In 2019, indie label Ostinato Records was given access to Djibouti's treasured national radio archive. Its digital restoration reveals a rich globalised sound and a past when music was fused with nation-building.
On the global stage, Djibouti seldom registers as more than a geostrategic frontier and begotten military outpost. Tucked away in a corner of East Africa, it lies on the Gulf of Tadjoura, connecting the Mediterranean with Africa and Asia, and south of the Bab El Mandeb strait, a vital chokepoint through which nearly a third of global trade transits.
This Red Sea shipping lane has historically made Djibouti not only a lucrative commercial hub, but a site of dynamic cultural exchange that imbued it with a vibrant cosmopolitanism, most notably expressed in its music.
It’s a heritage that’s been one of Djibouti’s best kept secrets until 2019, when independent label Ostinato Records became the first foreign entity to gain access to its prized national radio archive, which effectively houses the entire catalogue of Djiboutian music.
“The government is the record label,” quipped Ostinato founder and label boss Vik Sohonie, speaking to TRT World from his home in Bangkok.
“Djibouti has phenomenal music taste. You see it not only in the music they produce, but the music they imported.”
Since 2016, Sohonie's New York-based imprint has released albums from Haiti and Cape Verde to Sudan and Somalia. He fortuitously stumbled upon the Djiboutian trove when tracing the licensing rights for two songs on the label’s 2017 Grammy-nominated compilation of 1970s and 80s Somali music, Sweet As Broken Dates.
That brought Sohonie into contact with the national radio, Radiodiffusion-Television de Djibouti (RTD), which then led the authorities to introduce him to one of Africa’s most expansive archival treasures and the broadcaster’s resident band, Groupe RTD.
Upon departing with a thumb drive of a small selection of tracks, it dawned on Sohonie that there was a vast cultural reservoir waiting to be tapped into and shared with the world. After three years of painstaking negotiations, Ostinato was given the green light to digitise the RTD vault stocked with over 5,000 master reels and cassettes from all over East Africa.
Part of the deal was to record Groupe RTD, a living embodiment of the archive whose raw funkiness belied the official ceremonial role they now performed. On a strict three-day deadline and state-of-the-art mobile studio, emerged a fiery khat-fueled session released on last summer’s Dancing Devils of Djibouti – the country’s first ever international album release.
Musically, one can register a quintessentially Djiboutian twist: groovy Somali funk and burly Harlem jazz-era horns converge with Bollywood-style vocals and reggae licks.
With Ostinato’s digitisation of the national archive, a Djibouti Archives series has been produced, with three albums in the pipeline that will each cover a different band from the country.
Released this February, Super Somali Sounds from the Gulf of Tadjoura inaugurated the series with a seminal anthology of the 40-member Somali supergroup 4 Mars, featuring studio recordings and live performances taped between 1977 and 1994.
Like Groupe RTD, 4 Mars’ music reflects the syncretism of Somali music forged from a rich blending of cultures that flowed through Djibouti’s shores over the centuries, continuously adding new layers to its sound.
Listening to the album, this sonic mélange is apparent: 4 Mars incorporate Sudanese music structures, Egyptian and Yemeni rhythms, Chinese and Mongolian flute patterns, American brass, Turkish synthesizer melodies, Bollywood-inspired Somali vocals, and reggae-esque Somali Dhaanto.
Sohonie believes that this rich globalised sound reveals to listeners a new way to understand the history of the world. Did all roads lead to Rome or the Gulf of Tadjoura?
“From what the music is telling me, many more people mingled in this part of the world.”
“The more we delve into East Africa, the more we find this music needs to be at the centre of the world’s playlists, streams and radio waves.”
Soundtrack to build a nation
For music historians, post-independence Africa is the story of music. Suppressed during the colonial period, post-colonial African states eagerly sponsored and subsidised music as part of an ongoing process of “spiritual decolonisation”.
Musicians were not only used by governments for so-called propaganda purposes, but to actively nurture national and cultural pride. Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz National, Gambia’s Super Eagles and Congo’s Orchestre Afrisa International were just some examples.
Similarly, Djibouti’s leaders believed music offered a soundtrack to an independent era, one that could unify a fragile country following the official end of French occupation in June 1977.
In fact, the name 4 Mars – Quatre Mars in French – translates as the 4th of March (1977), the founding date of the People’s Rally for Progress (RPP), the political party that has held power since 1979.
The RPP created a series of bands for every public institution. As the party’s official band, 4 Mars served as its cultural arm to spearhead the formation of a national identity.
“The goal of these bands was to instill the values needed to build a nation from scratch. How do you get the message across to be unified, peaceful, and compassionate?” said Sohonie.
“If you look at the names of the songs from the 4 Mars album, these values shine through their amazing music and help it stick in people’s minds.”
