Mdou Moctar & the Band Go America

This Spring 2018, Mdou Moctar is back on Tour across the USA. You can check out full dates here. It’s a long tour with around 30 shows. We’ll be back in the studio working on a new album. And if all goes well, they’ll be a new film at the end.

On our last tour, Mdou and I talked about shooting a film, a sequel of sorts to our Purple Rain Redux Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai. But the 2017 tour proved simply too much (I was tour managing, driving, and shooting). We managed a fair amount of footage, which was edited together for the tour trailer above.

We’ve got a much better plan this time around. The film is not far from reality. Mdou calls it “both a fiction and a documentary,” of a band traveling abroad for the first time, recounting the experience to the village. The framing device recalls “Petit á Petit,” and although we did screen this film in Agadez in 2013, any similarity speaks to the overall absence of films in this genre. The stranger abroad narrative is dominated by “Westerner in X,” wherein X is any “exotic” local: the tourist video, documentary, and arguably the foundation of anthropology. (I would be remiss here to mention the amazing “Darkest Austria”, an Austrian mockumentary playing with this trope.)

The lack of narrative inversion (or really the need to invoke “inversion”) is arguably due to transnational movement, media creation and popular distribution networks. “Tuareg Facebook” is innuadated with DIY media that provides commentary on Western social phenomena. But this analysis is relegated to imagined realities, commentary on perceptions without movement. Travel with the intention of discovery and creation is privilege. Touring musicians are in a perculiar position: artists and storytellers, they are presented with opportunities to travel as cultural ambassadors, literally presented on stage to be seen.

While this project began through field recordings and attempts to minimize my role as documentarian, I’ve recognized this as a futile pursuit (and ethically troubling, reducing documentarian to voyeur, microphones as hidden recording devices, cinema as security camera). This is a deep well and explored (in the West at least) in the annals of visual anthropology. But as the project remains focused on music, it is becoming increasingly impossible to conceptualize Tuareg guitar without addressing the Western infastructure of record labels, managers, and touring.

When I first traveled to Niger in 2012, Mdou served as a cultural translator, helping me navigate the terrain. In 2014 I returned the favor when we embarked on our first European tour. It is this exchange that we want to address through this process. We’ll be shooting on iPhones with gimbals, an exercise in technological democratization. We are writing the script via a back and forth of vocal messages over WhatsApp. We’re also looking at ways of crowd sourcing footage from concerts, inviting participants to tag videos on Instagram (#mdoufilm), invoking a contrast between ways of seeing and being seen.

As all of this collaborative work, the film is an experiment, but we invite you all to participate. Hope to see you out there!

Takamba WhatsApp on March 28th, 2018

Takamba WhatsApp

Takamba music is played on traditional guitar (tamashek: teheredent), with a remarkable distinctive rhythm tapped out on a calabash. It’s always accompanied by a beautiful ghostly dance. I’ve written about the music previously and released a few records. The origin of the music remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. Suffice to say that it’s a hugely popular music that ruled the festivals and weddings in the North of Mali and Niger, before it was bumped out of fashion by the electric guitar teshumara that now dominates the scene.

I first met Agali while searching for griots in Timbouctou, and he warmly invited me back to his home later that evening. I proposed to make him a recording, which he could sell on CD (later formed the basis of our 2012 release “Takamba”). The recording was punctuated with shout outs throughout – “Christoph! New York! Mali!”. Although I’ve not returned to Timbouctou in years, I once ran into the recording again. A tense moment, in rural Niger, fleeing from potential Salafists, it came on the car’s radio – a surreally comforting Agali kept sending me his thoughts as we barrelled through the countryside.

It’s almost impossible to get a takamba recording minus the shout-outs. Takamba musicians usually do not play to release music in commercial form, and recordings are organized by someone. These sessions were recorded to cassette in the past. Takamba musicians played directly into a boombox and onto tape. The tapes circulated, resold and dubbed at markets across the Sahel. The format on the recordings is always the same. After a sort introduction (something shared with “teshumara” tuareg guitar recordings) the musicians launch into song, yet keep a constant narration about the songs, the musicians, the people present, and the person commisioning the recording. The songs become self referential, constantly reminding where, when, and why they were made.

Takamba 2011

I’ve haven’t made it back to Timbouctou for years, due to security concerns. And it’s very difficult to organize a new recording with our channels of communication. Agali, for example, speaks very little French, and any phone call requires him to walk through town to find his brother to translate. Even then, the connection to Timbouctou is fickle. And neither of them can use a computer, record songs, or have a monthly subscription to Google Drive. A few days ago I had an idea. “Do any of the younger kids at your house have Whatsapp?” Soon I was connected with his nephew, who not only has a smartphone with Whatsapp, but also speaks English. We had actually met before, he told me: in 2011, we couldn’t find a mic stand, and he had been tasked with holding the microphone. With this new line of communication, we began planning a new album.

