Tag Archives: timbouctou

abba’s home recordings, or how whatsapp is changing everything (pt 1)

The sand in Mauritania always carries the scent of the sea. You can tell you’re far from the iron rich dust of Timbouctou. Sitting under a tent in a wide empty space of sand and brush, dominated by hulking concrete half finished mansions, I meet with Tuareg guitarist and longtime collaborator Abba Gargando.

I first met Abba after hearing a grainy cassette playing outside of Bassikinou. Over the years we have met various times, though always near his home. This time, we are in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Abba had been here for over two years now, living between here and refugee camps in the east. Ex military, he now works as a guardian, moving his family and tent outside the houses as they are being built to scare away would be thieves.

While we are talking about “what to do next” he plays me some songs he has recorded on his cellphone. A drum machine clicks out a rhythm, while he strikes out the notes in mechanical time, singly softly. “I recorded this on my cellphone in the camps,” he explains. “It was night so I had to play quietly.”

We decide to piece together an album. The recordings are lofi – but so is Abba’s entire oeuvre; he is known today because of his music on cellphones, playing through the tiny speakers. The album could be a sort of homage to the cellphones recordings and listening, recorded by Abba. Unfortunately, he only has a few recordings on his phone, so he suggests to regroup all the youth from Timbouctou.

That night, he organizes a small gathering. We collect songs from the cellphones of Nouakchott’s Gargando-in-exile. There are hundreds of mp3s – recorded in festivals in Timbouctou, weddings in Nouakchott, or small informal sessions like tonight. Abba rewards the group with a few hours of guitar. When he starts playing, they switch on their phones, start recording, and throw them onto the floor.

I have no chance to listen to all the music until later, on the other side of the world. I make a selection and check with Abba. Five years prior this would have been arduous task – playing the songs over the phone connection, waiting for an SMS with the correct spelling, repeat. But times had changed. I send him the files over WhatsApp, to which he replies, identifying the songs and altering the tracklist to his choosing.

His final record hints and what will likely be the next phase of artists control over their own work, as it translates into the West. The role of record label/blog/writing about “the other” is as mediator between cultures, but rife with problematic issues of representation and exoticism. Holding to task the most exotic ethnography and offensive ‘world music’, it may be simplistic to think we can cut through decades of misappropriation with technology. But it does suggest the increasing role that artists may have in their creation and representation abroad – the Western mediators saying less, because it’s already being said.

imzad

Coubala (or Rokia Wallet Wakina) is one of the few living players of imzad, the monochord horsehair violin that once provided the melodies of the evening in the nomad camps. Coubala’s imzad is cobbled together using a metal bowl in lieu of the calabash.

Imzad has largely disappeared but for a few practitioners, particularly in Timbouctou (as well the Hoggar of Algeria, which has made a strong effort to re-launch the imzad as a contemporary instrument). The first well known musician in the region was a woman named Keke who has long since passed. Coubala plays very little in the city, where she now lives, returning to the bush of Gargando only during the rainy seasons. Though perhaps that’s where it was meant to be heard after all.

Coubala – 7 minutes of Imzad

windmills of your mind

Régime De La Terreur: Ansar Dine has invaded the North of Mali, imposing a Taliban style Sharia. A cut to turbaned men breaking glass, overturning plastic crates of amber beer bottles, shouting ‘Allah Akbar.” It’s vicious, yet the religious fervor seems a bit staged. They are excited, not with righteousness, but with the spectacle. They are all too aware and like goofy kids are starstruck. After all, much like the towns under Sharia, the beer bottles are empty.

In the next cut, we see a young man smashing a carved wooden statue against the ground while onlookers gather. His efforts are futile, the statue is difficult to break. The central idea is that this is an idol and prohibited by Islam. Maybe we’re meant to believe this is was forcibly requisitioned from a practitioner’s home. One of Ansar Dine, with a boyish grin, launches into an explanation: “This is a sin, we can’t bow before this statue like this.” But this statue is Dogon — it is clearly not from a home, but from one of the three or four tourist shops lining Askia Mohamed Blvd. It is as foreign here as Ansar Dine. The turbaned man again picks up the little statuette and throws it against the pavement in what is clearly an all too alluring spectacle for the camera, violently smashing a tourist trinket (an act who’s ironic metaphor is all too obvious). Meanwhile a crowd gathers; they’ve not been rounded up or forced here at gunpoint. They’ve come to watch the circus.


