Hot Season Touring

A month ago, I was grappling with multiple frustrations related to my research moving slowly: it’s the hot season; there’s an energy crisis in Nigeria, which provides much of Niger’s electrical power, compounding the usual blackouts that come around this time of year due to increased use of air conditioners; and the extended presidential campaign had engendered several advisories for expatriates to stay home and avoid public spaces. These all dampened my ability to work as productively as I expected, becoming its own source of frustration.

At the end of April, the tedium finally broke. On the 24th, Niger celebrated twenty-one years since the signing of peace accords that ended the so-called “Tuareg rebellion.” To honor this day, university students from Agadez studying in Niamey organized a public guitar soirée attended by hundreds of people. It featured multiple generations of musicians: Rissa Ag Wanagli, who now lives in France and leads the group Atri N’Assouf, was the featured artist; he used to play with Niger’s founding father of Tuareg guitar, Abdallah Oumbadougou, in the group Takrist N’Akal. But in typical Sahelian fashion, other musicians cycled in on various instruments throughout the evening, as leaders or accompanists, including Moussa Albadé of Groupe Tisdass (and former bassist with Bombino) and Abdoulkader. Here’s a couple clips from that evening:

Days later, I found myself in the village of Terbiya to attend a wedding celebration where Moussa would be performing. Terbiya was, as Moussa likes to say, “tranquil,” making Niamey seem—and I know those with a lot of experience in African cities will scoff at this—frenzied. Wedding festivities last for days, at times becoming completely exhausting, although when we grew tired we were able to steal away to visit neighbors, drink tea, and relax in the shade or under the stars.

With friends in Terbiya

With friends in Terbiya

Women playing the tende mortar drum (and a water canister serving as an assakalabu, usually a large gourd floating in water) to welcome wedding guests

Women playing the tende mortar drum (and a water canister serving as an assakalabu, usually a large gourd floating in water) to welcome wedding guests

For the wedding, women wore beautiful indigo scarves, often imported from Nigeria, whose pigment dyes their skin

For the wedding, women wore beautiful indigo veils, often imported from Nigeria, whose pigment dyes their skin

Dancing while waiting for more guests to arrive during one of the daytime wedding gatherings

Dancing while waiting for more guests to arrive during one of the daytime wedding gatherings

Once back from Terbiya, I was off to Bamako, Mali, to see Moussa perform at the Tumast Cultural Center, an institution that aims to promote the tangible and intangible culture of northern Mali, especially of Tuareg. I’d read of the center before on several occasions and was interested in having a chance to visit in order to gain perspective on similar institutions that entrepreneurs have envisioned for Niger. Additionally, attending Moussa’s concert offered the chance to gain insight on life for Nigerien musicians as they perform across West Africa, which is quite common. No amount of scholarly reading about a place can replace the knowledge and clarity gained from passing even a few days there, and in this regard the Mali trip was a success. I wish I could have spent more time there, as it’s long been a dream of mine to visit; the best I could do was extend my stay by another week in order to meet more musicians, attend another performance at the Tumast Cultural Center, fill up a couple memory cards with mp3s from Bamako’s music vendors, and explore the city a bit more.

Moussa Albadé performing at the Tumast Cultural Center in Bamako

Moussa Albadé performing at the Tumast Cultural Center in Bamako

Dancers at Moussa's concert at the Tumast Cultural Center

Dancers at Moussa’s concert at the Tumast Cultural Center

Aratane N'Akal, a group of young Tuareg musicians from northern Mali now living in Bamako, with friends

Aratane N’Akal, a group of Tuareg musicians from northern Mali now living in Bamako, with friends

For a later event, the Tumast Cultural Center featured takamba, an older popular dance from Mali and Niger

For a later event, the Tumast Cultural Center featured takamba, an older popular dance from Mali and Niger

Takamba at the Tumast Cultural Center

Takamba at the Tumast Cultural Center

There’s much, much more to say on each of these trips and events. For now, while in the process of performing ethical and professional duties to share photos and audio recordings from these past few weeks via social media and memory cards with the various people I’ve met in Niamey, Terbiya, and Bamako, I wanted to at least share a bit of these journeys with folks back home.

I flew a nice little tour of West Africa to get back from Bamako to Niamey, hitting a total of five countries in one day. Pretty remarkable to see the differences. L-R, top to bottom: Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire; Lomé, Togo; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and Niamey, Niger.

I flew a nice little tour of West Africa to get back from Bamako to Niamey, hitting a total of five countries in one day. Pretty remarkable to see the differences. L-R, top to bottom: Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; Lomé, Togo; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and Niamey, Niger.

The Electoral Soundscape in Niamey, Part 2

Previously, I touched on some of the connections of Nigeria’s Hausa media industry and Niger’s election songs. While the sounds and texts of Nigerian dandali soyeya may emerge in Niger, Nigerian political developments themselves have contributed to political imaginations here. This was most clear when two weeks ago, one of Niger’s most famous singers, Habsou Garba, was arrested in relation to a song she had recently released in support of opposition candidate Hama Amadou and his campaign.

