Zerzura, crowdfunding for a magical city

We recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for our new film “Zerzura,” a modern Tuareg folktale. You can check out the trailer at the above link. The film follows a young man from in Niger who leaves home in search of an enchanted oasis. His journey leads him into a surreal vision of the Sahara, crossing paths with djinn, bandits, gold seekers, and migrants.

Following in the footsteps of our previous film “Akounak” (Zerzura stars Ahmoudou Madassane, rhythm guitarist for Mdou Moctar), the film is a collaborative fiction. Zerzura was developed with a Tuareg cast, and shot in and around Agadez, Niger. The film was produced over two trips to Niger. The first trip was spent collecting folktales, conducting interviews, and finding shooting locations (see the architecture of Not Vital). In June of 2016, I ran a “workshop” in Agadez, to develop, write, and shoot the resulting film.

The film is currently in post-production. Ideally Ahmoudou Madassane will join the process and visit Portland in the new year for final editing work, translation, and scoring. Stay tuned here as we bring you updates!

Akounak DVD

Akounak DVD
Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai is now available!

The first ever Tuareg language fictional film, based on the legendary rock-u-drama “Purple Rain,” Akounak or “Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in it” explores the world of a musician trying to succeed in the raucous subculture of the Niger guitar scene. The protagonist, real life musician Mdou Moctar, must battle fierce competition from jealous musicians, overcome family conflicts, endure the trials of love, and overcome his biggest rival – himself. Carried by stunning musical performances from Mdou, the film is a window into modern day Tuareg guitar and an experiment in participatory ethnographic filmmaking.

The past year, the film has toured around the world at various screening and festivals. We got to travel around with the film and meet lots of folks. Mdou got to come to the US for the first time and present the film in New York. We had loads of unexpected press, and learned that blogs are still killing it. We’ve even got to organize a few screenings for celebrities (we’re not saying who). It’s been a fun, weird journey, and we’re excited to keep moving forward – thank you for the support!

You can rent/stream from Vimeo or grab a limited edition Akounak DVD from the shop. In Tamashek, with English, French and Spanish (streaming only) subtitles.

new age bamako

image by cheick amadou ouattara & maciek pozoga

image by cheick amadou ouattara & maciek pozoga

In 2015, I had the opportunity to work on a bit of a dream project entitled Uchronia, an exhibition and recording lying somewhere between conceptual art and experimental ethnography. The process was a series of collaborative “fake” ethnographies (or ethnographic forgeries) – a very flagrant self conscious expression in a field that and hides the role of the documentarians in documentary.

Bambara Affirmations – Relaxation Cassette, Taxi

One of the more interesting recordings produced was the above titled “Bambara Affirmations” from
Bamako based Hip Hop producer/composer/rapper Luka Productions (facebook link). Modeled on the new age genre of affirmation music, the conception was a spontaneous, humorous conversation in Luka’s tiny studio, where we took clichéd and hackneyed phrases and translated them into Bambara (“you are transforming into a butterfly,” etc). The resultant track was mixed into a field recording and conjured scene: a stressed out Bamako taxi driver, gridlocked in stifling humidity of the fast growing riverside metropolis, concentrating on the soothing voice on the cassette.

Luka – new test track

Recently I proposed Luka to make a full album similar to the recording, based around the previous artifact, but further extrapolated. The first tracks have begun to trickle in via Whatsapp and Wetransfer, now to be mixed and mastered. They are at once familiar to Mali, lying between the measured griot speaking over a looping melody to the the verbal wordplay of contemporary Bamako Hip Hop, suggesting a continuity outside of the narrative of Western Influence in Global Hip Hop.

Luka says there has been a curious reaction to the songs: when he’s working in the studio, a nexus of Bamako Rap scene, many of the musicians and emcees are asking for copies of the tracks. As much as it is familiar, it is also something new – an artifact of a fake world. As we move forward into completion, perhaps they will find their way into an actual taxi, like some Borgean artifact. Will they carry forward a similar affirmation when reinterpreted by Bamako’s Hip Hop culture? Non-Bambara readership of the blog will have to remain in suspense for the moment. Stay tuned.

the tour politic

mdou tour poster 2016

mdou tour poster 2016

The next tour of Mdou Moctar is now underway – a short summer tour spanning the European continent. Because of certain visa problems, the tour was nearly canceled, but it fights its way forward.

