Our Daily Bread 537: Yanna Momina ‘Afar Ways’

August 16, 2022

Dominic Valvona
Images: Marilena Umuhoza Delli

Yanna Momina ‘Afar Ways’
(Glitterbeat Records)  26th August 2022

Crisscrossing a number of the world’s most dangerous and often remote locations for the Glitterbeat Records label since 2014, the renowned Grammy Award winning polymath-producer Ian Brennan has repeatedly remained hidden as his subjects open up and unload a lifetime of trauma, or, candidly lay bare some of the most stripped, free of artifice performances you’ll ever likely to hear.

For many of the participants in this near decade running Hidden Musics series have rarely, if ever, been recorded before Brennan turned up. Many of them have held on for decades to the fall-out and legacy of war (in the case of this series’ inaugural volume, the Hanoi Masters War Is A Wound, Peace Is A Scar), genocide (the Khmer Rouge survivors They Will Kill You, If You Cry) and persecution (Abatwa – The Pygmy ‘Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?); their voices, as the title encapsulates, remaining hidden, neglected.

But there’s also been a theme of preservation too; capturing such local legends as the Pakistan spiritual doyen Usted Saami, the last one of his particular musical style left. As it stands, the label has released three volumes of that sagacious figure’s music.

The highly prolific Brennan has probably appeared more times than anyone else on the Monolith Cocktail. I even interviewed him a number of years back, on the occasion of not just another volume in the Hidden Musics series but his book of the time, How Music Dies (or Lives). Oh yes, amongst an enviable CV of skillsets, he also writes incredibly well: as the accompanying liner notes testify. His anecdotes and art of setting a scene always prove entertaining and informative. No one quite sums up the ridiculous dangers of recording in some of the worlds less than inviting environments like Brennan does. But he doesn’t do it alone, his partner, the renowned photographer and activist Marilena Umuhoza Delli captures a visual documentation of each recording project: a complete package.

Credit: Marilena Umuhoza Delli

And so it’s always a treat, an eye and ears opener to hear about the latest travelogue-rich production. On the occasion of the tenth release in this cannon, Brennan lands down in Djibouti, on the horn of Africa, to capture the evocative voice and music of the enigmatic Yanna Momina and ‘rotating cast of friends’, who passed around a couple of guitars and the slapped, struck percussive Calabash as the only means of accompaniment. Our producer’s usual hands-off approach allows this 76-year-old star to let rip; unleashing an incredible, unique vibrato trill and excitable expressive vocal that resonates loudly and deeply. There’s also a playful improvised outburst of primal-rap to enjoy on the animal-cooee hollered ‘The Donkey Doesn’t Listen’; the only backing on this occasion a wobbled human beatbox and bass thump. Yet a real groove is struck when it gets going, a sort of stripped ESG meets Funkadelic in the surroundings of ‘Aunt’ Momina’s stilted hut.   

A member of the Afar people, an atavistic ancestry that spreads across the south coast of Eritrea, Northern Ethiopia and of course Djibouti (early followers of the prophet, practicing the Sunni strand of the faith), Momina is a rarity, a woman from a clan-based people who writes her own songs. This honoured artist – though not in the myopic, over-celebrated way in which we in the West would recognise the word – also plays the two-stringed ‘shingle’, an instrument played with nails. This is complimented – if you can call it that – by an improvised version of the maracas: basically a matchbox. But you would never guess it.

Recorded in a thatched hut, with the surrounding waters threatening to wash up into the ad-hoc studio, the outdoor sounds can’t help but bleed into the recordings: a distant crowing of birds, the fluctuation of creaks and a lapping tide. Intentionally this is an all-encompassing production that discards nothing and invites in the elements, the un-rehearsed, all to spark spontaneity and the magical moments that you’d never get if they were forced. It’s what Brennan is known for, a relaxed encouraging setup that proves free of the artificial and laboured.

The results are more akin to eavesdropping than a recording session, a once in a lifetime performance. And so nothing on this album feels pushed, composed or directed. Songs like the dancing ‘Honey Bee’ seem to just burst out of nowhere – a more full-on rhythmic joy of the Spanish Sahara bordering on the Balearic; an Arabian Gypsy Kings turn of loose and bendy-stringed brilliance.

This method also lends itself to coaxing out some of the most special if venerable performance, the heartbroken a cappella ‘My Family Won’t Let Me Marry The Man I Love (I Am Forced To Wed My Uncle)’ is Momina at her most intimate and lamentably fragile.

With a murmured hum turn loudly expressed vocal, Momina’s opening evocation ‘Every One Knows I Have Taken A Young Lover’ seems to stir up something both mystical and magical in its performer: a glow even. With a repeated thrummed strummed note and a barely rhythmic movement of percussion we’re transported to some very removed vision of deep-fried Southern blues. There’s more of that feel on the slap-y clap-y ‘Ahiyole’, this time though, of the Tuareg variety. And the beaten hand drummed ‘For My Husband’ has an air of voodoo Orleans about it.  

Momina’s voice is however absent on the Andre Fanazara lead, ‘Heya’ (or “welcome”); another Spanish guitar flavoured soulful turn that features a collective male chorus of soothed, inviting harmonies.

Despite her years, Momina sounds full of beans; excited, fun and even on the plaintive performances, so alive. This isn’t a dead music, a version of the ethnographical, but a life affirming call of spontaneity in a world suffocated by over-produced pap and commercialism. Just when you think you’ve heard everything, or become somehow jaded by it all, Brennan facilitates something extraordinary and astounding. Cynicism died as soon as the first notes and that voice struck; this isn’t an exercise nor competition to see who can find the most obscure sounds, but a celebration and signal that there is a whole lot of great performers, musical performances that exist if you’d only look.

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.


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