Tag Archives: sonrai

the peace

Niafounke is a dusty town in the North of Mali nestled along the banks of the river Niger and a few hours from the historic Timbouctou. It’s legendary in its own rite, renowned as hometown of Ali Farka Touré — a man who even in life had become myth, a figure that will loom forever in the annals of Malian music for singularly creating a sound and whose contribution to African music, or music in general, cannot be underplayed (stories of his mystical talent even echo that of Robert Johnson, Touré earning his guitar ability from a genie). Niafounke means “children of the same mother,” and the town has encouraged a generation to follow in the footsteps of their patron saint. Alkibar Gignor is a band that draws from this inspiration.

Alkibar Gignor – Zeinabou

“La Paix” (for our non-Francophone readers, that means “Peace”) consists of recordings from Alkibar Gignor taken over multiple visits between 2009 to 2011. Some of the songs were recorded at crowded rehearsal sessions at the Hotel Ali Farka Touré, the neighborhood children filling the courtyard. Other sessions are live concerts while touring through the riverside villages, playing under the starlight as an itinerant generator hums in the background. A few acoustic numbers were recorded at Amma Bocoum’s house. His daughter sings along on the title track.

Alkibar Gignor make little or no concessions to the softer sound of world music (briefly touched on previously in the self reflective conscious discussions of what it means to make music for the West), but play the raw sound of electric guitars and frenetic drums that has become a staple of the Niger bend. If Farka idealizes some myth about old bluesmen, than Alkibar Gignor appeals to a nostalgic notion for garage rock. They are the local stars, fierce at work with plans to become known throughout Mali.

For a more concise description, see the fold out poster.

The release is available on vinyl, and comes with an 11 x 17 poster — via Little Axe or your favorite record shop. You can also get it on bandcamp, pay as you want with $3 minimum, 60% of the proceeds to the artists.

give up the goods (just step)

Takamba is a place. It’s also a slow ghostly dance, a distinctive staggered rhythm clapped on a calabash, and a gritty distorted terhardent. “Ali” Ag Amoumine doesn’t live in Takamba, but 250 kilometers up river in Timbouctou. He’s also not Sonrai, the ethnicity credited with the creation of Takamba, though he’ll remind you that the music is something that unites the Tuareg with the former.

In 2009 I recorded a session with Ali — like most of the cassettes, he began the recording with a description of the date and the people present. There were also these continuous shout outs throughout the session, as well as “New York” (regretfully forgetting the QB). I transferred the session to a CD that I left with Ali. Returning in 2011, Ali informs me that the cassette is quite popular now. He has taken it to the local radio station, and it is regularly broadcast, and found on memory cards from here to Kidal, and probably into Niger. Just to be sure, I asked some cassette sellers if they had heard the “New York Timbouctou Takamba cassette.” They nodded.

Ali plays a lot of takamba standards, but he wrote this one. Hali Diallo is the name of a Pulaar woman from Badi-Hausa, a village near Ansongo, Mali. He composed the song for her during a celebration in Niamey, Niger in 1992. “She’s a grand patron, she bought us a lot of stuff. She gave us loads of money, new bazzin, furniture — she took everything in the house and gave it to us. We had to load up a truck to drive it all back to Timbouctou!” Helpful tips if you want to be immortalized in song.

Agali Ag Amoumine – Hali Diallo, 2011

first they built the road, then they built the town

Sahl la Guindo, Ndjarka, NIAFOUNKE

Once, when the first rains began to fall on the desert, I left Timbouctou. The route I traveled, one of a handful of possibilities none more glamorous than the rest, is traversable only by desert craft, the pale horse of the landcruiser — choking and shuddering through divots in sand. Arcing to the West and roughly tracing the curve of the Niger river, we traveled through a Sahelian forest of twisted wood and spiny acacia, docking in the towns that would appear like islands or lone ships, their towering radio/cellular antennas the sole reference in an otherwise featureless plain.

In February of 2011, construction began to pave the way to the North. Over 600 kilometers, the new national highway with pass through the aforementioned villages. In a projected two years, the diesel buses will ply the asphalt stopping at their respective bus stations, bringing the capital closer to the villages and the villages closer to the capital and for the first time, opening up Timbouctou.

Ousmane (Horostar de Tonka), Guitar, TONKA

In Tonka, the town is preparing for the change. Electricity has already arrived a few months ago and the once quiet city hums while newly constructed streetlights light streets. A city of mud houses and cellphones, the fusion of ancient and modern into something workable, Tonka is the all too typical Sahelian village — exploding in population, but physical cut from the world. Ousmane is a commercial truck driver, and knows the highways of Mali. He awaits the road with the personal advantage for his trade. “It will change the towns. But that’s not all. You’ll see towns appear because of the road. Someone will decide to open a store or a restaurant on some deserted stretch of highway. Others will see that, and build next to him. Villagers will come to settle alongside the stores and sell to the buses and vehicles…and create new towns where there was nothing.”

To travel the highways of Mali by bus is to drift into a Lynchian delirium, where exhaustion itself is exhausted. Sleep and time and heat and dust and dreams converge into a gordian knot of confusion. Malian transport companies plunder the outdated hulks of European tour buses, with their nonfunctional plastic AC fans and nonsmoking advisories in Germanic languages, rumbling over potholed and crumbling roads. The world streams by outside of a plastic dust covered window, obliged to roll to a halt every hour or so in designated places. And it is in these places that the villages live for the road.

