balani show takeover

In 2012, I traveled to Bamako to research “Balani Shows,” sound system block parties with a dancehall vibe that feature Malian electronic music. A frequent occurrence throughout residential neighborhoods (particularly during school vacations) I had stumbled across them over the years, but had never paid much attention. Internet research was a dead end, besides a few Youtube videos (though one documentary trailer seems promising). Over a few weeks in Bamako, I met with DJs, scoured the mp3 market for remixes, photographed, filmed, and even threw a few Balani Shows of my own (vimeo link).

A Balani Show is a public street party organized for a myriad of reasons: a birthday, a wedding, a baptism. The mobility means that it often happens right in front of the house. DJs install massive speakers and hundreds of chairs to encircle the “show.” Music begins in the early evening as the block fills up with hordes of seemingly parent-less children wandering about. After a pause for evening prayer, the real Balani Show begins – the little ones pushed aside to make way for the adolescents and teenagers. Dressed in loud combinations of neon hats, dark sunglasses, and colorful sneakers, they come for the spectacle and participation: dance battles, performances, comedians, party games, fashion contests, and some acrobatic, limb twisting, hyper stylized choreography. The MCs direct the action, bouncing about the improvised stage with wireless mics while the DJ cues up tracks with a laptop and Virtual DJ. Balani Shows play danceable, high energy music – Coupé Décalé, Kuduro, and Hip Hop. But most of the music is Malian. Samples of Balafons cut up over pounding electronic beats, recognizable Malian hits remixed as unofficial bootlegs, and fast paced Bambara rapping over insane djembe rhythms. For some reason, there are lots of samples of bells and whistles.

In fact, the music of the Balani Show – colloquially known as “Balani Show” or “Ambience” – hints at the origin of the party. While many individuals lay claim to the creation, the Balani Show as music style seems to have emerged around the late 90s/early 2000s. Balanis (literally “little Bala” or “little Balafon”) had long been organized in the villages, particularly in Southern Mali. These village parties were much the same in style, but instead of DJs, featured electrified Balafons. But Balafons and Balafon players were expensive. The same DJs who rented out sound systems began to offer a cheaper alternative, Balani Show sans Balafon at a fraction of the cost, playing prerecorded Balafon music from cassettes. The phenomena caught on, and soon someone introduced a pair of CD turntables. With this latest innovation, DJs had a new ability – to remix and compose their own tracks, updating Malian music and overdubbing it with the signature Coupé Décalé rhythm (check this amazing digital compilation of Balani Show remixes) Using rhythm boxes and samplers, these “Balani Show” creations began to circulate – informing a new style of electronic music, a sort of “Malian Coupé Decalé” founded in the origins of traditional Malian Balafon.

Today the “Balani Show” continues to evolve and mutate into something new. While in Bamako, I saw many CDJs gathering dust and it appeared that many if not all DJs have switched to laptops, the preferred tool for performances. The task of remixing has been handed off to an army of anonymous bedroom DJs and producers, songs loaded and distributed by cellphone and PC. Any number of these “megamixes” can be found at cellphone markets, or playing on the radio. But most interestingly, the Balani Show phenomena has spawned innumerable new musics by a generation that grew up under the sound system. These homegrown productions sample Balafons and have that distinct sound of the remix – but they are original creations, not remixes. Songs are sung in Bambara and are based on traditional rhythms. While this new music is undoubtedly modern, like the Balani Show parties it too pays homage to an ancient tradition. It reveals a different narrative of the old vs new – and suggests that maybe the best way to preserve culture is by reinventing it, keeping it modern and relevant in a faster world.


The new Balani Show Super Hits compilation includes music from over a decade of Balani Show – from early musicians like DJ Bamanan and DJ Balani to the contemporary stars like Kaba Blon and Supreme Talent Show (both whose tracks were produced by the Sidiki Diabate, son of the legendary Toumani Diabate). The vinyl available at the shop, as well as through bandcamp. It doesn’t come with liner notes or photos, but with a glossy digital low-fi jacket that lies closer to what I imagine it would look like if it were released in Bamako. If you want to play it for that distinctly Malian feel, a very loud volume is recommended.

*For more info see my “Global Ear: Bamako” piece in Wire Magazine #342

all gold everything

Before the Kickstarter finished, we left for Niger to shoot the footage that will eventually become the film “Akounak.” The windy season was fast approaching, which would be followed by a blistering hot season, followed by torrential rains. We acted quickly, shooting at breakneck speed over a mere ten days.

Work began immediately as we arrived in Agadez. There were a litany of problems that plagued us throughout the shoot – none of which are unique, as I’m assured they occur in every film production. But this particular project came with a caveat. The story was intended as collaboration and everything was subject to constant revision with input from cast and crew. Sets, designs, clothing, actors, and even the story itself was constantly rewritten during production. One scene calling for a marabout using evil gris-gris against the protagonist was deemed too controversial, and no one wanted to read for it. A hug was equally scandalous. Our lead actress stipulated she had to dress in brand new clothes and full makeup anytime she was filmed. As such, her character was rewritten to be very rich, with expensive habits.

Agadez is surrounded by Tuareg communities, but the Hausa language dominates, and by extension, Hausa film. Besides the more interesting aspects of the Hausa-Bollywood connection, Hausa films are stylized in their own manner. They are censored for controversial subject matter (both by filmmakers and an actual board of censors) and the stories unfold in soap opera settings. The protagonists dance through fancy houses with new furniture, beautiful gardens of manicured grass, and expensive neighborhoods with paved streets and luxury cars.

The tendency towards the luxurious was a common theme throughout the production. Often, locations did not correspond to my vision. When a house was deemed too small, we moved to a bigger one. When a sight was deemed unsightly, we covered it up. When children ran into the street, they were told to clear out. The day to day realities – the corner dusty boutique, the donkeys milling about dirt streets, the blown out amplifiers and bricolage guitars – were not considered the cinematic ideal. The scenes were not wholly natural, but artificial and idealized. Actors wore their best shirts and dresses. Sets would be cleared of all debris to appear flawless. Locations were chosen for their paved roads and new buildings. Once I tried to shoot a cluttered street of dirt and mud, trickles of sewage winding out of houses onto the road and garbage strewn about the alleyway. “Not there,” Moustapha said. “That’s dirty. Why would you shoot that?” It was a legitimate question. Equivalent, perhaps, to a Tuareg filmmaker coming to Portland to make a film about the noise scene, and stepping into my bathroom. While I had imagined that a film could both be a fictional tale and convey the ethnographic glimpse into the realities, the shoot seemed to lead us deeper into an ethnographic fiction.

While the film has just finished shooting and much work lies ahead in the laborious editing process, it remains to be seen just how much of “the real life” Agadez will come through. A better question to ask is whether it should. In adapting a film to Tuareg culture, we were not only re-creating a story, but adapting Western cinema itself. Relenting creative control of the project to the new representations that arrived was difficult at times, though necessary to create art that could exist outside of Western audiences. Perhaps where “Akounak” refuses to revel in the exotic culture of Agadez, it is also denying to film with the eye of the outsider and can speak much more eloquently about local fictions, idealized visions, and what Tuareg speaking cinema might look like.

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.