Tag Archives: tuareg

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!

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.

Mdou Moctar & the Band Go America

This Spring 2018, Mdou Moctar is back on Tour across the USA. You can check out full dates here. It’s a long tour with around 30 shows. We’ll be back in the studio working on a new album. And if all goes well, they’ll be a new film at the end.

On our last tour, Mdou and I talked about shooting a film, a sequel of sorts to our Purple Rain Redux Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai. But the 2017 tour proved simply too much (I was tour managing, driving, and shooting). We managed a fair amount of footage, which was edited together for the tour trailer above.

We’ve got a much better plan this time around. The film is not far from reality. Mdou calls it “both a fiction and a documentary,” of a band traveling abroad for the first time, recounting the experience to the village. The framing device recalls “Petit á Petit,” and although we did screen this film in Agadez in 2013, any similarity speaks to the overall absence of films in this genre. The stranger abroad narrative is dominated by “Westerner in X,” wherein X is any “exotic” local: the tourist video, documentary, and arguably the foundation of anthropology. (I would be remiss here to mention the amazing “Darkest Austria”, an Austrian mockumentary playing with this trope.)

The lack of narrative inversion (or really the need to invoke “inversion”) is arguably due to transnational movement, media creation and popular distribution networks. “Tuareg Facebook” is innuadated with DIY media that provides commentary on Western social phenomena. But this analysis is relegated to imagined realities, commentary on perceptions without movement. Travel with the intention of discovery and creation is privilege. Touring musicians are in a perculiar position: artists and storytellers, they are presented with opportunities to travel as cultural ambassadors, literally presented on stage to be seen.

While this project began through field recordings and attempts to minimize my role as documentarian, I’ve recognized this as a futile pursuit (and ethically troubling, reducing documentarian to voyeur, microphones as hidden recording devices, cinema as security camera). This is a deep well and explored (in the West at least) in the annals of visual anthropology. But as the project remains focused on music, it is becoming increasingly impossible to conceptualize Tuareg guitar without addressing the Western infastructure of record labels, managers, and touring.

When I first traveled to Niger in 2012, Mdou served as a cultural translator, helping me navigate the terrain. In 2014 I returned the favor when we embarked on our first European tour. It is this exchange that we want to address through this process. We’ll be shooting on iPhones with gimbals, an exercise in technological democratization. We are writing the script via a back and forth of vocal messages over WhatsApp. We’re also looking at ways of crowd sourcing footage from concerts, inviting participants to tag videos on Instagram (#mdoufilm), invoking a contrast between ways of seeing and being seen.

As all of this collaborative work, the film is an experiment, but we invite you all to participate. Hope to see you out there!