March 2012. We find serene lodging in the Mabera section of Sokoto, not far from the place where the two foreigners were executed in a botched rescue just a week prior – a slight stain on an otherwise spotless city. Unsurprisingly, few people mention it, either suspecting we know, and this is exactly what brought us, or that we’re just two blissfully unaware idiots.
The first stop is ‘Visible Sounds Studio’ run by a young man named Khadir. We cram inside the music studio, separated from the main room by wood and plexiglass, bathed in a blue alien light. Khadir assembles his studio workspace, his Yamaha keyboard set beside his computer. He begins to assemble a song for us to observe the method of production. His hands dance over shortcuts and mouse clicks, triggering new tracks, dropping effects and rearranging the numerous multicolored wav-forms. A melody is seemingly plucked out of the air, a bass line is added, followed by crash of synthetic drums that unfold into a frenetic beat in a few minutes of rapid fire work. The instrumental finished, he sets the Yamaha aside, and the singers enter the soundbooth in a revolving succession, recording vocal tracks that are overdubbed twice to create harmony and then dropped into Antares autotune. They have no woman vocalist on staff, so one of the male singers sings in a ridiculously high pitch. Post-autotune, it sounds convincing.
Suraj Sound Studio is larger and more professional. A poster on the street advertises the services of sound and film: a comedian in signature red hat striking an exaggerated silly face flanks a beautiful girl in headphones standing before a microphone. The studio is a bit larger then the others, and more professional. Naturally, the work moves a bit slower. After a flurry of introductions, shaking hands with dozens of actors, comedians, and musicians, the engineer beings to work. Two singers sit on the floor with intense focus. They ask us our names as they pen the lyrics, occasionally humming a tune. The dedication of the engineer and vocalists is exhausting – even for the crowd, that eventually thins out. They finally climb into the soundbooth for a series of unrelenting takes until the seemingly perfect phrasing. Of course, neither Warren or myself speak Hausa and wouldn’t recognize the small differences. In the final audio, the only things we can identify are the names that we asked them to include: “Sahel Sounds” and “Little Axe.”
Bollywood, the multimillion dollar industry of Hindi film, has a presence in the most far flung corners of the world. The prodigious output of musical film is second perhaps only to marital arts (more on this later). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the North of Nigeria, where audiences are not content just to watch films, but created an industry of their own, modeled on Bollywood. (previously and more previously)
There is something in the story that invokes the cargo cult – the influence of a culture from afar: Hindi films are imported in the 1960s by Lebanese traders and have a huge resonance with Hausa Muslim populations. Successive generations grow up in the shadow of Bollywood, watching films, singing songs, and even learning Hindi. Decades later, when the Hausa begin to experiment with film-making, they naturally turn to Bollywood – copying style, plots, and songs. Soon, an entire industry is thriving, modeled on Bollywood – replete with choreographed dancing and syrupy love ballads.
The cargo cult metaphor is not without its problems. North of Nigeria is not an island – Kano, the center of today’s Kannywood, is also the center of commerce, an ancient city of trade for the entire Sahara and Sahel. And more importantly, there is not the power difference of the cargo cult. The impetus to invoke this metaphor suggests a trend in the narrative. Cultural influence is often portrayed as a one way flow one, pouring out of the Western countries and inundating the developing world – dropping artifacts on little isolated islands, where the natives puzzle over their workings. The scattershot of cultural exchange, where trends or styles are adapted because of some unexpected resonance or similarity are more common than top down cultural imposition. Abdallah Adamu refers to these as “transglobal flows.” Examples in contemporary music abound: Cuban Salsa in Benin, Jamaican dancehall in South Sudan, or Chutney Soca in Trinidad. The old channels of communication follow the same routes of their predecessors, whether borne of colonial legacy or diaspora movement, but are filled with the products of new media and exchange.
In 2012, we traveled to Kano to research and curate a release of Hausa film music and meet with the film stars, directors, and musicians in pursuit of this Bollywood theme. And it’s true that even today, you can still watch a Bollywood film at the old cinemas of Kano every Friday. Yet when posing the question of Indian influence, artists were quick to distance themselves. Today, Kannywood thrives as an entity apart from the old Bollywood films. Contemporary soundtracks are a sound that is both unique and stylized, with over the top Autotuned vocals and rhythmic pulse of programmed drums and hi-hats (the signature sound – this is where Mdou Moctar recorded his demo).
