rain the color of blue with a little red in it

A few years back, a friend and I were joking about the idea of adapting films to the Sahara. The buddy cop film in Nouakchott, the alien invasion of the Western Sahara. We eventually came to Prince’s 1984 epic rock-u-drama Purple Rain, which seemed the ideal model. The film is written around a musician. In some ways, it plays like a long music video. While some of the writing seems kitsch today, and riddled with clichés, the idea at the core – a fictional film very loosely based around the life and struggle of a musician – was a feasible project that could be possible.

Flashforward a few years, I began working with Mdou Moctar (the autotuned star of the Music from Saharan Cellphones compilations) and Jerome Fino of the French collective L’improbable to make this film a reality. Over three weeks in Niger, we started shooting, found a cast and crew, and most importantly, began rewriting the story from the perspective and experiences of Mdou and his fellow musicians. The resulting project that we’ve titled Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (English: “Rain the Color of Blue with a little Red in it”) is less a remake than a homage – a telling of a universal story. Akounak follows a fictional Mdou who has just moved to Agadez, and his struggle to become a star in the winner takes all scene of Tuareg guitar music. The movie is full of musical performance, and features a number of Agadez’s star musicians.

Akounak will have the honor of being the first ever movie shot in the Tuareg language (specifically, a mixture of dialects from Aïr and Azawagh). We want it to be a hit in the desert (we’ll release it as DVDs in Niger and as 3GP on cellphones). But it will also be one of the few fiction films concerned with the Tuareg music subculture. While Tuareg guitar has been explored somewhat exhaustively in documentary features, most of these films have focused on the political origins of the folk music – not how it thrives today. Like my friend Drew Wilson says, this film is not about Kalashnikovs but “cellphones, motorcycles, and guitars.”

The Kickstarter is now well under way, so we’ll be headed back next month to shoot the project. If we exceed the goal, we’ll be adding more rewards and goals – maybe a vinyl original soundtrack recording? Stay tuned.

mariam ahmed

Mariam Ahmed is a guitarist in Agadez, which in itself is not spectacular. With so many guitarists in the city, one needs not to search far. However, there are practically no female guitarists in Tuareg music and Mariam is perhaps one of a handful across the diaspora.

Tuareg guitar is largely a folk tradition of men. While not imposed by force, it is maintained by social norms of where the guitar appears. The long days of the ishumar, teapot slowly bubbling on coal, is a world segregated by gender. When guitar enters, it is in this male milieu (a world reflected in my recordings over the past years, which are mostly of male artists).

When I press her on the subject with a litany of thinly veiled questions about the gender dynamics of Tuareg guitar – “is it hard to be a female guitarist” – she simply shrugs and shakes her head. Later, Mdou posits that the bigger problem and prohibitions on playing music are class based – if family comes from a tradition of nobles and chiefs, or a religious lineage of marabouts. Mariam comes from neither, so can play shred in weddings.

I’m left expecting more, waiting for her to deliver some explanation. I begin to suspect that I’m more focused on this imagined conflict with a woman guitarist than anyone else. Later that evening, Mariam returns and we record three songs on her acoustic guitar. I finally stop asking questions and Mariam plays. She sings in a soft voice, carried by her acoustic guitar but with a driving pace. Part way through, the power cuts out and we’re left in total darkness. I can’t see anything. She keeps playing.

Mariam Ahmed (cover)

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.

Mamman Sani Eurovision

Just returned from Niger, where I’ve been working with Mamman Sani in preparation for his first international tour (on a few dates, joined with the incredible Lonnie Holley). We’ll be heading to Europe for about two weeks. Drop by and say hello.

Nov 2013
29 4AD Club – Dikmuide, Belgium
30 Le Guess Who festival – Utrecht, Netherlands

December 2013
2 AB Club – Brussels, Belgium
3 King Georg – Cologne, Germany
6 Passos Manuel – Porto, Portugal
7 ZDB – Lisbon, Portugal
8 La Casa Encendida – Madrid, Spain
10 Helioglobal – Barcelona, Spain

In the meantime, you can watch the definitive documentary about Mammane Sani, broadcast in 2004 on Dounia TV in Niger – in French, now available below – and a few additional clips on Youtube from 1981 and 2013.