Tag Archives: bori

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

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.

Azna de L’Ader vinyl

azna de l'ader vinyl

Forty years coming, Azna de L’Ader finally has an official release! One of the seminal rock bands from Niger, Azna was hardly known outside of the country – and mostly confined to the Tahoua region of Niger. The LP version features highlights of their recording history, restored and remastered from the archives at Radio Niger (ORTN). Vinyl edition comes with a book of photos and liner notes. Grab it at bandcamp or at the shop.

azna de l’ader

azna de l'ader

Mona – Hey Joe

Mona is an imposing figure. He once stood much taller than he does today – age has taken it’s toll, and he walks slowly, slightly hunched over. But when he steps out of the shadows in a purple frilled jacket and pants to match and sporting the same afro he’s worn for decades, Mona is timeless. And then he begins to play. Mona is a demon with the guitar, playing noisy trilling solos, lifted from the Jimi Hendrix catalog, that soon degrade into shredding improvisation. After the ends of his song, he continues to dance over the frets of the guitar into a tangle of feedback and noise. The phrase “Hendrix of the Sahara” is used by music PR and journalists to make tenuous links to anyone from W. Africa that plays an electric guitar, invoked so often to be utterly meaningless. This may be the singular case it is warranted. Mona’s music is “unlike” anything in Niger, unlike anything in West Africa, perhaps on the entire continent – and the most reminiscent of the Voodoo Child.

Mona is something of a legend. Mona formed his first group in 1970 (“the Crocodiles”) followed by what today stands as one of the oldest orchestras in Niger: Azna de L’Ader. Known for their very specific and very Hendrix inspired psychedelic rock, Azna is the legendary group that everyone in Niger knows about, and no one outside of the country has ever heard of. I’d heard stories of Mona for years – “he plays the guitar with his teeth!” – not without a certain reverence or fear. After watching a ridiculously intense YouTube performance from the late 90s, I decided to travel to Tahoua to meet with him.

2-AZNA1

Mona (real name: Abdoulaye Bouzou) is part of the milieu of the Niger’s “first generation” of modern artists (a genre aptly titled “musique moderne nigérienne”) – alongside other famous musicians like Ali Djibo, El Hadj Taya, Mamman Garba, and Mamman Sani Abdoulaye. Most of this modern music came from this upper class; the aforementioned were all teachers, professors, and governmental officials. “It wasn’t music for everyone in town, but for other officials,” Mona explains. Although the group rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, they remained largely a local phenomena in the region of Tahoua. “There was no studio – that was why people played for a long time without recording. There wasn’t an idea to record and sell music. Before it was just the radio or the television [making recordings]…if the wasn’t the TV that passed in the region, there was no chance.”

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Mona’s group Azna de L’Ader played a mixture of popular music that came in from abroad, both from Europe and the West: “Since our childhood, we listened to lots of Western musicians….Johnny Holliday, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Eddie Mitchell, Elvis Presley.” On equal footing was Benin’s Polyrhythm de Cotonou. “They were real musicians,” Mona explains. “We were the same age, but they started before us….[as Muslims] we didn’t make music, it wasn’t allowed. But they learned in the Church. They learned the guitar, the drums. They made gospel music.”

Incidentally, the name Azna refers to the pre-Islamic animist religion, still practiced in Niger. The oft mentioned Bori, notable for their ritual spirit possessions are a well known sub-group of the Azna. While Mona’s music flirts close to the hypnotic Bori possession music, it is also most definitely rock. For Mona, the two are not mutually exclusive. Rather than Hendrix influenced rock, it may be the other way around. “When the Europeans took blacks as slaves in the US, our ancestors who went there brought their culture with them. So they mixed their music with modern instruments, and they created the blues, and that invented rock n roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, everything. The blues comes from here. We sing, we cry, and it brings you just into the trance. We make Bori, we do Voodoo. Our ancestors brought this to the US. Little by little, it took in everyone.”