Tag Archives: sonrai

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.

//

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

the peace

Niafounke is a dusty town in the North of Mali nestled along the banks of the river Niger and a few hours from the historic Timbouctou. It’s legendary in its own rite, renowned as hometown of Ali Farka Touré — a man who even in life had become myth, a figure that will loom forever in the annals of Malian music for singularly creating a sound and whose contribution to African music, or music in general, cannot be underplayed (stories of his mystical talent even echo that of Robert Johnson, Touré earning his guitar ability from a genie). Niafounke means “children of the same mother,” and the town has encouraged a generation to follow in the footsteps of their patron saint. Alkibar Gignor is a band that draws from this inspiration.

Alkibar Gignor – Zeinabou

“La Paix” (for our non-Francophone readers, that means “Peace”) consists of recordings from Alkibar Gignor taken over multiple visits between 2009 to 2011. Some of the songs were recorded at crowded rehearsal sessions at the Hotel Ali Farka Touré, the neighborhood children filling the courtyard. Other sessions are live concerts while touring through the riverside villages, playing under the starlight as an itinerant generator hums in the background. A few acoustic numbers were recorded at Amma Bocoum’s house. His daughter sings along on the title track.

Alkibar Gignor make little or no concessions to the softer sound of world music (briefly touched on previously in the self reflective conscious discussions of what it means to make music for the West), but play the raw sound of electric guitars and frenetic drums that has become a staple of the Niger bend. If Farka idealizes some myth about old bluesmen, than Alkibar Gignor appeals to a nostalgic notion for garage rock. They are the local stars, fierce at work with plans to become known throughout Mali.

For a more concise description, see the fold out poster.

The release is available on vinyl, and comes with an 11 x 17 poster — via Little Axe or your favorite record shop. You can also get it on bandcamp, pay as you want with $3 minimum, 60% of the proceeds to the artists.

give up the goods (just step)

Takamba is a place. It’s also a slow ghostly dance, a distinctive staggered rhythm clapped on a calabash, and a gritty distorted terhardent. “Ali” Ag Amoumine doesn’t live in Takamba, but 250 kilometers up river in Timbouctou. He’s also not Sonrai, the ethnicity credited with the creation of Takamba, though he’ll remind you that the music is something that unites the Tuareg with the former.

In 2009 I recorded a session with Ali — like most of the cassettes, he began the recording with a description of the date and the people present. There were also these continuous shout outs throughout the session, as well as “New York” (regretfully forgetting the QB). I transferred the session to a CD that I left with Ali. Returning in 2011, Ali informs me that the cassette is quite popular now. He has taken it to the local radio station, and it is regularly broadcast, and found on memory cards from here to Kidal, and probably into Niger. Just to be sure, I asked some cassette sellers if they had heard the “New York Timbouctou Takamba cassette.” They nodded.

Ali plays a lot of takamba standards, but he wrote this one. Hali Diallo is the name of a Pulaar woman from Badi-Hausa, a village near Ansongo, Mali. He composed the song for her during a celebration in Niamey, Niger in 1992. “She’s a grand patron, she bought us a lot of stuff. She gave us loads of money, new bazzin, furniture — she took everything in the house and gave it to us. We had to load up a truck to drive it all back to Timbouctou!” Helpful tips if you want to be immortalized in song.

Agali Ag Amoumine – Hali Diallo, 2011

first they built the road, then they built the town

Sahl la Guindo, Ndjarka, NIAFOUNKE

Once, when the first rains began to fall on the desert, I left Timbouctou. The route I traveled, one of a handful of possibilities none more glamorous than the rest, is traversable only by desert craft, the pale horse of the landcruiser — choking and shuddering through divots in sand. Arcing to the West and roughly tracing the curve of the Niger river, we traveled through a Sahelian forest of twisted wood and spiny acacia, docking in the towns that would appear like islands or lone ships, their towering radio/cellular antennas the sole reference in an otherwise featureless plain.

In February of 2011, construction began to pave the way to the North. Over 600 kilometers, the new national highway with pass through the aforementioned villages. In a projected two years, the diesel buses will ply the asphalt stopping at their respective bus stations, bringing the capital closer to the villages and the villages closer to the capital and for the first time, opening up Timbouctou.

Ousmane (Horostar de Tonka), Guitar, TONKA

In Tonka, the town is preparing for the change. Electricity has already arrived a few months ago and the once quiet city hums while newly constructed streetlights light streets. A city of mud houses and cellphones, the fusion of ancient and modern into something workable, Tonka is the all too typical Sahelian village — exploding in population, but physical cut from the world. Ousmane is a commercial truck driver, and knows the highways of Mali. He awaits the road with the personal advantage for his trade. “It will change the towns. But that’s not all. You’ll see towns appear because of the road. Someone will decide to open a store or a restaurant on some deserted stretch of highway. Others will see that, and build next to him. Villagers will come to settle alongside the stores and sell to the buses and vehicles…and create new towns where there was nothing.”

