Author Archives: sahelsou

Hauka, music for the spirits

Mamoudou Amadou

Seini Lingo & Group – Song for Water Djinn

Seini Lingo & Group – Captain Salama

I come to Niamey looking for the supernatural. Fresh off speaking at a conference for the centennial of Jean Rouch, I’m inspired by this body of work, and I dedicate a week to Niamey. Compared to the other Francophone capitals (Dakar, Bamako), Niamey evokes the village. Most of the streets are dirt, carved out with giant divots from the last rainy season. Ancient trees burst through pavement in the center of town. Camels, loaded with baggage, shuffle along indifferent to the plumes of black smoke from passing motorbikes. Even amongst the hulking nouveau riche mansions of Bobiel you find the unmistakable rural signs of village life – guardians living beneath small thatched hangars, herders marching their cattle across the highway, and flickering of cooking fires in the shadows cast by streetlights.

Niamey guards its secrets well, but I hear a handful of tales. The giant serpent behind the Palais de Congress, slithering down to the river every Thursday evening. Madam Sabot of Goudel, half human half horse, who ate all the racehorses in Niamey until a Frenchman took her picture, pasted it around town, and scared her away. The old Nigerian priest who tells me of his grandfather, a hunter, who could transform into a fly, enter the nose of an elephant, and kill it from the inside. Above all, I’m searching for the Hauka, the Songhoy spirits of the pre-Islamic pantheon and possession ceremonies. In the Western circles, the Hauka are legendary, famously portrayed in Rouch’s “Les maîtres fous,” (Youtube), the 1955 short film documenting a small cult of Nigerién expats living in Ghana. Though spirit and possession are common across the Sahel, the Hauka are unique in their spirits, with a pantheon drawn from figures in colonial Africa. Rouch and others surmised the Hauka existed as a means of acting out power roles under colonialism. It’s understood that the Hauka “cult” thrived in post-colonial years, but its numbers are said to have dwindled away. I ask around, and no one in Niamey seems to know about Hauka.

One day, a friend mentions that his guardian sometimes hosts traditional groups late at night. “It’s like Takamba,” he says. After a winding taxi ride at the edge of Niamey we find the guardian, Malik, walking across the sand. Malik is Tuareg, probably in his late 40s with a friendly disposition, smiling and laughing a great deal. Helpful when you don’t share a language. Malik says he knows of a great takamba group, my friend translates. As we are turning onto the main road leading back towards town, he remarks that he was just at a musical event, but a “different” type of music, and I wouldn’t be interested. It’s a ceremony for the Hauka, he explains. We stop the taxi, and go back.

Malik leads me to the ceremony. In a dusty vacant lot, nestled between some the walls of new homes, a crowd is gathered. Four musicians sit on the ground in the shade of a small tent – three pounding on calabash, and one playing a goje, or horsehair violin – facing a much larger tent with men sitting in chairs. Between them, a dozen people shuffle along in a wide circle, in step with the music. Encircling the grounds is the entire neighborhood. Every now and then, a few people jump up to join the circle or to throw money to the musicians. I sit next to a wizened old man holding a cane topped with the silver torso of a horse. The men watch with indifference, barely speaking, looking almost bored. They’ve seen this before, or they’ve been here a long time or both.

Malik explains. The ceremony is organized to thank the Hauka for their services. A local woman was looking for work, she asked the Hauka for help. She got the job, and in return, she made this celebration. Over the next three or four days, the musicians will continue to sing the praises of the Hauka, while the neighborhood gives thanks to the services rendered. Sometimes the Hauka come and take possession of attendees. But this time, the Hauka don’t come. When they do, he says, you will know.

The next way we organize our own session, away from the ceremony (Hauka is sometimes perceived at odds with Islam, and attendees do not want to be photographed). We find an appropriate location in an abandoned house on the edge of town, where the sandy streets give a wide berth between houses. The group is led by Seini Lingo, a very serious older gentleman in all white with dark sunglasses. He’s joined on calabash by son Youssouf Mohamed and Saliy Kalleyssi. They play two long sessions, once with Mamoudou Amadou playing goje, the other with Issaka Moulla playing the monochord molo. The music is infectious and difficult. It takes a good amount of time before the confusion of the rhythm makes any sense, but by then I’m already deeply drawn in. Noticing I’m tapping my foot, the musicians begin laughing. “They say you’re feeling it, the spirit is coming for you,” Malik says. I don’t know if they are joking.

