Tag Archives: sahel

two sides of illighadad

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The new record of Fatou Seidi Ghali and Alamnou Akrouni – “Les Filles de Illighadad” – might be called “traditional music,” for lack of a better word. It’s that music that fills the day to day aspect, a constant familiar sound. It’s hard to talk about, because its corollarly so clearly does not exist in the industrial centers or the so-called “Western” world. It’s rural music. It’s village music. It’s music for when you don’t have electricity, immediate Youtube access to every recorded sound. It’s music that exists when performance trumps playback. The term village music or rural music might be better, as any claims to it’s authenticity or “traditionalist” elements would be work apart. In any case, every small village its performers, sometimes traveling about for local festivities (incidentally, I met Alamnou years prior, and only realized it when assembling the record). Such is the case with “Les Filles de Illighadad.”

Fatou and Alamnou live in the aforementioned village, a tiny assemblance of mud houses thrown together in the scrubby Sahel of central Niger. I visit in the rainy season (previously), when the countryside is innaudated with still pools of water. Ghostly white egrets perch on half submerged trees, while in the distance tall camels slough there way through the muck. The latter, slow moving and giant, have something almost prehistoric about them in this context. I’m not used to seeing camels in a swamp. The desert is vibrant and green at this time of year, after the rains have parched the otherwise thirsty landscape. The desert here is cyclical, and follows a predictable schedule.

Fatou plays an old blue guitar, chipped and dried, slightly bent. The extremes of weather are not easy on musical instruments. She plays a long session, moving seamlessly from one song to another, many covers of of Etran Finatawa whose music is renowned in this part of Niger. Fatou’s guitar playing is measured and calm, and while we record outside under the trees, it is music transformed by context and place. From the vantage of far away, from a computer screen, it is easy to imagine a singular Niger, even a singular Tuareg identity. But there are many lives and many ways of living. The village of Illighadad is a world apart from Agadez, from Niamey – both major cities in their own right, dense with people, noise, and the trappings of modernity. Fatou’s guitar speaks to a different pace. The days in Illighadad are long, and time is not measured by hours, meetings, or even by the muezzins prayer call – but by the suns passage, the movement of the animals, and the sound of the crickets.

photo by Marcus Milckephoto by Marcus Milcke

Fatou insists that she doesn’t just play guitar, but plays and performs tende as well (“better!”) with her cousin Alamnou, a renowned vocalist. So at night, they assemble in the village. The “tende” is named for the drum, where two woman sit on pestles flanking a mortar, stretched with an animal skin. In a place with the absence of sound, no hum of electricity, no cars, no white noise, and no physical impediments, the tende travels far. As the village plays, people begin to come. You can see them in the distance, little lights dancing in the darkness, growing in intensity, from every direction, like fireflies drawn in from the night. Singers exchange the lead, backed by the chorus of Illighadad echoing in polyphonic harmonies, with staccato clapping, led by a deep and continuous thumping. We stay listening for hours, until the voices are weary of singing and the hands grow tired of the drums, and the crowd disperses through the darkness to find some sort of peace.

While we had some original concept to meet Fatou and record her guitar, every night was accompanied by tende. In the end, we produced a recording with two sides – each unbroken sessions, representing the two sides of the music: the mellow guitar and personal expression of Fatou, and the cooperative and constant village music of the tende. Fatou’s guitar music is remarkable in some way because of identity. As one of only two Tuareg female guitarists in what is a male dominated genre, this was indeed my initial interest in coming to Illighadad. But Fatou exists far away from genre classifications. While she plays the guitar in the day, it is the tende at night – a reminder of the village music that inspired the guitar, and continues to do so. It reads to me as a suggestion that the two musics can and do exist simultaneously. And that different worlds may as well.

The new record from Les Filles de Illighadad is available from the shop on vinyl and via bandcamp.

An open letter to Homeland Security

I was recently stopped again while coming back to the US. It has come to my attention that I am officially a “high risk” category as potential terrorist because of my travels in West Africa, and I’m currently awaiting more documents pertaining to my situation requested via the Freedom of Information Act. The above photo is from a recent meeting with a Homeland Security agent in Minneapolis.

Dear Homeland Security –

While returning from Sweden I was once again pulled aside for a “secondary screening.” This process has become routine to me, and occurs every time I return home. In every airport, it seems to be fairly standardized. I am told to take a seat in a large room that is walled on one side by mirrored glass. A few agents sit behind PCs. They are not smiling. The room is never full, but contains a handful of people, not surprisingly, who are mostly Arab and North African.

At this point, typically, my bags and all my personal belonging are taken and searched. In this most recent case, they are even searched in front of me. There is an agent at the desk who then calls me and asks questions about my travels. If I am returning from Africa, they often include surreal questions about military training and weapons. Sometimes they are merely about the purpose of my trip, my business, the name of my website. They ask for spelling clarifications. Many have never heard of Mali.

Throughout this entire process, the agents are typically rude, barking orders, or making sarcastic quips. The power sits on their side of the desk and I need to be cleared as a suspect. “After all,” they insist, “we are just doing our job.” Going up against any Kafkaesque scenario (a word that the agents, I assume, are unfamiliar with) is unnerving. Given the nature of my work, it is infuriating.

