Forty years coming, Azna de L’Ader finally has an official release! One of the seminal rock bands from Niger, Azna was hardly known outside of the country – and mostly confined to the Tahoua region of Niger. The LP version features highlights of their recording history, restored and remastered from the archives at Radio Niger (ORTN). Vinyl edition comes with a book of photos and liner notes. Grab it at bandcamp or at the shop.
Mona is an imposing figure. He once stood much taller than he does today – age has taken it’s toll, and he walks slowly, slightly hunched over. But when he steps out of the shadows in a purple frilled jacket and pants to match and sporting the same afro he’s worn for decades, Mona is timeless. And then he begins to play. Mona is a demon with the guitar, playing noisy trilling solos, lifted from the Jimi Hendrix catalog, that soon degrade into shredding improvisation. After the ends of his song, he continues to dance over the frets of the guitar into a tangle of feedback and noise. The phrase “Hendrix of the Sahara” is used by music PR and journalists to make tenuous links to anyone from W. Africa that plays an electric guitar, invoked so often to be utterly meaningless. This may be the singular case it is warranted. Mona’s music is “unlike” anything in Niger, unlike anything in West Africa, perhaps on the entire continent – and the most reminiscent of the Voodoo Child.
Mona is something of a legend. Mona formed his first group in 1970 (“the Crocodiles”) followed by what today stands as one of the oldest orchestras in Niger: Azna de L’Ader. Known for their very specific and very Hendrix inspired psychedelic rock, Azna is the legendary group that everyone in Niger knows about, and no one outside of the country has ever heard of. I’d heard stories of Mona for years – “he plays the guitar with his teeth!” – not without a certain reverence or fear. After watching a ridiculously intense YouTube performance from the late 90s, I decided to travel to Tahoua to meet with him.
Mona (real name: Abdoulaye Bouzou) is part of the milieu of the Niger’s “first generation” of modern artists (a genre aptly titled “musique moderne nigérienne”) – alongside other famous musicians like Ali Djibo, El Hadj Taya, Mamman Garba, and Mamman Sani Abdoulaye. Most of this modern music came from this upper class; the aforementioned were all teachers, professors, and governmental officials. “It wasn’t music for everyone in town, but for other officials,” Mona explains. Although the group rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, they remained largely a local phenomena in the region of Tahoua. “There was no studio – that was why people played for a long time without recording. There wasn’t an idea to record and sell music. Before it was just the radio or the television [making recordings]…if the wasn’t the TV that passed in the region, there was no chance.”
Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Mona’s group Azna de L’Ader played a mixture of popular music that came in from abroad, both from Europe and the West: “Since our childhood, we listened to lots of Western musicians….Johnny Holliday, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Eddie Mitchell, Elvis Presley.” On equal footing was Benin’s Polyrhythm de Cotonou. “They were real musicians,” Mona explains. “We were the same age, but they started before us….[as Muslims] we didn’t make music, it wasn’t allowed. But they learned in the Church. They learned the guitar, the drums. They made gospel music.”
Incidentally, the name Azna refers to the pre-Islamic animist religion, still practiced in Niger. The oft mentioned Bori, notable for their ritual spirit possessions are a well known sub-group of the Azna. While Mona’s music flirts close to the hypnotic Bori possession music, it is also most definitely rock. For Mona, the two are not mutually exclusive. Rather than Hendrix influenced rock, it may be the other way around. “When the Europeans took blacks as slaves in the US, our ancestors who went there brought their culture with them. So they mixed their music with modern instruments, and they created the blues, and that invented rock n roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, everything. The blues comes from here. We sing, we cry, and it brings you just into the trance. We make Bori, we do Voodoo. Our ancestors brought this to the US. Little by little, it took in everyone.”
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.
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.