Tag Archives: niamey

hama, electronic keyboard wizard

hama

Recently in Niamey, I met up with Hama, keyboardist and electronic music composer (previously, more previously) A few months ago we released an EP of Hama’s recordings, a collaboration with Boomarm Nation. Recorded locally at Flow Wolf Studio “Imidiwan N’Assouf” was remixed by Portland based Gulls and Istanbul’s El Mahdy Jr.

We meet up to talk about future directions and exchange musics. We trade our respective remixes and other media. Hama plays me one track he’s been working on. In the track, a rapper spits some mediocre bars over a custom instrumental. “This is a rap that comes in Fruityloops,” he explains to me. “I put it on to see how my beat paris with the voice, and when it sounds good, I take out the rap.”

Hama’s music continues to standout in Niger, primarily for this reason. His music is electronic but strictly instrumental. While there are certainly electronic musics happening in the Sahel, most of these are elements in larger compositions: the hi-energy backing instrumental of a hip hop track or coupé décalé inspired dance remixes. Instrumental electronic music in Niger is rare. Following in the vein of Mamman Sani Abdoulaye (the two have met, but never collaborated), Hama is the proverbial next generation, ideally one who will get more attention than his predecessor from the Niger public.

Composing in Fruityloops, his computer compositions aren’t arranged. I’ve downloaded Ableton onto his Macbook and brought a small midi controller, to facilitate the painstaking work of composing melodies with a mouse. For the time being, his electronic compositions have a similar live element to them. Layers are unmuted with a mouse click over the bars, slowly building to a crashing momentum. One exception with some minimal arrangement is titled “Baoura” – a work in progress:

Hama – Baoura

In the meantime, until the electronic avant garde expands in Niamey, Hama continues to play his signature Yamaha PSR-64 in weddings. With such a wide distribution across cellphones, his compositions are firmly established in the music repertoire of Niger, albeit outside of the official means. “They love my music, there is something about it. Especially the old people, it makes them travel far in their minds.”

on the regional variation of id3 tags in the western sahel

Bus field recording, Ansongo, Mali

The first time I heard the music was (naturally) on a cellphone. It was March of 2012, and I left Gao in a rush as the Northern cities fell to the rebellion. I nervously scanned the horizon as the bus blew past abandoned police posts – managing to Zoom a field recording of the song playing on a fellow passenger’s phone.

I continued to find more versions of the piano music. After questions, interviews, and Facebook inquiries, I went to Agadez and gathered up more tracks. Eventually, I learned the identity of the musician – a certain “Japonais,” former rebellion fighter for the MNJ, and pianist. I met the family, and we discussed releasing the material on a record. I began mastering the songs. The records were in the queue, and would soon arrive.

But it wasn’t him.

Hama – Tarhanam Remix

A few months ago, I head back to Niger with a contract and envelope of money. One night we hear one of the songs playing from a nearby cellphone. When the crew stops by to investigate, they’re told a different name: “Hama”. When they report back to me, I tell them they must be mistaken. This is Japonais. Everyone in Agadez knows this. Every mp3 is tagged with his name. I’ve even met with the family, who confirmed it. But the other friends in the Niamey neighborhood are insistent. Not only is this Hama, but he lives close by here – and tomorrow we’ll go visit him.

Hama lives with his family in one of the old neighborhoods of Niamey, Plateau. It’s a calm section of central Niamey with large old concrete houses and tall trees. The Embassies were once here and Hama grew up amongst the expatriates and embassy staff. It was one of these expatriates that gave Hama his first melodica, then synthesizer. In 2005, he found a Yamaha PSR-64. It’s a distinctive sound – warbly, with quarter tones. It features drum programming, which Hama uses to create the signature rhythms on his tracks, all of but one are original compositions. He asks me to sit down, and he begins to play a sound unmistakable from the recording. When he finished he looks up – “Well? Is it me?”

Hama – Live

In 2009, he was invited to the radio to record the instrumental tracks that now circulate through the cellphone networks. While awaiting the completion of his CD, one of the sound engineers copied the songs. But when they were copied, it was with the generic filename: “NOUVEAU INSTRUI”. Hama’s name wasn’t on the file or the id3 tag, and they dispersed throughout the country with no link back to him. Being instrumental music furthermore, it was hard to make any claim to it.

They would have remain unidentifiable music, if it were not for Japonais. A well known figure in the rebellion, Japonais was in fact a Tuareg synth player – as well as a guitarist. His assassination by government troops was an injustice that still reverberates in the North today. Little by little, these unlabeled songs began to pick up the name “Japonais” – by mp3 sellers, cellphone owners, and radio djs – who assumed it was none other than their celebrated hero.