The next day, Malik comes to visit at my residence so we can work at translating the songs. We listen to the music, pausing the songs as he explains the corresponding Hauka mentioned in praise. But he tells me there are many more “There are even Hauka who speak Chinese,” he says. I transcribe it all, much to the chagrin of my friend and translator Rhissa, who is incredulous. We finish up, and I ask Malik how he knows so much about this world. He laughs and reluctantly explains. He doesn’t just attend the ceremonies but he helps organize them, serving as a conduit and a Hauka practitioner.

Before leaving, I tell Malik I want to show him something. I go to Youtube and find “Les Maîtres Fous.” Malik is ecstatic. He’s never seen the film before. “That’s Captain Salama!” he says, pointing at the screen, covering his mouth to hide his smile. He watches, nodding along, as the film verifies most everything he just explained. Rhissa slowly stands and walks out of the room, unsettled by the film, but also by Malik – who up to this point he had assumed was making everything up. We sit on the floor of the house in Niamey, watching the rest of the film, as Malik Bilali joins Jean Rouch in the narration.

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the Hauka Pantheon (as described per Malik Bilali)

Arné (or Baki) – From Marseille. Walks like a drunk. When he doesn’t find wine, he taps the ground, and makes wine come out of it. If you’ve never drank before, when he comes into your body, you’ll drink.
Captain Salama – Father of all the Hauka. Speaks Tamashek.
Moshisé – The gambler. Speaks Groumantche. When he enters the body he lays on the ground and washes with sand.
Garba – Brother of Moshisé. Smokes cigarettes.
Bagambazi – Messenger of the bad. Drinks blood. If he enters you, you’ll do serious things – if you refuse, he will drain all of your blood. He is rare.
Gomina Ankaraze – Speaks French. Rich. Others will stop and salute him.
Sadji Boulou – Wife of Colonel Marseille, enters only in women. Speaks French.
Medina – Female sorceror, when she comes all stand at attention. The colonel will pick up and carry her.
Sergent Kadri – Drunk, from Marseille (all the Hauka from Marseille drink alcohol).
Fadimata – Young sister of Salama. Speaks Tamashek.
Corporal Guard – Husband of Fadimata. When he comes, military insignia will appear on the clothing.
Adiza – Doctor, and the daughter of the Malian President.
Doctor Soumalia – Husband of Adiza.
Captain Marseille – Boss of all the Marseillais.
Afulo – Pulaar. Comes wearing a hat and with a baton.

(left to right) Seini Lingo, Youssouf Mohamed (ground) Malk Bilali, Issaka Moulla

Ahmed Sidi Bella’s Tidnit

Ahmed Sidi Bella – Bundja (tidnit)

Ahmed Sidi Bella – Wezen (guitar)

I first met Ahmed Sidi Bella, way back in 2009, during my first field recordings. At the time, he only had a tidnit and a child’s size nylon string guitar. With trepidation, I put the microphone in the window, as to be so far out of the way as not to disturb him, much to his confusion. When I visit years later, we both have evolved somewhat. He has a number of instruments and an amplifier. And I know how to place a microphone.

Ahmed lives in Chinguetti, an ancient and ruinous caravan town from the 13th century. The village more recently was a stop on the French tourist circuit, with direct flights from Europe – since in decline, with the ever-expanding “Zone Rouge.” His family compound is a huge compound, across the sand river in the old section of town. Language is challenging, and my attempts to a deeper understanding of Mauritanian classical modes is a failure, but we manage a number of recordings. Ahmed plays both the tidnit, the Mauritanian interpretation of the ubiquitous West African guitar, as well as the standard electric guitar, modified for quarter tones. His mother Aicha Imbend joins in with percussion and a chorus of handclaps and vocals from the rest of the family.

