Luka Productions, known around here for his Fasokan LP and renowned in Mali for a prolific output of contemporary Malian Hip Hop is back in the studio on a new project. Bringing in a group of musicians, ngoni, guitar, percussion, synth, and computer, it’s very exciting stuff. Luka seems to be at the front of the avant garde beatmakers, forging a path that is both respected and popular, but remarkably original in execution. Electronic Malian music is not new – but the purposeful interpretation a new thing. While there are dozens of producers turned musicians, Hip Hop producers turned studio engineers, the beat-making is almost always left behind as a “indulgence of youth.” The two worlds are self contained, and music rarely spans the rift.
The group, yet to be named, has dropped a few tracks to me via Whatsapp. Mali Internet 2.0 has obviously shifted things around in the country. Just recently the government temporarily blocked social media during a government protest, attempting to intercept the role of social media communication to rally the populace. With Whatsapp on every phone, communication (in spite of Bamako’s elites) has never been easier. Media flows both ways – even writing about music, on said blog, is no longer a mystery box for West Africa, but this post alone will be shared and promoted via Bamako’s Facebook channels.
Sitting far away in Portland, I’ve been watching the progress of the session via Whatsapp, with live in-studio jams from the luka productions studio – a mini Boiler Room, while everyone crowds into the tiny studio. I scour the internet for a non-English speaking music residency (the band wants to do some work in Europe), and how best to talk about a music genre that doesn’t exist yet.
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!”
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.
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.
In June 2015, we traveled to a place that doesn’t exist.
The work was semi-ethnographic documentation of travel to a fictional Bamako. Over 10 days, photographer Maciek Pozoga and I meticulously documented the real and the unreal through photo and sound. The imagined capital evolved out of discussions with Bamakois: visual artists, science fiction scenarists, traditional griots, DIY filmmakers, and modern studio producers. At the forefront was perception of Mali and its capital – what it is, what it could have been, and what it will be. At the core was the idea of travel, that feeling of being in a strange land. On this journey we looked for clues of alternate pasts, hidden in architecture, dress, song, or deep in the dreams of possible futures.
The resulting exhibition, Uchronia: The Unequivocal Interpretation of Reality will feature photography from Maciek Pozoga, a photo book, edited by Pierre Hourquet, and vinyl record of field recordings documenting the journey – available during the exhibition (and later here at Sahel Sounds). The vinyl record, “Field Recordings from Alternate Realities” accompanies the photographs as soundscape to this unrealized world. The record draws on the experience of a number of musicians, including Mamelon, Luka Productions, and Super Onze – borne out of conversations and experimentation.
In studio with Luka Guindo, we listened and discussed mp3s of Craig Leon’s Nommos. Released in 1981, Nommos is a concept album based around the “Dogon creation myth” – a much referenced story that the Dogon tribe’s mythology was based around impossible astronomical knowledge, and that this knowledge must have come from the stars themselves. Leon composed the music New York after encountering Dogon art at the Brooklyn museum. Luka is Dogon, and I asked him about Sirius and the double star and the mysterious ancient aliens of his mythology. He had never heard of it. As ideas are filtered across cultures, they succumb to overwhelming cultural misinterpretations – coming from another place brings with it a penchant for the sensational and exotic. The questionable veracity of the myth, or even the historic veracity, is largely irrelevant, as this myth has become part of the West’s West African canon. It may well be reinvigorated as Bamakois discover Leon’s album.
Working with mythic objects is purposefully confusing. The results of this journey lie somewhere between the fiction and the real; a necessary component of realizing an idea across cultures, resulting in objects that straddle both worlds. Some of the field recordings may not be comprehensible at the moment. The Venn diagram of Luka’s contribution borrows context from Bambara speakers and Western vinyl collectors – a very small contingency. Vinyl records have an element of timelessness, only exaggerated in the presence of the fleeting digital. It is rumored that the Church of Scientology has left vinyl records of their scripture buried them in bunkers around the world – so when the surface of the planet is a smouldering crust, the survivors will come across these recordings and build an empire with their blueprint. Today’s fiction only needs time to pass into mythology.
Uchronia: The Unequivocal Interpretation of Reality runs from September 4th to October 16th, 2015 at 12Mail / Red Bull Space in Paris, France. The exhibition is produced by Red Bull and Carhartt WIP. (FB event page)
“Luka Productions” is based in a small studio off a busy street in the capital of Bamako. The mural on the outside of the building, with giant microphone and curling graffiti letters is arguably larger than the four walls inside. A repurposed boutique, there are two small couches framing the the computer and console of studio engineer, rapper, and producer Luka Guindo. His portrait hangs over the computer. Behind plexiglass is a closet sized sound booth.
Luka, responsible for the Supreme Talent Show album and hundreds of other tracks, is self taught and PC based (cubase, reason, and fruityloops) – one of many producers/studio owners that create all the hip hop produced in Bamako, and by default Mali (there are smaller Hip Hop studios scattered throughout country, and at least one distinctive Hip Hop style in Gao). Every composer has singular style. Luka relies on melodies – he plays piano in the local church – that mimic the vocals, complementing one another. The drums are heavy and punchy, and pitch bended keys solo over the distinctive and improvisational rhythms. He often adds cut up djembe and balafon to the mix to give a local touch, which are sampled though not in the studio, but packaged in a Native Instruments plugin (the website seems aimed at Western audiences, unbeknownst that their product is probably used more in West Africa). If there are doubts to the authenticity of the production, Luka includes a drop at the beginning and end of every track.
Luka is quiet when working and rarely looks up. His eyes are glued to his computer, and his hands fly over the keyboard with a series of shortcuts, deftly cutting and loudly slamming the keyboard to drop in segments of a track. Ticking off the metronome, he adds to a production layer by layer, before improvising a melody. The vocalist steps into the booth minutes later, and the track is recorded. At the end, he does a quick master – these are not tracks for high end stereos or audiophiles. Most, if not all of the listening will be on cellphones, USB radios, car stereos, and youtube.
Hip Hop is the most popular youth music in Mali. Songs circulate via the new media distribution of mp3s and usb keys, but are also posted online – the two biggest curators of Mali Hip Hop are websites and youtube channels – RHHM and Bamada-city – both based in France and run by Malian expats. With open distribution channels and the low cost to record tracks, the music is uncensored by either institution or government. Last year, battle raps and clashes became so prominent that the government attempted to intervene, as lyrics were insulting parents of other rappers, including some prominent social figures. While some producers align themselves with rappers, in doing so, they’ve been caught up in the feuds. Luka has tried not to get involved – he wont let people record “clash” vocals.
Luka’s studio is DIY and cobbled together with what is at hand. Much of the equipment has made the journey here from the US or Europe via traveling friends and family. For professional engineers in Mali, it’s not the best, and there a few high end studios in Bamako. But Luka makes up for this with talent and speed. He can dash out a song in minutes. The better studios are too expensive. Unused and inaccessible, they gather dust – and their engineers rarely get a chance to record.
While the culture of piracy is strong, it hasn’t deterred youth from wanting to rap. Luka’s studio is lucrative and busy, and even during a session, there’s another rapper waiting outside. Everyone has something to say. Luka is also rapping on his own productions. He shows me one of his new videos, shot in a village and boasting an incredible opening shot – made with a drone. He recently released a CD, which has already been pirated. “Sometimes people come up to me and tell me ‘I love your music, I have all your songs on my cellphone.'” He laughs. “They don’t realize the problem with that.”