Forty years coming, Azna de L’Ader finally has an official release! One of the seminal rock bands from Niger, Azna was hardly known outside of the country – and mostly confined to the Tahoua region of Niger. The LP version features highlights of their recording history, restored and remastered from the archives at Radio Niger (ORTN). Vinyl edition comes with a book of photos and liner notes. Grab it at bandcamp or at the shop.
Autotune, the notorious pitch correcting vocal effect, has seemingly found its way into every perceivable genre and style of music in every corner of the world. In the genre of Tuareg guitar however, the wanton use is confined to Niger where modern Tuareg compositions have nudged up against the slickly produced autotuned Hausa pop music in a near seamless melding. This is as much geographic as it is cultural. Hausa culture lies on both sides of the Niger/Nigeria border and Agadez, Niger’s capital of Tuareg guitar is majority Hausa speaking. Northern Nigeria’s film industry Kannywood dominates the VCD market throughout Niger even among non-Native Hausa speakers.
For many years, the influence of Hausa music in Tuareg guitar was a pragmatic concern. Nigeria has a plethora of studios with well trained engineers, and a destination for Tuareg guitarists looking to record an album. Such was the case with the two first instances of tuareg autotune – Mdou Moctar in Sokoto, and Abdoul Kader in Kano. Today Agadez hosts a number of studios. Modeled on the Nigeria, these new studios are largely electronic, relying on computer based composition and arrangement and leaning away from live instruments.
While the first incidents of this Hausa pop/Tuareg guitar cultural exchange were largely accidental – Mdou’s autotuned Anar was recorded in 2008 – the resulting style of music is emerging as a definitive trend. I just received some of the new album of Agadez youth outfit Zone Tuareg, and they seem to be only continuing in this vein. It’s not yet a genre and there is no designation for these studio productions, but the number of music recorded with this particular melding of Tuareg and Hausa pop is expanding. As the genre of Tuareg folk guitar further twists in new directions, it’s a challenge to a hegemonic definition of the ishumar guitar sound, and a glimpse at a diversified future.
Mona is an imposing figure. He once stood much taller than he does today – age has taken it’s toll, and he walks slowly, slightly hunched over. But when he steps out of the shadows in a purple frilled jacket and pants to match and sporting the same afro he’s worn for decades, Mona is timeless. And then he begins to play. Mona is a demon with the guitar, playing noisy trilling solos, lifted from the Jimi Hendrix catalog, that soon degrade into shredding improvisation. After the ends of his song, he continues to dance over the frets of the guitar into a tangle of feedback and noise. The phrase “Hendrix of the Sahara” is used by music PR and journalists to make tenuous links to anyone from W. Africa that plays an electric guitar, invoked so often to be utterly meaningless. This may be the singular case it is warranted. Mona’s music is “unlike” anything in Niger, unlike anything in West Africa, perhaps on the entire continent – and the most reminiscent of the Voodoo Child.
Mona is something of a legend. Mona formed his first group in 1970 (“the Crocodiles”) followed by what today stands as one of the oldest orchestras in Niger: Azna de L’Ader. Known for their very specific and very Hendrix inspired psychedelic rock, Azna is the legendary group that everyone in Niger knows about, and no one outside of the country has ever heard of. I’d heard stories of Mona for years – “he plays the guitar with his teeth!” – not without a certain reverence or fear. After watching a ridiculously intense YouTube performance from the late 90s, I decided to travel to Tahoua to meet with him.
Mona (real name: Abdoulaye Bouzou) is part of the milieu of the Niger’s “first generation” of modern artists (a genre aptly titled “musique moderne nigérienne”) – alongside other famous musicians like Ali Djibo, El Hadj Taya, Mamman Garba, and Mamman Sani Abdoulaye. Most of this modern music came from this upper class; the aforementioned were all teachers, professors, and governmental officials. “It wasn’t music for everyone in town, but for other officials,” Mona explains. Although the group rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, they remained largely a local phenomena in the region of Tahoua. “There was no studio – that was why people played for a long time without recording. There wasn’t an idea to record and sell music. Before it was just the radio or the television [making recordings]…if the wasn’t the TV that passed in the region, there was no chance.”
Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Mona’s group Azna de L’Ader played a mixture of popular music that came in from abroad, both from Europe and the West: “Since our childhood, we listened to lots of Western musicians….Johnny Holliday, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Eddie Mitchell, Elvis Presley.” On equal footing was Benin’s Polyrhythm de Cotonou. “They were real musicians,” Mona explains. “We were the same age, but they started before us….[as Muslims] we didn’t make music, it wasn’t allowed. But they learned in the Church. They learned the guitar, the drums. They made gospel music.”
Incidentally, the name Azna refers to the pre-Islamic animist religion, still practiced in Niger. The oft mentioned Bori, notable for their ritual spirit possessions are a well known sub-group of the Azna. While Mona’s music flirts close to the hypnotic Bori possession music, it is also most definitely rock. For Mona, the two are not mutually exclusive. Rather than Hendrix influenced rock, it may be the other way around. “When the Europeans took blacks as slaves in the US, our ancestors who went there brought their culture with them. So they mixed their music with modern instruments, and they created the blues, and that invented rock n roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, everything. The blues comes from here. We sing, we cry, and it brings you just into the trance. We make Bori, we do Voodoo. Our ancestors brought this to the US. Little by little, it took in everyone.”
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.
Martial arts films, like the aforementioned Hausa-Bollywood films, have inspired audiences that were not content to just watch and turned to film production. In Sokoto, the small city in the Northwest corner of the country, a martial arts school went one step further and created their own Kung Fu to make action movies.
While touring through town, we met with Bahiri or “Master Alko” as he is called. He is a large, imposing man, and martial artist – one of the responsible for this highly localized phenomena. As a young man, he explained, Bahiri and his friends would sneak in to the open air cinemas to watch martial arts films. They were enamored by the action, but could barely emulate what they saw. But shortly after, the Biafran war began in the South and soldiers were stationed in Sokoto. As part of their routine, the soldiers organized Judo practice in the stadium. Bahiri saw this as his opportunity to learn Kung Fu. What they created was an amalgam of Judo and various elements borrowed from film.
In 1999, cheap VHS production allowed the school to begin making their own action films. Acting became part of the martial arts repertoire. Much like the martial arts, they would watch and dissect the films, practicing acting with the same finesse applied to a physical movement. The resulting films borrow heavily from Kung Fu tropes. Ninjas explode into smoke and shoot lighting bolts. A lone fighter take down crowds of attackers effortlessly. And when anyone falls, they make one last effort to reach out with their dying breath before collapsing unconscious.
Bahiri has made seven films so far, and he explains that they made very little money. When most of Nigeria is churning out “dialogue” films – drama unfolding with actors simply talking to one another – his films are much more difficult to shoot. “[Dialogue films] only take 10-15 minutes to make a scene,” he explains. “For action films it can take 2 to 3 days.”
Nevertheless, Bahiri continues to make film (and was recently hired to choreograph the action in the big budget Nollywood film “Spirit of the Assassin”) But the majority, self produced and low budget, remain unprofitable and on the fringe of Hausa film. Nevertheless, Sokoto’s action films are a labor of love, the realized dreams of children who wanted to see themselves on the screen – so much that the whole school have Kung Fu may have been invented just to get there. “We call our style Pikra Kung Fu. ‘Pikra’ means inspiration,” Bahiri explaines. “We inspired ourselves by looking at films.”
for more see Nakamura, Hirokazu. “The Current Situation of Creative Kung-fu in Northern Nigeria – Nollywood as a Receptor of Hong Kong Movies”. Bunkyo University, Department of Human Sciences), Japan.