Niger, for a number of reasons, strikes many as a difficult place to penetrate, much less travel. It's brutally hot, largely desert, landlocked, and dauntingly vast. Over the last 13 or so years, it's also experienced it's share of coups, drought, threats from within (various Taureg rebellions), as well as without (Saudi Arabian-based extremist influence that has interrupted the region's peaceful Islamic-animist hybrids, which have existed for many years). And then there's the poverty, which is some of the world's worst. This is the information that often gets expressed through various media outlets, and while these concerns are real, the country is also experiencing a musical flux. Alongside centuries old traditions are cell phones and the internet, which are forcing musical shifts. Yet, Niger has had some aural anomalies for quite some time, as the Sahel Sounds blog and label has observed with releases of Mamman Sani Abdoulaye's late 1970's synthesizer experiments, as well as early 70's recordings by Azna de L'ader, which show this band to be likely the heaviest psych rock to ever come from the continent! Tuareg guitar rock, found in the Agadez region, and recorded over the last decade or so, has also seen plenty of attention. Aside from Bombino, who has had tremendous success, groups such as Koudede and Inarane have seen numerous titles released on Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies label.
Which all brings us to Studio Shap Shap. This six-piece ensemble, based in the nation's capital, Niamey, does what so many young bands from more cosmopolitan areas of the world are doing; they're synthesizing tradition with a more experimental approach. Here, the komsa lute, balafon, and the Hausa talking drum known as the Kalangou, blend with electric keyboards, electronics, snippets of field recordings and musical patterns not normally associated with the country's roots, for something that captures the country's musical flux perfectly. One reason for this might be the presence of Laetitia Cecile, who has made Niger her home for a dozen or so years, but comes from Reunion. Her keyboard patterns suggest and inform many of the musical patterns laid out on Chateau 1. The disc's first track, “Peau de Chevre,” finds itself quickly in spacey territory, as the piano opens up the riff and helps the band spread it delicately across several minutes of ever-softer subtle mutations. “Ir Ma Koy” is something akin to a tango thanks to her piano, which anchors the tune's spoken vocals, percussion and lute. She in no way dominates the affair, and the presence of keyboards is only one item that stretches this music far away from tradition. “La Lutte,” with its field recordings of various oratory occasionally obliterating the Komsa's lead riff, is as melancholy as it is strange.
Often, the listener hears nature sounds too, which might seem dubbed in but are apparently the result of the fact that the band's studio is in a garden. As a result, birds, crying babies, and other animals get swept along with the music. There are musicians on this record who have been playing in Niger for decades prior to this record's release. Percussionist Oumarou Adamou is one of them; yet, as well respected as he is, making a living from playing has been impossible for him. It's uncertain whether or not this will change thanks to Studio Shap Shap, but he is certainly now part of an ensemble as edgy as Mamman Sani or Azna de L'ader were at their time.
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Mamman Sani Abdoulaye
Azna de L'ader
Tal National Kaani