It’s been quiet around here lately as we’ve been doing this and that, but there’s still so much to share in the archives! Today’s tracks come from a mysterious cassette from Djadje, one of Niamey’s last cassette vendors at the Niger’s Grande Marche (there are two – the other vendor sells only bootleg Takamba) Djadje has a deep selection of everything ever recorded in Niger on tape. He’s one of the few people to own an original Mamman Sani cassette. And he is very reluctant to part with anything. Like most of the cassette vendors, he makes his living off dubbing.
This particular cassette has no identifying jacket or information, suffice a name scribbled “Mohamed Barky.” According to Djadje, Barky was a pianist in Niger, in the same vein as Mamman Sani (though likely much more recent by the sound of it), playing traditional compositions on a synthesizer. He passed away sometime in the last decade. There is no further information or track titles, and no one seems to know anything more about Barky. Djadje wont sell the cassette, but provides me with this copy.
Starting off this new year with two new releases: Waande Kadde, dreamy acoustic Pulaar music from the villages of Fouta Toro, and Top WZN, synth, drum machines, and electric tidnit from the capital city of Mauritania. While they are immediately sonically different, they bear more similarities than one may suspect. Both are from the extreme West of the Sahel, geographically miles away. Both are improvisational sessions performed and recorded without any preparation. And both involve the meeting of the traditional and the modern, and the emergent new sounds that come from this encounter.
Tidiane Thiam’s and Amadou Binta Konte’s Waande Kadde, was recorded in the village by the same name – a tiny burg on the banks of the winding Senegal River, on the island of Morfil, in the extreme North of Senegal. Amadou Binta Konté is a fisherman, not a griot, but nevertheless plays the hoddu – a variant of the traditional lute found throughout West Africa. In Fouta Toro, the body of the hoddu is carved out of wood and goat or sheep skin is stretched over the resonator. The “strings” are made of braided nylon fishing line, and attached to the neck with small strips of leather. Tidiane Thiam, guitarist of the group Lewlewal de Podor, plays acoustic guitar modeled on the hoddu.
Guitar songs are played in a major scale (in contrast to the pentatonic scale of Northern Mali) in traditional Pulaar and Manding tunings. There is a common technique of playing with octaves and doubling. The contemporary guitar of Tidiane, while embodied in a different instrument, is very much bound to its predecessor, and nowhere is this more apparent than hearing them together. For our recordings in 2014, we traveled to Waande Kadde to sit with the two musicians in person. This is not the first time the two had played together, yet the music was improvisational. While both Amadou and Tidiane use different instruments, they play within the “folkloric” base, a wide repertoire of traditional songs that are shared across Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Niger.
TOP WZN is a far cry from the mellow sounds of Waande Kadde – though geographically, it is only a stones throw into Mauritania (literally the other side of the river). The album (originally released on cassette in 2009) showcases Jeich Ould Badu and Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla, playing a signature genre of instrumental music. Known as اوزان (transliterized as “alwazan” “wezen” or “wzn”), literally translated as “rhythm,” it colloquially refers to a contemporary genre of instrumental music, defined by synthesizers, electric guitars and lutes, and electronic drum patterns. Jeich Ould Badu is from a celebrated family of griots, and learned to play music at a young age. He plays the tidnit, the traditional Hassaniya lute – modified and updated, the goat skin replaced by flattened tin, and hacked together with phaser pedals and built in pre-amps. Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla is one of the most well known keyboard musicians in Mauritania. He plays an Arabic moded synthesizer capable of the quarter tone scales adapted from the fretless strings of classical Moorish traditions.
Popular Mauritanian music is often performed publicly with large troupes of guitarists, tidnits, synthesizers, and multiple rhythm sections. But in the past decade, the influx of small recording studios and a booming cassette industry has led to artist driven productions. WZN has followed suit, and has been transformed into an established genre. The slick studio sound, warbling tidnit, and microtones of the synthesizer are an integral part of today’s musical landscape, blasting from open air music shops and taxi cabs throughout the capital.
Recently in Niamey, I met up with Hama, keyboardist and electronic music composer (previously, more previously) A few months ago we released an EP of Hama’s recordings, a collaboration with Boomarm Nation. Recorded locally at Flow Wolf Studio “Imidiwan N’Assouf” was remixed by Portland based Gulls and Istanbul’s El Mahdy Jr.
We meet up to talk about future directions and exchange musics. We trade our respective remixes and other media. Hama plays me one track he’s been working on. In the track, a rapper spits some mediocre bars over a custom instrumental. “This is a rap that comes in Fruityloops,” he explains to me. “I put it on to see how my beat paris with the voice, and when it sounds good, I take out the rap.”
Hama’s music continues to standout in Niger, primarily for this reason. His music is electronic but strictly instrumental. While there are certainly electronic musics happening in the Sahel, most of these are elements in larger compositions: the hi-energy backing instrumental of a hip hop track or coupé décalé inspired dance remixes. Instrumental electronic music in Niger is rare. Following in the vein of Mamman Sani Abdoulaye (the two have met, but never collaborated), Hama is the proverbial next generation, ideally one who will get more attention than his predecessor from the Niger public.
Composing in Fruityloops, his computer compositions aren’t arranged. I’ve downloaded Ableton onto his Macbook and brought a small midi controller, to facilitate the painstaking work of composing melodies with a mouse. For the time being, his electronic compositions have a similar live element to them. Layers are unmuted with a mouse click over the bars, slowly building to a crashing momentum. One exception with some minimal arrangement is titled “Baoura” – a work in progress:
In the meantime, until the electronic avant garde expands in Niamey, Hama continues to play his signature Yamaha PSR-64 in weddings. With such a wide distribution across cellphones, his compositions are firmly established in the music repertoire of Niger, albeit outside of the official means. “They love my music, there is something about it. Especially the old people, it makes them travel far in their minds.”
On one of my visits to Niger, Mamman Sani gave me a box of cassette tapes. I digitized a few, and promptly forgot about the rest. In the piles of media and recordings collected, they went from one archive to another. I recently had a chance to revisit them, and found some sessions that we had thought were lost.
In 1981 Mamman’s recording session at the National Radio of Niger went on to become his first and only official release (and the content of “La Musique Electronique du Niger”). During this session, he also recorded material for a second album that was never released.
We’ve compiled some of these lost sessions into the new LP – Unreleased Tapes 1981-1984. Most of the songs feature Mamman playing on his Orla accompanied by a BOSS Dr. Rhythm. It also features one of Mamman’s first songs – Arman Doley, which talks about the dangers of arranged marriage. A unique track, it’s also one of the first recordings of Mamman singing. The track Mai Dawaya features a short lived group with Mamman Sani and two guitarists (Salif, Babu) called Farin Wata, recorded for television. We’ve yet to find the VHS.
Torodi, the new release from Hama is now available on vinyl and digital download. Compiled from tracks collected across Niger over the past few years, the vinyl release features hand drawn artwork by well known Nigerien political caricature artist Abdoul Karim, beautifully designed and screenprinted by Corum, limited to 500:
“Hama is a multi instrumentalist and electronic synthesizer composer from the Republic of Niger. His music has enjoyed wide acclaim throughout the country through his underground releases of unlabeled digital recordings on memory cards. Creating at the convergence of disparate influences, such as North African instrumental synth, Tuareg tishumaren, 90s Nigerien Hip Hop and second wave Detroit techno, Hama composes music that is futuristic and rooted in tradition, transmitting Tuareg guitar into the 21st Century.”