Tag Archives: gao

gao rap

via facebook GAO RAP

via facebook GAO RAP

Konate Baba

Digging at the mp3 market in Bamako, I had the vendor send me over a folder entitled GAO RAP. Containing, of course, what the title says – Rap music from the Northern Mali city of Gao. Which in itself would not be so remarkable if it wasn’t for what rap music from Gao sounds like. Which is nothing else in the world.

Rap in foreign languages leaves much to the imagination, and the unfamiliar ear gravitates towards the production over the lyrical content. There is a heavy use of autotune, and a certain reverbed synth that carries the melody. All of the productions tend to have little flourishes, the light hand of fruity loops. It’s low-fi in a way that is already a thing of the past, a signature of the early 2000s, PC based music.

Gao lies in what is essentially the extreme North East of Mali. You can go no further without leaving the asphalt behind. At a crossroads (both culturally and literally), Gao accumulates a little from every side. Musical influence is equally part high energy Balani Bamako Hip Hop and the sweet and cheesy autotune of Hausa pop music, combined with fascinating rhythms of that homegrown sort, with sudden changes that reflect the intermittent improvised breakdowns at the heart of takamba.

As a genre, GAO RAP may end here – at the title of an mp3 or the folder of a music collector at Bamako’s music market. It’s not something considered, certainly not abroad, but neither in Mali. It’s hardly a genre, or even a subculture – and it may not exist for long enough for such bold words. But it is a localized experimentation and a sound inseparable from a place and time. It exists, and it sounds like Gao.

do the right thing

Pheno S. is a young rapper from Gao, Mali. I first heard Pheno’s songs drifting about as mp3s through cellphones and memory cards (one track was included on a mixtape Saharan Cellphones Vol. 2 and on the upcoming LP). The standout track was labeled “FENOMENAL MIX”, a slick produced autotuned hip hop melody with a tempo breakdown three quarters into the song. The style is immediately reminiscent of Hausa pop from Niger/Nigeria. I shopped it around on Facebook and sent it to at least 50 people before someone responded with Pheno’s phone number. When I traveled to Gao in February, we had the chance to meet face to face.

Pheno S. – Waihidjo (Fenomenal Mix)

Pheno S. is a slight unassuming eighteen year old. He arrived at Boubou’s house in colorful hightops and rather unnecessary jacket, flushed out in hip hop fashion that permeates into every corner of the world. He stood at the door, respectfully, shaking hands with everyone present with a reserved demeanor until offered a place to sit. Our conversation was brief, limited by language difficulties, but Boubou’s son later expounded on the subjects of Gao Hip Hop and the story of Pheno S.

Hip Hop is a very recent phenomena and local performers only appeared in the past few years. Pheno listens to French Hip Hop but speaks little French, and cites as his biggest influences groups like Lakale Kanaye and Kadian Gaskia, popular rap groups from Niamey, Niger from the late 1990s (Gao shares an affinity with Niamey, lying closer to the capital of Niger than it’s own and speaking a language almost mutually comprehensible). Pheno doesn’t know how popular his songs have become, profiting from the curious nature of the cellphone network to render wide distribution sans celebrity. For example, I later find Pheno’s “FENOMENAL” title in Lagos, Nigeria – two countries away and a torturous overland distance of nearly two days travel. To Pheno S., popularity among non-Sonrai speakers or even non-Gao residents seems irrelevant. The song that launched Pheno into local hip hop star was in response to a very local event:

Pheno S. – Mouche Aroukourou

In Pheno’s song, in purest hip hop battle (or “clash”), he takes on the institution in a manner that would make Chuck D. proud. In one of Gao’s public schools, the director was known to be sleeping with the students. It’s unfortunately not a rare event, and as Boubou explains “many girls in Gao get pregnant because of teachers.” This instance was even more brazen than usual with the director installing a bed in his office. Pheno composed a song where he clashed him (though addressing the song to a whining dog), asking “who has ever heard of director who brings his mattress to school?” Pheno tells the “dog”, probably some 20 years his senior to “open his ears and listen to me: if you see a young girl you like, you should talk to her parents and marry her, not get her pregnant and ruin her life.”

The song caused an outrage in Gao, especially when it went “viral” and soon was on every cellphone, a public humiliation for the school director. Pheno was suspended and the administration ordered him to stop the song, before realizing that once out, it could never be removed from circulation. Pheno returned to school with a reputation that cemented his status in a testament not only to the power of the cellphones, but the power of hip hop.

As music is imported from abroad stylings are often rife with misinterpretations: the clothing and mannerisms are a bit dated, the borrowed postures from Lil Wayne are slightly off, or slogans are mispronounced in poor accents. Yet Hip Hop has maintained the most important elements in translation, particularly in the case of Pheno. Seeing the moment to take on an institution far more powerful then himself, and to speak his mind in a flagrant display of anti-authoritarian youth culture – it’s about as Hip Hop as it gets.

the last recordings of gao

In February of 2012, I visited Gao. The rebellion had just begun and every day the bus station was flooded with refugees from Kidal, climbing out of the cramped cars, carrying everything in bulging plastic sacks. Many came here to the city by the river for safety while the situation in the Northern outpost town resolved itself. Surely Gao, with its modern infrastructure, paved highway linking it with Bamako and Niamey, and huge military bases, including over a hundred American soldiers and an army of black Humvees, would never fall into chaos.

