Author Archives: kirkley

Three at a time please.

The guitar soiree is the quintessential to the modern Tamashek. At least a few times in a week a festival will be organized — be it a marriage, a baptism, or simply a concert. As the first stars appear in the sky, the guitar can be heard wafting over the city. “Listen…” heads tilt, to ascertain the sound. “Radio? No, definitely guitar…”

The guests, the women in glittering shawls, the young men in new turbans and sporting leather jackets assemble on the ornate rugs on opposing sides. In the center lies a section a few meters squared. This is the dance floor. The first group is announced over the microphone to come forward as the band strikes a few chords, and groups of men rush forward. There is usually disagreement, as six young men stubbornly claim their place. “Three people only, please,” the announcer begs. The band waits patiently for concession. “Merci,” the announcer sighs, and the music begins. There is some bustle in the crowd of women before a few jump up. The dance is a simple two step from side to side, although it occurs on a counter beat, and the dancers dance in place, facing one another yet separated by a good meter, moving their arms about in striking poses. At some point in the song, the refrain, both sides step forward and and dance close to one another, before passing and changing sides on the square. The music ends, the six dancers rush back to their places.

Group Amanar at a small concert in Essouk.
(myspace link)

The guitar soiree is the forum for Tamashek guitar music. It’s rather non participatory — after all, everyone wants to dance — but it is just as much an opportunity to be seen. The first guitar soirees came in the 1990s. Prior to that the guitar cassettes were more likely to be heard blaring throughout the speakers in Libyan military camps.

In some ways, the precedent of the guitar could be seen as the tahardint, the traditional guitar, and the takamba. The takamba is a style of tahardint with a distinctive rhythm pounded on a calabas. It is a fast sound and paradoxically a painfully slow dance. The format of the soirees are similar, but the dancing is slower, ghostly, and more eloquent.

Takamba from Ali Ag Moman, Timbouctou.

Yet the music that probably comes closest to the guitar is iswatt. Iswatt incidentally is a non instrumental music. The sound is created by a rhythmic clapping accompanied by foot stomping, a constant low frequency male humming and grunts, and a female singing (“the five instruments of iswatt,” a friend proclaims). The crowd forms a circle and pairs of dancers enter amidst the energetic hand clapping. The dancing is fast, arms flailing, dust raising, and with billowing robes. The dancers drop to the ground and jump into the air.

If the guitar is the music of ville, isawatt, even today, continues to be a music of the brousse. In the rainy season, a few people will sneak away into the darkness, far away from the tents and begin singing. The others will hear and come together, following the echoes through the dark night. In that way at least, things are not so different. Well – maybe a little. As the Tamashek saying regarding issawat “Sin, Sin, Keratd Warhein” translates: “Two by Two, Three is Sick”. Or in other words, “two pairs at a time.”

Iswatt “demonstration” by children en brousse.

Home taping is killing music

On a near moonless night, the bus rumbles to a halt. The passengers all debark along the side of the road — a vast clear plain clouded in by the shadows of the Dogon cliffs — somewhere on the national highway between Douentza and Hombori. As all the weary passengers sit, they all are pulling out cellphones, and soon the mass is illuminated by little square blue screens. There is no cellular phone reception here — this is not important. They are not making calls. Rather, what ensues is an orchestra of tinny digital audio, a menagerie of sound, beamed out like starlight over the plain.

Douentza recording

The cellular phone in its current incarnation is a recent phenomena here, but one with sweeping effects. In the past few years, the market was flooded with cheaply designed Chinese cellphones (bearing names like Samsong or Sqny), equipped with memory cards and featuring Video, Photo, and Audio, as well as Bluetooth wireless transfer. The ability to make calls is rather superfluous, and they are likely distributed in villages that have no cellular access whatsoever.

Interview with Amadou, chaffeur

One of the repercussions is the death of the cassette. For a long time, the cassette has held sway as the primary audio device in the Sahel and Sahara. While vinyl was popular in the capitals, in the radio stations, it never gained mass distribution — the simple environmental considerations would render it useless after a single hot season. As are CDs, quickly destroyed by the degenerative effects of dust and sand. The hardy cassette was the chosen media for the desert. But now, it seems they are breathing their last breath. Original cassettes are plummeting. While pirate cassette vendors are still a mainstay in every market, their compilations are not recorded from studio produced originals, but dubbed from mp3 to tape recorders.

Interview with Mouda Maiga, cassette vendor

The amateur recordings on cellphones are the envy of any ethnomusicologist — Tamashek poetry, tende drumming, multiphonic issawat chanting. All, in fact, done without the chasm the foreigner, an outsider whose motives are questioned and ability to understand hampered by culture and language. The ethnomusicologist cannot ignore the effect of the cellular phone, nor the utility that it plays in research.

Interview regarding the Christian Tamashek guitar of Pastor Mohammed, from Timbouctou, conducted over cellular phone recording.

The new media places the technology in the hands of the Africans. And as such, questions the role of the intrepid collector, the documentary filmmaker, the anthropologist, the photographer. The foreigner who has descended onto the continent over the past centuries has benefited from the technological inequity to become the voice, the conduit. Like the cassette, his days are numbered.

‘Mashup’ of assorted music collected from cellphones in Gao and Kidal.

Festival Roundup

It’s the end of the year. Festival time! For some odd reason, the Sahara likes to cram its festivals on top of one another, back to back, at the coldest time of the year. Make sure you bring a warm coat and mittens. Many of the festivals have important cultural and social objectives — see the attached links for more information. Hopefully this year will find a good amount of foreign visitors, not scared of by a few unfortunate but isolated security incidents. But as a friend told me: “We don’t need tourists to have a good time.” The party continues as planned.