For four years now, I’ve been running a project working in the Sahara desert. It has evolved into a music project, where I regularly travel to West Africa to document and record music, which is then produced and released in America. This project brings me into contact, conversation, and exchange with thousands of regular people. But it also brings me into a corner of the world that has political instability and increasing groups of extremist fundamentalists (who, I feel I should add for your notes, despise popular music).

You are Homeland Security. Your clearly stated mission is “to secure the nation from the many threats we face.” It’s an important mission – one that I should know a lot about, as someone who actually faces those threats in person. In fact, I can say with some confidence that I have more experience with threats than most of your staff. I suffer directly the risks of my nationality, with ever looming threats of assault, kidnappings, and yes, terrorism.

Yet through these potential risks, one of the results of my travels (or ANY travels) is the nullifying effect that they may have on future threats. As a foreigner working abroad I always hear misinformed ideas of Americans and American culture. As the only American around, I am the sounding board, and it is my job to respond to every cultural critique, political act, and the sum of US historical events stretching back to the nation’s founding. It falls on me to act as an ambassador, to represent the entire country and every American, to discredit erroneous politics and propaganda, to quell anger and hatred, and in a personal example, counter the misconceptions that lead to radicalization.

It is evident then, why it should strike me as such an offense to be subjected to this target profiling when I arrive home. My work is a constant effort of defending the country abroad through my actions. I am American, the American who is out there, in the world, under threat of terrorism, promoting the values you intend to proclaim. And yet, on arrival in my own country, I am treated as a potential terrorist myself. I would ask, no demand, that you remove me from this list.

This is my country. You work for me. Please remember that.

Christopher Kirkley

don’t silence your cellphones.





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Music from Saharan Cellphones: Volume 2 is finally on vinyl! The album draws from material from both of the first two cassettes – from hi-energy Moroccan Raï, desert ishumar guitar, Sonrai rap from Northern Mali, to yet to be named genres like “Tuareg Autotune”. Production of the release was an effort in itself, involving tracking down the artists via Facebook, Youtube, and trips back to the Sahel (see previously), followed by a kickstarter campaign to fund manufacturing costs.

The music on the disc was originally collected in Kidal in 2010, tunes circulating on the unofficial “cellphone network” of Bluetooth exchanges and mp3 trades. Since then, many speculated that internet would wash over the desert rendering the peer to peer transfers of cellphone exchanges inútil. Instead, a more sinister force of religious of extremists have spelled an end to cellphone music – banning any non-Koranic mp3s on cellphones. Northerners are holding their breath waiting for the sandstorm to pass.

In the meantime, and with a big F-U to the extremists up North, we’re celebrating Saharan Cellphone music with two LP release parties. First, in Portland, Oregon this Saturday, Jan. 5th @ Sengatera Ethiopian Restaurant – joining forces with the super-team of Gulls, E3, and Monkeytek. Then, next week on Jan. 10th, Sahel Sounds will be in Los Angeles at Ooga Booga, with an armful of records and a dj set!

Portland Release Party, Jan. 5th @ Sengatera

Los Angeles Release, Jan. 10th @ Ooga Booga

Though the record wont be dropping until this weekend, you can buy the vinyl direct from me via Paypal, here! Selling for low price of $12 (for stores looking for multiple copies, check your favorite distro). Digital downloads are available at bandcamp.





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Souls of Old Men

“In the center of Fedora, that gray stone metropolis, stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora. These are the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe.” – Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

In conversation with the old inhabitants of Nouakchott, one immediately hears a nostalgia in the descriptions of the town, wistful not just for what once existed, but what may have existed, or what could have existed. It is a city that lives in sighs and pauses, in the space between notes.

Nouakchott, the capital of the newly independent country was borne in a hopeful moment, a planned city inaugurated at independence before the crushing difficulties of self governance. The president, Moktar Ould Daddah, was none other than the perfect leader for the pluralistic Western model elites sought to replicate — a former student in Paris, he was also married to Marie-Thérèse Gadroy daughter of Charles de Gaulle. update: this is what you get for haphazard internet research!

Seven kilometers from the Ocean, on the frontier of both a windswept desert plain and the crashing waves of the Atlantic, the city stretched itself out along the border and began to expand, subject to the growing pains as its avenues stretched and the buildings exhaled out amongst the dunes.

One could talk of the war with the Polisario as a turning point — when the city was shelled by Saharwi rebels marching in thousand men columns toward the capital. But much of the change was the inevitable growth, as the nomads of the desert were beset by a massive drought and abandoned the tents and flocks for the city, but brought with them their reserved temperance for desert solitude and starlight. Nouakchott the capital, modeled on the Western metropolises, with its metered taxis and danceclubs, was not the Nouakchott of Mauritania.

Hemmam Fall was a Mauritanian poet, one of the most well known his period. He was also one of the first to usher in the era of Mauritanian cinema. Opening lush cinemas across the country, he was also directed a few of the films which define the era. His magnum opus “Terjit” is a comprehensive document of musical and cultural phenomena of the late 1970’s.

The cinemas of Fall have disappeared today. And the supposed reasons are numerous: Wahabi influences from repressive Saudi sects, a military dictatorship unable to understand cultural value, demographic shifts in the fabric of the city. The modern city would certainly be unrecognizable to the films of Fall — an amalgam of the worst disarray of the slums and the shoddy homogeny of the suburbs, overcrowded and sprawling, suffocating beneath taxis belching black exhaust and bone chilling winds of blinding dust. But the films of Fall capture a moment, a legacy to the city that lives in the souls of old men.