Tag Archives: tuareg

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.

lack of better words

Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud, photo by Ibrahim Ag Aminy

Isswat, for lack of a better word, is what people have the habit of calling this particular music from the desert. It’s a style that like many things, seems to be localized and specific to one particular region of the world – a tiny circle of Azawad, North of Mali, in the Adrar D’Ifoghas. The Adrar is desert, but instead of the Sahara of dunes, it is a landscape of vast open sky, wiry bushes and twisted trees scattered across a surface of parched earth. There are low mountains, rendered spectacular in the otherwise planar landscape. In comparison, they seem enormous. It is nothing like the mountains of Air with mountaintop villages and citrus filled oases, but there is a rugged beauty to the emptiness and repeated motifs that you can name and comprehend – seven types of tree, three types of bush, three type of wild animal, four directions. But innumerable starlight.

Isswat comes from here (I’ve spoken of the music before 1, 2) Musically it consists of what a friend calls “the four elements”: singing, clapping, stomping, and drumming. There is always a woman singing a melody that dances over a constant droning hum that is maintained by a group of young men, each picking up the spaces when the other one takes a breath.

There are few recordings of Isswat. Perhaps some exist in archives somewhere. Two very unique recordings, certainly the only studio recordings of Isswat, were made at a small studio in Kidal in 2008. They were released on cassette and CD, sold locally in Kidal, and distributed via mp3 on memory cards and cellphones. A few years ago, the first cassette by Idassane Wallet Mohamed was reissued. This is the second one – recorded by a young woman from Adrar, Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud.

This time, we were able to translate the songs, courtesy of Ibrahim Ag Mouhamadine, a Tamashek speaker and Portland resident, and researcher Nadia Belalimat. Translation is an art, and nowhere is that more apparent than translating from a distinctly different culture. My contribution was clarifying some words and cleaning up grammar. Since there is no objective translation, these err on literality, and may read as cumbersome. They demand a certain acceptance, a willingness to be baffled and confused, and suggest the path to profound understanding is not just in language, but culture itself.

In one case, we struggled with the translation “tarha n ibliss” which literally translates to “love of the devil.” In Tamashek, this is the term for romantic love, as opposed to the “pure” love for one’s family. However, calling it simply “romantic” would be stripping away all of the structure and poetry of language. In the end, the translation reads as “devil’s love,” so as not to confuse the reader that the singer is praising the devil. Such are the difficulties of translations.

Translation booklet available here.

One thing is sure – the songs here are all about love, and are full of the passions and follies of romance. However, while it is easy to envision these songs as archaic poems of the desert with imagery evoking tradition, they are firmly contemporary. There are lines that compare beauty to a Toyota 4×4. There are lyrics that compare love to Kalashnikovs. Heroism and power are illustrated by comparisons to the “Americans who came looking for Saddam Hussein”.

I’ve written before about the two worlds, that of the small cities and villages and that of the bush. There are vast differences between the city and the bush, but my interpretation has always been filtered through the lens of language – the cities, with French speakers that I can understand, the bush with Tamashek speakers that I cannot. It is clearly more complicated than a division of language. But there is certainly a two world dichotomy at play. In the global movement of people from rural to urban lives, there is no more striking example than trading a nomadic tent for a house. There are too many differences between the city and bush to name, but suffice to say that in the camps, there are no guitars. There is only music, or for lack of a better word, isswat.

The reissue of Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud’s 2008 cassette is now available on bandcamp and vinyl.

Akounak Premiere

After nearly a year from our shoot, we’re pleased to announce the premiere of our film. Starring Mdou Moctar, a longtime Sahel Sounds artist and collaborator, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (“Rain the Color Blue with a little Red in it”) is the fictional tale of a young guitarist trying to make it against all odds. You can read more about it here.

Per the aforementioned Kickstarter, we’ll be premiering the film in two places: Jan. 29th at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon, followed by a premiere Feb. 5th at Le Gyptis in Marseille, France.

Though originally slated to be released quickly, a mere six months after the shoot, post production was extended far beyond the realm envisioned. We enlisted a team for color correction, recorded new versions of the songs, redubbed portions of the audio, delved into foley work, and hired a sound engineer to mix and master the audio. Most of these post production steps were unexpected, as the interest in the film caught us by surprise. What we had imagined as an experimental project with a handful of screenings in the West and distribution via West African DVD players transformed into something beyond our expectations. Post-production is something overlooked by many filmmakers, especially this one. Next time, it would be interesting to follow with a post that could be done in record time, carried out in West Africa – a fully encapsulated project start to finish on the ground. Though we’re in no hurry to remake Under the Cherry Moon.

We had the chance to screen the film in Agadez in September 2014. It was a very vocal crowd, filled over capacity, and the film was punctuated with cheers and applause. The Agadez reviews are good, which was a most flattering conclusion to the project. But more work remains – we’ve still got Kickstarter rewards coming, and DVDs are in production. The soundtrack is in its final stages of mixing and an LP will be released this year. And we are slated to release the film in West Africa across the Tuareg diaspora – so if you find yourself in Agadez, Sebha, Tamanrasset, or Kidal, look for the film soon. Whether on DVD, USB key, or a cellphone is up to you. Tastes may vary.

photo by Markus Milcke


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.”

You can grab the vinyl here at the shop or stream/download at bandcamp.