Tag Archives: guitar

abba’s home recordings, or how whatsapp is changing everything (pt 1)

The sand in Mauritania always carries the scent of the sea. You can tell you’re far from the iron rich dust of Timbouctou. Sitting under a tent in a wide empty space of sand and brush, dominated by hulking concrete half finished mansions, I meet with Tuareg guitarist and longtime collaborator Abba Gargando.

I first met Abba after hearing a grainy cassette playing outside of Bassikinou. Over the years we have met various times, though always near his home. This time, we are in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Abba had been here for over two years now, living between here and refugee camps in the east. Ex military, he now works as a guardian, moving his family and tent outside the houses as they are being built to scare away would be thieves.

While we are talking about “what to do next” he plays me some songs he has recorded on his cellphone. A drum machine clicks out a rhythm, while he strikes out the notes in mechanical time, singly softly. “I recorded this on my cellphone in the camps,” he explains. “It was night so I had to play quietly.”

We decide to piece together an album. The recordings are lofi – but so is Abba’s entire oeuvre; he is known today because of his music on cellphones, playing through the tiny speakers. The album could be a sort of homage to the cellphones recordings and listening, recorded by Abba. Unfortunately, he only has a few recordings on his phone, so he suggests to regroup all the youth from Timbouctou.

That night, he organizes a small gathering. We collect songs from the cellphones of Nouakchott’s Gargando-in-exile. There are hundreds of mp3s – recorded in festivals in Timbouctou, weddings in Nouakchott, or small informal sessions like tonight. Abba rewards the group with a few hours of guitar. When he starts playing, they switch on their phones, start recording, and throw them onto the floor.

I have no chance to listen to all the music until later, on the other side of the world. I make a selection and check with Abba. Five years prior this would have been arduous task – playing the songs over the phone connection, waiting for an SMS with the correct spelling, repeat. But times had changed. I send him the files over WhatsApp, to which he replies, identifying the songs and altering the tracklist to his choosing.

His final record hints and what will likely be the next phase of artists control over their own work, as it translates into the West. The role of record label/blog/writing about “the other” is as mediator between cultures, but rife with problematic issues of representation and exoticism. Holding to task the most exotic ethnography and offensive ‘world music’, it may be simplistic to think we can cut through decades of misappropriation with technology. But it does suggest the increasing role that artists may have in their creation and representation abroad – the Western mediators saying less, because it’s already being said.

Akounak Premiere

After nearly a year from our shoot, we’re pleased to announce the premiere of our film. Starring Mdou Moctar, a longtime Sahel Sounds artist and collaborator, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (“Rain the Color Blue with a little Red in it”) is the fictional tale of a young guitarist trying to make it against all odds. You can read more about it here.

Per the aforementioned Kickstarter, we’ll be premiering the film in two places: Jan. 29th at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon, followed by a premiere Feb. 5th at Le Gyptis in Marseille, France.

Though originally slated to be released quickly, a mere six months after the shoot, post production was extended far beyond the realm envisioned. We enlisted a team for color correction, recorded new versions of the songs, redubbed portions of the audio, delved into foley work, and hired a sound engineer to mix and master the audio. Most of these post production steps were unexpected, as the interest in the film caught us by surprise. What we had imagined as an experimental project with a handful of screenings in the West and distribution via West African DVD players transformed into something beyond our expectations. Post-production is something overlooked by many filmmakers, especially this one. Next time, it would be interesting to follow with a post that could be done in record time, carried out in West Africa – a fully encapsulated project start to finish on the ground. Though we’re in no hurry to remake Under the Cherry Moon.

We had the chance to screen the film in Agadez in September 2014. It was a very vocal crowd, filled over capacity, and the film was punctuated with cheers and applause. The Agadez reviews are good, which was a most flattering conclusion to the project. But more work remains – we’ve still got Kickstarter rewards coming, and DVDs are in production. The soundtrack is in its final stages of mixing and an LP will be released this year. And we are slated to release the film in West Africa across the Tuareg diaspora – so if you find yourself in Agadez, Sebha, Tamanrasset, or Kidal, look for the film soon. Whether on DVD, USB key, or a cellphone is up to you. Tastes may vary.

photo by Markus Milcke

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)