into the norient

Poster_Musikfilm-Festival_2016Very excited to be part of two exciting programs in the coming weeks. I’m off to Europe, and will be joining Norient for their 2016 Musikfilm Festival in Bern, Switzerland – followed by a screening and panel discussion at CTM New Geographies in Berlin. Both festivals have incredible events planned at multiple towns and venues. It’s gonna get weird – stop by and say hello!

Jan 15 – AKOUNAK screening 20:30 – Norient Muskfilm Fest – Bern, CH
Jan 17 – DJ Set 20:30 – Norient Muskfilm Fest – Bern, CH
Feb 2 – Panel: Global Music 15:30 – How To Research Music Today – CTM – Berlin, DE
Feb 3 – AKOUNAK film screening 16:00 – CTM – Berlin, DE 

In the space between events, I’ll be dipping down to Niger, working on a new film about immigrant desert crossings and a mythical city in the Sahara, so expect a few updates from the road.

 

nouakchott wedding songs

In 2011, I traveled to Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania to record wedding music. Over the course of six months, I went to a variety of weddings: from the luxurious, high end invitations in the chic neighborhoods of Tevragh Zeina, to the ramshackle tent affairs in far flung suburbs with names like Falluja. Through a gracious network of musicians and sound engineers, I crashed weddings across the capital.

Mauritanian music is loud. Musicians wail out microtonal praises, blasted through blown out amplifiers. Modified guitars warble with underwater phasing over impossible sounding scales. Drums are heavy and resounding and accompanied by the clatter of metal plates. The Mauritanian wedding is the premiere venue to hear popular Mauritanian music. This is not music for the bar or nightclub.

While modern instrumentation has swept across the world, in Mauritania modernity has been absorbed by a bigger pre-existing tradition, and music was reshaped. Modern Mauritanian wedding music may have traditional lutes and ancient dances, but it also has electric guitars and phaser pedals. This movement is as much cultural as it is political, intertwined with post colonial changes, equal parts cultural exchange and nationalistic isolationism. In any case, today this music is thriving in Nouakchott — a unique sound that exists nowhere else in the world.

Nouakchott Wedding Songs is now available on vinyl from our shop, with a booklet of full color photos. Digital download is also available, via bandcamp. The above video features footage used in the film “I Sing the Desert Electric.”

the caves of missirikoro

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Missirikoro field recording

Missirikoro is a small village south of Sikasso. It’s only 12 kilometers away, but the road is all red dirt and rocks – unpaved, but heavily traveled. As you approach the village, you can see the strange mountain rising above the tree line. It is a small cylinderical formation that seems to have been dropped out of the sky. There are some young men standing in the forest when we approach, and they accompany us up the hill. Inside the mountain are a series of caves. The biggest chamber is about twenty meters tall. Various indentations mark the floor – the place where the ancient ones prayed, carved out spaces for giant knees and feet, or the crescent shaped divot where a woman and child once lay. The cave walls are curving, and the light from the opening high above flows down them in a river of shadow. It smells of incense and the cave ceiling is waxy and black from smoke. Hidden in the small annexes and corners, people are praying.

This is an ancient place with ancient magic. The place is special with Djinn. There are various caves for Muslims, Christians, and animists, all who come here to make sacrifices. You come here to pray and you make a promise to the cave. If it grants you this, you must come back and fulfill the promise. I hear dozens of stories of those who negated their end of the bargain, and payed in various ways. It’s said many years ago, anything you felt the need to eat would be waiting for you when you arrived. But it was ruined when a man didn’t believe the cave. He thought it was some sort of trick, so hid and watched to see where the food came from. A young girl djinn came carrying the food, and when he spotted her he cried out. He tried to leave but turning into the cave, he became hopelessly lost, and is somewhere still, perhaps, in secret passages underneath.

I go back into the main cavern to have a moment, alone. There are three people in the various chambers with me – a man lying on a prayer rug with a koran, a woman in white hidden on a ledge over the animist cave, and another man, dishelved and unkempt. It is not all silent. Birds flutter and make strange cries, bats swoop through the darkness. Strange insects with long antennaes crawl on the floor. The ground is cold. The air is cold. The earth is still. It reminds me of the cathedral in Tarragona, the curves and symmetry, the private chapels, the underground crypts, the divine valuting. This is a cathedral. Or the cathedral is a cave. Is it so unlike the places where the first people worshipped? The cathedral always carries with it a narrative of power of man to build the structure in the name of god. But this chamber is something different. It is built by god and djinn. It may be alive itself.

The lack of written history is cited as a tragedy, and we work to find and preserve elements of tradition that may be lost to history. But absence is also power. Historical explanations of the caves of Missirikoro might tell us when the first people came here, how they worshipped, why they came to see the caves this way. They could say which stories are ancient, which were altered over generations, and which are modern innovations, sprung from imaginations, boredom, and speculation. But we have nothing like a library here, only words. With nothing to look to, with no explanations of when or how a story began, we are left with only the stories themselves. And all the stories are equally true. We are left with only the sacred.

lost and found

On one of my visits to Niger, Mamman Sani gave me a box of cassette tapes. I digitized a few, and promptly forgot about the rest. In the piles of media and recordings collected, they went from one archive to another. I recently had a chance to revisit them, and found some sessions that we had thought were lost.

In 1981 Mamman’s recording session at the National Radio of Niger went on to become his first and only official release (and the content of “La Musique Electronique du Niger”). During this session, he also recorded material for a second album that was never released.

We’ve compiled some of these lost sessions into the new LP – Unreleased Tapes 1981-1984. Most of the songs feature Mamman playing on his Orla accompanied by a BOSS Dr. Rhythm. It also features one of Mamman’s first songs – Arman Doley, which talks about the dangers of arranged marriage. A unique track, it’s also one of the first recordings of Mamman singing. The track Mai Dawaya features a short lived group with Mamman Sani and two guitarists (Salif, Babu) called Farin Wata, recorded for television. We’ve yet to find the VHS.

The vinyl is available from the shop and on bandcamp.