Tag Archives: niger

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.

Mdou Fall Tour 2014

Fresh off the last tour, Mdou and the band are planning another one, with stops in Norway, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. I wont be joining them, as I’ll be back in the Sahel with the crew of Not Just Phones. Expect many updates from Niger as we wander around listening.

One of the more difficult aspects will be setting up a European tour from Niger. When internet is spotty, something as simple as printing a document can take a full day’s work. As aggravating as the process is, it may illustrate some of the problems of the digital divide, and the implications in the world of visas and (post) colonial bureaucracies.

In the meantime, here’s a new short teaser for the upcoming film:

all gold everything

Before the Kickstarter finished, we left for Niger to shoot the footage that will eventually become the film “Akounak.” The windy season was fast approaching, which would be followed by a blistering hot season, followed by torrential rains. We acted quickly, shooting at breakneck speed over a mere ten days.

Work began immediately as we arrived in Agadez. There were a litany of problems that plagued us throughout the shoot – none of which are unique, as I’m assured they occur in every film production. But this particular project came with a caveat. The story was intended as collaboration and everything was subject to constant revision with input from cast and crew. Sets, designs, clothing, actors, and even the story itself was constantly rewritten during production. One scene calling for a marabout using evil gris-gris against the protagonist was deemed too controversial, and no one wanted to read for it. A hug was equally scandalous. Our lead actress stipulated she had to dress in brand new clothes and full makeup anytime she was filmed. As such, her character was rewritten to be very rich, with expensive habits.

Agadez is surrounded by Tuareg communities, but the Hausa language dominates, and by extension, Hausa film. Besides the more interesting aspects of the Hausa-Bollywood connection, Hausa films are stylized in their own manner. They are censored for controversial subject matter (both by filmmakers and an actual board of censors) and the stories unfold in soap opera settings. The protagonists dance through fancy houses with new furniture, beautiful gardens of manicured grass, and expensive neighborhoods with paved streets and luxury cars.

The tendency towards the luxurious was a common theme throughout the production. Often, locations did not correspond to my vision. When a house was deemed too small, we moved to a bigger one. When a sight was deemed unsightly, we covered it up. When children ran into the street, they were told to clear out. The day to day realities – the corner dusty boutique, the donkeys milling about dirt streets, the blown out amplifiers and bricolage guitars – were not considered the cinematic ideal. The scenes were not wholly natural, but artificial and idealized. Actors wore their best shirts and dresses. Sets would be cleared of all debris to appear flawless. Locations were chosen for their paved roads and new buildings. Once I tried to shoot a cluttered street of dirt and mud, trickles of sewage winding out of houses onto the road and garbage strewn about the alleyway. “Not there,” Moustapha said. “That’s dirty. Why would you shoot that?” It was a legitimate question. Equivalent, perhaps, to a Tuareg filmmaker coming to Portland to make a film about the noise scene, and stepping into my bathroom. While I had imagined that a film could both be a fictional tale and convey the ethnographic glimpse into the realities, the shoot seemed to lead us deeper into an ethnographic fiction.

While the film has just finished shooting and much work lies ahead in the laborious editing process, it remains to be seen just how much of “the real life” Agadez will come through. A better question to ask is whether it should. In adapting a film to Tuareg culture, we were not only re-creating a story, but adapting Western cinema itself. Relenting creative control of the project to the new representations that arrived was difficult at times, though necessary to create art that could exist outside of Western audiences. Perhaps where “Akounak” refuses to revel in the exotic culture of Agadez, it is also denying to film with the eye of the outsider and can speak much more eloquently about local fictions, idealized visions, and what Tuareg speaking cinema might look like.

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)