Tag Archives: film

Zerzura Original Soundtrack Recording

Zerzura Original Film Soundtrack

In 2016, we created a film titled Zerzura. The story concerns a young man Ahmoudou Madassane, disillusioned with the pastoral life. He sets off for the city, where he learns of his brother’s mysterious disappearance. His journey leads him on an unexpected quest, crossing the perilous desert towards an enchanted oasis of gold and riches, protected by magical djinn. At its heart, Zerzura is a cautionary folktale about the unchecked desire and dreams projected onto empty spaces.

Every film could be said to be an experiment, but this project leaned heavily into chaos. Reality intervened and forced us to relinquish any singular narrative and reflect instead on the collective dream. At the end of our shoot, we had lots of disjointed footage, most entirely off-script and improvised. This wasn’t a problem. Zerzura is in effect a road movie and was produced in this manner: Ahmoudou and I, traveling on a motorcycle through Agadez and the surrounding deserts, camera in hand, filming whenever the landscape inspired us. Dialogue punctures a film that is a largely impressionistic meditation. In 2017, Ahmoudou joined me at my home in Portland to participate in the post-production. During that time, we edited the film, translated the dialogue, and recorded foley. But most importantly, we created an all original score. Taking a cue from the process of ethnofiction proposed by Jean Rouch, this score took the place of narrative voice-over, with Ahmoudou speaking with his instrument, drawing color and emotion into the silent stretches of desert.

photo Eric Schmidt, Type Foundry

In June of 2017, we stepped into Portland’s Type Foundry studio. We borrowed a projector, tacked a bedsheet to the wall, and broadcast the rough cut of the film. Ahmoudou Madassane, besides being actor and producer, is also a talented guitarist (playing with Mdou Moctar and Les Filles de Illighadad) Over three days, Ahmoudou led the creation of improvisational guitar pieces. Joined in the studio by Portland artist Marisa Anderson and engineer Jason Powers, we used material at hand: a variety of percussion, prepared piano, Moog, and whatever other instruments happened to be lying around. In the end, these pieces took their place in the background, letting the primary instrument shine: the electric guitar.

There is nothing that says Tuareg music like the electric guitar. In particular, Nigerien folk music has leaned heavily into the instrument with Agadez musicians the first to embrace pedals and distortions. In some ways, these effects had always present in the genre, albeit it an unintended consequence of maxed and blown amplifiers. While it began as political folk music, the sound of Tuareg guitar has expanded into a plethora of variations: energizing wedding parties, played while sipping tea in streetside fadas, and recorded onto DVDs / mp3s / WhatsApp. Today’s guitar music is the stuff that launches careers at home, in the diaspora, or on the Western World Music stage. On the other hand, the genre still obeys strict rules. Songs are in the pentatonic scale, rarely invoke more than a few chords, and feature a prominent single drone beneath the melody. There is a predictable and well-defined structure with refrains, call and response lyrics, and solos. While “experimental” music thrives under Western privilege this not the case in Niger. A conservative current runs through cultural production and avant-garde means something different. The opportunities to create left field art are rarely presented.

Zerzura offered an opportunity to try something new, taking Tuareg guitar into noise, drone, and ambient. This free-form session forgoes the creation of “songs,” for the creation of the soundscapes. Maybe not surprisingly, these ambient pieces were already present in the genre, hiding in plain sight. Ahmoudou developed and drew on the “practice notes” or segue that come before a song; rambling improvisations, regularly performed prior to a song to alert and cue the band for the upcoming song (This was something we previously experimented on the soundtrack to Mdou Moctar’s Akounak with the film music “intermissions”). The resulting sessions were cut down and mixed, forming the score of the film and this atmospheric recording. They featured throughout the film, but are also revisited here, as a soundtrack and new direction in Tuareg music.

The creation of Zerzura was much closer to documentary than fiction. This nefarious line between real and unreal was attacked until it simply gave up and crumbled, like the wall of an ancient desert settlement swept under by sand. We staged scenes with deadly bandits and subsequently met real bandits. We filmed in the gold fields and were accused of stealing gold. We invoked djinnis, and we were followed by a strange wind, shimmering over the dunes, rustling dried palms, and spiraling upwards into ephemeral dust giants stalking us through the wastelands. Ahmoudou’s score was raw creation as much as invocation, conjured from thousands of years of desert myth, to tell an old story in a new means. The Zerzura score is a narration that needs no words, an appeal to music that can transcend what is said for what is simply felt.

