Spring is here, and Les Filles de Illighadad are heading out on their European tour next month, with dates in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and the UK. Stop by and say hello!
The newest release from Sahel Sounds is titled Agrim Agadez , a compilation of field recordings of guitar music from the Sahelian empire of Niger. Focusing on guitar music throughout the country, and recorded over many years of travels, Agrim Agadez celebrates the diversity of the instrument in the contemporary Sahel.
Like most of the Sahel, the guitar is found in every corner of Niger. Whether acoustic, electric, or built by hand, guitars are highly prized possessions and continue to inspire. Every corner of Niger has particular languages, customs, and cultures, and each corner has taken the instrument and transformed it in its own special way: from bar bands of the southern Hausa land, pastoral flock owning village autodidacts, rag-tag DIY wedding rock musicians, to political minded folk guitarists. Agrim Agadez follows the sounds overheard playing on cassettes, seeking out the once legendary local heroes in their hometowns, and stumbling upon musicians in accidental chance encounters.
For readers of the blog, it’s familiar territory. Much of the music has been shared here over the years, as yours truly was faithfully updating the blog from remote cyber cafes and borrowed cellphone wi-fi. It’s also a continuation of two other records that delved into the same subject, the debut Ishilan n-Tenere, and the subsequent Laila Je T’Aime. Field recordings have always been a foundation of this work (if for anything else, an opportunity to travel!), but there is a certain element to the live recording that is hard to replicate in a controlled sterile space of the studio.
While it would be nice to claim that the record is comprehensive and academic, Agrim Agadez is not that album. This is not a record of research, but something to listen to. You can draw your own conclusions. However, it is a faithful document of the guitar as it’s heard, experienced in the open air studios of Niger with a single microphone, with backdrops of children’s voices, crickets, and village ambience. But above all, it’s a record of people who once upon a time, decided to pick up the guitar and play a song.
Our friends at the Neopan Kollektiv have finished up their documentary “A Story of Sahel Sounds.” The film is what it says on the tin. A few years back, the filmmakers reached out about a project to document the work of Sahel Sounds. Over the past 3 years, the film team joined us on some of the first European tours with Mamman Sani and Mdou Moctar, came along to Niger on a month long recording trip, and visited us at home in rainy Cascadia, worlds away from the Sahel.
“The film celebrates music performances by current artists from Niger and opens up a space to question our understanding of cultural exchange, musical connections and political structures. Against the backdrop of ever-growing globalization, although influenced by an unequal distribution of power, new possibilities for self-determination open up, these artists attempt to make it big – on the stage and on the mobile phones of their fans. Inspired by Christopher Kirkley’s work, the film overcomes cultural and geographical distances and offers a new perspective on a region which most of us only know as a crisis zone.”
The film is premiering this Thursday at the HOF International Film Festival in Hof, Germany.
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!
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