Category Archives: sonrai

medium and the message

Super Onze – Gao

Around the fall of Gao in 2012, I met a cassette vendor in Niamey’s grand market. For years he has sat on a bench in a busy corridor with stacks of cassettes and an array of simultaneously spinning duplicators. One of a few vendors left in a vanishing trade, a steady clientele of old men maintain the fledging business. Recorded live on tape decks, dubbed and re-dubbed, they vary in quality from slight tape hiss to degraded into a magnetic distortion. The aquamarine semi-translucent tapes are packaged in plastic cases with recycled paper j-cards. Some of them bear handwritten description, some with fine stencils, more often marked simply with symbols, as if in a secret codex.

Nearly all the cassettes are Takamba.

In the 1980s and into the 90s, Takamba rose to prominence. Empowered by newly amplified instruments, griots toured throughout Mali and Niger and takamba music and its ghostly dance became a signature of the Sahel. And then came the guitar. Circulating in the underground cassette trade, the revolutionary anthems and homesick ballads spread across the diaspora – first as strictly revolutionary discourse but soon becoming expression of popular culture. By the late 90s, guitar music found itself in respectable company, in weddings, political campaigns, and even state sponsored soirees. Takamba drifted out of fashion, retreating to its home in Gao and the sleepy Songhoi villages alongside the lazy river.

Takamba (previously), with the raw shrill guitar and the clattering percussion, continues to be played today. But most often, today’s experience is through the format of the cassette and the hundreds of sessions, recorded years ago, dubbed and re-dubbed, in disintegrating reproduction. The slightly muddied sound and persistent hush of white noise, temper the clatter and crash and buzz – defining a new signature – the Takamba cassette. The old ghosts dance under the stars, blaring out of a boombox of the shopkeeper, shaking the dying embers of that third and final tea, as the town drifts off into sleep.

Super Onze de Gao * was, and is, a Takamba super group (more info here). One of the most prolific Takamba outfits, its membership has including stars such as Douma Maiga and Yehia Samaké. One of the highlights found in the market, a cassette recorded sometime in the early 90s, has recently been pressed into vinyl. As the group never had released an official cassette, we indulged in a bit of creative indulgence to re-envision what such a release may have looked like, with screen printed covers featuring hand-drawn artwork – as the session plays with that slight background hiss of the tape, a tribute to the cassette. Available in 500 limited edition vinyl at the Sahel Sounds shop (or your local record retailer) and bandcamp.

*Super Onze is also the name of the Brazilian-dubbed version of Japanese anime show based on a Nintendo DS game Inazuma Eleven, owing to some confusion on Google.

Välkomna

To my Scandinavian friends: I’m in Sweden this week! Amanar was supposed to be joining me, but due to visa issues I’m representing Azawad by my lonesome. I’ll be in Stockholm and on the 11 and 12th I’ll be djing at Gagnef Festival.

Brought over a bunch of records, including the new Pheno S., Mdou Moctar, Amanar/Celestino 7″, and sister label Boomarmnation’s El Mahdy Jr. LP – available at Larry’s Corner and Snickars Records.

Lastly, for those of you that missed it – the program I co-produced with Sam Backer on Modern Malian music is still live up on Afropop Worldwide. Big ups to letting us play “Malien Dougie” on NPR affiliates across America. Eat your heart out Terry.

up north trip

The North of Mali is a varied and special place, from the muddy banks of the Niger as it navigates through the scrubby Sahel to the jagged sun backed rocks of Adrar D’Ifoghas deep in the Sahara. The landscape is at times empty and sparse, but the culture is rich, with bustling cities, thousands of sleepy villages, and countless nomad encampments. But the people in the North live a perilous existence. Money is made to be spent and there is no saving or security. Often that model works fine. Community and family is strong and people rally together to help those individuals when disaster falls. Unfortunately, the disaster right now is affecting everyone. As armed extremists have taken over the North, driving out civilians, implementing bizarre forms of Sharia law, and effectively banning music, the North of Mali has been thrown into turmoil.

“Songs for the North Country” is a compilation of recordings taken over the past three years of various musicians, both modern and traditional. It’s for sale on sliding scale. Pay what you want. 100% of the proceeds from this album will go directly to the people featured on the album. That’s it. There is no bureaucracy – just Bandcamp and me walking down the Moneygram office to send off checks. There is no NGO who will redistribute the funds to everyone, so it wont help everyone. But it will go the musicians on these recordings you’re listening to — all musicians who are currently struggling in the North of Mali or refugees in exile and all who have been directly affected by the events.

The North is trying to be silenced. But I hope these recordings can stand as a reminder of what the North was, and what it can and will be again: guitar bands rocking in the evening streets of Niafounke, children gathering at the nomad camps of the Adrar, plucked takamba in the sandy houses of Timbouctou, and wistful village melodies sung out over the banks of the Niger.

Sahelsounds, the promo cd



A little compilation of recordings from the site, for downloadable and listening pleasure. Bismillah.

01 – teyti announces issawat
02 – abba – ishumar guitar
03 – girl and mother – na hawa doumbia
04 – alkibar gignor – ali farka homage
05 – tidiane – fanta
06 – sahl la guido – ndarka
07 – alkibar gignor – rehearsal
08 – kidal forgerons – abacabok
09 – halima – issawat
10 – djounhan children – beelibal
11 – bebe – ishilan an tenere
12 – ali ag mouma – takamba
13 – niafounke kids – children song
14 – m. ould mohamed – medh
15 – lala – tende
16 – nouakchott market – cassette
17 – amanar – concert
18 – soninke griot – cinquieme wedding
19 – maur griot – nouakchott wedding
20 – field recording – chinguetti
21 – habib – flute

Mediafire

Sonrai sound


En route to Timbouctou, I stop over in Goundam, a nondescript village of the Niger Delta. As I travel with guitar, a young man stops me and asks if he can have a look in the case. “Moi, aussi, je suis un artiste…” His name is Babah Dire (from the town Dire), a recorded artist with a few cassettes and a regular at Essakane, and I shoot the preceding video.

The style of guitar is that which is popularized by Ali Farka Toure; what can be called the Sonrai (or Songhai) folk.* Notably for it’s blues sound, the ever present pentatonic scale, and strong punctuated notes (there are none of the tremolos or false notes as in Tamashek guitar). But it would be difficult to pigeonhole the music. Authenticity is for idealists.

Outside “Obama’s” botique in Niafounke, a guitarist demonstrates the Sonrai folklore.

Souleyman – Ali Farka Cover

Souleyman – A song in the Bambara scale

The village of Tonka lies between Niafounke and Timbouctou, on the bank of the River Niger. It is an exceptionally green place, and exudes a certain friendliness which maybe has something to do with lack of tourism. I spend a few days with a group called Horostar de Tonka, three chauffeurs who when they’re not crisscrossing Northern Mali, retreat to the edge of town and play guitar until the late dark hours (there is no electricity in Tonka, a missed blessing?).

Horostar de Tonka – Chaud!

Alkibar Gignor of Niafounke (previously here) produces a funky interpretation of Sonrai guitar. The following tracks are from a night rehearsal at the Ali Farka Hotel – including lots of dancing, which the microphone may have failed to capture. Imagination required.

Alkibar Gignor 1

Alkibar Gignor 2

Alkibar Gignor 3

* In local usage, Sonrai refers to the language/culture in Timbouctou and its environs, Songhai for Gao.