Back in Niamey, only his friends know who he is. He performs rarely and is not a professional musician, working as a driver for a wealthy expatriate businessman. He plays his synthesizer in the evening, but has lately moved into composing music on a computer – using FruityLoops. He demonstrates some of the music, playing a live session, alternatively muting and un-muting looping hi-hats and basslines. “Since I found the computer, I don’t need to look for music anymore, I can compose the songs I want to listen to.” He plays his recreations of Phil Collins and Lil Jon – where he has painstakingly created the melody with a piano VST. “If I could only plug my piano into the computer, I know I could make a lot of things…”

Hama – Tarhanam Remix (Fruityloops version)

** Hama’s full length LP “Torodi” will be released next month in a limited edition of 500 **

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.

Mammane and his Electronic Organ

Lost in a music archive in the capital of Niger was the first I heard of the legendary Mammane Sanni Abdoulaye. The space was overflowing with dusty CDs, cassettes, and Nagra reels, and hunkering down from the insufferable heat outside, I prepared to spend a long week in research. Mammane’s cassette was the first I pulled from the shelf, and I almost passed over in lieu of something more obscure. But I was captured by the photograph — a black and white picture of a young man with a goatee and a knit cap, posing in front of faux backdrop, hands on what appeared to be an organ. The music proved equally intriguing. The instrumental compositions were simple but dreamy, repetitive but hypnotic. It was esoteric and bizarre, unlike anything I had ever head – the imaginary audio track to an arcade game of desert caravans trek through an pastoral landscape of 8-bit acacias and pixelized sand.

Finding Mammane was surprisingly easy. Immediately after asking about him to the archive director, I had him on the phone. The next day, Mammane arrived. Much older than in the photo, with greying hair and in a pressed shirt and slacks, he had a laugh when I showed him the cassette, and he said it was best if we spent the day talking – he was retired, and didn’t have much to do anyways. Moments later were running through the streets to catch a bus, followed by a taxi, that soon carried us outside of Niamey into the surrounding Sahel of scrubs and brown plains, where Mammane lives today. Inside the tiny house, interrupted intermittently by the persistent crow of a rooster, Mammane told me his story as we listened to his cassettes and paged through books of old photographs.

Mammane is well known throughout Niger, but his synth music was never hugely popular. He came from a privileged place in Niger society – his maternal grandfather was a chief in Ghana, his paternal grandfather a Colonel in the first World War, and Mammane’s father was a librarian for the American Cultural Center. As a young man, Mammane became a functionary for UNESCO, during which he traveled to Japan and Europe. During one of the UNESCO meetings, a delegate from Rwanda had brought along his Italian “Orlo” organ. Mammane was captivated by the sound and convinced him to sell it. “It was possibly the first Organ in Niger,” he explained. He began to compose songs on the organ. Many of these songs were interpretations of Niger folkloric classics. “I wanted to make the Wodaabe songs on the keyboard, make the Tuareg tendé with the rhythm,” he said. Some were his own compositions. Salamatu, one his most popular songs, was created for his girlfriend. He stopped as he came across her photo, how he once lay with his head in her lap, and tears came to his eyes. When she asked him why he was crying, he answered “Because I’ve never been so happy as I am in this moment.” He sits quietly, before I asked what happened to Salamatu, and he smiles before shaking his head and turning the page.

His first and only album was recorded in 1978. Mammane stepped into the studio of the National Radio with his organ, where it was transposed and overdubbed in two takes. In coordination with the Minister of Culture, the album was released in a limited series of cassettes showcasing modern Niger music. The cassette project unfortunately did not progress as planned, and merely a handful were released. Perhaps 100 were made – Mammane is unsure – fabricated in Nigeria. The copy that he owns and the one at the archive are the only ones he knows are left. Nevertheless, for over 30 years, Mammane continued to play. For a short while he even had a television show called “Mammane Sani et son Orgue Électronique” on Niger’s television. He digs out a short clip, a black and white video transfer playing in front of the same backdrop that graces the cover of the cassette. Mammane is hardly esoteric or forgotten in Niger. His music today is known by everyone – it forms much of the repertoire of televised intermissions, radio segue-ways, and background music. And Mammane has continued to update his organs and pianos when they fall apart, benefiting from generous contributions from high society, gifts of presidents and ministers.

I left Mammane’s house in the evening, ducking out of his house to catch transport back into town before the night came. And it was nearly a year later when we started to talk about releasing it on record. Mammane was nonchalant about it, only insisting that the proceeds could be used to upgrade his computer and get a new copy of audio software. But one of his musician friends I recently spoke to in New York was more adamant in his idea of the vinyl release. “He’s been waiting over 30 years,” he said. “It’s about time.”

Grab the vinyl here at the new Sahelsounds shop or Mississippi Records – and of course, the music is available on Bandcamp. Proceeds of the sales will go to Mammane’s new computer and a copy of Reason, so stay tuned for future recordings.

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)