Tag Archives: tuareg

all gold everything

Before the Kickstarter finished, we left for Niger to shoot the footage that will eventually become the film “Akounak.” The windy season was fast approaching, which would be followed by a blistering hot season, followed by torrential rains. We acted quickly, shooting at breakneck speed over a mere ten days.

Work began immediately as we arrived in Agadez. There were a litany of problems that plagued us throughout the shoot – none of which are unique, as I’m assured they occur in every film production. But this particular project came with a caveat. The story was intended as collaboration and everything was subject to constant revision with input from cast and crew. Sets, designs, clothing, actors, and even the story itself was constantly rewritten during production. One scene calling for a marabout using evil gris-gris against the protagonist was deemed too controversial, and no one wanted to read for it. A hug was equally scandalous. Our lead actress stipulated she had to dress in brand new clothes and full makeup anytime she was filmed. As such, her character was rewritten to be very rich, with expensive habits.

Agadez is surrounded by Tuareg communities, but the Hausa language dominates, and by extension, Hausa film. Besides the more interesting aspects of the Hausa-Bollywood connection, Hausa films are stylized in their own manner. They are censored for controversial subject matter (both by filmmakers and an actual board of censors) and the stories unfold in soap opera settings. The protagonists dance through fancy houses with new furniture, beautiful gardens of manicured grass, and expensive neighborhoods with paved streets and luxury cars.

The tendency towards the luxurious was a common theme throughout the production. Often, locations did not correspond to my vision. When a house was deemed too small, we moved to a bigger one. When a sight was deemed unsightly, we covered it up. When children ran into the street, they were told to clear out. The day to day realities – the corner dusty boutique, the donkeys milling about dirt streets, the blown out amplifiers and bricolage guitars – were not considered the cinematic ideal. The scenes were not wholly natural, but artificial and idealized. Actors wore their best shirts and dresses. Sets would be cleared of all debris to appear flawless. Locations were chosen for their paved roads and new buildings. Once I tried to shoot a cluttered street of dirt and mud, trickles of sewage winding out of houses onto the road and garbage strewn about the alleyway. “Not there,” Moustapha said. “That’s dirty. Why would you shoot that?” It was a legitimate question. Equivalent, perhaps, to a Tuareg filmmaker coming to Portland to make a film about the noise scene, and stepping into my bathroom. While I had imagined that a film could both be a fictional tale and convey the ethnographic glimpse into the realities, the shoot seemed to lead us deeper into an ethnographic fiction.

While the film has just finished shooting and much work lies ahead in the laborious editing process, it remains to be seen just how much of “the real life” Agadez will come through. A better question to ask is whether it should. In adapting a film to Tuareg culture, we were not only re-creating a story, but adapting Western cinema itself. Relenting creative control of the project to the new representations that arrived was difficult at times, though necessary to create art that could exist outside of Western audiences. Perhaps where “Akounak” refuses to revel in the exotic culture of Agadez, it is also denying to film with the eye of the outsider and can speak much more eloquently about local fictions, idealized visions, and what Tuareg speaking cinema might look like.

mariam ahmed

Mariam Ahmed is a guitarist in Agadez, which in itself is not spectacular. With so many guitarists in the city, one needs not to search far. However, there are practically no female guitarists in Tuareg music and Mariam is perhaps one of a handful across the diaspora.

Tuareg guitar is largely a folk tradition of men. While not imposed by force, it is maintained by social norms of where the guitar appears. The long days of the ishumar, teapot slowly bubbling on coal, is a world segregated by gender. When guitar enters, it is in this male milieu (a world reflected in my recordings over the past years, which are mostly of male artists).

When I press her on the subject with a litany of thinly veiled questions about the gender dynamics of Tuareg guitar – “is it hard to be a female guitarist” – she simply shrugs and shakes her head. Later, Mdou posits that the bigger problem and prohibitions on playing music are class based – if family comes from a tradition of nobles and chiefs, or a religious lineage of marabouts. Mariam comes from neither, so can play shred in weddings.

I’m left expecting more, waiting for her to deliver some explanation. I begin to suspect that I’m more focused on this imagined conflict with a woman guitarist than anyone else. Later that evening, Mariam returns and we record three songs on her acoustic guitar. I finally stop asking questions and Mariam plays. She sings in a soft voice, carried by her acoustic guitar but with a driving pace. Part way through, the power cuts out and we’re left in total darkness. I can’t see anything. She keeps playing.

Mariam Ahmed (cover)

medium and the message

Super Onze – Gao

Around the fall of Gao in 2012, I met a cassette vendor in Niamey’s grand market. For years he has sat on a bench in a busy corridor with stacks of cassettes and an array of simultaneously spinning duplicators. One of a few vendors left in a vanishing trade, a steady clientele of old men maintain the fledging business. Recorded live on tape decks, dubbed and re-dubbed, they vary in quality from slight tape hiss to degraded into a magnetic distortion. The aquamarine semi-translucent tapes are packaged in plastic cases with recycled paper j-cards. Some of them bear handwritten description, some with fine stencils, more often marked simply with symbols, as if in a secret codex.

Nearly all the cassettes are Takamba.

In the 1980s and into the 90s, Takamba rose to prominence. Empowered by newly amplified instruments, griots toured throughout Mali and Niger and takamba music and its ghostly dance became a signature of the Sahel. And then came the guitar. Circulating in the underground cassette trade, the revolutionary anthems and homesick ballads spread across the diaspora – first as strictly revolutionary discourse but soon becoming expression of popular culture. By the late 90s, guitar music found itself in respectable company, in weddings, political campaigns, and even state sponsored soirees. Takamba drifted out of fashion, retreating to its home in Gao and the sleepy Songhoi villages alongside the lazy river.

Takamba (previously), with the raw shrill guitar and the clattering percussion, continues to be played today. But most often, today’s experience is through the format of the cassette and the hundreds of sessions, recorded years ago, dubbed and re-dubbed, in disintegrating reproduction. The slightly muddied sound and persistent hush of white noise, temper the clatter and crash and buzz – defining a new signature – the Takamba cassette. The old ghosts dance under the stars, blaring out of a boombox of the shopkeeper, shaking the dying embers of that third and final tea, as the town drifts off into sleep.

Super Onze de Gao * was, and is, a Takamba super group (more info here). One of the most prolific Takamba outfits, its membership has including stars such as Douma Maiga and Yehia Samaké. One of the highlights found in the market, a cassette recorded sometime in the early 90s, has recently been pressed into vinyl. As the group never had released an official cassette, we indulged in a bit of creative indulgence to re-envision what such a release may have looked like, with screen printed covers featuring hand-drawn artwork – as the session plays with that slight background hiss of the tape, a tribute to the cassette. Available in 500 limited edition vinyl at the Sahel Sounds shop (or your local record retailer) and bandcamp.

*Super Onze is also the name of the Brazilian-dubbed version of Japanese anime show based on a Nintendo DS game Inazuma Eleven, owing to some confusion on Google.

remembrance

Japonais – Piyano 1

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 remeeventually 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.