Tag Archives: sahara

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.

Etran de L’Aïr – No. 1

etran

We’ve just wrapped up the new album from Agadez wedding band Etran de L’Aïr. Recorded in 2014, and featured previously here on the blog, it’s been a long time coming. Even longer, if you consider the history of the band.

The music scene in Agadez is still dominated by weddings. While the religious marriage is private, the party is a fête for whomever is in earshot. Bands play for a fee, supplemented money that is showered over them whilst playing. The down side to this lucrative scene is a cut throat competition with espionage, theft, and even black magic, creating a very peculiar undercurrent. Etran de L’Aïr remains largely outside of this surly competition: the best wedding contracts are awarded to musicians with social standing, tribal affiliations, and family connections, and Etran does not belong to the upper class. “They make music for people who don’t have money,” says Ahmoudou Madassane. “If a wedding can’t afford the expensive musicians, they hire Etran.” So while the band continues to gig constantly, outperforming all other bands, they still find themselves in dire straits, confined to a DIY aesthetic of out obligation. Their drum kit is dented and the cymbals are cracked, with bites taken out of them. The amplifiers could just have well have been excavated from desert sands. Nevertheless, the band not only makes the equipment work, they make it sound amazing.

Etran also has a unique solidarity that’s missing from other groups with their revolving door of contract musicians. Etran is not just a musical group, but a family collective. The group was formed in 1995. Agadez was much smaller then, few homes were electrified, and guitars were rare. “When we first started to play in weddings,” Abindi explains, “we only had one acoustic guitar, and for the percussion, we hit a calabash with a sandal.” As new technology found its way to Agadez, they band adapted, amplifying the acoustic guitar with a transducer microphone, acquiring electric guitars, and finding a drum set. As the family grew, so did the band, integrating the younger siblings into the musical group.

Their music is also distinctive and different from the typical Tuareg wedding band. Etran plays a style that captures the contemporary sound of Agadez, incorporating vastly different ethnic musics into their repertoire. While Tuareg guitar follows a predictable format, Etran breaks convention and throws a third guitar into the mix. The two lead guitars solo on top of one another, in constant dialogue, with a crashing response from the drum. There is a bubbly underwater warble that emerges from reverb and crackly amps. It’s electric party music, surf rock, from a place that is all beach. They differentiate themselves from the other wedding bands: “We play our own folklore, not like the other artists in Agadez. Our music is based around traditional Takamba…and we listen to a lot of Malian music. Not Tinariwen, but musicians like Ali Farka Touré and Oumou Sangaré.”

This is Etran de L’Aïr’s debut record. They claim to have written over 40 songs but none of them have been released until now. This session was recorded live, outside of their family compound in the outskirts of Agadez. The impromptu performance drew the entire neighborhood out of their houses, eliciting the audible clapping, shouting, and ululation. It is here as it was played, with all the enthusiasm and passion of an evening at the end of the raining season one day in Agadez.

The limited edition of 1000 featured hand-assembled offset covers from Stumptown Printers, created in true analog style with a throwback to 1960s West African cover design, with exacto cut letters, hand-drawn illustration, and litho-masks. There’s a lot of variation, and no two jackets are identical (more info on the printing process here).

You can grab the album now from our shop or bandcamp.

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.”

fatou seidi ghali, les filles de illighadad, video

Video of Fatou Seidi Ghali from Les Filles de Illighadad, the tuareg guitar and tende duo from central Niger. Fatou is featured on the recent LP of the same name.

The above footage was shot by neopan kollektiv for the upcoming film [play][record] – a story of sahel sounds.

Les Filles de Illighadad may be touring this fall in Europe, so stay tuned.