Fete du Chameau (Camel Festival)
Tessalit, Kidal Circle, Mali
December 29th, 30th, and 31st, 2009
A lesser known festival, probably due it’s locality (deep in Azawad, near the Algerian border). Expect camel races and music from Tinariwen.

The Saharan Nights of Essouk
Essouk, Kidal Circle, Mali
January 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 2010
“The Essouk festival is a three-day celebration of music and culture, aimed largely at a local audience of nomads, but also at festivalgoers from other parts of Mali, Africa and the world.”

*due to financial reasons, this has been shifted to Feb. or March – stay tuned.*

Festival au Desert
Essakane, Timbouctou Circle, Mali
January 7th, 8th, 9th
The large and well known international festival, hosting over 30 music groups. Everyone who’s anyone from Mali and W. Africa — Tinariwen, Amadou and Mariam, Afel Boucoum, Vivian N’dour, Dimi Mint Abba — and quite a few from abroad as well. A special anniversary, celebrating its 10th year.

Festival Tamasonghoi
Bourem, Gao Circle, Mali
January 12th, 13th, and 14th 2010
A new festival, in its debut year. A long list of artists, both Tamashek and Songhai, including Etran Finatawa, Tamikrest, Kanna, Atia, Douma, Amanar, and Azawagh.

That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it…

The Tuaregs consist of a variety of tribes, stretching across the center of the Saharan desert, East of Mauritania, across Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya. In the past, the Western association was with “blue men” in the desert, the fierce resistance to colonization, the romantic myth of the desert nomad. Today it is impossible for the West to speak of Tuareg without the obligatory reference to the Tuareg guitar.

Koma and Attaye, two acoustic guitars in Kidal

The Tamashek guitar, or “ishumar” (A French deriviation of chomeur, or “unemployed”) was borne in the rebellion. After the first rebellion, the youth that had left for Libya for military training in the war with Chad returned to Mali — without any education or opportunity.

Interview with Initriy and Tahieat (French)

Origins are difficult to ascertain, but Tinariwen of Tessalit, Mali are popularly considered the pioneers. The music of Tinariwen is traded across Mali, via the Tamashek. Numbering only 600,000 but stretching over thousands of kilometers — the Malian Tamashek community is like a small town, and everyone knows everyone. But the heart is definitely in the North of the country.

Ishumar guitar music is preferably played with the electric guitar (for its responsive touch, both solo and rhythm) bass, percussion (calabas, djembe, or drum kit), and singing and hand claps. It is almost always played in a pentatonic scale (familiar immediately for the “blues” component), with a droning bass note and syncopated treble that accompanies the singing. One chord is often sufficient. but with tremolos and impressive solos. A friend remarks that tremolo of “false” notes are what separate Tamashek guitar from Sonrai guitar. “It plays better with the way they speak.” And certainly, the language Tamashek is full of bent and ululated vowels, placing it closer to Arabic in sound then with its cousins to the South. While the music has certain roots in traditional Tamashek guitar, the influence of Western music (cassettes of Bob Marley and Jimmy Hendrix most substantially) cannot be ignored. And today, as is common throughout the Sahara, the favorite guitarist amongst the younger generation: Dire Straits.

Talking with a former rebel/musician: “Dire Straits is the number one guitarist for the Tamashek. If he held a concert here…no…all the Tuareg – Algeria, Libya, Niger – would come to Kidal.” Mark Knopfler, are you listening?

Abba and Ahmedou Ag with acoustic guitar, Timbouctou

Sarid Ag and Doni with electric guitar, Kidal

Sonrai sound

En route to Timbouctou, I stop over in Goundam, a nondescript village of the Niger Delta. As I travel with guitar, a young man stops me and asks if he can have a look in the case. “Moi, aussi, je suis un artiste…” His name is Babah Dire (from the town Dire), a recorded artist with a few cassettes and a regular at Essakane, and I shoot the preceding video.

The style of guitar is that which is popularized by Ali Farka Toure; what can be called the Sonrai (or Songhai) folk.* Notably for it’s blues sound, the ever present pentatonic scale, and strong punctuated notes (there are none of the tremolos or false notes as in Tamashek guitar). But it would be difficult to pigeonhole the music. Authenticity is for idealists.

Outside “Obama’s” botique in Niafounke, a guitarist demonstrates the Sonrai folklore.

Souleyman – Ali Farka Cover

Souleyman – A song in the Bambara scale

The village of Tonka lies between Niafounke and Timbouctou, on the bank of the River Niger. It is an exceptionally green place, and exudes a certain friendliness which maybe has something to do with lack of tourism. I spend a few days with a group called Horostar de Tonka, three chauffeurs who when they’re not crisscrossing Northern Mali, retreat to the edge of town and play guitar until the late dark hours (there is no electricity in Tonka, a missed blessing?).

Horostar de Tonka – Chaud!

Alkibar Gignor of Niafounke (previously here) produces a funky interpretation of Sonrai guitar. The following tracks are from a night rehearsal at the Ali Farka Hotel – including lots of dancing, which the microphone may have failed to capture. Imagination required.

Alkibar Gignor 1

Alkibar Gignor 2

Alkibar Gignor 3

* In local usage, Sonrai refers to the language/culture in Timbouctou and its environs, Songhai for Gao.