Category Archives: Uncategorized

on the regional variation of id3 tags in the western sahel

Bus field recording, Ansongo, Mali

The first time I heard the music was (naturally) on a cellphone. It was March of 2012, and I left Gao in a rush as the Northern cities fell to the rebellion. I nervously scanned the horizon as the bus blew past abandoned police posts – managing to Zoom a field recording of the song playing on a fellow passenger’s phone.

I continued to find more versions of the piano music. After questions, interviews, and Facebook inquiries, I went to Agadez and gathered up more tracks. Eventually, I learned the identity of the musician – a certain “Japonais,” former rebellion fighter for the MNJ, and pianist. I met the family, and we discussed releasing the material on a record. I began mastering the songs. The records were in the queue, and would soon arrive.

But it wasn’t him.

Hama – Tarhanam Remix

A few months ago, I head back to Niger with a contract and envelope of money. One night we hear one of the songs playing from a nearby cellphone. When the crew stops by to investigate, they’re told a different name: “Hama”. When they report back to me, I tell them they must be mistaken. This is Japonais. Everyone in Agadez knows this. Every mp3 is tagged with his name. I’ve even met with the family, who confirmed it. But the other friends in the Niamey neighborhood are insistent. Not only is this Hama, but he lives close by here – and tomorrow we’ll go visit him.

Hama lives with his family in one of the old neighborhoods of Niamey, Plateau. It’s a calm section of central Niamey with large old concrete houses and tall trees. The Embassies were once here and Hama grew up amongst the expatriates and embassy staff. It was one of these expatriates that gave Hama his first melodica, then synthesizer. In 2005, he found a Yamaha PSR-64. It’s a distinctive sound – warbly, with quarter tones. It features drum programming, which Hama uses to create the signature rhythms on his tracks, all of but one are original compositions. He asks me to sit down, and he begins to play a sound unmistakable from the recording. When he finished he looks up – “Well? Is it me?”

Hama – Live

In 2009, he was invited to the radio to record the instrumental tracks that now circulate through the cellphone networks. While awaiting the completion of his CD, one of the sound engineers copied the songs. But when they were copied, it was with the generic filename: “NOUVEAU INSTRUI”. Hama’s name wasn’t on the file or the id3 tag, and they dispersed throughout the country with no link back to him. Being instrumental music furthermore, it was hard to make any claim to it.

They would have remain unidentifiable music, if it were not for Japonais. A well known figure in the rebellion, Japonais was in fact a Tuareg synth player – as well as a guitarist. His assassination by government troops was an injustice that still reverberates in the North today. Little by little, these unlabeled songs began to pick up the name “Japonais” – by mp3 sellers, cellphone owners, and radio djs – who assumed it was none other than their celebrated hero.

Back in Niamey, only his friends know who he is. He performs rarely and is not a professional musician, working as a driver for a wealthy expatriate businessman. He plays his synthesizer in the evening, but has lately moved into composing music on a computer – using FruityLoops. He demonstrates some of the music, playing a live session, alternatively muting and un-muting looping hi-hats and basslines. “Since I found the computer, I don’t need to look for music anymore, I can compose the songs I want to listen to.” He plays his recreations of Phil Collins and Lil Jon – where he has painstakingly created the melody with a piano VST. “If I could only plug my piano into the computer, I know I could make a lot of things…”

Hama – Tarhanam Remix (Fruityloops version)

** Hama’s full length LP “Torodi” will be released next month in a limited edition of 500 **

stars of agadez

Etran d’Aïr – Agrim Agadez

The members of Etran live together in the neighborhood of Abana, across a wadi in the outskirts of Agadez. It was once here that the caravans stopped to rest before the journey to Bilma. Contrary to the rest of Agadez, it’s sparsely built ad tiny mud houses are scattered amongst dry spiny trees.

Etran D’Aïr is a family band. Brothers and cousins, they are all somehow related, though I’m not sure how. They’ve organized a small session at the house. The band sits on a tapi, surrounded by their material, in an almost impressive state of disrepair. The electricity comes from one of the houses that has electricity in the quartier, dropping in and out. All the small children and toddlers from the neighborhood gather around waiting for the session to begin. The band soundchecks and launches into song.

Etran de L’Aïr – or “stars of Aïr,” play a music that draws heavily from Hausa and Zarma guitar music. Though the members are Tuareg, unlike the Tuareg guitar, it is not strictly in pentatonic and is untethered from this tradition. Some of the songs have three guitars – one for rhythm and two solo guitars that mimic eachother dropping in and out of phase creating a bubbly underwater melody. The trembling solos recall more Tal National than Abdallah Oumbadougou. The lyrics may be in Tamashek, but in spirit the music is Agadez music – Hausa identity, frenetic rhythm, crashing drums.

