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John Sofakole, modern folk music hero of dosso

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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.”

tuareg autotune

Abdoul Kader (Tanoutetanoute)

Abdoul Kader (Tanoutetanoute)

Abdoul Kader – Alhadi

Autotune, the notorious pitch correcting vocal effect, has seemingly found its way into every perceivable genre and style of music in every corner of the world. In the genre of Tuareg guitar however, the wanton use is confined to Niger where modern Tuareg compositions have nudged up against the slickly produced autotuned Hausa pop music in a near seamless melding. This is as much geographic as it is cultural. Hausa culture lies on both sides of the Niger/Nigeria border and Agadez, Niger’s capital of Tuareg guitar is majority Hausa speaking. Northern Nigeria’s film industry Kannywood dominates the VCD market throughout Niger even among non-Native Hausa speakers.

For many years, the influence of Hausa music in Tuareg guitar was a pragmatic concern. Nigeria has a plethora of studios with well trained engineers, and a destination for Tuareg guitarists looking to record an album. Such was the case with the two first instances of tuareg autotune – Mdou Moctar in Sokoto, and Abdoul Kader in Kano. Today Agadez hosts a number of studios. Modeled on the Nigeria, these new studios are largely electronic, relying on computer based composition and arrangement and leaning away from live instruments.

Moussa Tchingou, Zone Tuareg

Moussa Tchingou, Zone Tuareg

Moussa Tchingou – Zone Tuareg

While the first incidents of this Hausa pop/Tuareg guitar cultural exchange were largely accidental – Mdou’s autotuned Anar was recorded in 2008 – the resulting style of music is emerging as a definitive trend. I just received some of the new album of Agadez youth outfit Zone Tuareg, and they seem to be only continuing in this vein. It’s not yet a genre and there is no designation for these studio productions, but the number of music recorded with this particular melding of Tuareg and Hausa pop is expanding. As the genre of Tuareg folk guitar further twists in new directions, it’s a challenge to a hegemonic definition of the ishumar guitar sound, and a glimpse at a diversified future.

shine, gospel metal from bamako

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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 – Jam

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.

Shine is featured on Uchronia: The Unequivocal Interpretation of Reality

More video here

the caves of missirikoro

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Missirikoro field recording

Missirikoro is a small village south of Sikasso. It’s only 12 kilometers away, but the road is all red dirt and rocks – unpaved, but heavily traveled. As you approach the village, you can see the strange mountain rising above the tree line. It is a small cylinderical formation that seems to have been dropped out of the sky. There are some young men standing in the forest when we approach, and they accompany us up the hill. Inside the mountain are a series of caves. The biggest chamber is about twenty meters tall. Various indentations mark the floor – the place where the ancient ones prayed, carved out spaces for giant knees and feet, or the crescent shaped divot where a woman and child once lay. The cave walls are curving, and the light from the opening high above flows down them in a river of shadow. It smells of incense and the cave ceiling is waxy and black from smoke. Hidden in the small annexes and corners, people are praying.

This is an ancient place with ancient magic. The place is special with Djinn. There are various caves for Muslims, Christians, and animists, all who come here to make sacrifices. You come here to pray and you make a promise to the cave. If it grants you this, you must come back and fulfill the promise. I hear dozens of stories of those who negated their end of the bargain, and payed in various ways. It’s said many years ago, anything you felt the need to eat would be waiting for you when you arrived. But it was ruined when a man didn’t believe the cave. He thought it was some sort of trick, so hid and watched to see where the food came from. A young girl djinn came carrying the food, and when he spotted her he cried out. He tried to leave but turning into the cave, he became hopelessly lost, and is somewhere still, perhaps, in secret passages underneath.

I go back into the main cavern to have a moment, alone. There are three people in the various chambers with me – a man lying on a prayer rug with a koran, a woman in white hidden on a ledge over the animist cave, and another man, dishelved and unkempt. It is not all silent. Birds flutter and make strange cries, bats swoop through the darkness. Strange insects with long antennaes crawl on the floor. The ground is cold. The air is cold. The earth is still. It reminds me of the cathedral in Tarragona, the curves and symmetry, the private chapels, the underground crypts, the divine valuting. This is a cathedral. Or the cathedral is a cave. Is it so unlike the places where the first people worshipped? The cathedral always carries with it a narrative of power of man to build the structure in the name of god. But this chamber is something different. It is built by god and djinn. It may be alive itself.

The lack of written history is cited as a tragedy, and we work to find and preserve elements of tradition that may be lost to history. But absence is also power. Historical explanations of the caves of Missirikoro might tell us when the first people came here, how they worshipped, why they came to see the caves this way. They could say which stories are ancient, which were altered over generations, and which are modern innovations, sprung from imaginations, boredom, and speculation. But we have nothing like a library here, only words. With nothing to look to, with no explanations of when or how a story began, we are left with only the stories themselves. And all the stories are equally true. We are left with only the sacred.

DJ Sandji 100% Balani Show

DJ Sandji started djing years ago with cassette decks. He now uses a combination of CDJs, Virtual DJ, and a sampler. The sampler seems to always use the same kit – the one with the whistles and claps, which has evolved to be a signature element of Balani Show (Sandji uses Boss DR-660).

The Balani Show is an informal street/bloc party with kids games, dance contests, and acrobatic dance troupes, controlled by an MC and DJ. Although parties have waned over the years, it’s still a common occurrence, especially in the capital of Bamako during vacation.

“Balani Show” style remix – Sikasso Radio

The remix music played at Balani Show defies nomenclature – I’m still not sure what to call it, and neither are the DJs. Sandji plays a combination of Malian pop music, Coupé Décalé, Hip Hop, Kuduro, and Naija Pop. If there is any difference in the past years, it’s that the Balani Show is getting faster. Music is regularly pitched up – Kuduro can clock in at 170bpm. Most of the songs are remixed, either with the addition of drums, or cut up on the computer.

DJ Sandji recently put together a mixtape – 100% Balani Show – of songs making the rounds through the Balani Shows, mixed and cut up, and with enough whistles and handclaps to keep the neighborhood moving. Download if for free on bandcamp or grab it on limited cassette at the shop.