Category Archives: electronic

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 **

head dance

Group Mamelon is a Malian Balani Show outfit taking their name from a hill in Sikasso. Koumba FriFri is one of their more popular tracks, recorded in 2010 is an ancient song, updated for the electro age. It translates to “the head dance.” The video, like the song, was mostly distributed via cellphones in 3gp format, hence the low-res quality. I’ve re-dubbed the sound for maximum listening. Recommended viewing is on miniature screen.

Of the modern Malian music in heavy rotation, Mamelon is a few groups combining traditional themes and rhythms with a insanely fast paced sample based music making. Malian rap dominates the Mali soundscape today, making the groups like Mamelon, Supreme Talent Show, and Kaba Blon standout amongst the synthed out club banging Bambara Hip Hop found on sites like Bamada-City.

Koumba Frifri is featured on the Balani Show LP and has also been issued in a limited split 7″ with a bass heavy, chopped and screwed remix by Gulls from Boomarmnation, available here and at the Sahel Sounds shop.

close encounters

The next two weeks, Mamman Sani will be touring around France (plus brief stopovers in Geneva and London). We have a great lineup of shows, sharing bills w/ Group Inerane, Phono Mundial, and the amazing Brigitte Fontaine & Areski:

April 4th – Cave 12 – Geneva, Switzerland (w/Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp)
April 5th – L’Embobineuese – Marseilles, France (w/Bibi Ahmed + Phonomundial)
April 7th – La Nef – Angoulême, France
April 8th – Sonic Protest, Eglise St. Merry – Paris, France (w/Brigitte Fontaine & Areski Belkacem, Jéricho)
April 9th – Le Temps Machine – Tours, France (w/Le Cercle des Mallissimalistes)
April 10th – Le Sonic – Lyon, France (w/Group Inerane)
April 11th – Café Pompier – Bordeaux, France
April 12th – Le Lieu Unique – Nantes, France (w/Larry Gus + Discolowcost )
April 13th – Point Limite – Rouen, France
April 14th – Cafe OTO – London, England

We’ll also be touring with the new LP “Taaritt”, a collection of unreleased studio sessions made in the late 1980s.* The record is from an era when Mamman began programming his own rhythms, and the music is more Vangelis than Terry Riley. Some of the tracks were recorded during Mamman’s last visit to France in 1987, including the following title track – so it’s a bit of a homecoming.

*Big ups to Maria Joan Dixon for the incredible Tuareg alien spaceship artwork, modeled on the Croix d’Agadez and this.

balani show takeover

In 2012, I traveled to Bamako to research “Balani Shows,” sound system block parties with a dancehall vibe that feature Malian electronic music. A frequent occurrence throughout residential neighborhoods (particularly during school vacations) I had stumbled across them over the years, but had never paid much attention. Internet research was a dead end, besides a few Youtube videos (though one documentary trailer seems promising). Over a few weeks in Bamako, I met with DJs, scoured the mp3 market for remixes, photographed, filmed, and even threw a few Balani Shows of my own (vimeo link).

A Balani Show is a public street party organized for a myriad of reasons: a birthday, a wedding, a baptism. The mobility means that it often happens right in front of the house. DJs install massive speakers and hundreds of chairs to encircle the “show.” Music begins in the early evening as the block fills up with hordes of seemingly parent-less children wandering about. After a pause for evening prayer, the real Balani Show begins – the little ones pushed aside to make way for the adolescents and teenagers. Dressed in loud combinations of neon hats, dark sunglasses, and colorful sneakers, they come for the spectacle and participation: dance battles, performances, comedians, party games, fashion contests, and some acrobatic, limb twisting, hyper stylized choreography. The MCs direct the action, bouncing about the improvised stage with wireless mics while the DJ cues up tracks with a laptop and Virtual DJ. Balani Shows play danceable, high energy music – Coupé Décalé, Kuduro, and Hip Hop. But most of the music is Malian. Samples of Balafons cut up over pounding electronic beats, recognizable Malian hits remixed as unofficial bootlegs, and fast paced Bambara rapping over insane djembe rhythms. For some reason, there are lots of samples of bells and whistles.

In fact, the music of the Balani Show – colloquially known as “Balani Show” or “Ambience” – hints at the origin of the party. While many individuals lay claim to the creation, the Balani Show as music style seems to have emerged around the late 90s/early 2000s. Balanis (literally “little Bala” or “little Balafon”) had long been organized in the villages, particularly in Southern Mali. These village parties were much the same in style, but instead of DJs, featured electrified Balafons. But Balafons and Balafon players were expensive. The same DJs who rented out sound systems began to offer a cheaper alternative, Balani Show sans Balafon at a fraction of the cost, playing prerecorded Balafon music from cassettes. The phenomena caught on, and soon someone introduced a pair of CD turntables. With this latest innovation, DJs had a new ability – to remix and compose their own tracks, updating Malian music and overdubbing it with the signature Coupé Décalé rhythm (check this amazing digital compilation of Balani Show remixes) Using rhythm boxes and samplers, these “Balani Show” creations began to circulate – informing a new style of electronic music, a sort of “Malian Coupé Decalé” founded in the origins of traditional Malian Balafon.

Today the “Balani Show” continues to evolve and mutate into something new. While in Bamako, I saw many CDJs gathering dust and it appeared that many if not all DJs have switched to laptops, the preferred tool for performances. The task of remixing has been handed off to an army of anonymous bedroom DJs and producers, songs loaded and distributed by cellphone and PC. Any number of these “megamixes” can be found at cellphone markets, or playing on the radio. But most interestingly, the Balani Show phenomena has spawned innumerable new musics by a generation that grew up under the sound system. These homegrown productions sample Balafons and have that distinct sound of the remix – but they are original creations, not remixes. Songs are sung in Bambara and are based on traditional rhythms. While this new music is undoubtedly modern, like the Balani Show parties it too pays homage to an ancient tradition. It reveals a different narrative of the old vs new – and suggests that maybe the best way to preserve culture is by reinventing it, keeping it modern and relevant in a faster world.


The new Balani Show Super Hits compilation includes music from over a decade of Balani Show – from early musicians like DJ Bamanan and DJ Balani to the contemporary stars like Kaba Blon and Supreme Talent Show (both whose tracks were produced by the Sidiki Diabate, son of the legendary Toumani Diabate). The vinyl available at the shop, as well as through bandcamp. It doesn’t come with liner notes or photos, but with a glossy digital low-fi jacket that lies closer to what I imagine it would look like if it were released in Bamako. If you want to play it for that distinctly Malian feel, a very loud volume is recommended.

*For more info see my “Global Ear: Bamako” piece in Wire Magazine #342