Supreme Talent Show


Supreme Talent Show, Facebook

Supreme Talent Show is a Malian duo, Mèlékè Thiathio and MC Waraba. Their music is hard to classify, at least in recognizable Western terms (which may suggest how far the international music scene lags behind). It’s bass heavy and the bpms are frantic and infused with movement. This isn’t accidental – this is the music of a generation who grew up in the shadow of Balani Show neighborhood sound systems.

In the late 90s, when Balani Shows became the rage in Bamako, DJs began experimenting with samplers and CDJs to recreate Balafon style village parties in the capital. The innovation was both artistic and economical. A full Balafon outfit was expensive to rent and heavy to assemble. CDJs and speakers were much easier. A class of DJs rose to prominence providing signature remixes, soundtracking the festivities. The Balani Show parties gave way to a new genre of music known as “Ambience,” or the ambient dance music that could be played during the Balani Show. Around the same time, Hip Hop was securing a foothold in Mali with influences of American Hip Hop, but equally that of the Parisian suburbs. It is no coincidence that Bamada City and RHHM, the largest promoters of Malian Rap, are both based in France.


Luka Production in studio, 2012

Today in Bamako there are a plethora of studios producing Hip Hop. The top and most well known is Sidiki Diabate, with his flourish of kora and pitch bending keyboards (and producing exclusively with Iba One), to Pap Junior, and Luka Productions. While the majority of Malian Hip Hop is unique, much is hyper modern, with punchy beats, slick crashes, and lightning fast rap. Some of it exists in a conscious defiance against ancient musics, made for the club; quite a lot of draws heavily on tradition. Supreme prides themselves on the latter: “We chose this name because we know that we have the Talent to show that our culture is the best, with Djembe, Bala[fon], and Tama. Supreme because we leave all the others behind. And we have the talent to make people move when we make a [Balani] Show.”

The high energy dance music of groups like Supreme fall somewhere between the old school Balani Show remixes of the late 90s and the new generation of synthesizer slick Battle Rap of the Sahel (they refer to their style as “human rights”). Listening to the music, it’s easy to hear transnational influences of Kuduro, Coupe Decale, and Hip Hop. While Angolan Kuduro is an established scene, the “ambience” music of groups like Supreme lie outside of the mainstream, even in Bamako. With only a handful of groups creating in this vein, it’s more akin to an electronic music subculture in the West than representative of a full fledged scene – a branch of youth culture at the fringes, like in Chicago, Berlin, or Istanbul – just much smaller. In Bamako, the fusion of ancient and modern seems to be a the driving force, with a seemingly limitless potential and deep musical history to pull from. Although it may not be live, balafons cut into samples, triggered on a keyboard, and tracked in Fruityloops, the sounds suggest a new tradition.

Featured previously on Balani Show Super Hits, the first full release from Supreme Talent Show “Danbe” is now available at bandcamp and on a limited edition cassette. The cover design is an original work from the original photoshop king, Bamako based Prinsco Production.

* Special thanks to Midnight Ravers, a French duo who recently were in Mali working with Supreme Talent Show, among others for a collaborative music and art project – and who have contributed photos and a bonus track on the digital download, Koroni Foli!

starlight

On the last visit, in the fall, we spent a few days in Podor, a small colonial town that sits in the interior of Senegal on the banks of the river. It had been about two years and everyone was a bit older. A few people had passed, and a few more had been born. The city itself was more or less the same. Horse carriages crowded the center of town, coming in from all the surrounding villages on market day, but otherwise it was slow and calm. Like the river, Podor always seems still, and you have to look closely to see that things are moving.

Tidiane Thiam, solo guitarist and folklorist of the group Lewlewal (previously) had his first child during our stay. He was a father of a only few days when our departure arrived, but we managed to do something I had wanted for years – some simple instrumental recordings of himself and the guitar.

Tidiane is an artist and folklorist. An autodidact in the truest sense, he learned to play the guitar by listening to radio broadcasts late into the evening. He sometimes makes art, strange paintings of hands and symbols, and for many years he worked as an intern under the famous Podor portrait photographer, Oumar Ly. He plays guitar in the style common to Fouta Toro, influenced by Guinean styles – Hal Pulaar folklore guitar, made famous by another Podor resident, Baaba Maal. Most of the songs are played with “double gamm,” a doubling of the notes. Nearly all are played in major scales in standard tuning. The music is nostalgic and pensive, very different from the pentatonic scales associated with the desert. A little more green, perhaps.