While long captivated by Youtube clips that showcase Bollywood style dance, after traveling to Kano it became apparent that the music has forged its own style and a prodigious output of its own. In the age of digital compositions, most artists did not have original masters, and often entire songs had been erased from history. Musician Abubakar Sani, when asked about how many songs he made, told us “5000, 3000 of them hits.” Of these 5000, we could only find about one hundred. Today’s Hausa film music is its own entity and sound – one of the many genres thriving in a globalized world and a strong argument against the perceived homogenization of connectivity, which after all, has always existed.
“Harafin So: Bollywood Inspired Film Music from Hausa Nigeria” is now available on LP and CD from Sahel Sounds and Little Axe records. Grab a copy at the shop or from Little Axe. Also available at bandcamp.
And very special thanks to Carmen McCain who helped make this whole project possible!
Haïdara and Abdoulaye live with their friends in a compound on the fringes of Niamey, the capital of Niger. The two concrete buildings house perhaps thirty students who have come here to attend the University. They are all from the town of Timia, an oasis in the Aïr mountains far up into the North of Niger. They are all here to study.
Though Niger is in theory one country, there remains divisions between the North and South – and huge differences between the cities and the country. As representatives of Timia, the student group is, in essence, a community in exile. Like immigrants living abroad, they maintain their connection to their home, visiting on vacations, and collectively forging a small enclave of Northerners. Although far removed, here they have the benefits of a global connectivity with regular access to the internet – in fact, I first meet the group via Facebook, who knowing of my impending visit, send me a short audio recording of Haïdara and Abdoulaye playing guitar.
When we do finally meet, we are received with some fanfare. Nearly all of the students living in the house are crammed into one of the rooms to receive us – though I suspect more for Ahmed, from Amanar, whose stardom precedes him. His sometimes cynical lyrics chastise the powerful and corrupt and demand the creation of a Tuareg class of intellectuals, and we are at the exact people that he’s trying to reach. While Haïdara and Abdoulaye play guitar (perhaps more for Ahmed then for me) a youth named Adouma scrolls through a Word document on his laptop, anxious to share on of his projects. Contingent with his studies at the university, he has written a textbook with audio lessons for the Tamashek language of Niger, with accompanying Tifinagh.
In the North, the road to prosperity has been limited to a few options – the unpredictable tourist industry, the long shot musical career, competitive posts in the numerous NGOs, or dangerous black market smuggling. One of the continued complaints in the North is directed at the lack of education and opportunity – not always eloquently manifested, but expressed in a constant series of rebellions over the past decades.
When I lived in pre-rebellion Kidal, I regularly met with youth who would become instrumental in the overthrow of the Malian state, particularly in the utilization of technology to distribute their message. In a cyber cafe of the now defunct Maison de Luxembourg, I watched what would become an MNLA website launched on blogspot. Even then, the youth were ready for revolution, enamored with Che Guevara and inspired by the idealism of youth culture. They were already beyond peaceful reconciliation, products of Northern schools that for the most part, ignored them. Teachers from the capital, assigned to these outposts, were unable to speak Tamashek and even the most dedicated could be forgiven in their aparthy – sent to unfamiliar territories, with little or no support from the capital, they too were far from their families. Needless to say, Tuareg culture was not taught. I visited the Kidal high school library, and could not find a single book referencing the Tuareg. When I suggested to the soon to be revolutionaries that they compose an open letter to the Minister of Education demanding support and books, the idea seemed too small and inconsequential. Growing up in the shadow of Bamako, the Northern territories had too long existed in limbo, and their big dreams demanding big ideas.
While post rebellion Niger has followed a much different route, the student group from Timia is hopeful, a model of a new class that may usher in changes in the North countries. As ambassadors, or immigrants in exile, they remain “enfants de Timia”. While Haidara and Abdoulaye play guitar, their compositions are not remarkable for their unique style – but in their purposeful nostalgia creating an oasis in the capital. It is not just symbolic, but a very real and pragmatic collective environment where resources are pooled to support one another in their struggle.
When Ahmed is out of the room, the students whisper to one another, finally asking if Ahmed will play a song. I ask him, but he politely refuses to their disappointment (though they do their best to hide it, and are somewhat allayed by a group photograph with the star). When we leave, I ask him why he wouldn’t play, and why he seemed discouraged. But it was March, the rebellion had just begun in Mali, and his family was left behind. The message that was so readily embraced by the students of Timia had not been heard at his home in Kidal, and now a war was raging.
