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.
In 2015, I had the opportunity to work on a bit of a dream project entitled Uchronia, an exhibition and recording lying somewhere between conceptual art and experimental ethnography. The process was a series of collaborative “fake” ethnographies (or ethnographic forgeries) – a very flagrant self conscious expression in a field that and hides the role of the documentarians in documentary.
One of the more interesting recordings produced was the above titled “Bambara Affirmations” from
Bamako based Hip Hop producer/composer/rapper Luka Productions (facebook link). Modeled on the new age genre of affirmation music, the conception was a spontaneous, humorous conversation in Luka’s tiny studio, where we took clichéd and hackneyed phrases and translated them into Bambara (“you are transforming into a butterfly,” etc). The resultant track was mixed into a field recording and conjured scene: a stressed out Bamako taxi driver, gridlocked in stifling humidity of the fast growing riverside metropolis, concentrating on the soothing voice on the cassette.
Recently I proposed Luka to make a full album similar to the recording, based around the previous artifact, but further extrapolated. The first tracks have begun to trickle in via Whatsapp and Wetransfer, now to be mixed and mastered. They are at once familiar to Mali, lying between the measured griot speaking over a looping melody to the the verbal wordplay of contemporary Bamako Hip Hop, suggesting a continuity outside of the narrative of Western Influence in Global Hip Hop.
Luka says there has been a curious reaction to the songs: when he’s working in the studio, a nexus of Bamako Rap scene, many of the musicians and emcees are asking for copies of the tracks. As much as it is familiar, it is also something new – an artifact of a fake world. As we move forward into completion, perhaps they will find their way into an actual taxi, like some Borgean artifact. Will they carry forward a similar affirmation when reinterpreted by Bamako’s Hip Hop culture? Non-Bambara readership of the blog will have to remain in suspense for the moment. Stay tuned.
“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.”