Tag Archives: nigeria

fist of sokoto

Martial arts films, like the aforementioned Hausa-Bollywood films, have inspired audiences that were not content to just watch and turned to film production. In Sokoto, the small city in the Northwest corner of the country, a martial arts school went one step further and created their own Kung Fu to make action movies.

While touring through town, we met with Bahiri or “Master Alko” as he is called. He is a large, imposing man, and martial artist – one of the responsible for this highly localized phenomena. As a young man, he explained, Bahiri and his friends would sneak in to the open air cinemas to watch martial arts films. They were enamored by the action, but could barely emulate what they saw. But shortly after, the Biafran war began in the South and soldiers were stationed in Sokoto. As part of their routine, the soldiers organized Judo practice in the stadium. Bahiri saw this as his opportunity to learn Kung Fu. What they created was an amalgam of Judo and various elements borrowed from film.

In 1999, cheap VHS production allowed the school to begin making their own action films. Acting became part of the martial arts repertoire. Much like the martial arts, they would watch and dissect the films, practicing acting with the same finesse applied to a physical movement. The resulting films borrow heavily from Kung Fu tropes. Ninjas explode into smoke and shoot lighting bolts. A lone fighter take down crowds of attackers effortlessly. And when anyone falls, they make one last effort to reach out with their dying breath before collapsing unconscious.

Bahiri has made seven films so far, and he explains that they made very little money. When most of Nigeria is churning out “dialogue” films – drama unfolding with actors simply talking to one another – his films are much more difficult to shoot. “[Dialogue films] only take 10-15 minutes to make a scene,” he explains. “For action films it can take 2 to 3 days.”

Nevertheless, Bahiri continues to make film (and was recently hired to choreograph the action in the big budget Nollywood film “Spirit of the Assassin”) But the majority, self produced and low budget, remain unprofitable and on the fringe of Hausa film. Nevertheless, Sokoto’s action films are a labor of love, the realized dreams of children who wanted to see themselves on the screen – so much that the whole school have Kung Fu may have been invented just to get there. “We call our style Pikra Kung Fu. ‘Pikra’ means inspiration,” Bahiri explaines. “We inspired ourselves by looking at films.”

for more see Nakamura, Hirokazu. “The Current Situation of Creative Kung-fu in Northern Nigeria – Nollywood as a Receptor of Hong Kong Movies”. Bunkyo University, Department of Human Sciences), Japan.

you are welcomes

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.

Visible Sounds – Sokoto

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.”

Suraj Studio – Sokoto

Hausa Party 3: the OST

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!

king’s crossing

Isa lies at the end of a highway, the terminus of a newly paved road laying across parched scrub land of Northern Nigeria. Geographically, it lies not far from the border of Niger, and exudes some of that qualities of border towns: the squinting stares of merchants, the turned heads as we pass by, the looks with questioning if not accusatory eyes. Soon we’re rounded up by the local police, and quickly find ourselves in the audience of the King. where we explain our mission.

The next morning, Ibrahim, the vice official comes to greet us – they’ve lodged us in a simple unoccupied house – and to deliver us to the King’s mansion. As he explains, the King has “gathered a few of his musicians to play for us.” He leads us down the long main avenue of town. It is a market day, and the street teems with anticipation. We struggle to keep up with Ibrahim, but with a hurried stride he surges ahead of us. Orbiting around us swirl an accumulation of tiny children who dance in our wake until we have assembled our own procession.

Court Musicians of Isa – Guns & Drums

Court Musicians of Isa – Horns

At the far end of the avenue lies the King’s Palace, a grand white structure with a heavy round wooden door. Suddenly, blasts of trumpet sound. We enter through the arch, where much of the town has gathered. The King has assembled not a few musicians, but all of the musicians across his domain in a carnival-esque confusion. The acrid smell of gunpowder burns the air as rifles are fired by dancers, amidst the seemingly unorganized staccato of drums, sending the two tethered horses into a frenzy. Old men yell indiscernible phrases into megaphones over the din. The display is foreign, yet uncannily familiar as some medieval trope, as court magicians in red and green patchwork trace blades across their bodies that leave no marks, dance on broken coke bottles, and swallow razor blades. In a coup de grace, the troupe of the kakakai assemble their instruments, these elongated and impossibly thin brass horns, which are pointed at the King’s house where he sits gazing from inside.

The King’s adviser calls us and asks if we’ve seen enough, at which point the festivities fold, the troupes come to pay their respects kneeling before his highness who sits on a plush green couch and hands out purple and pink Naira as befitting. We are then promptly arrested by the police who have been watching from afar – but that’s another story for another time.

hausa party, pt. 2

Coming of pre-coup Bamako in February Little Axe’s Warren Hill and myself headed into Boko Harem Northern Nigeria to work on an upcoming Hausa record. We recorded lots of music, met a lot of producers, and spent a lot of time in police interrogations. Updates coming soon. In the meantime, I helped William Glasspiegel put together this segment for Afropop Worldwide:

Check out the whole program here.