A glance at the album’s 14 title tracks echoes the transmission of key themes such as Motherland, Power, Follow the Rules, Compassion, Gratitude, and Hello Peace! A lavish 800-seat national theatre was the centre stage for 4 Mars’ legendary live shows.
“To the West, it gets dismissed as propaganda. But in the context of a new country and divided society, think about what ‘propaganda’ means,” argued Sohonie.
“It was a visionary policy of nation-building.”
Besides being under the wing of the state, one of the reasons Djibouti’s music didn’t travel internationally was due to the sheer size of 4 Mars, staffed with singers, musicians, dancers, percussionists, and actors. Among the few exceptions was when Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi bankrolled the troupe to perform in Tripoli in 1991.
By 1991, festering divisions between the two main ethnic groups, the majority Somali Issas and minority Ethiopian-origin Afars, reached a breaking point and Djibouti plunged into civil war until 1994. While not as devastating as it was in neighbouring Somalia, many politicians credited musicians for preventing its society from fracturing irreparably.
Following the war, 4 Mars, whose influence already began to wane in the 1980s once state funds dried up, was no longer the band it used to be, Sohonie said. With multi-democracy reinstated, Djibouti’s new constitution made political party music groups redundant and turned them into national outfits.
Gatekeepers of cultural heritage
One cultural artefact that weathered everything around it, including fires and unscrupulous employees, was the RTD archive.
Meticulously stored since 1977 and off-limits to any foreign entity, the conservation of the densely packed vault has remained paramount. Air-conditioned 24/7, today a staff of young women oversee it.
“The archive is huge,” remarked Sohonie. “The names of artists and bands are endless. And it’s not just Djiboutian music, but other bands from the region like the Ethiopian and Sudanese greats that came to play.”
Sohonie believes the reverence Djiboutians foisted upon the national archive reflects the importance of gatekeeping its own heritage, and something to be admired given that nearly 95 percent of Africa’s cultural wealth resides outside the continent.
“They were exercising sovereign control over their music,” he said. “They determined who gets to work with their music and on what terms.”
And those terms were strict. “They had us under lock and key. I had a cultural official telling me what was going to happen and what wasn’t.”
“It shows you what a decolonised archive looks like. Africans are in charge of their own culture and music.”
For Sohonie, it was a fascinating insight into what a government thinks about culture and how to negotiate with national authorities to release music, describing the experience like a case study of a developing country.
“You see how institutions are run, how leadership functions, what works and what’s holding things back.”
He connects the ability to gain access to the prized archive with a softening of attitudes at the very top; a slow but steady jettisoning of decades-long isolationism that has given way to Chinese and Turkish investment in recent years.
China and Turkey’s growing footprint, both of whom have military bases in the country, has seen Beijing and Ankara cultivate an attractive image in a short period of time.
Sohonie points to how many young Djiboutians view Turkey as a desirable place to live, a noticeable shift in their collective imagination away from the West. In the grand scheme of history, these are but old linkages being revitalised as Western power fades.
The Chinese have played a significant role in reviving Djibouti’s cultural infrastructure. It recently renovated its dilapidated and once iconic national theatre, and has trained RTD staff in analogue technology at Chinese universities.
“At the same time we were working with the archive, the Chinese government was building Djibouti a national library and a bigger national archive building that was completed last year,” Sohonie added.
It also made him think about why Western countries never managed to work with Djibouti’s cultural authorities in a meaningful way.
“Meanwhile in one year, an Indian and the Chinese went there, opened the country’s culture up, promoted its music, and built them a new national building!”
Towards a decolonial archive
At the end of the day, the Djibouti series highlights a different way of working with archives in the global south, what Sohonie dubs the “Ostinato model”.
“We don’t just go in, digitise and leave – we want to establish a long-term relationship,” he said. “We believe in tech transfers and sharing know-how so they can preserve their music to the highest quality possible.”
The national radio lacked a properly functioning reel-to-reel player that would allow them to begin digitising the archive. Promises by various Western NGOs and organisations to donate equipment rarely, if ever, materialised.
As part of the agreement to digitise and license the archive’s music, Ostinato threw in a refurbished Technics tape recorder so the digitisation endeavor can continue even after the label leaves, preventing any physical extraction of cultural artefacts in the process.
It’s something Sohonie feels that Western record labels don’t always understand when working with music in the developing world.
“They’re not just holding funky music to make people in Berlin and Paris dance, they are literally holding the evidence for an entire new history; a non-Eurocentric, non-Western history that proves the cultural prowess of the global south unequivocally.”
Ultimately, Sohonie sees music as a storytelling tool and a way of teaching new history, which underpins his label’s vision and archival work.
“If we use the soundtracks of history, we can wield it to our advantage to centralise the stories of Africa, Asia and Latin America in a profound manner as well as instill a confidence in countries to see their music being celebrated on the global stage,” he said.
And so by listening to Djibouti’s past, Sohonie hopes that we can keep an eye on its promising future.