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Field Recordings from the Sahel

I recently put together this compilation entitled “Field Recordings from the Sahel.” It’s what it says on the tin. Since the inception of this blog (way back in 2009), field recording has been at the core. The term gets thrown around a lot. While much the content in our records could be considered so, they are foremost musical recordings that have been captured with a single microphone, in one take, and aim to present the music as it sounded at the occasion.

This compilation is a bit different from the label content. The recordings here are varied: ambient soundscapes of an early morning in Timbouctou, a prayer call in rural Mauritania, late night radio broadcasts of Wolof griots. A lot of what’s here has been featured on this blog over the years – the result of traveling with a sound recorder ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.

Moving from blog to “record label,” the Sahel Sounds project has focused primarily on music to transmit information and commercial records to finance the work (my own research and musicial careers of our partners in W. Africa). In addition to the music, I’ve tried to use the records as opportunities to provide a little more context, using them to translate Tamashek poetry, support visual artists in Bamako, or create transcultural genre experimentation. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to step outside of the “label” context to create work not bound by the particulars of the vinyl record market.

The compilation is available streaming + with free download from bandcamp. In addition to the compilation, I produced a short book “Folktales from the Sahel,” – a collection of stories, myth, and urban legends, collected on the past decade of travel.

Enjoy.

Troupe Ecole Tudu

Tudu

I first came upon this cassette at Djadje’s market stall at the Grand Marché in Niamey in 2014. The tapes were not for sale (Djadje sells dubbed copies) so I spent the good part of a day sitting on a wooden bench in the crowded market, digitizing with a cheap walkman and ZOOM. The results weren’t pretty. Someone’s cellphone, probably my own, was sending radio interference, and the tape was distorted with staccato noise. When I heard it, I was already thousands of miles away. A few months ago, while back in Niamey, I did like any good video store patron in 1993 and left a friend’s driving license and a hefy non-refundable deposit. We brought the tape to France, digitized it, and returned it to Djadje in a months’ time.

 

Djadje was surprised to see the tape again. And for good reason. The tape is rare, the only copy I’ve ever seen. The recording comes from a school group from the village of Tudu, in the region of Agadez, led by a guitarist and professor Barmo. The style that would become a popular in Niger throughout the 1980s and 90s, with many similar schoolgirl groups, like the one in Tchirou (and what would go on to form the basis and genre of Sogha Niger). The guitar playing is minimal, recalling early Ali Farka Touré, answering and mimicking the lilt of the song.

The cassette also stands out with the mysterious logo and catalog number – “HASADA” – maybe something only I would obsess over. But the only other cassette from the label I’ve found was Mamman Sani’s first and signature recording that went on to become the re-release La Musique Electronique du Niger. Rumour has it that Hasada was from Nigeria, and made a few of these tapes to distribute around Niamey. He had a good ear, whoever he was.

The track here “Oyiwa” refers to the Tuareg greeting “O-yi-wan.” It’s an old song, from the colonial years, and implores parents to send their children to school. The performance on this tape is some 30 years later, somtimes in the 1980s, but the message is the same. And it makes a convincing argument for education, if it can turn out music like this.

I’ve reached out to Barmo and some of the surving members of the Troupe and will share more as I find out.

Mdou Moctar – Sousoume Tamachek

sousoume tamachek

Mdou Moctar’s new album, Sousoume Tamachek, is now available! In the past years, Tuareg rock music, particularly that of Niger, has gotten faster. There is a preference for this new sound – both in the raucous weddings of Agadez and in Berlin rock clubs. The wavering guitar solos, rapid fire drums and heavy distortion has become characteristic of the contemporary sound.

For Mdou, this was not always the case. Self taught in a religious region that eschewed the guitar, Mdou was forced to learn music in secret. And when he did begin to play, there were no weddings or festivities. His early oeuvre was developed to play at informal private sessions with his friends. In these “takits” or picnics, Mdou and his friends would pass the lazy days together sitting under a tree, drinking tea, laughing, and singing songs.

