It’s been quiet around here lately as we’ve been doing this and that, but there’s still so much to share in the archives! Today’s tracks come from a mysterious cassette from Djadje, one of Niamey’s last cassette vendors at the Niger’s Grande Marche (there are two – the other vendor sells only bootleg Takamba) Djadje has a deep selection of everything ever recorded in Niger on tape. He’s one of the few people to own an original Mamman Sani cassette. And he is very reluctant to part with anything. Like most of the cassette vendors, he makes his living off dubbing.
This particular cassette has no identifying jacket or information, suffice a name scribbled “Mohamed Barky.” According to Djadje, Barky was a pianist in Niger, in the same vein as Mamman Sani (though likely much more recent by the sound of it), playing traditional compositions on a synthesizer. He passed away sometime in the last decade. There is no further information or track titles, and no one seems to know anything more about Barky. Djadje wont sell the cassette, but provides me with this copy.
The newest release from Sahel Sounds is titled Agrim Agadez , a compilation of field recordings of guitar music from the Sahelian empire of Niger. Focusing on guitar music throughout the country, and recorded over many years of travels, Agrim Agadez celebrates the diversity of the instrument in the contemporary Sahel.
Like most of the Sahel, the guitar is found in every corner of Niger. Whether acoustic, electric, or built by hand, guitars are highly prized possessions and continue to inspire. Every corner of Niger has particular languages, customs, and cultures, and each corner has taken the instrument and transformed it in its own special way: from bar bands of the southern Hausa land, pastoral flock owning village autodidacts, rag-tag DIY wedding rock musicians, to political minded folk guitarists. Agrim Agadez follows the sounds overheard playing on cassettes, seeking out the once legendary local heroes in their hometowns, and stumbling upon musicians in accidental chance encounters.
For readers of the blog, it’s familiar territory. Much of the music has been shared here over the years, as yours truly was faithfully updating the blog from remote cyber cafes and borrowed cellphone wi-fi. It’s also a continuation of two other records that delved into the same subject, the debut Ishilan n-Tenere, and the subsequent Laila Je T’Aime. Field recordings have always been a foundation of this work (if for anything else, an opportunity to travel!), but there is a certain element to the live recording that is hard to replicate in a controlled sterile space of the studio.
While it would be nice to claim that the record is comprehensive and academic, Agrim Agadez is not that album. This is not a record of research, but something to listen to. You can draw your own conclusions. However, it is a faithful document of the guitar as it’s heard, experienced in the open air studios of Niger with a single microphone, with backdrops of children’s voices, crickets, and village ambience. But above all, it’s a record of people who once upon a time, decided to pick up the guitar and play a song.
The record is available now on vinyl from our shop with 16 page liner notes w/ photos and bios of the bands. You can also listen/download on bandcamp.
Starting off this new year with two new releases: Waande Kadde, dreamy acoustic Pulaar music from the villages of Fouta Toro, and Top WZN, synth, drum machines, and electric tidnit from the capital city of Mauritania. While they are immediately sonically different, they bear more similarities than one may suspect. Both are from the extreme West of the Sahel, geographically miles away. Both are improvisational sessions performed and recorded without any preparation. And both involve the meeting of the traditional and the modern, and the emergent new sounds that come from this encounter.
Tidiane Thiam’s and Amadou Binta Konte’s Waande Kadde, was recorded in the village by the same name – a tiny burg on the banks of the winding Senegal River, on the island of Morfil, in the extreme North of Senegal. Amadou Binta Konté is a fisherman, not a griot, but nevertheless plays the hoddu – a variant of the traditional lute found throughout West Africa. In Fouta Toro, the body of the hoddu is carved out of wood and goat or sheep skin is stretched over the resonator. The “strings” are made of braided nylon fishing line, and attached to the neck with small strips of leather. Tidiane Thiam, guitarist of the group Lewlewal de Podor, plays acoustic guitar modeled on the hoddu.
Guitar songs are played in a major scale (in contrast to the pentatonic scale of Northern Mali) in traditional Pulaar and Manding tunings. There is a common technique of playing with octaves and doubling. The contemporary guitar of Tidiane, while embodied in a different instrument, is very much bound to its predecessor, and nowhere is this more apparent than hearing them together. For our recordings in 2014, we traveled to Waande Kadde to sit with the two musicians in person. This is not the first time the two had played together, yet the music was improvisational. While both Amadou and Tidiane use different instruments, they play within the “folkloric” base, a wide repertoire of traditional songs that are shared across Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Niger.
