This year marks the 100th birthday of folklorist Alan Lomax, whose field recordings provided scholars and musicians with essential examples of American folk music. Sublime Frequencies co-founder Hisham Mayet carries on in this tradition with his own series of field recordings that go further than Lomax would have ever dreamed of. The first volume of the new Sublime Frequencies series Folk Music of the Sahel focuses on ethnic groups in Niger, and consists of field recordings Mayet made in his travels through the country in the past decade.
Mayet’s interest in the region stemmed from an ethnographic film about the Bori possession cult of Niger. You can’t get more exotic, and “other” than that, but if the allure of the spirit world was what started Mayet on this journey, he found not just spirit ceremonies but the extraordinary music of ordinary life.
Opening track “Al Fulani” comes from the Hausa region and features two musicians playing the gourmi, three-stringed instruments played with a stick, accompanied by vocals and a talking drum. The traditional string instruments are percussive, and bring complicated polyrhythms to a song that praises the beauty of women in a region of Western Niger. Lyrics aren’t provided, but I imagine this frenetic music boils down to, “I wish they all could be Fulani girls.”
Other tracks from the Hausa region tackle more serious matters. Ceremonial music performed by The Orchestra of the Sultan of Zinder has the chaos of free jazz, vocals and horn lines and drumbeats all in apparent discord from another. But there must be some kind of structure I can’t hear, because the chants are in honor of the Sultan, and you’d think he’d demand order in his praises.
If you came to this set looking for music from possession ceremonies, you won’t be disappointed. “Music for a Hauka Ceremony” is led by a goje, a one or two-stringed fiddle frequently used in possession ceremonies. This track is a rare recording of such a ritual, the musicians performing along with a priest, two mediums and a client in spiritual crisis. It’s distracting that, if you’re wearing good headphones, you can hear someone cough and hock up a luger near the end of the track, but perhaps this unceremonious sound is a signal that the spirit was expelled and the ritual was a success. The album includes a brief recording of a second possession ceremony in which the goje solo septs out from the traditional rhythm for some free spirited, incantatory improv.
Traditional instruments are featured through much of the set, but Niger is also known for a vibrant modern music scene. The seven-minute “Denke Denke” is guitar-heavy music for a Fulani wedding. “Bismillhia” is a collaboration between Ousenni, master of the stringed molo, and Koudede, a beloved Tuareg guitarist who died in a car accident in 2012. Those intrigued by this sound should track down music by Mdou Moctar, whose modernized Tuareg guitar music with electronic treatments are featured on albums released by the Sahel Sounds label. The booklet that accompanies Folk Music of the Sahel includes vividly colorful photographs of the people of Niger. I wish there were more photos to accompany the set, but as Sublime Frequencies has promised more volumes in this series, I’ll just have to wait for their next exploration of the region.