Mdou and the band were scheduled to begin the tour on July 6th, their first tour to make any significant profit – a well deserved recompense from the past few years. But the art of touring is not easy, especially when you can’t get into the country. In the world of high risk/small return of musical tours, the complications arising from a broken visa system make an already fraught endeavor nearly impossible. Alas, for the latest tour, the tainted system has again reminded us of it’s failings.

As former colonial overlords of the Niger Republique, the French state retains a powerful and problematic position, perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the symbolic structure of the Embassy, a prison-like structure with towering white walls and barbed wire, where the potential visa appointees “waiting room” is the dusty streetside under the shadow of armed guards. The visa system asks the following: proof beyond a reasonable doubt that you have no plan to overstay your visa. The system makes no claims of egalitarianism and the inequity is as immutable as the Saharan heat, dust storms, and drought.

What is pragmatically frustrating is though the laws and guidelines controlling visas are clear and transparent, the path to visa is through an obtuse and broken consulate system.* The visa process is a proverbial black box – we make our requests, and await with baited breath for an answer to pop out the other side. In the case of Niger, the opaque nature becomes more nefarious. Niger lacks consulates and the French Embassy represents all 26 Schengen countries in visa affairs, except Spain. The process concentrates immense power in one individual – the bureaucrat capable of handling communication between the citizen and a mysterious and anonymous system.

Over the years of navigating the minefield, the problems are always strangely timed, rarely refusals but simply errors that delay and impede (the visa denial rate for the French Consulate is quite low – only 9% of visas are refused*) For a tour in 2015, Mdou Moctar was asked the day of his flight to provide personal invitations from the Mayor’s of Paris, Lyon, and Marseilles – mid-day on a Friday afternoon. On the eve of this summer’s tour, with the confidence of a well trod path, the band again submitted documents as requested. This time there was a strange new request: the band was to provide legalized work permits for every country they would be touring. After contacting the proper respective countries, they were informed there was no such thing – there is no work permit. Nevertheless, the French Consulate in Niger insisted that no visa would be issued without providing documents that do not even exist.

After much deliberation, the Embassy granted Mdou and the band a special Limited visa for France only – issued in rare, exceptional circumstances (for example, in 2015 the Niger French Consular issued only 33 LTVs vs 5,355 standard uniform visas)* Mdou and the band flew to Europe to play a few concerts and attempt to address the visa problem. Unable to leave the borders of France, they began to cancel shows. After much furious emails, phone calls, and struggle (the French embassy and the consulate never answered any emails) and with the assistance of Matthieu Petolla and Zone Franche, the Interior of the Minister of France reviewed the case, and forced the French Consulate to issue a proper visa – but they would have to return to Niger. The band boarded a plane and returned to Niamey, to a rather surprised visa consular who was forced to issue the correct visa, and they returned the same night to Paris.

Amid the loss of canceled shows and paying for last minute tickets to Niger, the tour now continues under a loss of two thirds of the programmed profit, a value around 7000 euros or 4.5 million CFA. One could interrogate that number alone. While the “first world” are operating myriad of development projects funneling billions of euros into the African continent, the gross operating budgets mean only a small percentage trickles down to the actual inhabitants of the countries they serve. Meanwhile, when a group of young musicians attempt to travel around the world, to earn their own money without aid or assistance, they are essential denied, and lose thousands of Euros – money that would fuel the local economy with no support from any governmental program, besides the expected consular duties. There is a certain irony in this.

One could argue that the system doesn’t seem to like individuals operating independently. As such, the impediments to traveling abroad make the act of touring itself an overtly political act. To tour as a disenfranchised artist is to be a renegade in clear defiance of the neo-colonial will, traveling to countries who don’t want you, while their citizens do. And so the tour continues, much in tune to its core, music as an act of resistance.


* In 2007, WOMEX hosted a seminar that was later organized into a “white paper” and forwarded to the European Parliament. The white paper “documents some of the major problems…[focusing on] administrative procedures, lack of transparency, lack of harmonization, costs and ineffective information systems.” The full paper is available here.

* All the statistics regarding Schengen visas in every consulate around the world is available here