Monday, January 18, 2010

Home taping is killing music

On a near moonless night, the bus rumbles to a halt. The passengers all debark along the side of the road -- a vast clear plain clouded in by the shadows of the Dogon cliffs -- somewhere on the national highway between Douentza and Hombori. As all the weary passengers sit, they all are pulling out cellphones, and soon the mass is illuminated by little square blue screens. There is no cellular phone reception here -- this is not important. They are not making calls. Rather, what ensues is an orchestra of tinny digital audio, a menagerie of sound, beamed out like starlight over the plain.

Douentza recording

The cellular phone in its current incarnation is a recent phenomena here, but one with sweeping effects. In the past few years, the market was flooded with cheaply designed Chinese cellphones (bearing names like Samsong or Sqny), equipped with memory cards and featuring Video, Photo, and Audio, as well as Bluetooth wireless transfer. The ability to make calls is rather superflous, and they are likely distributed in villages that have no cellular access whatesoever.

Interview with Amadou, chaffeur

One of the repercussions is the death of the cassette. For a long time, the cassette has held sway as the primary audio device in the Sahel and Sahara. While vinyl was popular in the capitals, in the radio stations, it never gained mass distribution -- the simple environmental considerations would render it useless after a single hot season. As are CDs, quickly destroyed by the degenerative effects of dust and sand. The hardy cassette was the chosen media for the desert. But now, it seems they are breathing their last breath. Original cassettes are plummeting. While pirate cassette vendors are still a mainstay in every market, their compilations are not recorded from studio produced originals, but dubbed from mp3 to tape recorders.

Interview with Mouda Maiga, cassette vendor

The amateur recordings on cellphones are the envy of any ethnomusicologist -- Tamashek poetry, tende drumming, multiphonic issawad chanting. All, in fact, done without the chasm the foreigner, an outsider whose motives are questioned and ability to understand hampered by culture and language. The ethnomusicologist cannot ignore the effect of the cellular phone, nor the utility that it plays in research.

Interview regarding the Christian Tamashek guitar of Pastor Mohammed, from Timbouctou, conducted over cellular phone recording.

The new media places the technology in the hands of the Africans. And as such, questions the role of the intrepid collector, the documentarist, the anthropologist, the photographer. The foreigner who has descended onto the continent over the past centuries has benefited from the technological inequity to become the voice, the conduit. Like the cassette, his days are numbered.

'Mashup' of assorted music collected from cellphones in Gao and Kidal.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Festival Roundup

It's the end of the year. Festival time! For some odd reason, the Sahara likes to cram its festivals on top of one another, back to back, at the coldest time of the year. Make sure you bring a warm coat and mittens. Many of the festivals have important cultural and social objectives -- see the attached links for more information. Hopefully this year will find a good amount of foreign visitors, not scared of by a few unfortunate but isolated security incidents. But as a friend told me: "We don't need tourists to have a good time." The party continues as planned.

Fete du Chameau (Camel Festival)
Tessalit, Kidal Circle, Mali
December 29th, 30th, and 31st, 2009
A lesser known festival, probably due it's locality (deep in Azawad, near the Algerian border). Expect camel races and music from Tinariwen.

The Saharan Nights of Essouk
Essouk, Kidal Circle, Mali
January 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 2010
"The Essouk festival is a three-day celebration of music and culture, aimed largely at a local audience of nomads, but also at festivalgoers from other parts of Mali, Africa and the world."

*due to financial reasons, this has been shifted to Feb. or March - stay tuned.*

Festival au Desert
Essakane, Timbouctou Circle, Mali
January 7th, 8th, 9th
The large and well known international festival, hosting over 30 music groups. Everyone who's anyone from Mali and W. Africa -- Tinariwen, Amadou and Mariam, Afel Boucoum, Vivian N'dour, Dimi Mint Abba -- and quite a few from abroad as well. A special anniversary, celebrating its 10th year.

Festival Tamasonghoi
Bourem, Gao Circle, Mali
January 12th, 13th, and 14th 2010
A new festival, in its debut year. A long list of artists, both Tamashek and Songhai, including Etran Finatawa, Tamikrest, Kanna, Atia, Douma, Amanar, and Azawagh.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

That ain't workin', that's the way you do it...

The Tuaregs consist of a variety of tribes, stretching across the center of the Saharan desert, East of Mauritania, across Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya. In the past, the Western association was with "blue men" in the desert, the fierce resistance to colonization, the romantic myth of the desert nomad. Today it is impossible for the West to speak of Tuareg without the obligatory reference to the Tuareg guitar.

