Tag Archives: guitar

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.

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)

Niger Guitars Pt. 2

Haïdara and Abdoulaye live with their friends in a compound on the fringes of Niamey, the capital of Niger. The two concrete buildings house perhaps thirty students who have come here to attend the University. They are all from the town of Timia, an oasis in the Aïr mountains far up into the North of Niger. They are all here to study.

Haidara and Abdoulaye – Song 1

Though Niger is in theory one country, there remains divisions between the North and South – and huge differences between the cities and the country. As representatives of Timia, the student group is, in essence, a community in exile. Like immigrants living abroad, they maintain their connection to their home, visiting on vacations, and collectively forging a small enclave of Northerners. Although far removed, here they have the benefits of a global connectivity with regular access to the internet – in fact, I first meet the group via Facebook, who knowing of my impending visit, send me a short audio recording of Haïdara and Abdoulaye playing guitar.

Cellphone recording via FB

When we do finally meet, we are received with some fanfare. Nearly all of the students living in the house are crammed into one of the rooms to receive us – though I suspect more for Ahmed, from Amanar, whose stardom precedes him. His sometimes cynical lyrics chastise the powerful and corrupt and demand the creation of a Tuareg class of intellectuals, and we are at the exact people that he’s trying to reach. While Haïdara and Abdoulaye play guitar (perhaps more for Ahmed then for me) a youth named Adouma scrolls through a Word document on his laptop, anxious to share on of his projects. Contingent with his studies at the university, he has written a textbook with audio lessons for the Tamashek language of Niger, with accompanying Tifinagh.

In the North, the road to prosperity has been limited to a few options – the unpredictable tourist industry, the long shot musical career, competitive posts in the numerous NGOs, or dangerous black market smuggling. One of the continued complaints in the North is directed at the lack of education and opportunity – not always eloquently manifested, but expressed in a constant series of rebellions over the past decades.

When I lived in pre-rebellion Kidal, I regularly met with youth who would become instrumental in the overthrow of the Malian state, particularly in the utilization of technology to distribute their message. In a cyber cafe of the now defunct Maison de Luxembourg, I watched what would become an MNLA website launched on blogspot. Even then, the youth were ready for revolution, enamored with Che Guevara and inspired by the idealism of youth culture. They were already beyond peaceful reconciliation, products of Northern schools that for the most part, ignored them. Teachers from the capital, assigned to these outposts, were unable to speak Tamashek and even the most dedicated could be forgiven in their aparthy – sent to unfamiliar territories, with little or no support from the capital, they too were far from their families. Needless to say, Tuareg culture was not taught. I visited the Kidal high school library, and could not find a single book referencing the Tuareg. When I suggested to the soon to be revolutionaries that they compose an open letter to the Minister of Education demanding support and books, the idea seemed too small and inconsequential. Growing up in the shadow of Bamako, the Northern territories had too long existed in limbo, and their big dreams demanding big ideas.

While post rebellion Niger has followed a much different route, the student group from Timia is hopeful, a model of a new class that may usher in changes in the North countries. As ambassadors, or immigrants in exile, they remain “enfants de Timia”. While Haidara and Abdoulaye play guitar, their compositions are not remarkable for their unique style – but in their purposeful nostalgia creating an oasis in the capital. It is not just symbolic, but a very real and pragmatic collective environment where resources are pooled to support one another in their struggle.

Haidara and Abdoulaye – Song 2

When Ahmed is out of the room, the students whisper to one another, finally asking if Ahmed will play a song. I ask him, but he politely refuses to their disappointment (though they do their best to hide it, and are somewhat allayed by a group photograph with the star). When we leave, I ask him why he wouldn’t play, and why he seemed discouraged. But it was March, the rebellion had just begun in Mali, and his family was left behind. The message that was so readily embraced by the students of Timia had not been heard at his home in Kidal, and now a war was raging.

Niger Guitars Pt. 1

Mohamed Karzo – C’est La Vie

Guitar music in Niger is curiously distant from its Malian cousins. Looking at a map of the Sahara and following the roads, it makes sense – though the two countries share a border, the respective capitals (Kidal, Agadez) are often reached via a circuitous route, North via Algeria, or South into the Zirma speaking Niamey. One distinction could be that Nigerien guitar is faster, or that it has as many as four chord changes, or that it sometimes uses an alternate tuning (G-B-D-G-B-E). Another is that each country is informed by a different godfather. While Malian ishumar guitar traces its roots back to Ibrahim from Tinariwen, Nigerien guitar pays homage to Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou.

While I neglect to make it as far North as Agadez, the capital of guitar in Niger, in Niamey I meet with Mohamed Karzo, nephew of Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou. Mohamed is a young guitarist with a group in Agadez. And though one gets the impression there are hundreds of such groups, guitarists are quick to point out when they have their own compositions – a rarity in the folkloric music where even new songs tread sonically very close to older ones, a quality perhaps of a finite number of solos over chord changes. Too dark for photos and without acoustic instruments, his electric guitar is plugged into a pair of speakers fixed in another room. We simply turn up the volume, and Karzo sings one of his songs, followed by, of course, by one of his uncles.

Mohamed Karzo – Tenere (Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou Cover)