Garba has long been an active singer in Nigerien politics, an interesting development for her background because she does not come from a family of griots. (This trajectory is not so unusual in postcolonial Africa; another example of someone defying caste expectations is Mali’s Salif Keïta.) In fact, as discussed in Ousseina Alidou’s Engaging Modernity: Muslim Women and the Politics of Agency in Postcolonial Niger (2005), Garba switched from a French school to a French-Arabic school as child because she wanted to learn how to sing. She didn’t realize at the time that what she’d heard at the school were recitations from the Qur’an. Her life and her songs exemplify what is known as brassage—the mixing of ethnic and cultural affiliations, common in Niger as in much of the Sahel, that in many cases render simplified accounts of singular ethnic identities rather meaningless. Thus, given her own background with Zarma and Hausa parents, many of Garba’s songs incorporate these and other Nigerien languages as well as musical instruments drawn from the traditions of the diverse members of her group, Annashuwa.

At any rate, Garba has been a vocal supporter for the MODEN-FA Lumana political party (as seen in the video above), which broke off from the older MNSD party for which she had been a singer at the time of Alidou’s book. For this election, while private radio stations air an array of songs promoting various candidates and political parties without problem, Habsou Garba was accused of inciting civil disobedience through a song focused on negative criticism of the current president and the accomplishments (or lack thereof, so it is claimed) of his party. Shared through radio, cellphones, and online, the song also invokes Nigeria’s recent election, in which Muhammadu Buhari defeated incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan. In essence, Garba’s song urged Nigeriens to defeat Niger’s ruling party “like the way they toppled Goodluck.” Another one of her songs roughly translates as “Hama, my Mandela,” though I have yet to have a chance to translate the full text. Garba was imprisoned for ten days leading up to the election, yet her songs remain on the airwaves.

Now, it’s moments before 5 PM on the Friday after last Sunday’s presidential and legislative election. The final votes are still trickling in from rural parts of Niger, where incumbent president Mahamadou Issoufou is believed to have strong support. The current vote count positions him just shy of the 50% needed for him to achieve a “coup KO”—a straight up win in the first round of elections, without facing a runoff election against the top opposition candidate Hama Amadou (who remains in prison). It was previously announced that the final counts would be revealed by about this time, but it appears we may still be waiting a while longer. Opposition candidates, forming a coalition to challenge Issoufou, have contested the running of the election, claiming a host of problems with voter registration and insufficient ballots, among other issues. There is a sense that if there is no runoff election, opposition parties may call on their supporters to take to the streets in protest.

As I sit here, checking in on the latest voter returns from Niger’s electoral commission, the state-run TV channel Télé Sahel is broadcasting a music video on repeat that was created by Niger’s Superior Council of Communication with support from the UN Development Program and other international aid organizations to promote peace during the election. It’s been on TV, on the radio, on YouTube, everywhere for the past couple weeks.

Cultural work to promote peace has been around in Niger for a long time, especially after the Tuareg rebellion of the early 1990s. There are governmental and non-governmental organizations founded to further this cause, such as Niger’s High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace, which has financed national tours for musicians. And while it takes more than songs alone to maintain peace and a national community, the fact that Niger has not succumbed to the same internal violence as neighboring countries in recent years—despite a lot of challenges in the region—suggests that these efforts may not be in vain. Although many (though not all) Tuareg in Mali continue to advocate for an independent state of Azawad, many of the Tuareg with whom I’ve spoken here, while often sympathetic to that cause, do not see this as a necessary path in Niger. Indeed, Niger’s most prominent Tuareg musician, Bombino, has contributed to the appeals for peace in Niger with his song “Alher” (“Peace;” English translation below).

Translation (by the Program of Community Cohesion in Niger):

To all my young brothers: come!
Let us be united and in solidarity
Let us bring together our strengths
Let us cultivate peace in our communities
Let us advance hand in hand
We have to come together to consolidate peace between us

I call on all my friends from the desert
From Oubari to Addar
Let us cultivate peace
From Air to Kawar
Let us cultivate peace
From Azawad, from Fezzan to Hoggar
Let us cultivate peace
My brothers from north to south
Let us cultivate peace
My brothers from east to west
To make peace and to love one another
Our ancestors handed to desert down to us with all its virtues
Peace, freedom, sanctity, the spirit of welcome and generosity
Today our mountains and our dunes are constantly crying over the loss
Of their children involved a war between brothers that has lasted for too long
Let us love one another, brothers. Let us cultivate peace like we inherited from our parents
Let us bring back the joy of living, the freedom, and the tranquility of the desert

Where are the young people?
Those from the east, the west, the south and the north
Come all, we’ll come together
Let us not look behind us
Let us aim far
The culture of peace is priceless
Listen carefully to this message

It has now been announced that nobody earned a majority in the first round of voting, and that there will, in fact, be a runoff vote for the presidency on March 20. Perhaps further observations on Niger’s electoral soundscape will be forthcoming.

The Electoral Soundscape in Niamey, Part 1

As the American presidential campaign seemingly stretches earlier for each election, Niger’s official electoral campaign season appears refreshingly brief. When it opened on the night of January 29, less than a month ahead of the February 21 election, Niamey immediately transformed. I recall being out for dinner with a friend that evening, and when we were on our way home, a major intersection which had been empty when we first passed it on our way out had already been claimed by one campaign, streamers in its party colors stretched over the road from one sign post to another. (It was about 10pm, a few hours before the official opening at midnight.) The visual culture of elections here is striking: in addition to the streamers, posters and billboards promoting some fifteen candidates for president are plastered all over the city, on homes, cars, even special pagne cloth.

Incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou is widely expected to take the most votes, but if he does not take a majority (i.e., over 50%) of the votes—not an easy task with so many competitors—a runoff election will be held in March between the two frontrunners of the first round. Complicating the election is the fact that one of the most prominent opposition candidates, former Prime Minister Hama Amadou, is currently imprisoned on charges of trafficking babies. Like any good election, this mix engenders some fascinating campaign strategies. Slogans are chanted, repeated among acquaintances, and printed on posters. Issoufou’s campaign, for instance, proclaims in Hausa “Ka Yi Mun Gani Mun Gode”—roughly, “You accomplished it, we saw it, we thank you.”

Source: Facebook page of Parti Nigérien pour la Démocratie et la Socialisme (PNDS Tarayya)

Source: Facebook page of Parti Nigérien pour la Démocratie et la Socialisme (PNDS Tarayya)

Source: Facebook page of Parti Nigérien pour la Démocratie et la Socialisme (PNDS Tarayya)

Source: Facebook, PNDS Tarayya

Source: Facebook, PNDS Tarayya

Source: Facebook, PNDS Tarayya

There are also biting critiques, including cartoons and their digital cousins: Photoshopped images of candidates. These are shared on social media online and on cellphones, friends laughing as they show one another some of the most absurd creations. One of the more remarkable that I’ve seen was an image of a baby clutched in the talons of an eagle flying through the sky, its head replaced with that Hama Amadou. Other critiques focus on Issoufou’s close ties to foreign leaders, especially Europe; his “Je suis Charlie” proclamation of solidarity with France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last year has been quite controversial in Niger, as the satirical journal’s negative caricatures of Islam have been deeply offensive.

Besides the visual culture of the campaign, however, Niamey vibrates with a rich electoral soundscape. Caravans of decorated cars, trucks, and motorcycles rove around the city, honking horns, riders chanting slogans, stereos blasting music; I’ve seen semi-trucks with a whole ensemble of drummers in the back—anything to draw attention to the enthusiasm of supporters and intimidate their opponents. There’s a taste of campaign caravans in this news clip about the campaign of Hama Amadou’s party, Le Mouvement Démocratique Nigérien pour une Féderation Africaine (MODEN-FA Lumana):

In front of many homes hangars have been erected, under which groups of men pass the time drinking tea and visiting, sheltered under their partisan colors in the shade as the end of the cold season brings triple-digit temperatures back to the Sahel. Many of these hangars have stereo systems set up that are blasting campaign songs promoting their particular candidate. Riding around town in taxis with the windows rolled down to keep cool, you are subjected to a sort of Doppler-esque effect in which you sometimes hear a campaign hangar before you see it, and then listen to it fade behind you as you pass by.

Thumping bass and high-pitched Autotuned voices, a hallmark of dandali soyeya—music from Nigeria’s powerful Hausa film industry, which attracts a large following in Niger, where comparatively little media is produced—characterizes a lot of the campaign songs. It is thus no surprise that some of the songs sound remarkably close to one of the campaign songs of Nigeria’s Hausa president, Muhammadu Buhari. During Nigeria’s election last summer, in which he defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari ran on a platform of combatting corruption in government. Thus one of his campaign songs proclaimed “Masu Gudu Su Gudu” (let the fugitives flee).

“Ma Su Gudu Su Gudu,” 2015 campaign song for Buhari and his party by Dauda Kahutu Rarara:

One of the 2016 campaign songs for Issoufou and his party:

Another 2016 campaign song for Issoufou, featuring Naziru Sarkin Waka (Naziru, King of Song) from Nigeria, who has also participated in Issoufou’s political rallies in Niger:

I’ve heard invocations of “Masu Gudu Su Gudu” in songs similar to those shared above around Niamey this month. On the radio in Niger it’s also getting airplay, presented by musicians who perform the more localized style of groups like Tal National, what Scott Youngstedt has described as “the Niamey sound.”

I’ll share more on election-related music news in a second post. For now, I’ll leave you a few recommendations on further reading about Nigerien politics. Background on Niger’s general political history is available in a helpful briefing by Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a PhD candidate at the University of Florida. A couple fairly comprehensive orientations to this particular election have appeared in the Washington Post (by Lisa Mueller, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Macalester College, and Macalester political science student Lukas Matthews) and the International Peace Institute’s The Global Observatory (by Alex Thurston, Visiting Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s African Studies Program).

Harmattan Homecoming

This is the first time I’ve been in Niger during the winter, and it’s in some ways a pleasant change. Steady harmattan winds blow cool(ish) air across the desert, reminiscent to me of the Santa Ana winds in Southern California, keeping temperatures in the brisk mid-80s to low-90s. It’s amusing to see many Nigeriens wearing jackets in the middle of the day, but I must admit that I’ve even felt a bit chilled on a few occasions since my arrival last week.

The air remains quite hazy and the smell of dust is strong on most days.

The air remains quite hazy and the smell of dust is strong on most days. Compare this photo to the others I’ve posted of the Niger River.

Given the relative comfort, this is the season when European tourists typically would opt to visit the Sahara. Tourism, once a particularly important industry for Tuareg living in northern Niger, has mostly collapsed due to conflicts in much of the Sahel that deter a lot of visitors. The skills needed for navigating the desert that made many Tuareg nomads well-suited for this line of work once served them during the rebellion in the 1990s (and at other times), and today many have turned to trafficking migrants who are trying to reach the Mediterranean, often by way of Agadez.

