Music video treatment for “Ataraghine”, Hama’s synth composition featured on the new LP. A cover of a song by Agalay Bekaye. Featuring footage of Hama in action with images from Niger’s Cure Salée, edited together for some desert psychedelia.
The first time I heard the music was (naturally) on a cellphone. It was March of 2012, and I left Gao in a rush as the Northern cities fell to the rebellion. I nervously scanned the horizon as the bus blew past abandoned police posts – managing to Zoom a field recording of the song playing on a fellow passenger’s phone.
I continued to find more versions of the piano music. After questions, interviews, and Facebook inquiries, I went to Agadez and gathered up more tracks. Eventually, I learned the identity of the musician – a certain “Japonais,” former rebellion fighter for the MNJ, and pianist. I met the family, and we discussed releasing the material on a record. I began mastering the songs. The records were in the queue, and would soon arrive.
But it wasn’t him.
A few months ago, I head back to Niger with a contract and envelope of money. One night we hear one of the songs playing from a nearby cellphone. When the crew stops by to investigate, they’re told a different name: “Hama”. When they report back to me, I tell them they must be mistaken. This is Japonais. Everyone in Agadez knows this. Every mp3 is tagged with his name. I’ve even met with the family, who confirmed it. But the other friends in the Niamey neighborhood are insistent. Not only is this Hama, but he lives close by here – and tomorrow we’ll go visit him.
Hama lives with his family in one of the old neighborhoods of Niamey, Plateau. It’s a calm section of central Niamey with large old concrete houses and tall trees. The Embassies were once here and Hama grew up amongst the expatriates and embassy staff. It was one of these expatriates that gave Hama his first melodica, then synthesizer. In 2005, he found a Yamaha PSR-64. It’s a distinctive sound – warbly, with quarter tones. It features drum programming, which Hama uses to create the signature rhythms on his tracks, all of but one are original compositions. He asks me to sit down, and he begins to play a sound unmistakable from the recording. When he finished he looks up – “Well? Is it me?”
In 2009, he was invited to the radio to record the instrumental tracks that now circulate through the cellphone networks. While awaiting the completion of his CD, one of the sound engineers copied the songs. But when they were copied, it was with the generic filename: “NOUVEAU INSTRUI”. Hama’s name wasn’t on the file or the id3 tag, and they dispersed throughout the country with no link back to him. Being instrumental music furthermore, it was hard to make any claim to it.
They would have remain unidentifiable music, if it were not for Japonais. A well known figure in the rebellion, Japonais was in fact a Tuareg synth player – as well as a guitarist. His assassination by government troops was an injustice that still reverberates in the North today. Little by little, these unlabeled songs began to pick up the name “Japonais” – by mp3 sellers, cellphone owners, and radio djs – who assumed it was none other than their celebrated hero.
Back in Niamey, only his friends know who he is. He performs rarely and is not a professional musician, working as a driver for a wealthy expatriate businessman. He plays his synthesizer in the evening, but has lately moved into composing music on a computer – using FruityLoops. He demonstrates some of the music, playing a live session, alternatively muting and un-muting looping hi-hats and basslines. “Since I found the computer, I don’t need to look for music anymore, I can compose the songs I want to listen to.” He plays his recreations of Phil Collins and Lil Jon – where he has painstakingly created the melody with a piano VST. “If I could only plug my piano into the computer, I know I could make a lot of things…”
** Hama’s full length LP “Torodi” will be released next month in a limited edition of 500 **
UPDATE: The music thought to be that of Japonais, is actually of the musician Hama, a Niamey based pianist/electronic musician. See this post here for more info.
Back in 2012, I found a few incredible instrumental piano tracks in Niger. This trip to Agadez, I asked around and friends were quick to identify them as the work of a young man known as
“Japonais”* who had been killed in the rebellion of 2009. It was soon after that I was meeting with his family.
Born with the name Alhoussane Khadim, he was given the knickname “Japonais” as a baby for his small eyes. When he was 12 years old, his mother traveled to Libya and returned with a keyboard. Japonais had a natural ear for music, and taught himself to play, eventually upgrading to a larger keyboard purchased in Zinder. He played his piano in weddings, sometimes accompanying musicians, like Abdallah Oumbadougou. He eventually learned to play guitar and drums. “He wrote songs for all the family and for all his friends,” his sister explained. “Everyone had their own song.”
Japonais – Piyano 2< During the last rebellion of Niger, Japonais joined the MNJ (Niger Movement for Justice), a group seeking independence in the North of Niger. For all appearances, the Niger rebellion seems to lack the popular support of the current Malian rebellion. On the other hand, and maybe in explanation for its rapid suppression, the Niger rebellion also was in direct conflict with foreign interests - namely the French company Areva that owns and operates uranium mines in the North with a notorious track record. “It’s one thing to go up against Niger, another to go up against the French,” a friend explains. In 2009, while battling government troops, Japonais was captured, arrested and subsequently “disappeared.” He was 25 years old. The fact that he was captured alive and assassinated by the Nigerien government is unfortunately unsurprising. (“They do this all the time,” a young man explains as I read him this text).
When I ask the family if they have any pictures, they are able to find only two – one of Japonais, a child no more than 12 years old, around the time he first started to play the piano. The other photo shows a young man on the left, arm draped over his friend. The photo is worn and degraded from time and sand and sun. These are the only pictures they have, they explain. After his death, soldiers came to investigate his background and arrest his friends, so they gathered up all the photos and burned them.
Today the music of Japonais continues to circulate through the digital networks of Niger. The songs are often titled “Piyano,” or “Instru,” or sometimes “Bambino” (there are many people that believe the songs are by said artist, due to this clerical error). But not once have I seen one carrying the name of the musician Japonais.
* There is another “Japonais” in the group Tinariwen. This is not him.
Some found sound from Khalil’s cellphone repair shop/mp3 sales/video montage, Abalak, Niger.