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Niger: Magic & Ecstasy In The Sahel
Niger: Magic & Ecstasy In The Sahel

Niger: Magic & Ecstasy In The Sahel
Various Artists
Sublime Frequencies
DVD (2005)

Available at Sublime Frequencies' website.
In addition to foreign broadcast radio collages and collections of 1970s international folk/acid rock, Sublime Frequencies produces video documentaries that explore off-the-beaten-path musical cultures. Niger: Magic & Ecstasy In The Sahel takes a closer look at the music of this little-known Western African land, focusing on street musicians, ceremonial performances and local garage rock. As the liner notes state, "This is not music as commodity, this is music as survival."

Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. Attempts to export its only significant natural resource -- uranium -- have landed the country on a terrorism watchlist. The landlocked nation is 80 percent desert. And yet the people survive, finding cause for celebration and survival, outlasting French colonization, political upheaval, sporadic drought and continual famine. Magic & Ecstasy shows us some amazing footage, both musical and cultural, but not in an exploitative manner; this is no National Geographic documentary, designed to import wonder to suburban living rooms. There is no narration at all, aside from the liner notes and a brief description of a Bori ceremony from the translator during a cowry shell divination.

Instead of glimpses into primitive life, filmmaker Hisham Mayet provides us with extended looks at musical cultures about which we know little. The result is much like the Sublime Frequencies CDs: just the facts, with little or no editorializing, allowing the viewer to watch with wonder practices that are at once utterly foreign and oddly familiar.

Witness the street musician in Dogondoutchi, a man with a versatile voice accompanying himself on a simple stringed instrument that he plucks and bangs -- it sounds like the mutant offspring of a banjo and a tambourine. These musicians are members of a marginal caste that has resisted the monotheistic Islam and Christian religions while remaining true to their indigenous animal worship. See the instrumental performance on a similarly designed bowed instrument, or the drone-like vocal duet in which two males accompany themselves on plucked instruments.

Men from the village of Boubon -- right across the river Niger (and we go along for the ride in the pole-driven boat) -- demonstrate the ngoni, a performance style with interplay of drums, handclaps and voice. Afterwards we see the ceremonial zigda line dance, which the men perform for the females, accompanied by the polyrhythmic sounds of a pair of huge oil drums.

After the cowry shell divination and explanation, an abbreviated form of the Bori ceremony is captured on film. According to the liner notes, this ceremony was to be the primary focus of the project, but logistics conspired against filming the entire ritual. What we do see is engaging: synchronized drumming, stringed instrument accompaniment and a sequence of women dancing in the middle of a large square, surrounded by onlookers. Their dance is passionate and inspiring to the audience, who send someone into the square from time to time to hand the dancer a piece of paper (we don't see quite what it is). This continues for some time, and we certainly get the impression that this is one of those ceremonies that could last for days.

The next dance is much more informal: late at night, a circle of pre-teen and teenage girls gather into a circle and chant themselves into a frenzy, taking turns performing a dance that is meant to assert their sexuality and role in the village while teasing the nearby boys. If you've ever seen booty-shakin' dance, well, that's what they're doing -- only after they do it standing square-legged, skirts hitched up, they get down on all fours and provocatively thrust their hips up and down. The best part is when a little girl -- she couldn't be older than five or six -- takes her turn in the circle and practically falls down trying it out. Hey, you gotta start somewhere.

Up to this point, everything presented in Magic & Ecstasy has pretty clearly been comprised of indigenous folk music and dance. The last few sections demonstrate the only filmed usage of Western instruments: first, a pentacostal service in Niamey (Niger's capitol) features chanting and singing through a PA system, accompanied by a synthesizer and drum kit (alongside a few other percussionists), much like revival meetings in the US. Finally, the documentary closes with performances from two Agadez garage rock bands; both Ouragan del Air and Groupe Interane could pass for any of the original Nuggets bands, except for the fact that they're performing in what appears to be Niger's equivalent of a 1970s-style paneled rec room in a suburban basement.

The people of Niger may live hard lives, but their culture is rich with musical tradition. Niger: Magic & Ecstasy In The Sahel, as with all of Sublime Frequencies' releases, celebrates their music and dance, showing Western audiences what we're missing by being beholden to the commercial music industry.

-- Andrew Mall

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