(source: RTBF)

Fadikanda is a popular personage in Northern Mali, a large woman with a clear and severe mental affliction but an unwavering dedication to every musical festival, political rally, and trade fair. Rumored to have the ear of former president ATT, she is allowed to wander onto a stage during a performance, her unpredictable behavior forcing the officials to humor her and the crowds to let her indulge in Quixotic fantasy. She polices the events, walking around with a stick, violently chastising children who swim around her like a school of fish, taunting and darting in unison out of her path as she lunges. With her unkempt hair and ragged clothing, she is regarded as a comedic character or a jester. In her delusion, she is providing order to the mass (her delusion is rarely tested though somewhere deep in the recess she knows her limits and therefore raises her stick only against the fearful and outmatched children.) For Fadikanda, the gathering crowds are a testament to her force, an ode to her power.


(source: cellphone, Kidal, Mali, 2010)

Fadikanda is a modern folk character, and while once limited to an existence in oral histories, she has now been transposed to the cellular phone. In fact, videos of the mentally ill populate the terrain of personal video collections: Fadikanda, the wandering minstrel “Marchand du Soleil,” or the young man from Abeibara who’s head injury inspires these long comedic poetries.) The camera and the crowd have an inspiring effect on their subjects. Much like the antics of Fadikanda, the characters of Ansar Dine can be lured into delusions of grandeur, elated by a few bored children gathering in the streets of Timbouctou with cellphones or enlivened through the lens of an international news report. Yet their actions are regarded with the mocking curiosity assigned to the mentally ill: “What will they do next?” And if one watches the video closely, it is not fear in the eyes of the civilians of Timbouctou — their presence alone refutes this — but the eyes of those watching the circus, gathering for the spectacle of the clown, the insane, the foreign zealot who smashes a wooden trinket stolen from a tourist shop with a bizarre frenzy in the street.

gargando mon beau village

The first rains were falling outside Timbouctou. A cold wind carried the bruised clouds over the river and the waving grasses, dampening the scorched ocher of red earth. I remember hearing about Abba, listening to a muffled cassette in Nema, across the border in Mauritania. The rain was also falling then, and the drops were pelting the tent roof. A woman waiting at the station supplied the cassette and his name. She was also from Gargando. I noted this on my map.

Abba Gargando – Ayitmanin (Cassette)

The landscape around Timbouctou is dense with villages, and most of the villages are separated by language and ethnicity — distinctive Tuareg, Sonrai, and Pulaar towns. Gargando is a Tuareg town, more specifically a town of the Kel Ansar tribe, more specifically still that of a large family. The sand is white and cool in the daytime, the water brackish and difficult to drink. Abba comes from that Gargando family that includes many of the members of the group Tartit, the organizers of the Festival au Desert in Timbouctou, and many of the Tuareg university students and intelligentsia of Bamako.

It’s also the area an area that was strongly affected by the last Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. There was a massacre in Lere in 1992 where the elder men were killed, an event that has no internet reference outside of Amnesty International reports, but something that stands significantly in the memory of the region. It was a signal of exodus, all of the Tuareg as well as Malian Arabs in the region fleeing to neighboring Mauritania.

Abba was a child when he left Gargando. Today it is again a Tuareg village, though mostly of the elderly and the young children. Abba is both a guitarist and a member of the Gendarmerie and is now stationed in the Goundam. The politics have shifted, and while the music might sing of rebellion, the new multi-ethnic military patrols are looking for Al-Qaedi and drug traffickers.

Goundam is a Sonrai town, and at night the youth of Gargando have come to Abba’s compound. There’s no more than 15 young kids — some are back from Bamako with jeans and fitted t-shirts, while a few have come from the village. The amplifier hums in the silences between songs as the kids whisper in quiet voices. As we sit in the orange glow of a streetlight in the dirt yard, Abba plays a set as the youth watch with rapt attention and smiles. There is an intimacy in the music, and it feels less like a performance and much more like a reunion of the children of Gargando.

Abba Gargando – La ilaha illallah

Abba Gargando – Ayitmanin

Abba Gargando – Etran (for the youth association of Gargando)

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