Azna de L’Ader Desert Disco

Azna de L’Ader – Adawi

Azna de L’Ader – Jan Marké

There is something mysterious about the musical archive. It holds a lot of promise. Where live performance – the way music was existed for millennia prior to physical medium – is immediate and experiential, media rendered to medium (physical, digital) can be visited at any moment. But it needs to be played. And so “the archive” becomes a place where sounds exist in limbo. A moment in time, frozen, waiting to be heard again.

And that’s exactly why archives are so exciting. But after years of digging around in W. Africa, I’ve accumulated my own “new” archives, and many of the sounds have been moved from one limbo to another. Sometimes I’ve not yet had the time to go through them: entire collections of cassettes, copied en masse from a cassette vendor at a market stall; flash drives from radio stations, filled with mp3s, too daunted to look at. Most of the time, it’s because these musics form part of projects in nebulous states of completion.

In 2014 I made a concentrated research to find the archives of the golden era of Niger music history. Often referred to as “musique moderne nigérienne,” it’s a recent genre born in the late 1970s. Niger “modern” came in the waves. The early or first generation of modern artists (Mona, Ali Djibo, Mamman Sani, El Hadj Taya) drew influence from Western rock and American soul. In the 1980s and 1990s a second wave of musicians appeared (Mamman Barka, Sani Aboussa, Sani Bori, and Adams Junior). These groups helped to create a specific Nigérienne sound, championed by contemporary groups like Tal National.

Azna de L’Ader, in its first incarnation, was a rock band. Mona took his cues from Western rock and was known throughout the region as the “Hendrix of the Sahara” (playing a fuzz face with tube amps), even performing in a purple frizzy jacket. Mona rarely performs these days. In the 1990s he stepped back from his solo work, and become the business and musical director of the band. About that time, Azna de L’Ader took a completely left turn. The 1990s Azna introduced synthesizer, a snapping decalé rythm, and spaced out vocal lines. The new Azna was less Hendrix and more electronic soukouss, a type of desert space disco.

Azna de L’Ader never released any official albums, but I found a few reels of tape recorded at the National Radio in the late 80s/early 90s – too good to sit in another archive. Stay tuned for more.

Etran de L’Aïr – No. 1

etran

We’ve just wrapped up the new album from Agadez wedding band Etran de L’Aïr. Recorded in 2014, and featured previously here on the blog, it’s been a long time coming. Even longer, if you consider the history of the band.

The music scene in Agadez is still dominated by weddings. While the religious marriage is private, the party is a fête for whomever is in earshot. Bands play for a fee, supplemented money that is showered over them whilst playing. The down side to this lucrative scene is a cut throat competition with espionage, theft, and even black magic, creating a very peculiar undercurrent. Etran de L’Aïr remains largely outside of this surly competition: the best wedding contracts are awarded to musicians with social standing, tribal affiliations, and family connections, and Etran does not belong to the upper class. “They make music for people who don’t have money,” says Ahmoudou Madassane. “If a wedding can’t afford the expensive musicians, they hire Etran.” So while the band continues to gig constantly, outperforming all other bands, they still find themselves in dire straits, confined to a DIY aesthetic of out obligation. Their drum kit is dented and the cymbals are cracked, with bites taken out of them. The amplifiers could just have well have been excavated from desert sands. Nevertheless, the band not only makes the equipment work, they make it sound amazing.

Etran also has a unique solidarity that’s missing from other groups with their revolving door of contract musicians. Etran is not just a musical group, but a family collective. The group was formed in 1995. Agadez was much smaller then, few homes were electrified, and guitars were rare. “When we first started to play in weddings,” Abindi explains, “we only had one acoustic guitar, and for the percussion, we hit a calabash with a sandal.” As new technology found its way to Agadez, they band adapted, amplifying the acoustic guitar with a transducer microphone, acquiring electric guitars, and finding a drum set. As the family grew, so did the band, integrating the younger siblings into the musical group.

