Category Archives: niger

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

John Sofakole, modern folk music hero of dosso

sofakole

John Sofakole – Anashua (1989)

I found John Sofakole’s cassette in a dusty dark corner of the Centre de Formation et de promotion Musicale (CFPM), Niger’s formerly prolific center for modern music in Niamey. The CFPM once housed an active studio, and the archives read a bit like detritus of something grand and powerful that doesn’t quite match up with the vision of today. I had heard John’s name before in the stories of other musicians, but these were the first songs I had heard. As is the case with most the history of popular music in Niger, nothing is written, little is recorded, and the legacy of the artists of the past decades mostly survives in the memory of songs.

We meet up at the same center, sitting under a tree in the courtyard. John tells stories between the songs, and recounts the old days. John Sofakole, real name Abdoulaye Halidou Maïguizo, grew up in Dosso, a town just south of Niamey. It’s from here that he takes his name. In 1989, John won the Prix Dan Gourmou, a prize established a few years prior to award the burgeoning scene of “modern music” in Niger. His song was titled Sofakole, and recounted the story of a lake in Dosso, haunted by a djinn.

John Sofakole – Sofakole (2014)

Sofakole is a song about a seasonal lake near Dosso. It’s an old sacred place called Fada Bongo, an enchanted lake inhabited by a djinni. Each six months, the people of Dosso made sacrifices to the lake: chickens, goats, and all sorts of animals, preferably with black fur, would be sacrificed at the lakes edge. The meat would be shared and consumed by the people. The lake could have the blood. The sacrifice was an obligation to the lake, like most lakes possessed by djinn or Mami Wata, an observed ritual ensuring safety. In the rainy season, the water would grow into a deep lake, and if the sacrifice wasn’t made, it would swallow up whomever entered.

John’s brief rise to fame brought him around the country, joining with other stars like Ali Djibo and Guez Band, and eventually he ended up traveling abroad and performing in Japan. For most of the Nigerien artists of the “modern music,” there was a brief moment in the 1990s that contemporary music seemed to have government support and interest, particularly in the development of the CFPM, a government sponsored music institution that now is a shadow of it’s former activity..

John Sofakole – Anashua (2014)

Like the CFPM, the lake of Sofakole is no more. What happened was this: one day, the djinni swallowed up the son of a powerful fisherman. The child had traveled to Dosso for a school course, and was playing in the lake when he disappeared into the lake. The father, incensed that the djinn would have the audacity to make such an error against the son of a fisherman ordered it to leave. “And the djinni left. It’s still in the region, hiding somewhere. Today there’s no water,” John explains. “There’s some water maybe below, but not like before.”

Azna de L’Ader vinyl

azna de l'ader vinyl

Forty years coming, Azna de L’Ader finally has an official release! One of the seminal rock bands from Niger, Azna was hardly known outside of the country – and mostly confined to the Tahoua region of Niger. The LP version features highlights of their recording history, restored and remastered from the archives at Radio Niger (ORTN). Vinyl edition comes with a book of photos and liner notes. Grab it at bandcamp or at the shop.

azna de l’ader

azna de l'ader

Mona – Hey Joe

Mona is an imposing figure. He once stood much taller than he does today – age has taken it’s toll, and he walks slowly, slightly hunched over. But when he steps out of the shadows in a purple frilled jacket and pants to match and sporting the same afro he’s worn for decades, Mona is timeless. And then he begins to play. Mona is a demon with the guitar, playing noisy trilling solos, lifted from the Jimi Hendrix catalog, that soon degrade into shredding improvisation. After the ends of his song, he continues to dance over the frets of the guitar into a tangle of feedback and noise. The phrase “Hendrix of the Sahara” is used by music PR and journalists to make tenuous links to anyone from W. Africa that plays an electric guitar, invoked so often to be utterly meaningless. This may be the singular case it is warranted. Mona’s music is “unlike” anything in Niger, unlike anything in West Africa, perhaps on the entire continent – and the most reminiscent of the Voodoo Child.

Mona is something of a legend. Mona formed his first group in 1970 (“the Crocodiles”) followed by what today stands as one of the oldest orchestras in Niger: Azna de L’Ader. Known for their very specific and very Hendrix inspired psychedelic rock, Azna is the legendary group that everyone in Niger knows about, and no one outside of the country has ever heard of. I’d heard stories of Mona for years – “he plays the guitar with his teeth!” – not without a certain reverence or fear. After watching a ridiculously intense YouTube performance from the late 90s, I decided to travel to Tahoua to meet with him.

2-AZNA1

Mona (real name: Abdoulaye Bouzou) is part of the milieu of the Niger’s “first generation” of modern artists (a genre aptly titled “musique moderne nigérienne”) – alongside other famous musicians like Ali Djibo, El Hadj Taya, Mamman Garba, and Mamman Sani Abdoulaye. Most of this modern music came from this upper class; the aforementioned were all teachers, professors, and governmental officials. “It wasn’t music for everyone in town, but for other officials,” Mona explains. Although the group rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, they remained largely a local phenomena in the region of Tahoua. “There was no studio – that was why people played for a long time without recording. There wasn’t an idea to record and sell music. Before it was just the radio or the television [making recordings]…if the wasn’t the TV that passed in the region, there was no chance.”

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Mona’s group Azna de L’Ader played a mixture of popular music that came in from abroad, both from Europe and the West: “Since our childhood, we listened to lots of Western musicians….Johnny Holliday, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Eddie Mitchell, Elvis Presley.” On equal footing was Benin’s Polyrhythm de Cotonou. “They were real musicians,” Mona explains. “We were the same age, but they started before us….[as Muslims] we didn’t make music, it wasn’t allowed. But they learned in the Church. They learned the guitar, the drums. They made gospel music.”

Incidentally, the name Azna refers to the pre-Islamic animist religion, still practiced in Niger. The oft mentioned Bori, notable for their ritual spirit possessions are a well known sub-group of the Azna. While Mona’s music flirts close to the hypnotic Bori possession music, it is also most definitely rock. For Mona, the two are not mutually exclusive. Rather than Hendrix influenced rock, it may be the other way around. “When the Europeans took blacks as slaves in the US, our ancestors who went there brought their culture with them. So they mixed their music with modern instruments, and they created the blues, and that invented rock n roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, everything. The blues comes from here. We sing, we cry, and it brings you just into the trance. We make Bori, we do Voodoo. Our ancestors brought this to the US. Little by little, it took in everyone.”

mdou moctar spring tour

mdou_poster

Spring is upon us, time to come out of the house and put on your dancing shoes. Tuareg guitarist and virtuoso Mdou Moctar has a mini-spring tour, and will be traveling around for a few shows in the EU + Turkey. In addition, he’ll be screening his film Akounak (which has quite a few screenings worldwide this month – check out our mailing list). Check out the dates + links below:

4/7 – LA MÉCANIQUE ONDULATOIRE – PARIS, FRANCE
4/8 – LA MORADA ARGANZUELA – MADRID, SPAIN
4/9 – SALON iKSV – ISTANBUL, TURKEY
4/10 – ASOCIACIÓN FREEDONIA – BARCELONA