Digging at the mp3 market in Bamako, I had the vendor send me over a folder entitled GAO RAP. Containing, of course, what the title says – Rap music from the Northern Mali city of Gao. Which in itself would not be so remarkable if it wasn’t for what rap music from Gao sounds like. Which is nothing else in the world.
Rap in foreign languages leaves much to the imagination, and the unfamiliar ear gravitates towards the production over the lyrical content. There is a heavy use of autotune, and a certain reverbed synth that carries the melody. All of the productions tend to have little flourishes, the light hand of fruity loops. It’s low-fi in a way that is already a thing of the past, a signature of the early 2000s, PC based music.
Gao lies in what is essentially the extreme North East of Mali. You can go no further without leaving the asphalt behind. At a crossroads (both culturally and literally), Gao accumulates a little from every side. Musical influence is equally part high energy Balani Bamako Hip Hop and the sweet and cheesy autotune of Hausa pop music, combined with fascinating rhythms of that homegrown sort, with sudden changes that reflect the intermittent improvised breakdowns at the heart of takamba.
As a genre, GAO RAP may end here – at the title of an mp3 or the folder of a music collector at Bamako’s music market. It’s not something considered, certainly not abroad, but neither in Mali. It’s hardly a genre, or even a subculture – and it may not exist for long enough for such bold words. But it is a localized experimentation and a sound inseparable from a place and time. It exists, and it sounds like Gao.
“Luka Productions” is based in a small studio off a busy street in the capital of Bamako. The mural on the outside of the building, with giant microphone and curling graffiti letters is arguably larger than the four walls inside. A repurposed boutique, there are two small couches framing the the computer and console of studio engineer, rapper, and producer Luka Guindo. His portrait hangs over the computer. Behind plexiglass is a closet sized sound booth.
Luka, responsible for the Supreme Talent Show album and hundreds of other tracks, is self taught and PC based (cubase, reason, and fruityloops) – one of many producers/studio owners that create all the hip hop produced in Bamako, and by default Mali (there are smaller Hip Hop studios scattered throughout country, and at least one distinctive Hip Hop style in Gao). Every composer has singular style. Luka relies on melodies – he plays piano in the local church – that mimic the vocals, complementing one another. The drums are heavy and punchy, and pitch bended keys solo over the distinctive and improvisational rhythms. He often adds cut up djembe and balafon to the mix to give a local touch, which are sampled though not in the studio, but packaged in a Native Instruments plugin (the website seems aimed at Western audiences, unbeknownst that their product is probably used more in West Africa). If there are doubts to the authenticity of the production, Luka includes a drop at the beginning and end of every track.
Luka is quiet when working and rarely looks up. His eyes are glued to his computer, and his hands fly over the keyboard with a series of shortcuts, deftly cutting and loudly slamming the keyboard to drop in segments of a track. Ticking off the metronome, he adds to a production layer by layer, before improvising a melody. The vocalist steps into the booth minutes later, and the track is recorded. At the end, he does a quick master – these are not tracks for high end stereos or audiophiles. Most, if not all of the listening will be on cellphones, USB radios, car stereos, and youtube.
Hip Hop is the most popular youth music in Mali. Songs circulate via the new media distribution of mp3s and usb keys, but are also posted online – the two biggest curators of Mali Hip Hop are websites and youtube channels – RHHM and Bamada-city – both based in France and run by Malian expats. With open distribution channels and the low cost to record tracks, the music is uncensored by either institution or government. Last year, battle raps and clashes became so prominent that the government attempted to intervene, as lyrics were insulting parents of other rappers, including some prominent social figures. While some producers align themselves with rappers, in doing so, they’ve been caught up in the feuds. Luka has tried not to get involved – he wont let people record “clash” vocals.
Luka’s studio is DIY and cobbled together with what is at hand. Much of the equipment has made the journey here from the US or Europe via traveling friends and family. For professional engineers in Mali, it’s not the best, and there a few high end studios in Bamako. But Luka makes up for this with talent and speed. He can dash out a song in minutes. The better studios are too expensive. Unused and inaccessible, they gather dust – and their engineers rarely get a chance to record.