TOP WZN is a far cry from the mellow sounds of Waande Kadde – though geographically, it is only a stones throw into Mauritania (literally the other side of the river). The album (originally released on cassette in 2009) showcases Jeich Ould Badu and Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla, playing a signature genre of instrumental music. Known as اوزان (transliterized as “alwazan” “wezen” or “wzn”), literally translated as “rhythm,” it colloquially refers to a contemporary genre of instrumental music, defined by synthesizers, electric guitars and lutes, and electronic drum patterns. Jeich Ould Badu is from a celebrated family of griots, and learned to play music at a young age. He plays the tidnit, the traditional Hassaniya lute – modified and updated, the goat skin replaced by flattened tin, and hacked together with phaser pedals and built in pre-amps. Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla is one of the most well known keyboard musicians in Mauritania. He plays an Arabic moded synthesizer capable of the quarter tone scales adapted from the fretless strings of classical Moorish traditions.
Popular Mauritanian music is often performed publicly with large troupes of guitarists, tidnits, synthesizers, and multiple rhythm sections. But in the past decade, the influx of small recording studios and a booming cassette industry has led to artist driven productions. WZN has followed suit, and has been transformed into an established genre. The slick studio sound, warbling tidnit, and microtones of the synthesizer are an integral part of today’s musical landscape, blasting from open air music shops and taxi cabs throughout the capital.
The new music video for Ami Yerewolo’s“A San Nièfai” takes Malian Hip Hop into a science fiction future. In the video, a trio of post apocalyptic survivors wander through the Malian countryside, stumbling on the destroyed and smoking ruin of the capital. Meanwhile, they are pursued by a vehicular gang with bandits piled into the back of trucks and screaming stunting motorcycles. The video alternates between Ami rapping in an underground mine shaft and a loose narrative that ends in a showdown between two warring factions. And of course, a dance sequence.
The stylistic choice for the video isn’t wholly surprising and is clearly inspired by the Hype Williams directed 2pac video for California Love and blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road (the former of course being a remake of the 1979 Mad Max, alas). Aside from being a colorful video with a plethora of special effects and tentative narrative structure, the video stands out particularly in the West African context. It is well likely that “A San Nièfai” is the first commercial science fiction production from Mali.
I spoke with Sidiki Goita, director of the video, and co-founder of Vortex Groups, a Bamako based special FX startup. Goita is an engineer by trade, but over the years he’s grown his company to a dozen members, all in their 20s. While working on 3D design, logos, and advertising, Vortex Groups supplements their work with music video production. It’s a lucrative avenue of the struggling Bamako music industry, particularly in contemporary Malian Hip Hop. As Internet enabled cellphones replace the old bluetooth networks of music trading, sites like RHHM and Bamada-City are gatekeepers of new media. Malian Hip Hop artists rely on music videos to advertise and promote their brands. Vortex’s approach varies from the other studio houses, Goita explains. “When Vortex Groups produces a video clip, we make it as though it was a feature length fiction. We write a script, assemble a technicians, make a storyboard…and after finishing all these stages we proceed to scouting the location.”
For what appears to be a large production with cast and costumes, the video for “A San Nièfai” was assembled in pure DIY aesthetic, relying on found materials and free locations. The costumes were salvaged from found materials, transforming motorcycle helmets into armor, calabash turned into shields, and large woven potato sacks for clothing. The video was shot 40 km outside of Bamako at an old quarry for laterite, the iron rich clay used for the quintessential red mud bricks seen across West Africa. Goita was given creative freedom from the artist to make something very different from the standard Bamako Hip Hop video: “The idea of the clip was to break the monotony and the uniformity of the current African videos that loop on the music TV channels, summed up with drone shots of a singer surrounded by a crowd of dancers and also scantily clad girls. The second goal was to shock viewers to the consequences of civil wars, by showing apocalyptic images of their city.”
Science fiction has always been a genre of speculation and warnings, projections that reflect on utopic and dystopic futures. While fantasy and horror have a place in oral tradition, science fiction doesn’t exist in Mali. Only now are the possibilities being explored as technology allows low budget experimentation to redesign reality through 3D animation, compositing, and green screen. So why isn’t there more science fiction? “The problem that persists is a conflict of generations,” Goita explains. “The old ones who have mastered the network of studio production are not ready to leave the beaten track. They are content with simple cinema without technical stakes – just simple stories of love and politics.”
Sidiki Goita says the ultimate goal with Vortex Groups is to produce feature films. Their music videos are calling cards, examples of what can be accomplished with a little investment. “In the West, the cinemas are exhausted, they only make remakes and films of superheroes,” Goita says. “Like our mining resources, our stories and legends are not even exploited to 5%…The younger generation does not have access to funding to produce high-quality films. Foreign partners should trust African youth to finance projects. With less than $20,000, we could would make an African version of Mad Max which could rival productions with 10 times the budget!”