While much of the press about the migrant crises confronting the world right now is understandably focused on the Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, thousands of Central Americans continue to seek refuge in the United States and countless more Africans cross the Mediterranean. In this latter case, Western media has reported widely on tragedies at sea, but many others perish on the perilous trans-Saharan journey that takes place before ever reaching the Mediterranean. (For exceptions, see articles published last year by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.) As much as there is a tendency to vilify the individuals profiting from smuggling people across the desert, it’s important not to lose sight of the economic conditions that limit their options; without wishing to downplay the exploitation that many traffickers commit, they also cannot be treated as somehow separate from the broader migrant crisis.

But back to tourism: many of the festival organizers I’ve met with continue to talk about drawing tourists to their festivals despite the general collapse of the industry. Festivals are not just for tourists; in many cases, they’re not even meant for tourists to begin with, but for locals to navigate social relations and form new bonds. In Niger, the government and NGOs increasingly rely on festivals as a useful means to access otherwise difficult-to-reach nomads to spread messages or extend vaccination campaigns for people and their livestock. One goal for my research here is to better understand why tourism remains on the minds of organizers. How does this shape their organization and their meaning for Nigeriens?

In all of this, there is much more to say about music. However, my stay so far has been focused on obtaining research clearance before I can dig in too much. More to come.

Portraits of Agadez

“Is this your husband?” the old man asks, gesturing toward me as a distant fluorescent light reveals the hint of a smile on his face. It’s 4:30am at one of the outdoor bus stations in Agadez, where I’m waiting to depart for the long journey back to Niamey. We’re surrounded by a sea of travelers sleeping on mats or approaching one of the tea vendors next to us to get a quick jolt of caffeine.

My friend next to me laughs. This question comes up a lot. The man is the husband of one of her friends who had passed away, and he hadn’t recognized her in the darkness. “No, no, this is my friend who has been visiting,” she explains.

“Ah, I see. I had noticed that he wasn’t in the habit of wearing a tagelmust (turban),” the man continues. My heart sinks. I’ve arrived by night on the back of a kabou kabou, the motorcycle taxis used in Agadez, wearing long sleeves and a tagelmust to keep a low profile. It’s hard to do here, where groups of children tend to yell “anasara!” to greet me in the streets.

I’m nervous in this moment. Though I experienced no problems in Agadez, many people remain on edge with regard to foreigners. I’m shaken, too, by an encounter the previous evening with an antagonistic man who insisted that I confess to him that I was a soldier. I explained my real intentions, vaguely, but he seemed unsatisfied. There has just been an announcement this week that the U.S. would be opening a drone base in Agadez, complementing the existing one in Niamey; though I avoid bringing the subject up, I am certainly curious what locals think of it.

I can say, however, that the people I meet in Agadez are extremely encouraging about my interest in the local culture. Here, where tourism once constituted a major part of the economy, I sense exhaustion with the perennial questions about security that depress tourism.

IMG_4002 (683x1024)

View of the Grand Mosque of Agadez during a dust storm. I’m shooting from inside an artisan’s boutique, where we sip tea and discuss an American who taught English in Agadez during the 1970s. Riding by on the back of the kabou kabou is a man wearing a tagelmust.

* * *

After the city of Tahoua, the road to Agadez is a jumble of potholes and fragments of baked asphalt. The bus driver, in fact, relies on a dirt road that has been worn into place alongside the pavement, providing a smoother and safer alternative on which to continue along at high speeds. “All the money for the roads has been diverted to security,” a fellow passenger explains on the bus.


Niger road map. From

“The government claims there is decentralization,” another friend tells me later. Decentralization has been a political keyword in Niger for many years, but was a key condition for the end of the Tuareg rebellion in the early 1990s and further extended under pressure by the IMF and World Bank, which provided debt relief in exchange for market liberalization. In theory, it should place more power in the hands of local communities to make development decisions. “But,” my friend continues, “there is no decentralization. The state still controls everything.” The well-maintained highway between Niamey and Dogondoutchi, along the southern edges of Niger where most of the nation’s economic and political power remains, is a manifestation of this reality. There is a feeling among many Tuareg I meet that the state benefits heavily from the material and cultural resources of the north—the uranium in Arlit that has been a cornerstone of Niger’s economy, the cross of Agadez which is emblematic of Niger itself, the tourism industry which is centered in the north—while northern people receive little benefit. “The state profits, the French profit, and we are left with radiation,” I am told with such regularity that it might be something of a proverb here.

IMG_3855 (1024x659)

Tchoukou (Hausa) or takomért (Tamasheq): a sweet, chewy Tuareg cheese produced during the rainy season. I purchased this bag from one of the many vendors in Abalak who swarm the buses en route between Niamey and Agadez.

* * *

Beyond the observations of road conditions and the engaging discussions of Nigerien politics, riding to Agadez provides a 19-hour introduction to popular media in Niger. Seated near the front while en route from Niamey, I have a clear view of one of the bus company employees, a Tuareg teenager who fidgets with the stereo and TV systems into which he’s plugged his USB thumb drive. We watch bloody Bollywood action films dubbed in Hausa; we skip through an array of music. There is a healthy dose of dandali soyeya, the autotuned pop songs featured in Hausa-language films from northern Nigeria (which I’ll discuss more in another post); a track of what sounds like amplified njarka music (the West African fiddle played by Ali Farka Toure); the funky dance beats of Malian wassoulou. As we inch nearer Agadez, the selection begins to favor Tuareg guitar music, and by the time we pass Abalak the bus is a veritable Bombino sing-a-long ride. It’s hard for me to comprehend how strikingly similar this trip becomes to my own road trips across the desert terrains of the American Southwest.