Agadez means the “place of visit” in the Tamashek language. It’s a ancient city with origins as a crossroads and trading center. While internationally billed as a Tuareg town on the tourist circuit, Agadez is something different. It has been shaped by generations of cultural influence from the South, and Hausa culture has made an indisputable imprint. But Etran is beholden to neither. Far from famous, Etran earns their living from playing in the poorest weddings, and have played for fifteen years. Yet they are known in the Agadez, especially for the above anthem, a song celebrating their city. Uncategorizable, Etran plays music that is not Tuareg nor Hausa, but distinctly that of Agadez.

head dance

Group Mamelon is a Malian Balani Show outfit taking their name from a hill in Sikasso. Koumba FriFri is one of their more popular tracks, recorded in 2010 is an ancient song, updated for the electro age. It translates to “the head dance.” The video, like the song, was mostly distributed via cellphones in 3gp format, hence the low-res quality. I’ve re-dubbed the sound for maximum listening. Recommended viewing is on miniature screen.

Of the modern Malian music in heavy rotation, Mamelon is a few groups combining traditional themes and rhythms with a insanely fast paced sample based music making. Malian rap dominates the Mali soundscape today, making the groups like Mamelon, Supreme Talent Show, and Kaba Blon standout amongst the synthed out club banging Bambara Hip Hop found on sites like Bamada-City.

Koumba Frifri is featured on the Balani Show LP and has also been issued in a limited split 7″ with a bass heavy, chopped and screwed remix by Gulls from Boomarmnation, available here and at the Sahel Sounds shop.

808s & heartbreak

Mdou Moctar – La Super

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Everything that he had earned in Libya, he gave to his mother. He had nothing left. He asked her for his old guitar that he had left there in his absence, sitting abandoned in the corner. He put on new strings and took it out to play. Two days afterwards, he left for Abalak with some new friends, but soon they had to return to their village. They liked his guitar. One week later, they called him and invited him to come and stay for awhile. They organized large picnics, sitting under the acacia trees.

There was a girl. And he fell in love with her. She would always say, "You are super." So he started calling her "My Super."

One day when they all came together, she wasn't there. He saw later and asked, why didn't you come, she said if you want to find me you know where to find me. He loved her, but he couldn't say such a bold thing. He had just arrived. The next day, she was sleeping in the desert at Toruf, at her grandmother's tent. He took a horse with his friend, Sayid, and went to the bush. He wore a strong perfume, and she knew it was him before he even arrived. There was a young man at her side, talking. The young man wanted him to leave. But she wanted him to stay. The three of them sat there in the dark. He talked to her, but the young man kept interrupting. Eventually after much deliberation, the young man left. He stayed and talked with her late until the night.

They were always together after that, everynight, during the tendes, going home just before first morning prayer. He composed his song Super: "I love you more than a big taknit with all the beautiful girls." And everything was fine. One week turned into a month.

But soon, someone came to him and told him - this girl is married, she married a student who lives in another town. Now, there was nothing he could do.

Five days later the husband returned. He told himself, if he's not a nice man, I'll continue just until she's divorced so I can marry her. He talked with her husband, who was immediately friendly. It was not what he was expecting. A few days later, he met her at night, neither of them knowing that her husband was still there. They were talking under the tent when the husband came home. He sat down, and said Hello Mdou. The girl was silent. The husband said, you should stay, I'll leave. And he left.

In the morning the husband sent a child to invite him to come to his house. He told them he would come, and tried to waste time. The child came a second time. He followed the child. When he arrived, he was met by the husband and his two brothers. They greeted him, offered him a seat, and began making tea. They said nothing. The husband said, it's necessary that you walk with me to the market, 5 kilometers through the desert. They walked the whole way. Again, he said nothing.

He realized there was nothing he could do, and he returned to Abalak. He wrote songs.

"I have a spine that pierces me in the heart, but I can't see it, and I can't take it out."

"Love has become a malady for me - the night passes without sleep, and in the morning I don't do anything but think of her."

"If the love for her had a cure, I would drink it regardless of the taste."

"My dream is to turn into a small bird to give her a kiss between her eyebrows."

He stayed in Abalak and said nothing more to her. Months later, he received the news that they were going to be married. He fled the country and went to Nigeria, traveling until the land ended and the ocean began.

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field recordings of starlight

We arrive in Tchin-Tabaradene at sunset. It’s a calm village, one of the innumerable places throughout West Africa and the “under” developed world, places that lie off the paved roads and power grids, their physical isolation a stalwart against the creeping homogenization of a single world. Between here and the highway sits a large swath of desert, scrubs and sand but for the occasional collections of straw houses and mud silos, grazing herds of cows and tiny Tuareg toddlers riding donkeys laden with water – tiny children with intricate patterns braided into their black hair. The night is filled with stars and the distant sound of radio from the last sleepy shop owner drinking his tea late into the evening, the shrill cry of night birds and clicking of bats.

After so many travels, I know where I need to be, and have almost fine tuned a method: do not seek isolation, but the places at the end of the road, and at all costs avoid the cities with their false promises – they may seem easier, but it’s a poor imitation and the hustle and madness will only drain time and energy. In the village every moment is a poem, every conversation is a story, every point of light in the veil of blackness is an inspiration. It is a richness apart from the homogeny of the city, something that approaches its own tradition of a unique modernity. In Tchin-Tabaradene, the Chinese motorbikes speak when starting in poor Chinese/British accented English, a language not at all understood here. So prized are the bikes that in order to maintain and preserve them, they are left wrapped in their packaging. Young men roar through the village on strange shapes, covered in cardboard and plastic. In their efforts to protect and preserve beauty, the hide them from everyone, even themselves.

Tchin-Tabaradene, Night