Koma and Attaye, two acoustic guitars in Kidal

The Tamashek guitar, or "ishumar" (A French deriviation of ch├┤meur, or "unemployed") was borne in the rebellion. After the first rebellion, the youth that had left for Libya for military training in the war with Chad returned to Mali -- without any education or opportunity.

Interview with Initriy and Tahieat (French)

Origins are difficult to ascertain, but Tinariwen of Tessalit, Mali are popularly considered the pioneers. The music of Tinariwen is traded across Mali, via the Tamashek. Numbering only 600,000 but stretching over thousands of kilometers -- the Malian Tamashek community is like a small town, and everyone knows everyone. But the heart is definitely in the North of the country.

Ishumar guitar music is preferrably played with the electric guitar (for its responsive touch, both solo and rhythm) bass, percussion (calabas, djembe, or drum kit), and singing and hand claps. It is almost always played in a pentatonic scale (familiar immediately for the "blues" component), with a droning bass note and syncopated treble that accompanies the singing. One chord is often sufficient. but with tremolos and impressive solos. A friend remarks that tremolo of "false" notes are what seperate Tamashek guitar from Sonrai guitar. "It plays better with the way they speak." And certaintly, the language Tamashek is full of bent and uluated vowels, placing it closer to Arabic in sound then with its cousins to the South. While the music has certain roots in traditional Tamashek guitar, the influence of Western music (cassettes of Bob Marley and Jimmy Hendrix most substantially) cannot be ignored. And today, as is common throughout the Sahara, the favorite guitarist amongst the younger generation: Dire Straits.

Talking with a former rebel/musician: "Dire Straits is the number one guitarist for the Tamashek. If he held a concert the Tuareg - Algeria, Libya, Niger - would come to Kidal." Mark Knopfler, are you listening?

Abba and Ahmedou Ag with acoustic guitar, Timbouctuo, 2, 3,

Sarid Ag and Doni with electric guitar, Kidal, 2

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Friday, November 20, 2009

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.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Griots.

While Tuareg rock (Desert Blues, i.e. Tinariwen) is the most known form of Tamashek music abroad, traditional guitar still has a strong place in the North. The traditional guitar is found throughout West Africa, for Peuls, Sonrai, Maures, Tuareg, Sarakoles - respectively named Hodou, Koubour, Tidinit, Teherdent or Hardine (and a four stringed version known as Gambare or Jeli Ngoni for the Bambara).

There are two sizes of the guitar; both are the same form - a three stringed lute of wood hollow body. The guitar is fretless, and the strings are bound to the neck by a wrapped bands of elastic. The larger, with a deeper resonance, is used for "listening" while the smaller, with a brighter and tinnier sound embodies a more lively sound, suitable for dancing. Amplification is achieved with the standard microphone of West Africa - a transducer microphone furnished from the Casio watch. The guitarist sits with a knee bent the guitar held between the legs, a seemingly acrobatic position (photo needed!).

Ali Ag Mooman is a griot from Timbouctou. While the griots still hold a strong role in society (no marriage would be possible without one), they are often marginalized in the market. The traditional music is not sought after with the fervor as the modern sounds.

Ali plays some songs while his brother explains (in French, translations below).


"This is in the desert, there is a group of guitarists that had lost their route, and they played this song for 20 days. Adernibah in Tamashek is people who are lost in the desert. It is a song known in the entire world."

Two Songs

"This is the first song of the Tuareg. It's called "Yona". The beginning of the (Tuareg) guitar, this is it!"


"This is from a grand leader, called Hawadine."


"This is called y'addi. This is the song uniquely for the Tuareg. If there is a war, this song is played. It's like a drug, this song, and if they hear it they march straight!"

Lastly, a recording of Ali Ag Mooma (thardint), Moussa (Calabass), and myself (guitar) in an evening soiree/cassette recording, performed at his house by the "Gare Goundam." As the night progresses, all the neighbors trickle in, drawn by the buzzing of the guitar - the best promotion, and how most soirees are "advertised" in the desert towns and the nomad 'acampaments.'

This is a popular song titled Chebibah, which means "the youth" in Arabic. It was originally composed by an Algerian, but is a standard for Tamashek guitar.


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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sing me a song!