IMG_4010 (687x1024)

The Grand Mosque illuminated by the strange light cast just after a duststorm. This is the iconic center of the town, which was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013.

* * *

On my way back to Niamey, I’m in a window seat again, crunched in with my backpack cradled on my knees, my shoulders smashed into glass on one side and my neighbor on the other. The space between the seats seems to have been perfectly designed to match the length of my femur, leaving no space for my kneecaps; whoever built the seats decided that knee-height was exactly the ideal place for a couple of screws needed to secure the seat cushions. Two seats over from me, a man reads from the Quran and discusses religious prohibitions with someone across the aisle from him. They carry on their conversation in Hausa too quickly for me to follow in detail. Between us is a young man who passes his time texting friends on his smart phone and watching music videos on his tablet computer. After a moment of boredom, he opens up a new game to play. It’s a game exclusively about smoking marijuana, and for the next hour he passes the time by rolling virtual joints on his touch screen and then lighting them with an on-screen lighter. The signature off-beat guitar rhythm of reggae seeps from his headphones.

IMG_3894 (1024x683)

Some of my roommates in Agadez. A neighbor and I joke about Gougaram, the brown lamb on the right: “Gougaram, le dejeuner de l’avenir.”

* * *

“Ah, look, there is a group of foreigners,” my companion tells me as we wait to board, several hours before dawn in Niamey. Something does seem out of place among these young men, but it takes me a minute before I realize that the most striking thing is that they are all wearing board shorts. In this Sahelian country, the dress code is fairly conservative; shorts are unusual.

I’m not the only foreigner on the bus, which is something easily forgotten in my many preoccupations during this trip. There is the tagelmust episode, and there is the long wait at a police checkpoint just outside Agadez, that lead me to ask if I’m just a hassle for the rest of the passengers. “It’s the Ghanaians,” someone explains to me when I begin to get anxious about the fact that the police have held my passport for at least twenty minutes. “They always have the most problems.” Nobody can explain the reason for this to me, but it seems accepted as common knowledge. Sure enough, my passport is eventually returned along with the passports of my companions.

Agadez is the last major hub for many migrants from throughout Africa as they prepare to cross the Sahara in search of work in Tripoli or Algiers, or continue across the Mediterranean toward Europe. It’s a perilous journey, and many of my fellow travelers from beyond Niger appear nervous. In my growing confidence with French and Hausa, I begin to forget how terrifying it can be to travel somewhere where you don’t speak any of the local languages. “That’s my car!” a Nigerian exclaims in English at the police checkpoint when he realizes he’s on the wrong bus; the other bus is just beginning to roll past the roadblock. The officer on our bus returns his passport, but I never see the man again nor do I see in the darkness beyond my window whether he is able to board the other bus again.

IMG_4039 (1024x683)IMG_4021 (1024x680)

Lightning dances across the skyline in Agadez. Sleeping on the terrace of my friend’s house every night is one of the most magical experiences I remember having; when there isn’t a storm, the sky glitters with stars and the occasional meteor.

* * *

I finally sit down on the bus for my return trip to Niamey, peering out the window silently as I ponder the significance of the old man’s comment: not in the habit of wearing a tagelmust.

My concentration is broken when a woman sits down behind me and casually greets me in Hausa: “Buzu, ina kwana?” (Tuareg man, good morning, how was your night?)

Lahiya lau,” I respond. It is well.

IMG_4103 (662x1024)

Praise Songs for El Hadji Taya and “Modern Nigerien Music”

Last Saturday, the Center for Music Promotion and Training (CFPM) El Hadji Taya held its annual celebration for the late El Hadji Mai Manga Taya (1951-1988). CFPM is an institution in Niamey offering music courses, a museum of traditional Nigerien instruments, an audiovisual archive, a recording studio, and an amphitheater for performances and conferences. Taya, for whom the center is named, was a leading voice in the development of “la musique moderne nigérienne” (modern Nigerien music); his early death caused by a brief illness came as a shock in the Nigerien music scene at a critical moment in its history. Taya’s orchestra had just won the first National Competition of Modern Nigerien Music, the Prix Dan Gourmou, in 1987; and in 1989, a year after his death, CFPM opened its doors with a mission to promote and develop Nigerien music.

IMG_3702 (1024x606)

Taya and his orchestra performing at the first National Contest for Modern Nigerien Music, the Prix Dan Gourmou, February 13-19, 1987. Photo from the exhibit at CFPM.

“Promotion” and “development” in the context of cultural activities can be quite a controversial subject, since these terms can mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people. At CFPM the efforts appear directed at professionalizing music-making in Niger by developing a cadre of career musicians working in “modern music” (i.e., popular music drawing on many western musical instruments and traditions), though there are efforts to support traditional forms as well; for example, “musique tradi-moderne” is popular in concept as a blending of indigenous Nigerien instruments with electric guitars, keyboards, drum sets, and more. It’s important to recognize that music-making as a career is not new in Niger, with antecedents in many societies, particularly in the form of griots found among some Nigerien ethnic groups. (“Griot” is a generic term for the unique role played by members of particular castes in many West African societies, from Mauritania to Niger, which involves serving as praise-singer, historian, political advisor, and more.) These roles continue to be important, though the advent of European colonialism was destructive for the social structures that once reliably supported griots, leading many to pursue alternative ways to make a living.

