Afar Ways: discovery of a virtuoso singer with a unique and idiosyncratic style

Yanna Momina, Afar Ways, Germany, Glitterbeat, GB131 CD (2022)

In its own way, this album is very remarkable: it was recorded live in Djibouti in 2018 when US record producer / author Ian Brennan visited the country. He met Yanna Momina (then aged 70 years) in her home community where she was already notable not only for her rich vibrato singing but also for being the only female singer among the Afars (an ethnic group living in the hot deserts of Djibouti, Eritrea and northern Ethiopia) to compose and sing her own material. While Brennan was recording Momina’s performance, the time passed and the tide rose, surrounding the hut, and if you listen carefully to the album, you can hear the rising waters and lapping waves in the background. Not that you need to strain to hear what is happening in the background, as Momina’s music has very minimal accompaniment: some guitars, a calabash for a drum, handclaps and background singing from a rotating cast of friends and admirers of Momina’s work.

In nearly every song bar one (“Heya”) performed on the album, Momina’s voice is powerful and completely dominant: everything here, even the birds crying in the background, is subservient to her voice, rich in emotion and meaning. A number of songs revolve around defying or resisting traditional Afar custom, such as the tradition of marrying young girls to male relatives, usually uncles, much older than themselves. The first couple of songs seem quite emotionally overwrought, especially the title track where Momina appears on the verge of breakdown, but as the album progresses, she starts to have fun with her songs, injecting them with whatever feeling or mood happens to suit the song at the time and then exaggerating that mood for all it’s worth. The music is not bad either; indeed, one early track “Honeybee” is a real rollicking bluesy flamenco-styled piece on guitar that suits Momina’s theatrical vocal performance. A couple of tracks that follow feature the barest of musical accompaniment: handclaps on one, and just a drum rhythm on the other.

“The Donkey Doesn’t Listen” sounds very much like a rap song in structure and delivery, Momina improvising lyrics over a series of handclaps and what sounds like someone singing a looping rhythm. It’s during this song that Momina is having the most fun, almost breaking out into laughter as she recites her lyrics with giggles and ululation interspersed among them. The last song “My Family Won’t Let Me Marry The Man I Love (I am Forced to Wed My Uncle)” is performed entirely a cappella, in a way that seems very heartfelt and personal to Yanna Momina.

Momina’s singing is incredible in the way it comes close to some sort of personal or emotional collapse yet resolutely maintains control of its melody and phrasing. This album has to be heard at least once (and you’ll probably find yourself playing it several times) if you are a fan of extended vocal technique and alternative styles of singing.

Momina died in the northern spring of 2023 after an illness, so it is very likely as time passes that this album will gain cult, even legendary status as the only album Momina recorded during her lifetime.