Mamman Sani's electric sound finally travels beyond Niger
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Mamman Sani's electric sound finally travels beyond Niger


on  Wednesday, July 27  2016 at  13:32

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 self-taught 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 programmes.

In a quirk of fate, however, it was the original decades-old cassette that brought international renown, when in 2013 young US musician-cum-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 and white picture of a young man with a goatee and a knit cap, hands on what appeared to be an organ."

Pixelized sand

"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 pixelized 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  vinyls, including "Taarit", and a 2013-2015 tour.

"Mamman is one of the first people to create this hybridization 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."

Love at first sight

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 learnt 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 second-hand 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 houehold name he still finds it hard to make ends meet and this year had to sell one of his two prized organs.