Today, Agali sent over a recording. It was recorded today, played directly into the cellphone, and sent to me via WhatsApp. It’s recorded in the classic “cassette” format, with an introduction, explanation (in French!), shout-outs, and name drops. The new media form of takamba is evocative of the cassette (Agali even refers to it as such on the recording). The new Takamba just has the added benefit that it can just move a lot quicker, if you know where to look.

Agali Ag Amoumine’s Takamba WhatsApp EP 2018 is available on bandcamp now. It’s unmastered, not eq’ed, and preserves the format. It was recorded, sent, and uploaded today. It’s definitely the quickest we ever released a recording. It’s probably best listened to on a cellphone.

It’s a free download, but if you pay 100% of proceeds go to Agali. I think that’s called World Music 2.0.

We’ll have a new album soon, and hopefully a tour to follow in 2019!

Dire Straits in the Sahara

I first wrote about Dire Straits popularity in the Sahara back in 2009 and later advised for an article in Africa is a Country. Though I’ve found lots of mp3s of “Sultans of Swing” on cellphone memory cards, and old cassettes buried in record stores, this was the extent of it. Tuareg guitar is fixedly pentatonic, and although every musician claimed to love the band, I never heard anyone in the Sahara playing their songs. Until now.

The video features Nadi Band (arabic: ???? ???), a rock band from Tripoli (video sourced from Libyan music aficionado Adel Alzyani), playing a cover of “Sultans.” Recorded back in 1995, it gives more evidence to Mark Knopfler and the gangs popularity. It’s generally understood that Gaddafi’s rule was not kind to the guitar, but this may of eased up in the 1980s – with a number of successful rock bands and a flourishing “reggae” scene.

While Nadi Band are all Libyan, it was in exile that Tuareg musicians first picked up the guitar. It was most likely under Gaddafi’s rule that Dire Straits found a foothold, before crossing the desert bound for Mali.

Note: I wrote to Mark Knopfler’s managment about coming to the Sahara. I’m still waiting to hear back.

Field Recordings from the Sahel

I recently put together this compilation entitled “Field Recordings from the Sahel.” It’s what it says on the tin. Since the inception of this blog (way back in 2009), field recording has been at the core. The term gets thrown around a lot. While much the content in our records could be considered so, they are foremost musical recordings that have been captured with a single microphone, in one take, and aim to present the music as it sounded at the occasion.

This compilation is a bit different from the label content. The recordings here are varied: ambient soundscapes of an early morning in Timbouctou, a prayer call in rural Mauritania, late night radio broadcasts of Wolof griots. A lot of what’s here has been featured on this blog over the years – the result of traveling with a sound recorder ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.

Moving from blog to “record label,” the Sahel Sounds project has focused primarily on music to transmit information and commercial records to finance the work (my own research and musicial careers of our partners in W. Africa). In addition to the music, I’ve tried to use the records as opportunities to provide a little more context, using them to translate Tamashek poetry, support visual artists in Bamako, or create transcultural genre experimentation. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to step outside of the “label” context to create work not bound by the particulars of the vinyl record market.

The compilation is available streaming + with free download from bandcamp. In addition to the compilation, I produced a short book “Folktales from the Sahel,” – a collection of stories, myth, and urban legends, collected on the past decade of travel.

Enjoy.

Troupe Ecole Tudu

Tudu

I first came upon this cassette at Djadje’s market stall at the Grand Marché in Niamey in 2014. The tapes were not for sale (Djadje sells dubbed copies) so I spent the good part of a day sitting on a wooden bench in the crowded market, digitizing with a cheap walkman and ZOOM. The results weren’t pretty. Someone’s cellphone, probably my own, was sending radio interference, and the tape was distorted with staccato noise. When I heard it, I was already thousands of miles away. A few months ago, while back in Niamey, I did like any good video store patron in 1993 and left a friend’s driving license and a hefy non-refundable deposit. We brought the tape to France, digitized it, and returned it to Djadje in a months’ time.

 

Djadje was surprised to see the tape again. And for good reason. The tape is rare, the only copy I’ve ever seen. The recording comes from a school group from the village of Tudu, in the region of Agadez, led by a guitarist and professor Barmo. The style that would become a popular in Niger throughout the 1980s and 90s, with many similar schoolgirl groups, like the one in Tchirou (and what would go on to form the basis and genre of Sogha Niger). The guitar playing is minimal, recalling early Ali Farka Touré, answering and mimicking the lilt of the song.

The cassette also stands out with the mysterious logo and catalog number – “HASADA” – maybe something only I would obsess over. But the only other cassette from the label I’ve found was Mamman Sani’s first and signature recording that went on to become the re-release La Musique Electronique du Niger. Rumour has it that Hasada was from Nigeria, and made a few of these tapes to distribute around Niamey. He had a good ear, whoever he was.

The track here “Owiya” refers to the Tuareg greeting “O-wi-yan.” It’s an old song, from the colonial years, and implores parents to send their children to school. The performance on this tape is some 30 years later, somtimes in the 1980s, but the message is the same. And it makes a convincing argument for education, if it can turn out music like this.

I’ve reached out to Barmo and some of the surving members of the Troupe and will share more as I find out.