While the culture of piracy is strong, it hasn’t deterred youth from wanting to rap. Luka’s studio is lucrative and busy, and even during a session, there’s another rapper waiting outside. Everyone has something to say. Luka is also rapping on his own productions. He shows me one of his new videos, shot in a village and boasting an incredible opening shot – made with a drone. He recently released a CD, which has already been pirated. “Sometimes people come up to me and tell me ‘I love your music, I have all your songs on my cellphone.'” He laughs. “They don’t realize the problem with that.”
Pheno S. is a young rapper from Gao, Mali. I first heard Pheno’s songs drifting about as mp3s through cellphones and memory cards (one track was included on a mixtape Saharan Cellphones Vol. 2 and on the upcoming LP). The standout track was labeled “FENOMENAL MIX”, a slick produced autotuned hip hop melody with a tempo breakdown three quarters into the song. The style is immediately reminiscent of Hausa pop from Niger/Nigeria. I shopped it around on Facebook and sent it to at least 50 people before someone responded with Pheno’s phone number. When I traveled to Gao in February, we had the chance to meet face to face.
Pheno S. is a slight unassuming eighteen year old. He arrived at Boubou’s house in colorful hightops and rather unnecessary jacket, flushed out in hip hop fashion that permeates into every corner of the world. He stood at the door, respectfully, shaking hands with everyone present with a reserved demeanor until offered a place to sit. Our conversation was brief, limited by language difficulties, but Boubou’s son later expounded on the subjects of Gao Hip Hop and the story of Pheno S.
Hip Hop is a very recent phenomena and local performers only appeared in the past few years. Pheno listens to French Hip Hop but speaks little French, and cites as his biggest influences groups like Lakale Kanaye and Kadian Gaskia, popular rap groups from Niamey, Niger from the late 1990s (Gao shares an affinity with Niamey, lying closer to the capital of Niger than it’s own and speaking a language almost mutually comprehensible). Pheno doesn’t know how popular his songs have become, profiting from the curious nature of the cellphone network to render wide distribution sans celebrity. For example, I later find Pheno’s “FENOMENAL” title in Lagos, Nigeria – two countries away and a torturous overland distance of nearly two days travel. To Pheno S., popularity among non-Sonrai speakers or even non-Gao residents seems irrelevant. The song that launched Pheno into local hip hop star was in response to a very local event:
In Pheno’s song, in purest hip hop battle (or “clash”), he takes on the institution in a manner that would make Chuck D. proud. In one of Gao’s public schools, the director was known to be sleeping with the students. It’s unfortunately not a rare event, and as Boubou explains “many girls in Gao get pregnant because of teachers.” This instance was even more brazen than usual with the director installing a bed in his office. Pheno composed a song where he clashed him (though addressing the song to a whining dog), asking “who has ever heard of director who brings his mattress to school?” Pheno tells the “dog”, probably some 20 years his senior to “open his ears and listen to me: if you see a young girl you like, you should talk to her parents and marry her, not get her pregnant and ruin her life.”
The song caused an outrage in Gao, especially when it went “viral” and soon was on every cellphone, a public humiliation for the school director. Pheno was suspended and the administration ordered him to stop the song, before realizing that once out, it could never be removed from circulation. Pheno returned to school with a reputation that cemented his status in a testament not only to the power of the cellphones, but the power of hip hop.
As music is imported from abroad stylings are often rife with misinterpretations: the clothing and mannerisms are a bit dated, the borrowed postures from Lil Wayne are slightly off, or slogans are mispronounced in poor accents. Yet Hip Hop has maintained the most important elements in translation, particularly in the case of Pheno. Seeing the moment to take on an institution far more powerful then himself, and to speak his mind in a flagrant display of anti-authoritarian youth culture – it’s about as Hip Hop as it gets.