Category Archives: Uncategorized

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!

Dire Straits in the Sahara

I first wrote about Dire Straits popularity in the Sahara back in 2009 and later advised for an article in Africa is a Country. Though I’ve found lots of mp3s of “Sultans of Swing” on cellphone memory cards, and old cassettes buried in record stores, this was the extent of it. Tuareg guitar is fixedly pentatonic, and although every musician claimed to love the band, I never heard anyone in the Sahara playing their songs. Until now.

The video features Nadi Band (arabic: ???? ???), a rock band from Tripoli (video sourced from Libyan music aficionado Adel Alzyani), playing a cover of “Sultans.” Recorded back in 1995, it gives more evidence to Mark Knopfler and the gangs popularity. It’s generally understood that Gaddafi’s rule was not kind to the guitar, but this may of eased up in the 1980s – with a number of successful rock bands and a flourishing “reggae” scene.

While Nadi Band are all Libyan, it was in exile that Tuareg musicians first picked up the guitar. It was most likely under Gaddafi’s rule that Dire Straits found a foothold, before crossing the desert bound for Mali.

Note: I wrote to Mark Knopfler’s managment about coming to the Sahara. I’m still waiting to hear back.