Luka Productions, known around here for his Fasokan LP and renowned in Mali for a prolific output of contemporary Malian Hip Hop is back in the studio on a new project. Bringing in a group of musicians, ngoni, guitar, percussion, synth, and computer, it’s very exciting stuff. Luka seems to be at the front of the avant garde beatmakers, forging a path that is both respected and popular, but remarkably original in execution. Electronic Malian music is not new – but the purposeful interpretation a new thing. While there are dozens of producers turned musicians, Hip Hop producers turned studio engineers, the beat-making is almost always left behind as a “indulgence of youth.” The two worlds are self contained, and music rarely spans the rift.
The group, yet to be named, has dropped a few tracks to me via Whatsapp. Mali Internet 2.0 has obviously shifted things around in the country. Just recently the government temporarily blocked social media during a government protest, attempting to intercept the role of social media communication to rally the populace. With Whatsapp on every phone, communication (in spite of Bamako’s elites) has never been easier. Media flows both ways – even writing about music, on said blog, is no longer a mystery box for West Africa, but this post alone will be shared and promoted via Bamako’s Facebook channels.
Sitting far away in Portland, I’ve been watching the progress of the session via Whatsapp, with live in-studio jams from the luka productions studio – a mini Boiler Room, while everyone crowds into the tiny studio. I scour the internet for a non-English speaking music residency (the band wants to do some work in Europe), and how best to talk about a music genre that doesn’t exist yet.
The new music video for Ami Yerewolo’s“A San Nièfai” takes Malian Hip Hop into a science fiction future. In the video, a trio of post apocalyptic survivors wander through the Malian countryside, stumbling on the destroyed and smoking ruin of the capital. Meanwhile, they are pursued by a vehicular gang with bandits piled into the back of trucks and screaming stunting motorcycles. The video alternates between Ami rapping in an underground mine shaft and a loose narrative that ends in a showdown between two warring factions. And of course, a dance sequence.
The stylistic choice for the video isn’t wholly surprising and is clearly inspired by the Hype Williams directed 2pac video for California Love and blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road (the former of course being a remake of the 1979 Mad Max, alas). Aside from being a colorful video with a plethora of special effects and tentative narrative structure, the video stands out particularly in the West African context. It is well likely that “A San Nièfai” is the first commercial science fiction production from Mali.
I spoke with Sidiki Goita, director of the video, and co-founder of Vortex Groups, a Bamako based special FX startup. Goita is an engineer by trade, but over the years he’s grown his company to a dozen members, all in their 20s. While working on 3D design, logos, and advertising, Vortex Groups supplements their work with music video production. It’s a lucrative avenue of the struggling Bamako music industry, particularly in contemporary Malian Hip Hop. As Internet enabled cellphones replace the old bluetooth networks of music trading, sites like RHHM and Bamada-City are gatekeepers of new media. Malian Hip Hop artists rely on music videos to advertise and promote their brands. Vortex’s approach varies from the other studio houses, Goita explains. “When Vortex Groups produces a video clip, we make it as though it was a feature length fiction. We write a script, assemble a technicians, make a storyboard…and after finishing all these stages we proceed to scouting the location.”
For what appears to be a large production with cast and costumes, the video for “A San Nièfai” was assembled in pure DIY aesthetic, relying on found materials and free locations. The costumes were salvaged from found materials, transforming motorcycle helmets into armor, calabash turned into shields, and large woven potato sacks for clothing. The video was shot 40 km outside of Bamako at an old quarry for laterite, the iron rich clay used for the quintessential red mud bricks seen across West Africa. Goita was given creative freedom from the artist to make something very different from the standard Bamako Hip Hop video: “The idea of the clip was to break the monotony and the uniformity of the current African videos that loop on the music TV channels, summed up with drone shots of a singer surrounded by a crowd of dancers and also scantily clad girls. The second goal was to shock viewers to the consequences of civil wars, by showing apocalyptic images of their city.”
Science fiction has always been a genre of speculation and warnings, projections that reflect on utopic and dystopic futures. While fantasy and horror have a place in oral tradition, science fiction doesn’t exist in Mali. Only now are the possibilities being explored as technology allows low budget experimentation to redesign reality through 3D animation, compositing, and green screen. So why isn’t there more science fiction? “The problem that persists is a conflict of generations,” Goita explains. “The old ones who have mastered the network of studio production are not ready to leave the beaten track. They are content with simple cinema without technical stakes – just simple stories of love and politics.”
Sidiki Goita says the ultimate goal with Vortex Groups is to produce feature films. Their music videos are calling cards, examples of what can be accomplished with a little investment. “In the West, the cinemas are exhausted, they only make remakes and films of superheroes,” Goita says. “Like our mining resources, our stories and legends are not even exploited to 5%…The younger generation does not have access to funding to produce high-quality films. Foreign partners should trust African youth to finance projects. With less than $20,000, we could would make an African version of Mad Max which could rival productions with 10 times the budget!”
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.
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.
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.
For sometime I’d been on an elusive search for the West African metal musicians. It appeared that metal didn’t exist the Sahel. Enter Shine. Band leader Daouda Dao is professor at the Arts Conservatory of Bamako. It’s Bamako’s art school, with active theater courses, plastic arts, visual arts, and music – an impressive attendance of students making all kinds of amazing media. Anyone looking for a place to meet/collaborate/launch art projects in Mali needs to know about this place. But I digress. When I meet Daouda finishing up one his courses, he tells me that he’s in a metal band, and I immediately drop everything to set up a rehearsal.
Shine’s music is unlike anything else in Mali. For one, there is a Keytar in the band. Also, Daoudo plays the guitar with his teeth and Van Halen inspired two handed guitar tapping. It sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard in Mali, or even in West Africa. The range of influences are vast – blues rock, Hendrix, and the aforementioned “metal.” Perhaps it’s the driving rhythm guitar and the deadpan vocals, but I almost hear some Joy Division.
Mali is an overwhelming Muslim country, around 90% to the 1% of Christians. Churches are sparse throughout the capital city and much less visible than their brethren with towering mosques and their synchronized calls to prayer. Suffice to say, there is no problem here between religions, and Mali is a place that prides itself on pluralism. Shine is made up from these churches – each band member in their respective church band – and their music contains a religious message. Perhaps because of this status as religious/musical minority the band is less bound to the more popular sound in Mali, and can experiment in the fringes. Into Metal.
We record the session at a church in Sabalibougou, a suburb of Bamako. The wide space and arching metal roof distorts the sound into a reverb oblivion – not an ideal venue. It would sound better with a full church, but it’s empty for now. After five songs or so, everyone quickly departs for their other bands, choirs, and jobs. I’m not sure what I heard, but I want more.
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.