IMG_3724 (1024x667)

Entrance to CFPM. Though there are several buildings at the center, many people spend a good amount of time outside, shaded by the trees as they play music together or converse over cigarettes and shots of strong Sahelian tea. The structure to the left is an amphitheater for performances with a new overhead covering installed in 2013.

To celebrate Taya’s legacy, CFPM hosted a conference during the day and a free concert in the evening, with many luminaries in attendance. Several of Niger’s leading voices in the modern and tradi-modern scene—including Yacouba Moumouni (“Denke Denke,” who leads the group Mamar Kassey), Hamsou Garba, Abdou Salam, and others—performed songs from Taya’s career, as well as praise songs for other deceased musicians. The former Minister of Culture, who was part of the music scene during Taya’s time, shared a few words with the audience, an attempt in part to highlight the government’s support for CFPM.

The conference during the morning featured a photo exhibit from Taya’s life and of some of Niger’s late musical stars. Taya’s brother, El Hadj Katzelma O.M. Taya (“Kazel”), and Moussa Dabougui, who played saxophone with Taya in the orchestra Les Ambassadeurs du Sahel and in other groups during the 1970s and ’80s, shared memories about the life and spirit of Taya. Much of the subsequent conversation, during a Q&A session with the audience (mostly musicians and employees of CFPM), focused on what many feel to be a crisis in Nigerien music. Niger is not well-known globally for its music the way its neighbors are, for example Mali and Nigeria, a sentiment bemoaned by many of the attendees. As one musician commented, “the problem in Niger is that musicians think only for themselves, not for their country.” Taya became an object of praise in part because, after obtaining an economics degree in Bordeaux—like many Nigeriens of means before and after his time who sought university training abroad—he opted not only to return to Niger but to forgo a life as a fonctionnaire (a sort of public service agent in the Francophone world) and to make a career in music, however short it wound up being.

IMG_3704 (1024x681)

Les Ambassadeurs du Sahel, one of Taya’s groups in the 1970s and ’80s. Taya is second from the right in the back row, and to his right is Moussa Dabougui. From the photo exhibit at CFPM.

A clip of International de la Capital, one of Taya’s groups. It’s proven a bit difficult to track down recordings online, though I still have more searching to do to this end here in Niamey.

Riding in Cars with Noise

It’s good to be back in Niger.

Not to harp on the same issue every time I resume posting here, but since it takes me some time to warm up to the places I’m visiting, and it plays a big part in how I seem to spend my time abroad these days, it seems that reflecting on language may be the best place to start. I arrived in Niger barely more than a week after completing an intensive two-month program in Hausa language at the University of Florida. (In that regard the timing for this trip couldn’t have been better, though I’m absolutely exhausted.) Hausa is the dominant language in northern Nigeria and serves as the primary trade language in Niger, even among people who do not identify themselves as Hausa; it’s also spoken in numerous communities throughout Africa, including Ghana, Cameroon, and even Sudan, the indigenous language with the largest number of people who speak it as their first language in Africa (I mention this as a little jab at my fellow students of African languages at the University of Florida, where the Hausa class was one of the smallest). Being able to offer a few greetings and, haltingly, continue some basic conversations with various acquaintances has afforded me a lot of confidence that I lacked during my previous visit to Niger. It’s also made me feel like I speak French really well, which is absolument faux.

Nowhere does language stand out to me as much as when riding a cab. In Niger, taxis are shared by multiple passengers who are headed to destinations along the same route. If you hail a cab and it’s not headed in the direction you need, the taxi driver just takes off, leaving you to hope for better luck with the next one. I may be taking the process of getting a cab too seriously, but I find myself thinking of those times when one announces their desired destination to the driver, through the passenger window, as moments of truth: will he stay or will he go? As a taxi pulls over for me I calculate the relative comfort with which I can speak the names of my destinations, in French or Hausa. Although I’m much more fluid with French, there are some sounds that still make me tongue-tied; and I ideally speak as much Hausa as I can.

The problem, I have found, is that the combination of my really rough Hausa and the assumption that as an anasara (white person, foreigner) I will speak French leads to taxi drivers and passengers not understanding my requests at first. No surprises there. The breakdown in communication via different languages is its own kind of noise, and just like tuning the dial on the radio to improve the signal, I find myself trying one phrase or language and then another pretty quickly until we arrive at an understanding. If I ask for “Gidan Mohammadou Issoufou” (President Mohammadou Issoufou’s house, in Hausa), taxi drivers invariably ask “l’ancienne?” (the former one?, in French). It’s rough, but it gets the job done, and the code switching is certainly not exclusive to people like myself, linguistically blundering their way through Niamey. Each day, though, I’m relying more and more heavily on Hausa; I’m even racking up my phone expenses by holding conversations almost exclusively in Hausa, which requires my extremely patient friends to repeat everything three times. Kadan kadan. Little by little. At least I seem to make people in the taxis laugh with surprise when I say “ya isa” (Hausa: “it’s enough,” or more loosely, “stop here”).

IMG_3631 (1024x683)

It’s me! Helping prepare lunch with my old friend Halima. Well, trying to help.


