Tag Archives: niger

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.

Troupe Ecole Tudu – Oyiwane

Troupe École Tudu

The debut album from Troupe École Tudu “Oyiwane” is now available, restored and remastered for the first time outside of Niger!

Troupe École Tudu (previously) take their name from a small neighborhood of Agadez, Niger. In 1985, the city hosted a musical competition between various schools. École Tudu, lacking a choir, sought out guitarist Kader “Barmo” Balla to lead the group. The guitar was new to Niger and Barmo was new to the guitar. His notes were minimal stripped down melodies mirroring the vocals, a technique common in Malian and Guinean folk music. To make something uniquely Saharan, they modeled their percussion on the tende, the traditional Tuareg goatskin drum and rhythm.

Their debut composition titled “Oyiwane” (“Greetings to Everyone”) won first prize at the competition, garnering the attention of the Niger state. The following year they were invited into the studio to record an album, released on the small boutique label Hasada (known for their seminal work with Mamman Sani Abdoulaye). The compositions mixed traditional folk songs with original creations, but the lyrical content was political. At a time of massive rural migration, drought, and exodus, their songs were a message to the modern nomads, emphasizing traditional culture while stressing the importance of education, particularly for young women.

The group continued to win accolades for their music throughout Niger. Following their success, a number of other school groups created similar guitar/vocal folklore groups. This style of music became popular throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s and led to the creation of today’s female music troupes of Niger.

Produced with the support and in collaboration with Kader “Barmo”, we’ve got additional full song translations & liner notes – you can download right here. Enjoy!

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.