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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

  1. Mom

    Thank you for sharing so many of your experiences and adventures. There is so much to learn from everything you write. Looking forward to the next post!

    Reply
  2. Margie and Dad

    Nicely done”….’again……few things can drag me to this plastic box, but your blog is always worth the pain :)

    Reply
  3. Pingback: azna de l'ader - sahelsounds

  4. Daniel Neuman

    I haven’t yet gone through the whole website and starting in the beginning I found note date, so I couldn’t make out the week or month to which you are referring. But the site as a whole is very beautiful and informative, with quite wonderful recordings.

    Reply

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