It was our last night when we finally had a chance to record with Tidiane, and he played songs until the very early hours. Lewlewal means moonlight, but this night there was no moon, only stars.

Tidiane Instrumental 1

Tidiane Instrumental 2

boiler room

Recently I was asked to put together a mix for Boiler Room’s Upfront series. That is, strictly online, not the Boiler Room in a secret nightclub where people are wiling out behind the dj. Just as well, as it’s very hard to for the uninitiated to dance the Takamba.

It’s been a very busy past year, and the blog has been so quiet as of late as we’ve been wrapping up the film, traveling in W. Africa – and continuing, with upcoming Mdou Moctar EU/Canada tour dates, and screenings across Europe this summer. But there is so much music to share: more Balani Show remixes out of Bamako, Azna’s Hendrix inspired Tahoua rock, the first Tuareg film soundtrack from Mdou Moctar, blown out wedding songs from Nouakchott, a new Amanar album and so much more.

Here is a little sampling of what is to come in 2015. Stay tuned.

lack of better words


Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud, photo by Ibrahim Ag Aminy

Isswat, for lack of a better word, is what people have the habit of calling this particular music from the desert. It’s a style that like many things, seems to be localized and specific to one particular region of the world – a tiny circle of Azawad, North of Mali, in the Adrar D’Ifoghas. The Adrar is desert, but instead of the Sahara of dunes, it is a landscape of vast open sky, wiry bushes and twisted trees scattered across a surface of parched earth. There are low mountains, rendered spectacular in the otherwise planar landscape. In comparison, they seem enormous. It is nothing like the mountains of Air with mountaintop villages and citrus filled oases, but there is a rugged beauty to the emptiness and repeated motifs that you can name and comprehend – seven types of tree, three types of bush, three type of wild animal, four directions. But innumerable starlight.

Isswat comes from here (I’ve spoken of the music before 1, 2) Musically it consists of what a friend calls “the four elements”: singing, clapping, stomping, and drumming. There is always a woman singing a melody that dances over a constant droning hum that is maintained by a group of young men, each picking up the spaces when the other one takes a breath.

There are few recordings of Isswat. Perhaps some exist in archives somewhere. Two very unique recordings, certainly the only studio recordings of Isswat, were made at a small studio in Kidal in 2008. They were released on cassette and CD, sold locally in Kidal, and distributed via mp3 on memory cards and cellphones. A few years ago, the first cassette by Idassane Wallet Mohamed was reissued. This is the second one – recorded by a young woman from Adrar, Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud.

This time, we were able to translate the songs, courtesy of Ibrahim Ag Mouhamadine, a Tamashek speaker and Portland resident, and researcher Nadia Belalimat. Translation is an art, and nowhere is that more apparent than translating from a distinctly different culture. My contribution was clarifying some words and cleaning up grammar. Since there is no objective translation, these err on literality, and may read as cumbersome. They demand a certain acceptance, a willingness to be baffled and confused, and suggest the path to profound understanding is not just in language, but culture itself.

In one case, we struggled with the translation “tarha n ibliss” which literally translates to “love of the devil.” In Tamashek, this is the term for romantic love, as opposed to the “pure” love for one’s family. However, calling it simply “romantic” would be stripping away all of the structure and poetry of language. In the end, the translation reads as “devil’s love,” so as not to confuse the reader that the singer is praising the devil. Such are the difficulties of translations.

Translation booklet available here.

One thing is sure – the songs here are all about love, and are full of the passions and follies of romance. However, while it is easy to envision these songs as archaic poems of the desert with imagery evoking tradition, they are firmly contemporary. There are lines that compare beauty to a Toyota 4×4. There are lyrics that compare love to Kalashnikovs. Heroism and power are illustrated by comparisons to the “Americans who came looking for Saddam Hussein”.

I’ve written before about the two worlds, that of the small cities and villages and that of the bush. There are vast differences between the city and the bush, but my interpretation has always been filtered through the lens of language – the cities, with French speakers that I can understand, the bush with Tamashek speakers that I cannot. It is clearly more complicated than a division of language. But there is certainly a two world dichotomy at play. In the global movement of people from rural to urban lives, there is no more striking example than trading a nomadic tent for a house. There are too many differences between the city and bush to name, but suffice to say that in the camps, there are no guitars. There is only music, or for lack of a better word, isswat.

The reissue of Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud’s 2008 cassette is now available on bandcamp and vinyl.