The new proverb says “all roads lead to Kickstarter,” and I’ve joined the fray in this latest push — to bring “Music from Saharan Cellphones” to a vinyl.
In a rather ironic twist the musicians whose sounds were found on communication devices are incredibly difficult to locate. Google search algorithms notwithstanding, the network of cellphones and music trading and even communication exists fiercely independent of the global internet network. The project has been an exercise in Sisyphean patience, flinging messages out in bottles every few months or so: Facebook queries to whomever lives in the composer’s city, Skype out calls to numbers in blurry CD scans across six or seven countries, Youtube comments on every video containing a fragment of a song, and finally a few face to face meetings in Bamako with a handful of Mali’s stars (I regrettably had to give up on Cheba Wasila when every phone number for her studio listed seemed to be answered by confused Moroccan grandmothers).
But enough of the past. I’ve got a crew of artists and their songs together, and we’re making a record. The vinyl will be an amalgam of the first two cassette volumes, remastered, accompanied by liner notes with a short bio of all the artists. It’s an initial run of 2,000 copies — also to be available on bandcamp. The kickstarter is clear and simple — pre-orders of the vinyl available at $15 shipping included, to be wrapping up around end of October. Inchallah.
“It’s called world music – music without boundaries. You take a little bit of African, America, Europe, Latin – and mix it together. That’s world music,” Ama explains. “We don’t play world music.” We’re sitting outside Demba’s house in Niafounke. It’s a starless night, the residual clouds of the evening’s duststorm shrouding the sky. The torrential winds have passed on and left a balmy cool stillness in their wake. Kola is skipping through songs on a memory card, plugged into a DVD player, connected to a boombox. “Here,” Kola says, “this is Alkibar Gignor.”
It’s a grainy recording, a digital copy of an analog original from 2003. A cassette “ordered” by a friend or patron, performed with the occasional shout-out and praise song in that long tradition of dedicated performances. The sound is warbly and rough, and they seem a bit embarrassed by the quality. No one records on cassette anymore, they explain with an air of nostalgia, as though we we’re talking about another era and not just a few years prior. The recordings are a historical record of the group, their own personal archives. For example, the 2003 recording of “Allah ka Baru (Hommage a Ali Farka Toure)”:
At the organization of the annual “Ali Farka Festival,” (now defunct for mysterious reasons) the organizers heard of the young group from Niafounke and offered a slot in opening the festival. Ama remembers “everyone from town was incredulous when they saw us get on stage.” Young and unknown, even the promoters were skeptical and told them to hurry up and play. The song is a hommage and is addressed to Farka’s children who were in attendance, telling them “don’t be sad when you’ve lost someone, remember them, and be happy that we had them on earth, because everything must move on.” The song is in Sonrai, but also quotes Koranic verse. “We sung the hommage and everyone cried. Even the marabout couldn’t believe what he heard. They were all asking — who are these kids?”
The festival launched the band into a moderate local success. They’ve become Niafounke’s hometown band, touring throughout the dusty scrub villages on the riverside. We travel to one such village in a rented landcruiser with drums and generators and amplifiers strapped to the roof, bumping over the furrowed river bank, passing the occasional donkey and wide eyed child shouting and waving furiously at the local celebrities.
“Afel said that if you want to please white people ["les blancs"],” Ama explains, “you need to play acoustic guitar and calabash — leave the electric guitar and drum set.” And while the Northern Mali guitar does lend itself to the rich vibrato of the acoustic double octaves and I hasten to get caught up in some tired defense of authenticity or the “real” sound of Niafounke, the preferred style of performance represents another side of the what has become the standard of the North — electric riffs and decalé drumming. But Niafounke is hardly isolated, and in the past has brimmed with international tourists, musically inclined, and not a few of the predominant “world music” producers. Alkibar Gignor knows how to play to their crowd, whether it’s a rendition of “Tamala” in a riverside village to praise a predominant benefactor, or those who traveled around the world to Niafounke to hear some Ali Farka Toure.
Takamba is a place. It’s also a slow ghostly dance, a distinctive staggered rhythm clapped on a calabash, and a gritty distorted terhardent. “Ali” Ag Amoumine doesn’t live in Takamba, but 250 kilometers up river in Timbouctou. He’s also not Sonrai, the ethnicity credited with the creation of Takamba, though he’ll remind you that the music is something that unites the Tuareg with the former.
In 2009 I recorded a session with Ali — like most of the cassettes, he began the recording with a description of the date and the people present. There were also these continuous shout outs throughout the session, as well as “New York” (regretfully forgetting the QB). I transferred the session to a CD that I left with Ali. Returning in 2011, Ali informs me that the cassette is quite popular now. He has taken it to the local radio station, and it is regularly broadcast, and found on memory cards from here to Kidal, and probably into Niger. Just to be sure, I asked some cassette sellers if they had heard the “New York Timbouctou Takamba cassette.” They nodded.
Ali plays a lot of takamba standards, but he wrote this one. Hali Diallo is the name of a Pulaar woman from Badi-Hausa, a village near Ansongo, Mali. He composed the song for her during a celebration in Niamey, Niger in 1992. “She’s a grand patron, she bought us a lot of stuff. She gave us loads of money, new bazzin, furniture — she took everything in the house and gave it to us. We had to load up a truck to drive it all back to Timbouctou!” Helpful tips if you want to be immortalized in song.