Girl by the rice paddies

A French song

Girl by the market with Amadou and Mariam's Homage to Ali Farka Toure

Girl in Niafounke tries to remember the words

Girl with mother singing Na Hawa Doumbia

Hamadou Traore singing song from the Bi-annal, National Orchestra of Timbouctou

Kids with the Mali National Anthem (sort of French)

Mamadou Boucom with religious chant (Arabic)

Two boys in Timbouctou with 'caravan song' (Tamasheq)

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Thursday, August 20, 2009


In Lere, Mohamed Issa, from the group Tartit, arrives on the tail of a duststorm. He is here for one night, and then departing to play in a marriage "en brouse". Accompanied by myself and Abou, a young apprentice, we play out by the tent until the early hours.

Mohammad Issa Solo

Mohammad Issa Solo 2

(I should note, for aspiring guitarists - often in the Tuareg and Sori guitar, the first string is tuned up to G, and plays the continuous bass)

jam 1

jam 2

jam 3

The next day, before the dust storm tears through the down, I ask the kids to play some songs. I sing a few too - lots of requests for Akon. Heads are appearing over the wall, and by the time the mother comes home, there's a regular concert crowd gathered.

Lere 1

Lere 2

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A million and one stars

The desert north of the river Niger is a scrubby dry place. Along the border with Mauritanian and Mali, there are a mixture of Maurs, Berbiche, and Tamashek (Tuareg). I meet a group of Kalashnikov carrying youths (military). The zone is in a state of continuous tension, as rebel raids have been frequent and recent as a few months ago. There is a clear division between the Bambara and the Tamashek officers, even though this is likely to be denied.

Ag Said singing independence songs in the truck

I stay a few days in Gargando, a tiny and unassuming village, known in the region primarily for it's brackish water. The youth have come back for vacation. In the late evening, we sit around and play songs on my guitar.

Night Soiree with youth

Night Soiree 2

Night Soiree 3

During the day, the heat is too oppressive to move. Later, by the afternoon, there is millet to pound and cows to feed. But there is lot of time to sit around too and play with the microphone.

Young girl raps (in tamashek)

Unknown song

At night, under the stars, the old bearded patriarch Abdullahi tells me, in a deep cinematic voice: "In America you sleep in five star hotels. Here in the desert, we have a million and one." And his laugh bellows out over the white sand.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The end of the world...

I've come to Timbouctou to find a Tamashek guitarist named "Aba". He is from Gargando, and has left music and joined the military. I don't find him. However, I do meet with Mohamed Ag Abothy (or Mohamed "Bidega") who plays the bidega, a semispherical wood instrument with attached pieces of steel. Mohamed claims this is a Tamashek instrument (his father made it, his father before him, etc.), but the sound is similar to that found further south - perhaps influenced by the Mande sound?

Bidega 1

Bocar Tandina is a guitarist who plays in the traditional "Sori" style (think Ali Farka Toure). Along with Mohammad (and a percussionist), they make up the group Fafadoby.

Bocar on guitar

Lastly, a street field recording, walking through the old center of Timbouctou (crying children, an agitated drum session, music drifting from a radio...and motorbikes!

Old town

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Legacy of Toure

The town of Niafounke is alongside the Niger River in Northern Mali. It is notably famous for being the birthplace of Ali Farka Toure, and the tradition of music continues here. The town itself is mostly Songhai (or Sonrai), and the music that we associate with the North, the drumming guitar bass and double octave, the Malian "blues" as it may be - are mostly a variation of the Songhai sound. Whether or not the origin is here, or, as some claim, in the Soninke region of Kayes, the sound is distinct and recognizable.

Alkibar Gignor is a band composed of family and apprentices of Afel Bocoum (another grand guitarist hailing from Niafounke). I'm not in the habit of taking videos, but below is a recording of the rehearsal, recorded at Toure's family hotel.

Ali Farka Homage

Sahl with Ndarka

Lastly, some recordings of children songs and games. In a typically twist of fate, I was surrounded by thirty or so children who without any prompting, jumped into an exhibition of song. Most of the songs are accompanied by dance and great call and response (see "coonicami"). As far as I can attest, all the songs are in Sonrai - I wish I had more to say, but I'll let them speak for themselves.

Sori Girl

Sori Kids Dance


update: the above song is actually in Bambara. the recorded verses go something like this - "a man is a lion, if his woman tries to be a lion, he'll smack her. when a man talks to his woman, she needs to respond, or he'll smack her."

Another Song


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