Sunday, April 26, 2009


One of the ironies of the increased urbanisation of the developing world is the tendency for such movement to trigger the urge in some of those who have departed to re-evaluate, revive and consequently preserve the localised traditions and arts of their former communities.

Malam Mamane Barka is one such example. He's a Toubou by birth, from one of the semi-nomadic livestock-raising tribes that are scattered throughout the eighty percent of desert that makes up the landlocked West African nation of Niger. He moved to the country's capital Niamey to study (the first Toubou to receive a formal education), and his mission now is to draw our attention the sound of the biram, a five-stringed boat-shaped harp-lute originally played by the Boudouma people of eastern Niger. “It is shaped like a boat because it was a fisherman's instrument,” explains Mamane, “the Boudouma live near Lake Chad, and I heard this sacred music being played in a Boudouma village, but learnt that it was becoming extinct. I felt it was my job to keep the tradition going for the people of that region, and for my country.” Mamane is talking literally here, because his subsequent three-year devotion to becoming the sole living master of the biram is congruent with the aims of his day job working at the Ministry of Culture in Niamey. “I work for le Centre de Formation et de Promotion Musicale (CFPM), working to preserve all the traditional music of Niger - it's of the utmost importance as the population moves more and more into the city, because this music tells our story, where we come from. The sound of the biram reflects its geographical provenance, possessing the parched, dusty tone of western African instruments such as the ngoni allied to the melodic possibilities and insistent drive of instruments like the Egyptian simsimiyya. It’s a funky and urgent sound, backed by traditional Nigerian percussion (a rhythmic enhancement to the original practice of tapping away at the 'prow' end of the instrument) with a charming spontaneity to the performance as Mamane's rich, penetrating voice calls and responds with percussionist Omar Adamou. There's a spare, relatively dry spirit to the music, but it has an absorbing, hypnotic effect on the listener. Prior to his work with the biram, Mamane played a long-necked two-stringed lute called a gurumi, an instrument that he started playing in 1978 when aged sixteen, at around the time he became a primary school teacher (‘Malam’ means teacher in the Hausa language). “When I finished my studying I immediately became a primary school teacher. We were obligated because not many teachers in the ‘70s were from Niger; they mainly came from Benin and Togo. The President said ‘enough, we must get our own teachers, all young men now in college must become teachers'. But I always wanted to be a musician too, and I saw a guy called Warsou playing the gurumi in a place called Kaouboul. He played so well I asked him to teach me. "I began by singing traditional songs," he continues, "and recorded two albums of traditional music. Then I began composing, mainly love songs and political songs. By political I mean that I write only to tell people what I see, what everyone sees, observing rather than criticising.” These albums of earthy, gnawa-like gurumi music are cassette-only releases and difficult to source outside of Niger (although if you googling 'Malam Mamane Barka + Guidan Haya' you may have some success at finding online extracts), however Mamane and Omar have recently recorded an album of biram music for World Music Network's admirable Introducing series, which is due for general release in Spring 2009. With Etran Finatawa producer Paul Borg at the helm, it promises to be one of the more exciting debuts of the coming year. Meanwhile Mamane continues his role as civil servant, musician, teacher (he has a half a dozen or so biram students in Niamey) and broadcaster, presenting a regular weekday three-hour slot called “Bonjour le Niger". “It's a private radio show, it's not run by the Government. Each day I will do animations [entertainment], and play as much of the music that's found throughout Niger as I can, as well as telling the city people what's going on elsewhere. My grandparents still live in the desert so I still have a connection there, but these days the desert is not like it was before, it has changed because nomads are not there so much, they spend two to three days in the desert, then they come to the village, for schooling for their children, and for healthcare. I would never criticise that, because I have succeeded by coming to the city. But I hope that, like me, people who do move keep their heart in the culture that made them what they are.”

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