In 2011, I traveled to Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania to record wedding music. Over the course of six months, I went to a variety of weddings: from the luxurious, high end invitations in the chic neighborhoods of Tevragh Zeina, to the ramshackle tent affairs in far flung suburbs with names like Falluja. Through a gracious network of musicians and sound engineers, I crashed weddings across the capital.
Mauritanian music is loud. Musicians wail out microtonal praises, blasted through blown out amplifiers. Modified guitars warble with underwater phasing over impossible sounding scales. Drums are heavy and resounding and accompanied by the clatter of metal plates. The Mauritanian wedding is the premiere venue to hear popular Mauritanian music. This is not music for the bar or nightclub.
While modern instrumentation has swept across the world, in Mauritania modernity has been absorbed by a bigger pre-existing tradition, and music was reshaped. Modern Mauritanian wedding music may have traditional lutes and ancient dances, but it also has electric guitars and phaser pedals. This movement is as much cultural as it is political, intertwined with post colonial changes, equal parts cultural exchange and nationalistic isolationism. In any case, today this music is thriving in Nouakchott — a unique sound that exists nowhere else in the world.
DJ Sandji started djing years ago with cassette decks. He now uses a combination of CDJs, Virtual DJ, and a sampler. The sampler seems to always use the same kit – the one with the whistles and claps, which has evolved to be a signature element of Balani Show (Sandji uses Boss DR-660).
The Balani Show is an informal street/bloc party with kids games, dance contests, and acrobatic dance troupes, controlled by an MC and DJ. Although parties have waned over the years, it’s still a common occurrence, especially in the capital of Bamako during vacation.
The remix music played at Balani Show defies nomenclature – I’m still not sure what to call it, and neither are the DJs. Sandji plays a combination of Malian pop music, Coupé Décalé, Hip Hop, Kuduro, and Naija Pop. If there is any difference in the past years, it’s that the Balani Show is getting faster. Music is regularly pitched up – Kuduro can clock in at 170bpm. Most of the songs are remixed, either with the addition of drums, or cut up on the computer.
DJ Sandji recently put together a mixtape – 100% Balani Show – of songs making the rounds through the Balani Shows, mixed and cut up, and with enough whistles and handclaps to keep the neighborhood moving. Download if for free on bandcamp or grab it on limited cassette at the shop.
Recently I was asked to put together a mix for Boiler Room’s Upfront series. That is, strictly online, not the Boiler Room in a secret nightclub where people are wiling out behind the dj. Just as well, as it’s very hard to for the uninitiated to dance the Takamba.
It’s been a very busy past year, and the blog has been so quiet as of late as we’ve been wrapping up the film, traveling in W. Africa – and continuing, with upcoming Mdou Moctar EU/Canada tour dates, and screenings across Europe this summer. But there is so much music to share: more Balani Show remixes out of Bamako, Azna’s Hendrix inspired Tahoua rock, the first Tuareg film soundtrack from Mdou Moctar, blown out wedding songs from Nouakchott, a new Amanar album and so much more.
Here is a little sampling of what is to come in 2015. Stay tuned.
To my Scandinavian friends: I’m in Sweden this week! Amanar was supposed to be joining me, but due to visa issues I’m representing Azawad by my lonesome. I’ll be in Stockholm and on the 11 and 12th I’ll be djing at Gagnef Festival.
Lastly, for those of you that missed it – the program I co-produced with Sam Backer on Modern Malian music is still live up on Afropop Worldwide. Big ups to letting us play “Malien Dougie” on NPR affiliates across America. Eat your heart out Terry.
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.
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.”