Les Filles de Illighadad arrived in Europe yesterday, and have begun their debut tour across the EU! The four piece, all hailing from the village of Illighadad in the region of Abalak, plays a combination of tende and guitar music.
Tuareg guitar music as a genre is increasingly familiar outside of the desert. But the origins of the music are in the tende. The tende (previously) is a water drum, formed out mortar and pestle, stretched across with animal skin. It falls into that designation as traditional, though I would offer “village music” as it retains a dominant role, particularly in the countryside; accompanying village celebration, but also a therapeutic and curative trance inducing music.
Les Filles de Illighadad differs from the multitude of guitar bands and tende troupes in their curious bridging of these worlds. Guitarist Fatou Seidi Ghali, one of only two female guitarists in Niger in a overtly male dominated genre, leads the troupe with songs adopted from the tende repertoire – making them one of the few groups to pursue this path. After 30 some years of ishumar guitar, it’s a curious and exciting development. As the band makes their first travel across Europe, Illighadad awaits with anxious ears.
I found John Sofakole’s cassette in a dusty dark corner of the Centre de Formation et de promotion Musicale (CFPM), Niger’s formerly prolific center for modern music in Niamey. The CFPM once housed an active studio, and the archives read a bit like detritus of something grand and powerful that doesn’t quite match up with the vision of today. I had heard John’s name before in the stories of other musicians, but these were the first songs I had heard. As is the case with most the history of popular music in Niger, nothing is written, little is recorded, and the legacy of the artists of the past decades mostly survives in the memory of songs.
We meet up at the same center, sitting under a tree in the courtyard. John tells stories between the songs, and recounts the old days. John Sofakole, real name Abdoulaye Halidou Maïguizo, grew up in Dosso, a town just south of Niamey. It’s from here that he takes his name. In 1989, John won the Prix Dan Gourmou, a prize established a few years prior to award the burgeoning scene of “modern music” in Niger. His song was titled Sofakole, and recounted the story of a lake in Dosso, haunted by a djinn.
Sofakole is a song about a seasonal lake near Dosso. It’s an old sacred place called Fada Bongo, an enchanted lake inhabited by a djinni. Each six months, the people of Dosso made sacrifices to the lake: chickens, goats, and all sorts of animals, preferably with black fur, would be sacrificed at the lakes edge. The meat would be shared and consumed by the people. The lake could have the blood. The sacrifice was an obligation to the lake, like most lakes possessed by djinn or Mami Wata, an observed ritual ensuring safety. In the rainy season, the water would grow into a deep lake, and if the sacrifice wasn’t made, it would swallow up whomever entered.
John’s brief rise to fame brought him around the country, joining with other stars like Ali Djibo and Guez Band, and eventually he ended up traveling abroad and performing in Japan. For most of the Nigerien artists of the “modern music,” there was a brief moment in the 1990s that contemporary music seemed to have government support and interest, particularly in the development of the CFPM, a government sponsored music institution that now is a shadow of it’s former activity..
Like the CFPM, the lake of Sofakole is no more. What happened was this: one day, the djinni swallowed up the son of a powerful fisherman. The child had traveled to Dosso for a school course, and was playing in the lake when he disappeared into the lake. The father, incensed that the djinn would have the audacity to make such an error against the son of a fisherman ordered it to leave. “And the djinni left. It’s still in the region, hiding somewhere. Today there’s no water,” John explains. “There’s some water maybe below, but not like before.”
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.”