Their music is also distinctive and different from the typical Tuareg wedding band. Etran plays a style that captures the contemporary sound of Agadez, incorporating vastly different ethnic musics into their repertoire. While Tuareg guitar follows a predictable format, Etran breaks convention and throws a third guitar into the mix. The two lead guitars solo on top of one another, in constant dialogue, with a crashing response from the drum. There is a bubbly underwater warble that emerges from reverb and crackly amps. It’s electric party music, surf rock, from a place that is all beach. They differentiate themselves from the other wedding bands: “We play our own folklore, not like the other artists in Agadez. Our music is based around traditional Takamba…and we listen to a lot of Malian music. Not Tinariwen, but musicians like Ali Farka Touré and Oumou Sangaré.”

This is Etran de L’Aïr’s debut record. They claim to have written over 40 songs but none of them have been released until now. This session was recorded live, outside of their family compound in the outskirts of Agadez. The impromptu performance drew the entire neighborhood out of their houses, eliciting the audible clapping, shouting, and ululation. It is here as it was played, with all the enthusiasm and passion of an evening at the end of the raining season one day in Agadez.

The limited edition of 1000 featured hand-assembled offset covers from Stumptown Printers, created in true analog style with a throwback to 1960s West African cover design, with exacto cut letters, hand-drawn illustration, and litho-masks. There’s a lot of variation, and no two jackets are identical (more info on the printing process here).

You can grab the album now from our shop or bandcamp.

Mdou Moctar & the Band Go America

This Spring 2018, Mdou Moctar is back on Tour across the USA. You can check out full dates here. It’s a long tour with around 30 shows. We’ll be back in the studio working on a new album. And if all goes well, they’ll be a new film at the end.

On our last tour, Mdou and I talked about shooting a film, a sequel of sorts to our Purple Rain Redux Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai. But the 2017 tour proved simply too much (I was tour managing, driving, and shooting). We managed a fair amount of footage, which was edited together for the tour trailer above.

We’ve got a much better plan this time around. The film is not far from reality. Mdou calls it “both a fiction and a documentary,” of a band traveling abroad for the first time, recounting the experience to the village. The framing device recalls “Petit á Petit,” and although we did screen this film in Agadez in 2013, any similarity speaks to the overall absence of films in this genre. The stranger abroad narrative is dominated by “Westerner in X,” wherein X is any “exotic” local: the tourist video, documentary, and arguably the foundation of anthropology. (I would be remiss here to mention the amazing “Darkest Austria”, an Austrian mockumentary playing with this trope.)

The lack of narrative inversion (or really the need to invoke “inversion”) is arguably due to transnational movement, media creation and popular distribution networks. “Tuareg Facebook” is innuadated with DIY media that provides commentary on Western social phenomena. But this analysis is relegated to imagined realities, commentary on perceptions without movement. Travel with the intention of discovery and creation is privilege. Touring musicians are in a perculiar position: artists and storytellers, they are presented with opportunities to travel as cultural ambassadors, literally presented on stage to be seen.

While this project began through field recordings and attempts to minimize my role as documentarian, I’ve recognized this as a futile pursuit (and ethically troubling, reducing documentarian to voyeur, microphones as hidden recording devices, cinema as security camera). This is a deep well and explored (in the West at least) in the annals of visual anthropology. But as the project remains focused on music, it is becoming increasingly impossible to conceptualize Tuareg guitar without addressing the Western infastructure of record labels, managers, and touring.

When I first traveled to Niger in 2012, Mdou served as a cultural translator, helping me navigate the terrain. In 2014 I returned the favor when we embarked on our first European tour. It is this exchange that we want to address through this process. We’ll be shooting on iPhones with gimbals, an exercise in technological democratization. We are writing the script via a back and forth of vocal messages over WhatsApp. We’re also looking at ways of crowd sourcing footage from concerts, inviting participants to tag videos on Instagram (#mdoufilm), invoking a contrast between ways of seeing and being seen.

As all of this collaborative work, the film is an experiment, but we invite you all to participate. Hope to see you out there!