Moroccan Soundscapes, Pt. 2

In an earlier post I wrote about some of the various ways in which I encountered music and sound throughout my journey in Morocco. I noted in particular what I felt were ways in which the contrasting shapes of Moroccan and American soundscapes pointed to contrasts in other aspects of social interaction, such as the appropriate amount of personal and private space to maintain between individuals. The adan (call to prayer), as I wrote, was a fundamental part of the Moroccan soundscape. From the previous post:

Last night, as I went to bed around 3am after finishing suhoor (the last meal before sunrise, when the fast resumes during Ramadan), I laid in bed with the windows open for some fresh air, and listened as a half-dozen mosques within earshot all issued competing versions of the adan (call to prayer); it is quite beautiful, especially as I live near a large, well-funded mosque that has clearly been able to find someone with more significant training than most in the area. But the adan is more than just the recitation of words, and the calls from each mosque not only begin and end at different times, but include their own melodic and rhythmic characteristics. In other words, as I lay in bed, exhausted from my trip to Marrakesh over the weekend, I listened to a wash of sound that was both beautiful in its spiritual significance as well as confounding in the way in which the adan from one mosque would encroach upon the acoustic space of the next.

Of course, when dealing with sound, words are insufficient for really capturing the experience. Nothing can replace actually being there to not only hear the adan but to sense the change in the whole atmosphere around you. For instance, when listening to music on my computer one evening, a family member asked me to turn it off for the duration of the adan once it had begun, positioning the call, understandably, as the most important sound of the moment (and, arguably, the day). On television, too, the regular programming is paused and the adan is aired with beautiful graphics and calligraphy on-screen. To bring you one step closer to this experience, however, I did film a portion of the adan when overlooking Chefchaouen from the top of the kasbah (fortress). You can see not only the mosque next door, but others spread throughout the town.

* Note: For those of you wondering why I write the title of the call to prayer in two different ways (adan in the blog, and adhan in the video), this is merely to reflect the difference in pronunciation between Moroccan Darija and classical Arabic. The Arabic letter transliterated as “dh” (pronounced as a sort of dark “th” sound) is often pronounced as a “z” in the Eastern Mediterranean, but in Morocco it is pronounced as a “d.” This was an occasionally confusing point because the word for “teacher,” ustadh—which received a lot of use in the classroom—would be pronounced three different ways depending on each student’s preferences, experience, or intentions: ustad, ustadh, or ustaz.

On Eids and Exams

Ramadan will be ending this week, but nobody knows when exactly.

As I understand it, because the Islamic calendar is based on the moon rather than the sun (as in the Gregorian calendar), the beginning of new months is tied to when the new moon occurs. Religious (and national) leaders observe the moon and it is not until they physically recognize the new moon that they will acknowledge the end of one month and beginning of the next. Thus, we wait with the awareness that the Eid (celebration for the end of Ramadan) will take place on Thursday or Friday, but we won’t know exactly until the night before. (Side note: There are some interesting ways in which the date of the new moon has been contested by some Muslims for political reasons. Rather than recognizing the Eid date announced for a particular country [not all countries observe the Eid on the same day], some people may opt to recognize the date for the Eid that was not selected in order to express opposition to the political and/or religious leadership.)

I’m afraid I don’t know a whole lot on this interesting issue, but from my perspective as a student during Ramadan, the uncertainty of the date for the Eid has led to some interesting moments of confusion as our program draws to a close and we schedule our final events: exams, due dates for term projects, quizzes, when we’ll be holding class and when we’ll have the day off, and so on. Coming from a culture in which work and school events tend to be planned out fairly strictly and far in advance, this uncertainly can be a headache; students expect a syllabus outlining due dates for assignments while teachers cannot provide them with any certainty.

Rather than getting too frustrated with this difference, however, I actually find the uncertainty somewhat refreshing. It reminds me of the oft-heard phrase insha’ Allah (“if God wills it”), which is often said to express the English idea of “hopefully” but also to punctuate comments made by others about their hopes or plans. For example, I might say “I’d like to go Fez this weekend” and a friend or family member might tag “insha’ Allah” on to the end of it. It’s often appropriate for me to then affirm the sentiment and reply with “insha’ Allah.” Whereas it seems to me that it’s more common among Americans for the original speaker (e.g., me) to say “hopefully” when talking about the future, in Morocco there is more verbal feedback from others involved in the conversation. (This back-and-forth relationship is reflected in music too, as call-and-response passages are a common formal component of most Moroccan musics.)

What I find beautiful about “insha’ Allah” is that it recognizes that humans can’t control everything in their lives, which is, in my view, totally anathema to American sensibilities about individual agency. Americans might express a roughly parallel idea when they say “shit happens,” but that phrase is far from being as prevalent in American conversations as the Moroccan expression, which will be uttered dozens of times daily. (I hesitate to make this comparison since one expression draws on colorful vernacular language while the other invokes the name of God, but I think it’s the best way to get at the heart of translating from one language into another; you always lose some of the nuance in the process.) Of course, it’s important to keep all things in moderation or else we’ll encounter all sorts of problems; I by no means think that people are completely powerless in directing the paths of their lives, and some Americans I have spoken with both in Morocco and in Niger have expressed exasperation over the disavowal of personal responsibility that one might perceive in the expression “insha’ Allah.” But rather than diving into a deep philosophical debate, I merely wish to point out some of the assets of this perspective when it’s easy, during this high-stress period in our program, to simply get frustrated by it. I find that, rather than get upset about the uncertainty of the exact date, it’s healthier to embrace the fact that at some currently undetermined time this week, there’s going to be a great party and I’m going to have a day off from school. Insha’ Allah.