Zerzura Original Film Soundtrack is available now on LP/CD/Digi from Bandcamp & the shop.

a story of sahel sounds

a story of sahel sounds

Our friends at the Neopan Kollektiv have finished up their documentary “A Story of Sahel Sounds.” The film is what it says on the tin. A few years back, the filmmakers reached out about a project to document the work of Sahel Sounds. Over the past 3 years, the film team joined us on some of the first European tours with Mamman Sani and Mdou Moctar, came along to Niger on a month long recording trip, and visited us at home in rainy Cascadia, worlds away from the Sahel.

“The film celebrates music performances by current artists from Niger and opens up a space to question our understanding of cultural exchange, musical connections and political structures. Against the backdrop of ever-growing globalization, although influenced by an unequal distribution of power, new possibilities for self-determination open up, these artists attempt to make it big — on the stage and on the mobile phones of their fans. Inspired by Christopher Kirkley’s work, the film overcomes cultural and geographical distances and offers a new perspective on a region which most of us only know as a crisis zone.”

The film is premiering this Thursday at the HOF International Film Festival in Hof, Germany.

Zerzura, crowdfunding for a magical city

We recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for our new film “Zerzura,” a modern Tuareg folktale. You can check out the trailer at the above link. The film follows a young man from in Niger who leaves home in search of an enchanted oasis. His journey leads him into a surreal vision of the Sahara, crossing paths with djinn, bandits, gold seekers, and migrants.

Following in the footsteps of our previous film “Akounak” (Zerzura stars Ahmoudou Madassane, rhythm guitarist for Mdou Moctar), the film is a collaborative fiction. Zerzura was developed with a Tuareg cast, and shot in and around Agadez, Niger. The film was produced over two trips to Niger. The first trip was spent collecting folktales, conducting interviews, and finding shooting locations (see the architecture of Not Vital). In June of 2016, I ran a “workshop” in Agadez, to develop, write, and shoot the resulting film.

The film is currently in post-production. Ideally Ahmoudou Madassane will join the process and visit Portland in the new year for final editing work, translation, and scoring. Stay tuned here as we bring you updates!

Akounak Premiere

After nearly a year from our shoot, we’re pleased to announce the premiere of our film. Starring Mdou Moctar, a longtime Sahel Sounds artist and collaborator, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (“Rain the Color Blue with a little Red in it”) is the fictional tale of a young guitarist trying to make it against all odds. You can read more about it here.

Per the aforementioned Kickstarter, we’ll be premiering the film in two places: Jan. 29th at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon, followed by a premiere Feb. 5th at Le Gyptis in Marseille, France.

Though originally slated to be released quickly, a mere six months after the shoot, post production was extended far beyond the realm envisioned. We enlisted a team for color correction, recorded new versions of the songs, redubbed portions of the audio, delved into foley work, and hired a sound engineer to mix and master the audio. Most of these post production steps were unexpected, as the interest in the film caught us by surprise. What we had imagined as an experimental project with a handful of screenings in the West and distribution via West African DVD players transformed into something beyond our expectations. Post-production is something overlooked by many filmmakers, especially this one. Next time, it would be interesting to follow with a post that could be done in record time, carried out in West Africa – a fully encapsulated project start to finish on the ground. Though we’re in no hurry to remake Under the Cherry Moon.

We had the chance to screen the film in Agadez in September 2014. It was a very vocal crowd, filled over capacity, and the film was punctuated with cheers and applause. The Agadez reviews are good, which was a most flattering conclusion to the project. But more work remains – we’ve still got Kickstarter rewards coming, and DVDs are in production. The soundtrack is in its final stages of mixing and an LP will be released this year. And we are slated to release the film in West Africa across the Tuareg diaspora – so if you find yourself in Agadez, Sebha, Tamanrasset, or Kidal, look for the film soon. Whether on DVD, USB key, or a cellphone is up to you. Tastes may vary.


photo by Markus Milcke

Mdou Fall Tour 2014

Fresh off the last tour, Mdou and the band are planning another one, with stops in Norway, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. I wont be joining them, as I’ll be back in the Sahel with the crew of Not Just Phones. Expect many updates from Niger as we wander around listening.

One of the more difficult aspects will be setting up a European tour from Niger. When internet is spotty, something as simple as printing a document can take a full day’s work. As aggravating as the process is, it may illustrate some of the problems of the digital divide, and the implications in the world of visas and (post) colonial bureaucracies.

In the meantime, here’s a new short teaser for the upcoming film: