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.
March 2012. We find serene lodging in the Mabera section of Sokoto, not far from the place where the two foreigners were executed in a botched rescue just a week prior – a slight stain on an otherwise spotless city. Unsurprisingly, few people mention it, either suspecting we know, and this is exactly what brought us, or that we’re just two blissfully unaware idiots.
The first stop is ‘Visible Sounds Studio’ run by a young man named Khadir. We cram inside the music studio, separated from the main room by wood and plexiglass, bathed in a blue alien light. Khadir assembles his studio workspace, his Yamaha keyboard set beside his computer. He begins to assemble a song for us to observe the method of production. His hands dance over shortcuts and mouse clicks, triggering new tracks, dropping effects and rearranging the numerous multicolored wav-forms. A melody is seemingly plucked out of the air, a bass line is added, followed by crash of synthetic drums that unfold into a frenetic beat in a few minutes of rapid fire work. The instrumental finished, he sets the Yamaha aside, and the singers enter the soundbooth in a revolving succession, recording vocal tracks that are overdubbed twice to create harmony and then dropped into Antares autotune. They have no woman vocalist on staff, so one of the male singers sings in a ridiculously high pitch. Post-autotune, it sounds convincing.
Suraj Sound Studio is larger and more professional. A poster on the street advertises the services of sound and film: a comedian in signature red hat striking an exaggerated silly face flanks a beautiful girl in headphones standing before a microphone. The studio is a bit larger then the others, and more professional. Naturally, the work moves a bit slower. After a flurry of introductions, shaking hands with dozens of actors, comedians, and musicians, the engineer beings to work. Two singers sit on the floor with intense focus. They ask us our names as they pen the lyrics, occasionally humming a tune. The dedication of the engineer and vocalists is exhausting – even for the crowd, that eventually thins out. They finally climb into the soundbooth for a series of unrelenting takes until the seemingly perfect phrasing. Of course, neither Warren or myself speak Hausa and wouldn’t recognize the small differences. In the final audio, the only things we can identify are the names that we asked them to include: “Sahel Sounds” and “Little Axe.”
Bollywood, the multimillion dollar industry of Hindi film, has a presence in the most far flung corners of the world. The prodigious output of musical film is second perhaps only to marital arts (more on this later). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the North of Nigeria, where audiences are not content just to watch films, but created an industry of their own, modeled on Bollywood. (previously and more previously)
There is something in the story that invokes the cargo cult – the influence of a culture from afar: Hindi films are imported in the 1960s by Lebanese traders and have a huge resonance with Hausa Muslim populations. Successive generations grow up in the shadow of Bollywood, watching films, singing songs, and even learning Hindi. Decades later, when the Hausa begin to experiment with film-making, they naturally turn to Bollywood – copying style, plots, and songs. Soon, an entire industry is thriving, modeled on Bollywood – replete with choreographed dancing and syrupy love ballads.
The cargo cult metaphor is not without its problems. North of Nigeria is not an island – Kano, the center of today’s Kannywood, is also the center of commerce, an ancient city of trade for the entire Sahara and Sahel. And more importantly, there is not the power difference of the cargo cult. The impetus to invoke this metaphor suggests a trend in the narrative. Cultural influence is often portrayed as a one way flow one, pouring out of the Western countries and inundating the developing world – dropping artifacts on little isolated islands, where the natives puzzle over their workings. The scattershot of cultural exchange, where trends or styles are adapted because of some unexpected resonance or similarity are more common than top down cultural imposition. Abdallah Adamu refers to these as “transglobal flows.” Examples in contemporary music abound: Cuban Salsa in Benin, Jamaican dancehall in South Sudan, or Chutney Soca in Trinidad. The old channels of communication follow the same routes of their predecessors, whether borne of colonial legacy or diaspora movement, but are filled with the products of new media and exchange.
In 2012, we traveled to Kano to research and curate a release of Hausa film music and meet with the film stars, directors, and musicians in pursuit of this Bollywood theme. And it’s true that even today, you can still watch a Bollywood film at the old cinemas of Kano every Friday. Yet when posing the question of Indian influence, artists were quick to distance themselves. Today, Kannywood thrives as an entity apart from the old Bollywood films. Contemporary soundtracks are a sound that is both unique and stylized, with over the top Autotuned vocals and rhythmic pulse of programmed drums and hi-hats (the signature sound – this is where Mdou Moctar recorded his demo).
While long captivated by Youtube clips that showcase Bollywood style dance, after traveling to Kano it became apparent that the music has forged its own style and a prodigious output of its own. In the age of digital compositions, most artists did not have original masters, and often entire songs had been erased from history. Musician Abubakar Sani, when asked about how many songs he made, told us “5000, 3000 of them hits.” Of these 5000, we could only find about one hundred. Today’s Hausa film music is its own entity and sound – one of the many genres thriving in a globalized world and a strong argument against the perceived homogenization of connectivity, which after all, has always existed.
“Harafin So: Bollywood Inspired Film Music from Hausa Nigeria” is now available on LP and CD from Sahel Sounds and Little Axe records. Grab a copy at the shop or from Little Axe. Also available at bandcamp.
And very special thanks to Carmen McCain who helped make this whole project possible!