Radio Takamba – ATT Presidential address in Sonrai

For three days, I stayed with the musician Moussa Sidi. His house lay on the edge of the city, on the fringes where banco and concrete homes are sparse and the desert begins, a foreboding challenge to the perceived security. It’s an Arab neighborhood as “there really is no Tuareg neighborhood in Gao,” Moussa explained but only the painful ghost of one – the Kounta quarter, not far from Moussa’s, where the ruins speak of one of the worst massacres of the last rebellion: “The old marabout gathered up everyone in his house and told them if it was there time, it was God’s decision, and the soldiers bombarded the houses and slaughtered them all.”

Moussa’s walls are two stories high, and I idly passed the days watching the patch of vibrant blue and the suns slow tracking arc, waiting for Ahmed from Amanar to come join us. In the evening, Moussa and his friends would discuss the latest over cigarettes and guitar. They were brimming with excitement of the coming rebellion, the updates received over the cellular newsreel called in from Menaka and Kidal. To be clear, it was not just young Tuareg but Pulaars and Sonrai. When, Ousmane a young Sonrai teacher proclaimed “we all want Azawad, because Azawad is for all of us,” I could almost believe him, but for a blind idealism and certain callousness. Later that night when Sekou (a friend from Alkibar Gignor) called me from his town where the army garrison was under attack and gunshots crackled through the cellphone speaker, I could hear the fear in his voice. Sitting beneath the brilliant Gao starlight, Moussa’s friends chuckled. “It’s the rebellion!” they proclaimed, victory in their voices, Azawad in their eyes. I recorded Moussa in a few sessions, but we were hardly friends, his extortion of money from me and Ahmed made the house a prison of inconvenience, and when we later fled, it was as much to escape the situation as it is the realization that with a price on my head, we could no longer trust him. In a bold move, I told Ahmed I would delete all of the music I recorded, that my power was in deleting him. He would learn that an archivist can preserve history but also destroy it. I almost do it.

Moussa Sidi

It’s nearly half a year later and Gao, the bastion of the North is nearly empty, a case study in the progression of the “rebellion” – a loose coalition chased out government, followed by a dissolution of the coalition into multi-party civil conflict. My personal communication with the North comes in series of cryptic and conflicting text messages and stilted phone conversations, with names of friends who have died in the fighting, lamentations of economic disaster, and rumors of exodus. The last I saw of Intriya was on this Al-Jazeera video, Horostar is unreachable, and Amanar is dispatched into the far corners of the diaspora.

It’s often difficult to place these recordings in a temporal context, even for myself. It’s easy to forget that a sound recording a historical document, that in the act of recording it becomes an anachronistic artifact. In a sparsity of information, these media clips can dominate the cyber soundscape and resonate for undue lifespans allowing the sounds to continue to speak with a timeless authority. As the North has ignited into chaos, it is a reminder to the dynamism of places and people – and not simply because of the shifting movements and disrupted lives, but because of the media coming from the North, as expatriates, political propagandists, news agencies and bloggers clamor over one another for the most up to date and relevant information.

In a cellphone conversation a few days ago with Boubou, a soft spoken Sonrai percussionist who taught the youth of Amanar, I prod him for information on the MNLA and the Salafistes, the politics of Al-Qaedi and his opinions and theories. The town has been taken over by the “Al-Qaedi” he explains. They’re redefining the city and changing the past, destroying historic sites as idols and burning instruments they consider harem. The electricity is out, food is expensive, and there is hardly anyone left. He has no money to move his entire family to Bamako. The question of Azawad, of a sharia state in the North, of the MNLA, or of a return to Mali is inconsequential to the immediate. In the silences over the scratchy reception, I hear the sound of a ravaging storm. “Moussa, the guitarist, you remember?” he asks. “I went to his house, even he’s gone. I don’t know where. When I looked around, all I found was the charred remains of his guitar and amplifier.”

Bus leaving Gao

the reuse of old objects

Radio Hanna Broadcast

Radio Hanna is housed in an old dilapidated cinema in Gao, Mali. Vestiges of the movie theater remain: rusted seats on the balcony and a giant projection screen — flanked by piles of wood, wandering goats, and a woman pounding a mortar and pestle. Families rent the various rooms in what otherwise seems to be a massive brick courtyard. Radio Hanna’s office is up some crumbling stairs in the former projection booth.

Takamba is the music of Gao. Nowhere else does the droning terhardent and clash of the calabash dominate the frequencies. Muffled by the hiss of old cassettes and the crackle of radio, the music is interspersed with the layering of vocal shout outs — the original griot shouting praises for long vanished patrons, and Radio Hanna’s MC with his secondary announcements layered on top of the old takamba, another message relayed on an old vehicle.