Over the weekend I visited the beautiful town of Tetouan, near the Mediterranean coast. It used to be a center for the Spanish colonial administration in northern Morocco and they left behind some lovely architecture to compliment the old medina's maze of alleyways.

Over the weekend I visited the beautiful town of Tetouan, near the Mediterranean coast. It used to be a center for the Spanish colonial administration in northern Morocco and they left behind some lovely architecture to complement the old medina’s maze of alleyways.

Musicians performed in the square beneath our hotel (from which all of these photos come), and when they finished well after midnight they crammed their instruments, flags, and themselves into passing taxis.

Musicians performed in the square beneath our hotel (from which all of these photos come), and when they finished well after midnight they crammed their instruments, flags, and themselves into passing taxis.

The square beneath our hotel in Tetouan during the daytime. We spent the day playing in the nearby Mediterranean, so I took very few photos on this trip; nonetheless it was a beautiful city and a splendid experience.

The square beneath our hotel in Tetouan during the daytime. We spent the day playing in the nearby Mediterranean, so I took very few photos on this trip; nonetheless it was a beautiful city and a splendid experience.

Northern Morocco: Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Riffian Explorations

Last weekend was the last of our major group trips on the CLS program, and it was certainly the most pleasant even if the visit to the Sahara will likely be the most memorable and meaningful to me. I’d love to write much more, but every site was incredibly photogenic, so I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.

Our first stop was in Assilah, a resort town an hour or two south of Tangier on the Atlantic coast. It’s popular with Europeans, and we heard a lot more Spanish being spoken than in any other place we’d visited until that point. Assilah has some beautiful street art, and the old city is also whitewashed and in many ways resembles a village in the Greek Isles. We spent the afternoon exploring the town and then playing in the water; it was great to do some bodysurfing, punctuated by the occasional conversation in Arabic, while floating in the Atlantic!

IMG_2605 (1024x683) IMG_2609 (683x1024) IMG_2623 (1024x683)

The second stop was Tangier, a city that has had a complex history on account of its strategic position on the Strait of Gibraltar. Indeed, it’s often been a haven for spies and as I looked out from my hotel room I had a very vivid sense that I was in a James Bond film. The only international intrigue I really experienced was the lovely ride in a taxi driven by a man from Barcelona. In a reversal of the general trend for African migration to Europe, unemployment is so high in Spain right now that he spends the summers working in Tangier to make ends meet. Riding with him was something of a hilarious experience because, right when I thought I was getting the hang of negotiating standard Arabic, Darija, and French, I had to start working with Spanish as well. It took some shaking out of the cobwebs and broken sentences in two registers of Arabic as well as Spanish to get back to the hotel. At one point I believe I said something along the lines of “nahnou estudiantes min los Estados Unidos.”

An unexpected delight for me was to find that the Tangier American Legation Museum—a former US embassy and the only US Historic Landmark on foreign soil—has a new wing dedicated to author, composer, and ethnomusicologist Paul Bowles. On display were a number of his works, including memorabilia from films, recordings and photos from his fieldwork, and scores from some of his compositions (Bowles had been a student of Aaron Copland). Bowles completed a comprehensive recording project, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which aimed to document the major music traditions from throughout Morocco; some of the recordings were later released by the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song, what later became the American Folklife Center—where I spent the summer of 2009 working in a very inspiring and educational internship.  The Bowles room at the American Legation opened in 2010, for the centenary of Bowles’s birth, and one important project for the occasion was the repatriation of the recordings that Bowles had made during his project in the 1950s and ’60s.

View from my hotel room in Tangier.

View from my hotel room in Tangier.

View of the Strait of Gibraltar from near Tangier. Que pasa, España?

View of the Strait of Gibraltar from near Tangier. Que pasa, España?

Part of the exterior of the American Legation Museum.

Part of the exterior of the American Legation Museum.

An image at the American Legation Museum, displaying the letter from the Sultan of Morocco in 1777 that was the first official recognition of the United States as a new nation.

An image at the American Legation Museum, displaying the letter from the Sultan of Morocco in 1777 that was the first official recognition of the United States as a new nation.

From the Paul Bowles wing.

From the Paul Bowles wing. Another panel captures the significance of his recording project: “The most important single element in Morocco’s folk culture is its music . . . . The entire history and mythology of the people is clothed in song.” – Paul Bowles, Their Heads Are Green (1963)

Finally, en route back to Meknes, we visited Chefchaouen, a fabulously beautiful town nestled up among the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco. I’ve seen photos for a long time and had always wanted to visit, so I was grateful for the opportunity. Of course, because it’s so attractive it draws a lot of tourists; I’m not sure I’d enjoy spending too much time there, but for an afternoon it was absolutely wonderful. We meandered our way through the maze of alleys to find ourselves at a waterfall, where dozens of Moroccan families gleefully splashed around in the heat. I took a much-needed rinse before we commenced the final leg of our journey.

View of Chefchaouen from the top of the kasbah (fortress).

View of Chefchaouen from the top of the kasbah (fortress).

One of many amazing sites in the winding alleys of Chefchaouen.

One of many amazing sights in the winding alleys of Chefchaouen.

IMG_2735 (683x1024) IMG_2737 (683x1024) IMG_2747 (1024x683) IMG_2748 (1024x683)