run through a song three or four times and hopefully we get a good take. ‘A Good Take’: this is when the timing, tuning and performance are all deemed to be of a good enough quality to merit keeping for eternity. In the case of Etran Finatawa, defining a good take is not quite so simple. An example: Day two and we are on take-two of ‘Kel Tamasheck’. The tempo pushes and pulls, the guitars are not exactly in tune, though they are not exactly out either, but perhaps more importantly, the group are all in the same time and space – and that is all that seems to matter. Halfway through this Camel Funk classic, everyone in the control room looks around at each other – the magic is working. The band are smiling and so is the producer – the job just got that bit easier – these guys have got it. What is ‘it’? Who knows? In such circumstances, the producer becomes a guide through the recording process and can remain quite transparent in the production itself.
Alhousseini, along with Bagui (dry-calabash / odilirou and vocals) is now performing as lead vocalist on record for the first time. He records a title called ‘Iguefan’. It is reminiscent of an early delta blues piece from the 1920s, though it is actually a classic Tuareg arrangement. The acoustic rhythmic guitar part evokes an image of a meandering, undulating river. Once again, the form bears some similarity to a ballad that might be sung by a lamenting Charlie Patton – verse, chorus–melody, guitar turnaround, verse again, repeat chorus–melody and so on… The producer makes a suggestion: “how about a little ‘lead electric’ for a few bars – let’s try and introduce another colour to the track?” Alhousseini smiles, though seems a little unsure about performing what is in effect a ‘guitar solo’. Two or three takes later and we have the purest of lead interludes that helps to bring some punctuation to the arrangement. “Any chance we could double–track those hand claps, Bammo?” He gives a gracious bow and prepares himself for the red light. That’s about as hands–on as a producer needs to get – especially when the artist has that indefinable quality that allows them to deliver a truly engaging performance in front of a microphone.
Sandra van Edig – the group’s very capable manager - informs me that much of the new material on this album has been developed over the past two years during the band’s extensive touring schedule. I sense that this exposure to strange and foreign environments – as well as the previous experience of recording their debut album – has had some impact on how the group now approach this present series of recording sessions. The individual musicians within the group are keen to assert themselves more and experiment with ideas as their confidence in the studio grows.
During one of the many tea ceremonies, Bagui shows me a long, thin wind instrument called a Doudandou. He uses strips of leather to adjust the pitch. It produces an extremely loud tone – not dissimilar to a set of Celtic pipes. He tells me that the instrument is used to help drive livestock across the savannas back in Niger – and that he would like to re–create such a scene by recording the Doudando along with some herding calls. But he’s very specific. Sandra translates his vision: “It should sound as though you – the listener – are sitting behind a bush and hear Bagui coming out of the distance, then right up to your bush, before disappearing again into the distance with his herd”. The result is now tagged as an introduction to the title Gaynaako for your listening pleasure!
It is the last night of recording and we all sit together in the control room to review our work. This offers me an opportunity to check the final arrangements before the group return to Niger, leaving me alone to mix. Have I got everything I need? Can I cut the handclaps on the chorus? Is that additional measure at the end of the third verse deliberate, or was it a mistake? Alhousseini seems slightly concerned that I might be feeling the pressure and starts to massage my right foot as I highlight more points from my list. Producer–artist relations were never this good. We continue to listen, and as I dissolve into my chair I realise that I am listening to an album – a body of work that has form, vision and a cohesive quality – rather than merely a recording of the group’s present live set. These nomadic journeymen are maturing. They are becoming recording artists.
The intention, right from the outset, had been to capture complete and comprehensive performances from the band’s core musicians, with the use of overdubs restricted to those required through either practical necessity, or moments of inspiration. The musicians were set up in a ‘medium-live sounding’ room to accommodate clear inter-band visual communication, while considering an appropriately balanced stereo image – thus allowing for accurate localization with a spaced, omni-directional stereo pair. While spaced-pair is not necessarily the most accurate stereo configuration, it does provide the potential for exaggerating, or indeed reducing, the stereo image during the mix, and perhaps with more naturalistic results than mid/side.
As well as the stereo pair, close microphone placement was deployed using a combination of conventional approaches, and in some cases, improvisation. For example, I decided to approach the ‘calabash’ (a large dried-out seed cut into two semi-spherical pieces) rather as though I were recording a kick drum - with some necessary adaptations. A ‘dry’ calabash is generally secured to the floor with tape, thus creating a sort of airtight chamber that results in a low, dark ‘thud’ when hit with the palm of the hand. Before sealing the calabash to the floor with Gaffa-tape, I placed an old Sure D12 inside, also taped to the floor, and facing upward. A Neumann fet U-47 was positioned on the outside of the calabash to capture a more natural sounding representation of the subject. A similar combination of dynamic and large-diaphragm capacitor was used on the ‘water calabash’, the main concern here; making sure we didn’t give one of Livingston studios’ Neumanns a quick dip in the water! This approach worked well and afforded me some useful options during the mix, and importantly, the U47’s contrasted well with the closer dynamics and made for a very natural sounding reproduction.
Isolation and separation were only a serious consideration in respect of the guitar amplifier. I placed this in a storage space at the back of the studios, with additional microphones placed in an adjacent live room to capture some natural room interaction with excessive pre-delay. This then allowed me to record the lead-vocals as part of the initial takes – important, given the traditional nature of the music and performances.
As with many of my world music projects, budget often determines that I record to hard disk with Pro Tools (96Hhz) as apposed to my preferred recording format: analogue tape. This now very familiar approach subsequently led to one of the most frustrating aspects of making these recordings. Born out of a decision to entirely bypass the analogue console in an effort to maintain a relatively clean and transparent record and monitor path – a nice idea in light of Livingston’s extensive collection of outboard microphone pre-amps – I found myself sitting between the speakers with no physical control over individual monitoring levels during takes. If I then want to adjust levels or solo individual channels to quickly establish a clear understanding of what is actually being recorded, while keeping an eye on performance (an important part of the production process you understand!) then the procedure would go something like this:
“Hey Sandor!” (engineer, who sits at far end of desk hunched over his keyboard and computer display) “Can you just turn down the second acoustic guitar on the left and try panning it over to the right instead? No, not that one mate, the one on the…” Producer then moves to end of desk, points at the arrange window and establishes the relevant tracks, makes a group, turns down and pans to right, moves back to centre of the desk, assesses result; not quite right yet! “Can you turn them up a bit now and just cut that second calabash?” – too late, the band has now finished the take – “so how was that performance guys, and who’s producing this record anyway?”
I’m sure this scenario is very familiar to many readers, and I fear that it might be a result of the lack of standardization within the recording industry. Every recording studio I work in is often configured to it’s own very unique specification and requirements. However, it is important not to overlook this fact when planning a production approach, and consider the sometimes very intuitive and fast pace of a recording session, where second chances are a luxury that can all too often lead to a dull performance.