Mam­man Sani’s elec­tric sound fi­nally trav­els be­yond Niger

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

NOW in his 60s with a grey­ing goa­tee, elec­tric or­gan mae­stro Mam­man Sani long ago turned lo­cal legend, but it took decades for his dreamy hyp­notic sounds to travel be­yond dusty Niger.

Un­til very re­cently the self­taught mu­si­cian’s only com­mer­cial record­ing was a cas­sette tape dat­ing back to 1981.

But nowa­days he spends his time be­tween his house in Ni­amey and a record­ing stu­dio in Ghana, where he aims to pro­duce dozens of al­bums.

At home, where he made a liv­ing as a teacher then worked for the UN’s cul­tural agency UNESCO, Sani’s mu­sic has long fea­tured on na­tional ra­dio and tele­vi­sion, most of­ten as in­ter­lude mu­sic be­tween pro­grams.

In a quirk of fate, how­ever, it was the orig­i­nal decades-old cas­sette that brought in­ter­na­tional renown, when in 2013 young US mu­si­cian­cum-eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist Christo­pher Kirkley stum­bled on it in Niger’s na­tional mu­seum while ex­plor­ing West African sounds.

“The space was over­flow­ing with dusty CDs, cas­settes and reels, and hun­ker­ing down from the in­suf­fer­able heat out­side, I pre­pared to spend a long week in re­search,” he said.

“Mam­man’s cas­sette was the first I pulled from the shelf, and I al­most passed over it. But I was cap­tured by the pho­to­graph – a black-and­white pic­ture of a young man with a goa­tee and a knit cap, hands on what ap­peared to be an or­gan.”

“The mu­sic proved equally in­trigu­ing. The in­stru­men­tal com­po­si­tions were sim­ple but dreamy, repet­i­tive but hyp­notic. It was es­o­teric and bizarre, un­like any­thing I had ever heard – the imag­i­nary au­dio track to an ar­cade game of desert car­a­vans trekking through a pas­toral land­scape of pix­elised sand.”

In the same way that Ry Cooder pro­pelled Mali’s Ali Farka Toure to world fame, along with the mu­si­cians of Cuba’s Buena Vista So­cial Club, Kirkley set out to launch Sani in France and Europe with three vinyl records, in­clud­ing Taarit, and a 2013-15 tour.

“Mam­man is one of the first peo­ple to cre­ate this hy­bridi­s­a­tion of folk mu­sic with mod­ern synth,” Kirkley said.

“I think that Mam­man’s mu­sic would have been very in­ter­est­ing to a lot of elec­tronic mu­si­cians at the time he was record­ing, but the bar­ri­ers of con­nec­tiv­ity kept Niger rather iso­lated.”

“Ei­ther way, Mam­man’s mu­sic re­mains avant-garde and very per­sonal, un­com­pro­mis­ing even,” Kirkley added. “I’m just happy that we’ve had a chance for his mu­sic to fi­nally be heard.”

Born in 1952 in Ghana’s cap­i­tal Accra to a Nige­rien fa­ther and Ghana­ian mother, Sani moved to Niger in the late 1950s but be­gan play­ing mu­sic only in his late teens while study­ing to be a teacher.

“A builder used to lend me his har­mon­ica at week­ends and I’d play French hit tunes on Satur­day nights,” he said.

He re­fused to study bi­ol­ogy, tak­ing English in­stead be­cause he was afraid of al­go­rithms, “though mu­si­cal im­pro­vi­sa­tion of­ten is al­go­rithms”, he joked.

After the har­mon­ica he learned to play guitar, us­ing bi­cy­cle brake ca­bles for some of the strings.

He lis­tened to black Amer­i­can stars Otis Red­ding, James Brown and Percy Sledge, com­pos­ing his first tunes and play­ing at night in public.

It was only in the 1970s that he came upon his first or­gan thanks to a mu­si­cian from Bu­rundi who was then on tour. “It was love at first sight,” he says.

In 1979 he saw an ad for a sec­ond­hand Orla elec­tric or­gan go­ing for 400 euros. Strapped for cash, he sold his mo­tor­bike to buy it.

After teach­ing him­self the key­board he quickly be­came pro­lific and was soon to start com­pos­ing theme mu­sic and in­ter­ludes for na­tional tele­vi­sion while work­ing for UNESCO.

But three decades later, de­spite be­com­ing a house­hold name he still finds it hard to make ends meet and this year had to sell one of his two prized or­gans. –

Photo: AFP

Leg­endary self-taught Nige­rian mu­si­cian Mam­man Sani poses in Ni­amey on June 21.

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