on the regional variation of id3 tags in the western sahel

Bus field recording, Ansongo, Mali

The first time I heard the music was (naturally) on a cellphone. It was March of 2012, and I left Gao in a rush as the Northern cities fell to the rebellion. I nervously scanned the horizon as the bus blew past abandoned police posts – managing to Zoom a field recording of the song playing on a fellow passenger’s phone.

I continued to find more versions of the piano music. After questions, interviews, and Facebook inquiries, I went to Agadez and gathered up more tracks. Eventually, I learned the identity of the musician – a certain “Japonais,” former rebellion fighter for the MNJ, and pianist. I met the family, and we discussed releasing the material on a record. I began mastering the songs. The records were in the queue, and would soon arrive.

But it wasn’t him.

Hama – Tarhanam Remix

A few months ago, I head back to Niger with a contract and envelope of money. One night we hear one of the songs playing from a nearby cellphone. When the crew stops by to investigate, they’re told a different name: “Hama”. When they report back to me, I tell them they must be mistaken. This is Japonais. Everyone in Agadez knows this. Every mp3 is tagged with his name. I’ve even met with the family, who confirmed it. But the other friends in the Niamey neighborhood are insistent. Not only is this Hama, but he lives close by here – and tomorrow we’ll go visit him.

Hama lives with his family in one of the old neighborhoods of Niamey, Plateau. It’s a calm section of central Niamey with large old concrete houses and tall trees. The Embassies were once here and Hama grew up amongst the expatriates and embassy staff. It was one of these expatriates that gave Hama his first melodica, then synthesizer. In 2005, he found a Yamaha PSR-64. It’s a distinctive sound – warbly, with quarter tones. It features drum programming, which Hama uses to create the signature rhythms on his tracks, all of but one are original compositions. He asks me to sit down, and he begins to play a sound unmistakable from the recording. When he finished he looks up – “Well? Is it me?”

Hama – Live

In 2009, he was invited to the radio to record the instrumental tracks that now circulate through the cellphone networks. While awaiting the completion of his CD, one of the sound engineers copied the songs. But when they were copied, it was with the generic filename: “NOUVEAU INSTRUI”. Hama’s name wasn’t on the file or the id3 tag, and they dispersed throughout the country with no link back to him. Being instrumental music furthermore, it was hard to make any claim to it.

They would have remain unidentifiable music, if it were not for Japonais. A well known figure in the rebellion, Japonais was in fact a Tuareg synth player – as well as a guitarist. His assassination by government troops was an injustice that still reverberates in the North today. Little by little, these unlabeled songs began to pick up the name “Japonais” – by mp3 sellers, cellphone owners, and radio djs – who assumed it was none other than their celebrated hero.

Back in Niamey, only his friends know who he is. He performs rarely and is not a professional musician, working as a driver for a wealthy expatriate businessman. He plays his synthesizer in the evening, but has lately moved into composing music on a computer – using FruityLoops. He demonstrates some of the music, playing a live session, alternatively muting and un-muting looping hi-hats and basslines. “Since I found the computer, I don’t need to look for music anymore, I can compose the songs I want to listen to.” He plays his recreations of Phil Collins and Lil Jon – where he has painstakingly created the melody with a piano VST. “If I could only plug my piano into the computer, I know I could make a lot of things…”

Hama – Tarhanam Remix (Fruityloops version)

** Hama’s full length LP “Torodi” will be released next month in a limited edition of 500 **

facebook in the rainy season

fatou seidi ghali Alamnou Akrouni, Fatou Seidi Ghali

Fatou – Song 1

Fatou Seidi Ghali is a guitarist – of note, perhaps, as the other woman guitarist in Niger (there are only two). Over a year prior, a photo was circulating on Facebook of her playing a red electric guitar in a festival. The photo was liked, and shared. Later, I learned that Ahmoudou from Mdou’s group had taken the photo and posted it. Fatou was a cousin from his hometown.

We travel to Ilaghadad, a small village 40 kilometers outside of Abalak. It’s the bush, but the village boasts a number of small houses and a school. There are thousands of goats. Tall, wispy grasses cover the ground. There are seasonal water holes everywhere, and at the end of the rainy season, big white egrets weigh down the tree limbs. Flowers bloom on lily pads. Camels splash through the mud. Fatou’s family lives a few kilometers from the village, about an hour on foot. We take motorbikes.

