Mesmerizing Sounds From the Sahara, Live in Brooklyn
The album “At Pioneer Works” captures performances by Les Filles de Illighadad, a band started in a village in Niger by a trailblazing woman guitarist.,
Not many bands travel 5,000 miles to make a record.
When the African group Les Filles de Illighadad (“the daughters of Illighadad”), from a village of that name in Niger, arrived to play two concerts at the Pioneer Works arts center in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in October 2019, it had already been touring the world for two years. Fatou Seidi Ghali, who started the band along with the vocalist Alamnou Akrouni, had been hailed as a pioneering woman guitarist, a rarity among the Tuareg people of the Sahara. Les Filles had played at rock clubs, festivals in Europe and the Library of Congress.
But the Brooklyn shows turned out to be something else.
“The audience was very special,” Akrouni said in an interview earlier this month, conducted via WhatsApp with the help of a translator. The musicians mainly speak Tamasheq, a Tuareg language. While sometimes Western audiences would watch the performance quietly, in Brooklyn, she said, “there was clapping and dancing” — so much that the venue took out some of the chairs in the space between the first and second nights, said Justin Frye, Pioneer Works’ director of music. (The concerts were planned as seated shows, he said, but “people couldn’t really stay restrained to their seats.”)
Ghali said, “We saw some Tuareg from Mali that were clapping so much,” adding, “If you play music and people don’t clap and sing with you like the people here, it won’t be as happy.”
That happiness, an “energy” that the band members described as pushing them to play their best, comes through on “At Pioneer Works,” an album released this month featuring songs recorded at the two concerts on the arts center’s multitrack equipment. Les Filles de Illighadad’s sound takes the Tuareg guitar music sometimes referred to as desert blues, brought to the West by breakthrough artists from the region like Mdou Moctar, Bombino and Tinariwen, and fuses it with tende, a style of chanting traditionally performed by women and accompanied by a goatskin drum. (Tende is the name of both the drum and the music.)
The result is repetitive and hypnotic, and conveys something spiritual and solemn — a New Yorker article about the Pioneer Works shows described the songs as “prayer-like” — but also transmits a sense of joy and playfulness that goes back to the music’s roots in village life.
At a celebration like a wedding, or when a new baby is born, “there is a lot of audience engagement,” said Christopher Kirkley, whose Sahel Sounds label, based in Portland, Ore., released the LP in collaboration with Pioneer Works Press. “People walk up and throw money toward the performers, or there’s dancers who step up during a song and perform.”
The lyrics to “Irriganan,” the last song on the album and one of its standouts, even include a boast aimed at a musical rival, translated as: “Who could she defeat in tende?”
“Tende is always attached with competition,” Ghali said. “Every year when it gets green in the village, when it’s raining, every year they have a competition to see which woman is the best playing tende.”
“At Pioneer Works” is the third album Les Filles de Illighadad has released with Kirkley, whose label grew out of a blog he started in 2009 to share field recordings from his trips to Africa. Around 2014, he said, he saw a photograph of Ghali on Facebook — “just her holding this red guitar” — and was immediately curious. He was headed to Niger a couple of months later, and sent some messages to musicians he had worked with in the area, asking if any of them knew this woman guitarist. One was Ahmoudou Madassane, who played rhythm guitar with Moctar.
“He said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s my cousin,'” Kirkley said. “‘She lives in the village Illighadad, we can go when you’re here.'”
The self-titled album captured as a field recording on that trip came out in 2016. Five of its songs feature Ghali playing acoustic guitar; the sixth runs nearly 18 minutes and is titled, simply, “Tende.” In 2017, the group added two more members — the guitarist Fitimata Hamadalher, known as Amaria, and Abdoulaye Madassane, a rhythm guitarist and the only man in Les Filles — and began touring the world behind “Eghass Malan,” its second album, recorded at a studio in Europe.
But as quickly as things changed for Les Filles de Illighadad during those years, the pandemic largely changed them back.
“We are back in our old life we lived before we started going on tour,” Ghali said. The three women are all in different places in Niger — Akrouni still in Illighadad, Ghali now living in the city of Abalak, and Hamadalher in Agadez. “We never see each other.”
At times, the WhatsApp interview felt like a virtual reunion. Emojis and image reactions flew back and forth in between Ghali and Akrouni’s thoughtful responses. After joining late, Hamadalher said hello to her bandmates, apologized for oversleeping and teased Akrouni for letting her cellphone battery run too low.
“It’s really complicated to see each other or meet,” Akrouni said. “We talk on the phone sometimes but not that much. When we heard about the coronavirus, we were thinking that it’s finished, we will never go on tour. We are thinking everything will stop.”
Kirkley is cautiously optimistic that things can start back up if the world cooperates; Les Filles de Illighadad has announced a British tour for the fall, and he hoped the band could return to the United States in 2022. It wasn’t something Ghali ever expected for herself when she first picked up an instrument, or agreed to be recorded by a visitor from Portland under some trees in her village.
“We didn’t even think we could go to play in Abalak or Agadez,” she said. “Really, our project with the group was like a surprise for us. We didn’t think that one day we would go play in France or in America. When we started to play the music, we just liked hanging out with our friends, playing one guitar and singing.”