For his new record, Mdou revisits this “music for desert picnics,” taking his compositions from his youth, and bringing them to the studio (his repertoire of “takit” songs were never recorded and only exist on warbly cassette recordings compressed into low quality mp3s). From love ballads (“Nikali Talit”), religious praise (“Ilmouloud”), to life counsel (“Amidini”), the songs are intensely personal, both in content and in structure.

Constructed around the guitar, Mdou plays everything on the album in lush layered overdubs, singing both call and response vocals, playing rhythm guitar, and drumming on the calabash. Produced in collaboration with Christopher Kirkley (Sahel Sounds) and longtime associate Jesse Johnson (Boomarm Nation), the light touch pays respect to the origin of these ballads. The result is a very different side of Mdou Moctar, that of quiet introspection, lifted out of memory for one last time.

Get the vinyl from Bandcamp and our shop.

Mohamed Barky, synth from Niger

Mohamed Barky

It’s been quiet around here lately as we’ve been doing this and that, but there’s still so much to share in the archives! Today’s tracks come from a mysterious cassette from Djadje, one of Niamey’s last cassette vendors at the Niger’s Grande Marche (there are two – the other vendor sells only bootleg Takamba) Djadje has a deep selection of everything ever recorded in Niger on tape. He’s one of the few people to own an original Mamman Sani cassette. And he is very reluctant to part with anything. Like most of the cassette vendors, he makes his living off dubbing.

This particular cassette has no identifying jacket or information, suffice a name scribbled “Mohamed Barky.” According to Djadje, Barky was a pianist in Niger, in the same vein as Mamman Sani (though likely much more recent by the sound of it), playing traditional compositions on a synthesizer. He passed away sometime in the last decade. There is no further information or track titles, and no one seems to know anything more about Barky. Djadje wont sell the cassette, but provides me with this copy.

Mohamed Barky – Track 1
Mohamed Barky – Track 2 – Takamba

Agrim Agadez – musique guitare de la republique du niger

Agrim Agadez

The newest release from Sahel Sounds is titled Agrim Agadez , a compilation of field recordings of guitar music from the Sahelian empire of Niger. Focusing on guitar music throughout the country, and recorded over many years of travels, Agrim Agadez celebrates the diversity of the instrument in the contemporary Sahel.

Like most of the Sahel, the guitar is found in every corner of Niger. Whether acoustic, electric, or built by hand, guitars are highly prized possessions and continue to inspire. Every corner of Niger has particular languages, customs, and cultures, and each corner has taken the instrument and transformed it in its own special way: from bar bands of the southern Hausa land, pastoral flock owning village autodidacts, rag-tag DIY wedding rock musicians, to political minded folk guitarists. Agrim Agadez follows the sounds overheard playing on cassettes, seeking out the once legendary local heroes in their hometowns, and stumbling upon musicians in accidental chance encounters.

For readers of the blog, it’s familiar territory. Much of the music has been shared here over the years, as yours truly was faithfully updating the blog from remote cyber cafes and borrowed cellphone wi-fi. It’s also a continuation of two other records that delved into the same subject, the debut Ishilan n-Tenere, and the subsequent Laila Je T’Aime. Field recordings have always been a foundation of this work (if for anything else, an opportunity to travel!), but there is a certain element to the live recording that is hard to replicate in a controlled sterile space of the studio.

While it would be nice to claim that the record is comprehensive and academic, Agrim Agadez is not that album. This is not a record of research, but something to listen to. You can draw your own conclusions. However, it is a faithful document of the guitar as it’s heard, experienced in the open air studios of Niger with a single microphone, with backdrops of children’s voices, crickets, and village ambience. But above all, it’s a record of people who once upon a time, decided to pick up the guitar and play a song.

The record is available now on vinyl from our shop with 16 page liner notes w/ photos and bios of the bands. You can also listen/download on bandcamp.