Fatou – Song 2

Fatou has played guitar for only about four years. She learned to play alongside her brother. With her two sisters, Fatou is known in Ilaghadad known more for her singing tende, the stretched water drum fabricated from a mortar, played in weddings and festivals. Even some of the songs are the same, played here on a guitar.

We sit under some trees, back from the house and away from the kids from the village that have come out en masse to watch the recording. In the quiet of the late afternoon, Fatou sings softly but distinctly. She plays the guitar, accompanied by her sisters and brother and a chorus of crickets announcing the end of the rainy season.

stars of agadez

Etran d’Aïr – Agrim Agadez

The members of Etran live together in the neighborhood of Abana, across a wadi in the outskirts of Agadez. It was once here that the caravans stopped to rest before the journey to Bilma. Contrary to the rest of Agadez, it’s sparsely built ad tiny mud houses are scattered amongst dry spiny trees.

Etran D’Aïr is a family band. Brothers and cousins, they are all somehow related, though I’m not sure how. They’ve organized a small session at the house. The band sits on a tapi, surrounded by their material, in an almost impressive state of disrepair. The electricity comes from one of the houses that has electricity in the quartier, dropping in and out. All the small children and toddlers from the neighborhood gather around waiting for the session to begin. The band soundchecks and launches into song.

Etran de L’Aïr – or “stars of Aïr,” play a music that draws heavily from Hausa and Zarma guitar music. Though the members are Tuareg, unlike the Tuareg guitar, it is not strictly in pentatonic and is untethered from this tradition. Some of the songs have three guitars – one for rhythm and two solo guitars that mimic eachother dropping in and out of phase creating a bubbly underwater melody. The trembling solos recall more Tal National than Abdallah Oumbadougou. The lyrics may be in Tamashek, but in spirit the music is Agadez music – Hausa identity, frenetic rhythm, crashing drums.

Agadez means the “place of visit” in the Tamashek language. It’s a ancient city with origins as a crossroads and trading center. While internationally billed as a Tuareg town on the tourist circuit, Agadez is something different. It has been shaped by generations of cultural influence from the South, and Hausa culture has made an indisputable imprint. But Etran is beholden to neither. Far from famous, Etran earns their living from playing in the poorest weddings, and have played for fifteen years. Yet they are known in the Agadez, especially for the above anthem, a song celebrating their city. Uncategorizable, Etran plays music that is not Tuareg nor Hausa, but distinctly that of Agadez.

Mdou Fall Tour 2014

Fresh off the last tour, Mdou and the band are planning another one, with stops in Norway, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. I wont be joining them, as I’ll be back in the Sahel with the crew of Not Just Phones. Expect many updates from Niger as we wander around listening.

One of the more difficult aspects will be setting up a European tour from Niger. When internet is spotty, something as simple as printing a document can take a full day’s work. As aggravating as the process is, it may illustrate some of the problems of the digital divide, and the implications in the world of visas and (post) colonial bureaucracies.

In the meantime, here’s a new short teaser for the upcoming film:

here be dragons

The debut tour of Mdou Moctar and the band wrapped up last month. I’ve spent the past month since the tour thinking of how best to sum up the experience. In lieu of too many words, I’ve put together this short collaborative video collage:


(photos here)

In the concerts, the band brought a fierceness to the stage that electrified the audiences, and myself, even after nightly shows. On the long journeys from Sweden to Portugal, we joked at the surreal cultural chasms of Europe and Niger. And throughout the multitude of problems plaguing the journey – robberies from unknown assailants, institutional bureaucracies, and predatory businesses, we kept our heads up. Touring is not easy. We’re forever indebted to the people who helped us along the way.

And we’re continuing forward. The movie is in the final stages, and will wrap up soon, with an upcoming Agadez screening. And though touring was never the intention of this site/blog/label/project, the opportunities continue to assert themselves, and Mdou will be returning for another European tour in the fall. I’ve pressed up a small quantity of Mdou’s first album, the never before released “Anar” – 8 tracks of autotuned Tuareg guitar anthems. The vinyl will be available only on the tour, via the shop, and bandcamp:

I apologize in advance for the high price, but after a series of problems on the previous tour, culminating in a $3000 car rental bill from Sixt in Denmark the tour made no money after a month work, so we’re trying to recoup some of our costs to pay for the next one. You’re encouraged to send any and all complaints to info@sixt.dk on our behalf. And be careful in dealings with the monsters of the rental car world. Here be dragons.