To travel the highways of Mali by bus is to drift into a Lynchian delirium, where exhaustion itself is exhausted. Sleep and time and heat and dust and dreams converge into a gordian knot of confusion. Malian transport companies plunder the outdated hulks of European tour buses, with their nonfunctional plastic AC fans and nonsmoking advisories in Germanic languages, rumbling over potholed and crumbling roads. The world streams by outside of a plastic dust covered window, obliged to roll to a halt every hour or so in designated places. And it is in these places that the villages live for the road.

Women in bright fabrics, shouting over the baskets on their heads; baskets of sugary cakes, plastic sacs of water, sliced fruit stuff. Little boys reciting Koranic verse in prepubescent voices that seem both melodic and bored as they hold out empty tomato cans for collection. Descending and fighting one’s way across the crowds, all the while in a sleep exhausted vertigo, the street side is set with low tables and wooden benches, young men clanking skillets as they scramble eggs and serve up steamy batches of Nescafe. Beyond, slabs of goat roast in mud ovens while grizzled old men survey the scene, cleavers in hand, waiting to catch a spurious eye contact with one of the passengers. Alternating boutiques are stacked alongside, lukewarm refrigerators of coke, fanta, and sugary cans of melon juice. It seems though it were staged, like the plastic mermaids swimming by the windows of Disneyland submarine ride. And it is justifiable, this feeling. What lies beyond the roadside is a bit of a mystery; the center of town, the market, the mud houses, the mosque, all the elements of an African village — or maybe nothing at all?

Abba Gargando, Evening music with friends, GOUNDAM

It’s over a year later when I come back to Goundam, and like before, the first rains have fallen on the sand streets leaving them damp and quiet, though the rain captured the very sound from the air and mixed it into the wet earth. The town is quiet, but brutish blue clouds fill the horizon. I find Abba, or he finds me, sitting beneath a boutique hangar, listening to three men talk about poverty, corruption, and the “future of Africa.” Abba lives in Gargando now — he’s in the military, and his post is central to the ongoing battle with the mysterious Al-Qaedi that haunts the deserts like the djinn used to. “Surely the road will provide some military might to the North?” I ask. He doesn’t answer. The next day Abba vanishes on “mission”.

Agali Ag Amoumine, Super Contine, TIMBOUCTOU.

The Sahelian metropoleis are confoundingly large and isolated villages: Niono, Nampala, Lere, Niafounke, Tonka, Goundam – leading the way to Timbouctou, a once mysterious, but disconnected metropolis itself, left out to dry on the edge of the Sahara. Conceptually connected to the capital, but physically broken, a ribbon of road will transform these towns into something unrecognizable, an uncontested and lauded ideal. It’s the dream of an asphalt river, a flow of cheaper rice and sugar and petroleum, and a fast stream of rafts of desert refugees bound for Bamako and big city lives. Nostalgia is a funny thing, especially nostalgia for the present. The time isn’t spent yet, and the future hasn’t arrived. But traveling the road, where there is yet no road, I can’t help but see it.

Sonrai sound


En route to Timbouctou, I stop over in Goundam, a nondescript village of the Niger Delta. As I travel with guitar, a young man stops me and asks if he can have a look in the case. “Moi, aussi, je suis un artiste…” His name is Babah Dire (from the town Dire), a recorded artist with a few cassettes and a regular at Essakane, and I shoot the preceding video.

The style of guitar is that which is popularized by Ali Farka Toure; what can be called the Sonrai (or Songhai) folk.* Notably for it’s blues sound, the ever present pentatonic scale, and strong punctuated notes (there are none of the tremolos or false notes as in Tamashek guitar). But it would be difficult to pigeonhole the music. Authenticity is for idealists.

Outside “Obama’s” botique in Niafounke, a guitarist demonstrates the Sonrai folklore.

Souleyman – Ali Farka Cover

Souleyman – A song in the Bambara scale

The village of Tonka lies between Niafounke and Timbouctou, on the bank of the River Niger. It is an exceptionally green place, and exudes a certain friendliness which maybe has something to do with lack of tourism. I spend a few days with a group called Horostar de Tonka, three chauffeurs who when they’re not crisscrossing Northern Mali, retreat to the edge of town and play guitar until the late dark hours (there is no electricity in Tonka, a missed blessing?).

Horostar de Tonka – Chaud!

Alkibar Gignor of Niafounke (previously here) produces a funky interpretation of Sonrai guitar. The following tracks are from a night rehearsal at the Ali Farka Hotel – including lots of dancing, which the microphone may have failed to capture. Imagination required.

Alkibar Gignor 1

Alkibar Gignor 2

Alkibar Gignor 3

* In local usage, Sonrai refers to the language/culture in Timbouctou and its environs, Songhai for Gao.