Lost in a music archive in the capital of Niger was the first I heard of the legendary Mammane Sanni Abdoulaye. The space was overflowing with dusty CDs, cassettes, and Nagra reels, and hunkering down from the insufferable heat outside, I prepared to spend a long week in research. Mammane’s cassette was the first I pulled from the shelf, and I almost passed over in lieu of something more obscure. But I was captured by the photograph — a black and white picture of a young man with a goatee and a knit cap, posing in front of faux backdrop, hands on what appeared to be an organ. The music proved equally intriguing. The instrumental compositions were simple but dreamy, repetitive but hypnotic. It was esoteric and bizarre, unlike anything I had ever head – the imaginary audio track to an arcade game of desert caravans trek through an pastoral landscape of 8-bit acacias and pixelized sand.
Finding Mammane was surprisingly easy. Immediately after asking about him to the archive director, I had him on the phone. The next day, Mammane arrived. Much older than in the photo, with greying hair and in a pressed shirt and slacks, he had a laugh when I showed him the cassette, and he said it was best if we spent the day talking – he was retired, and didn’t have much to do anyways. Moments later were running through the streets to catch a bus, followed by a taxi, that soon carried us outside of Niamey into the surrounding Sahel of scrubs and brown plains, where Mammane lives today. Inside the tiny house, interrupted intermittently by the persistent crow of a rooster, Mammane told me his story as we listened to his cassettes and paged through books of old photographs.
Mammane is well known throughout Niger, but his synth music was never hugely popular. He came from a privileged place in Niger society – his maternal grandfather was a chief in Ghana, his paternal grandfather a Colonel in the first World War, and Mammane’s father was a librarian for the American Cultural Center. As a young man, Mammane became a functionary for UNESCO, during which he traveled to Japan and Europe. During one of the UNESCO meetings, a delegate from Rwanda had brought along his Italian “Orlo” organ. Mammane was captivated by the sound and convinced him to sell it. “It was possibly the first Organ in Niger,” he explained. He began to compose songs on the organ. Many of these songs were interpretations of Niger folkloric classics. “I wanted to make the Wodaabe songs on the keyboard, make the Tuareg tendé with the rhythm,” he said. Some were his own compositions. Salamatu, one his most popular songs, was created for his girlfriend. He stopped as he came across her photo, how he once lay with his head in her lap, and tears came to his eyes. When she asked him why he was crying, he answered “Because I’ve never been so happy as I am in this moment.” He sits quietly, before I asked what happened to Salamatu, and he smiles before shaking his head and turning the page.
His first and only album was recorded in 1978. Mammane stepped into the studio of the National Radio with his organ, where it was transposed and overdubbed in two takes. In coordination with the Minister of Culture, the album was released in a limited series of cassettes showcasing modern Niger music. The cassette project unfortunately did not progress as planned, and merely a handful were released. Perhaps 100 were made – Mammane is unsure – fabricated in Nigeria. The copy that he owns and the one at the archive are the only ones he knows are left. Nevertheless, for over 30 years, Mammane continued to play. For a short while he even had a television show called “Mammane Sani et son Orgue Électronique” on Niger’s television. He digs out a short clip, a black and white video transfer playing in front of the same backdrop that graces the cover of the cassette. Mammane is hardly esoteric or forgotten in Niger. His music today is known by everyone – it forms much of the repertoire of televised intermissions, radio segue-ways, and background music. And Mammane has continued to update his organs and pianos when they fall apart, benefiting from generous contributions from high society, gifts of presidents and ministers.
I left Mammane’s house in the evening, ducking out of his house to catch transport back into town before the night came. And it was nearly a year later when we started to talk about releasing it on record. Mammane was nonchalant about it, only insisting that the proceeds could be used to upgrade his computer and get a new copy of audio software. But one of his musician friends I recently spoke to in New York was more adamant in his idea of the vinyl release. “He’s been waiting over 30 years,” he said. “It’s about time.”
Grab the vinyl here at the new Sahelsounds shop or Mississippi Records – and of course, the music is available on Bandcamp. Proceeds of the sales will go to Mammane’s new computer and a copy of Reason, so stay tuned for future recordings.