Women in bright fabrics, shouting over the baskets on their heads; baskets of sugary cakes, plastic sacs of water, sliced fruit stuff. Little boys reciting Koranic verse in prepubescent voices that seem both melodic and bored as they hold out empty tomato cans for collection. Descending and fighting one’s way across the crowds, all the while in a sleep exhausted vertigo, the street side is set with low tables and wooden benches, young men clanking skillets as they scramble eggs and serve up steamy batches of Nescafe. Beyond, slabs of goat roast in mud ovens while grizzled old men survey the scene, cleavers in hand, waiting to catch a spurious eye contact with one of the passengers. Alternating boutiques are stacked alongside, lukewarm refrigerators of coke, fanta, and sugary cans of melon juice. It seems though it were staged, like the plastic mermaids swimming by the windows of Disneyland submarine ride. And it is justifiable, this feeling. What lies beyond the roadside is a bit of a mystery; the center of town, the market, the mud houses, the mosque, all the elements of an African village — or maybe nothing at all?

Abba Gargando, Evening music with friends, GOUNDAM

It’s over a year later when I come back to Goundam, and like before, the first rains have fallen on the sand streets leaving them damp and quiet, though the rain captured the very sound from the air and mixed it into the wet earth. The town is quiet, but brutish blue clouds fill the horizon. I find Abba, or he finds me, sitting beneath a boutique hangar, listening to three men talk about poverty, corruption, and the “future of Africa.” Abba lives in Gargando now — he’s in the military, and his post is central to the ongoing battle with the mysterious Al-Qaedi that haunts the deserts like the djinn used to. “Surely the road will provide some military might to the North?” I ask. He doesn’t answer. The next day Abba vanishes on “mission”.

Agali Ag Amoumine, Super Contine, TIMBOUCTOU.

The Sahelian metropoleis are confoundingly large and isolated villages: Niono, Nampala, Lere, Niafounke, Tonka, Goundam – leading the way to Timbouctou, a once mysterious, but disconnected metropolis itself, left out to dry on the edge of the Sahara. Conceptually connected to the capital, but physically broken, a ribbon of road will transform these towns into something unrecognizable, an uncontested and lauded ideal. It’s the dream of an asphalt river, a flow of cheaper rice and sugar and petroleum, and a fast stream of rafts of desert refugees bound for Bamako and big city lives. Nostalgia is a funny thing, especially nostalgia for the present. The time isn’t spent yet, and the future hasn’t arrived. But traveling the road, where there is yet no road, I can’t help but see it.

Sonrai sound


En route to Timbouctou, I stop over in Goundam, a nondescript village of the Niger Delta. As I travel with guitar, a young man stops me and asks if he can have a look in the case. “Moi, aussi, je suis un artiste…” His name is Babah Dire (from the town Dire), a recorded artist with a few cassettes and a regular at Essakane, and I shoot the preceding video.

The style of guitar is that which is popularized by Ali Farka Toure; what can be called the Sonrai (or Songhai) folk.* Notably for it’s blues sound, the ever present pentatonic scale, and strong punctuated notes (there are none of the tremolos or false notes as in Tamashek guitar). But it would be difficult to pigeonhole the music. Authenticity is for idealists.

Outside “Obama’s” botique in Niafounke, a guitarist demonstrates the Sonrai folklore.

Souleyman – Ali Farka Cover

Souleyman – A song in the Bambara scale

The village of Tonka lies between Niafounke and Timbouctou, on the bank of the River Niger. It is an exceptionally green place, and exudes a certain friendliness which maybe has something to do with lack of tourism. I spend a few days with a group called Horostar de Tonka, three chauffeurs who when they’re not crisscrossing Northern Mali, retreat to the edge of town and play guitar until the late dark hours (there is no electricity in Tonka, a missed blessing?).

Horostar de Tonka – Chaud!

Alkibar Gignor of Niafounke (previously here) produces a funky interpretation of Sonrai guitar. The following tracks are from a night rehearsal at the Ali Farka Hotel – including lots of dancing, which the microphone may have failed to capture. Imagination required.

Alkibar Gignor 1

Alkibar Gignor 2

Alkibar Gignor 3

* In local usage, Sonrai refers to the language/culture in Timbouctou and its environs, Songhai for Gao.

The end of the world…

I’ve come to Timbouctou to find a Tamashek guitarist named “Aba”. He is from Gargando, and has left music and joined the military. I don’t find him. However, I do meet with Mohamed Ag Abothy (or Mohamed “Bidega”) who plays the bidega, a semispherical wood instrument with attached pieces of steel. Mohamed claims this is a Tamashek instrument (his father made it, his father before him, etc.), but the sound is similar to that found further south – perhaps influenced by the Mande sound?

Bidega 1

Bocar Tandina is a guitarist who plays in the traditional “Sori” style (think Ali Farka Toure). Along with Mohammad (and a percussionist), they make up the group Fafadoby.

Bocar on guitar

Lastly, a street field recording, walking through the old center of Timbouctou (crying children, an agitated drum session, music drifting from a radio…and motorbikes!

Old town