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Purple Rain of the Sahel: Chris Kirkley on Akounak

On the face of it, the idea of transplanting Prince’s epoch defining feature length music video/ self-starring biopic culture-jam Purple Rain to the desert town of Agadez (Niger’s principle city) seems absurd. Christopher Kirkley (and $17,000 of kickstarter money) say otherwise.

Christopher is the “rogue ethno-musicologist” behind the brilliant Sahel Sounds blog and record label. In addition to occasionally helping us make an episode of Afropop, he has traveled and worked all over the Sahel, recording musicians and releasing their records internationally, exploring the complex technical culture currently flourishing in the desert.  

We spoke with Christopher as he was preparing for his trip.

Sam Backer: Congrats on the successful Kickstarter campaign!

Chris Kirkley: Yeah! It’s kind of a surprise that it went so well and so quickly.

SB: How long did it take?

CK: We hit the goal in a week.

SB: That’s crazy. You also got a lot of really good media attention, too, right?

CK: Yeah. I think that was helpful. Kickstarter also featured us on their frontpage for a day as the “Pick of the Day,” and that definitely helped. But I had also done both the Saharan Cellphone albums with Kickstarter, and in a way, this was a follow-up. Mdou was, for me, the standout artist on both of the albums. One of the reasons I did the first album, actually, was because of an Mdou track. So it’s nice to go back to Kickstarter again with this project.

SB: And the Purple Rain thing is a big draw…

CK: Definitely.

SB: It’s a great choice of a cultural touchstone to connect to- just such a cool juxtaposition. That said, I’m wondering what your thought process was in deciding to go with the Purple Rain idea.

CK: The Purple Rain thing started off as a joke a long time ago. I think I was in Mauritania, and I was talking to a Canadian friend of mine– an ex-pat– and we were talking about different movies to adapt to West Africa. I was interested in film at the time and looking at different West African directors. And a lot of the directors who were well-known outside of West Africa– the well-known directors from Mauritania and Mali– were making films that weren’t popular in West Africa. For whatever reason, they were making these kind of inaccessible art films they showed at the international festivals, but that they didn’t really show in West Africa. People were kind of unaware that they even existed.

So these celebrated directors weren’t really known in West Africa. What we were talking about was “why not make something that will cross over? Why don’t we see action films coming out, with the exception of Nigeria?” In Francophone Africa, you just don’t really these sort of clichéd films happening, and the idea of remaking Purple Rain came out of us trying to figure out what could be a musical film that we would make, that would tap into that, that people would like to see. And Purple Rain is the stand-out movie in that regard. Maybe you think of it as this larger-than-life film based around a musician– just written to celebrate Prince– but at the same time it’s sort of like a long music video. And the narrative to that movie is sort of important, but you could also just watch it as a long music video.

SB: Or as a performance film, certainly. So you’re making this film for Francophone West African audiences?

CK: Yeah. That’s what we’re shooting for. That’s what I’m shooting for. That’s why I want to make it in Tamasheq. I’m also interested in people watching it in the West. Don’t get me wrong. For me, in the West, it’s a chance to do an experimental, ethnographic film.

SB: So we were talking about how you saw a lack of these standard– or Western standard– films being made, and you wanted to make a film that would appeal to a West African audience.

CK: Yeah, and not just Western films, but really pop films, like pop cinema from West Africa– from Mali or Niger, particularly for Tuaregs– didn’t exist. And that’s getting into the real particulars of it. There weren’t any Tuareg-language films at all. There are a couple Tuareg films. I think there’s one movie that’s shot in French, but if there are any Tuaregs, they’re obviously speaking French. And aside from that, there’s a lot of documentaries. People are familiar with film crews coming through and shooting documentaries, but no product had really been made to be like, “Hey, we can really get down with this. This is something that we’re interested in watching.”

SB: So this is really a continuation of your work with Sahel Sounds, where it seems like you’re recording albums so that people outside of West Africa can hear it, but also people in West Africa can hear it.

CK: Yeah, it’s definitely part of what I’m most interested in–  in making something that can be interesting for both cultures and playing around in that zone of cross-cultural exchange.

SB: This might be kind of a silly question, but do Tuareg people know Prince?

CK: No. No. For the most part, people are pretty unaware of Prince. I hope to change that. We watched Purple Rain and it was surreal.  We got up in Agadez, and we were sitting up under the stars, drinking tea, watching Purple Rain on a little laptop. and it was like “Wow, we’re really doing this.” It seems weird when you can take a little idea and keep pushing it and pushing it and then you’re there.

There’s something that I’m aware of too, that we weren’t going to make a remake. Making a remake of Purple Rain would be a very Western idea of “this’ll be funny.” I don’t want this to be a joke. It started as a joke, but the film isn’t going to be a joke. I don’t want it to be like “Check it out. It’s crazy.” I’m more interested in Purple Rain as a medium, as a story. It’s a universal story of a musician trying to make it, and a movie written around that music. That’s really what I want to take out of Purple Rain— not the movie. A lot of stuff in the movie doesn’t apply at all to the Tuaregs– to really anybody but Prince. A lot of it is very specific to Prince.

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SB: When I first saw Purple Rain, I went into it being like this is going to be a silly 80s thing and came out of it being like, “Wow, that was actually a really good movie.” I like that there’s that angle to the project, too. You’re like, “Purple Rain is a universal human story.”

CK: Right? Yeah. And I’ve watched it a lot, and I hadn’t watched it a lot before. It was just one of those movies that you grew up with. But it has this real personal struggle. You start to see him in the film. He’s kind of this one-dimensional character, who drives a crazy motorcycle and has a lot of style, but then he starts to reveal himself in the progression of the film, through his conflict with his dad, his desire to not be like his dad, his refusal to become this antagonist, this Morris Day, to be a pop musician. He wants to write from the heart. And then he resolves all this by standing up for what he believes in, his own music, and he wins everyone over by that. And that arc is something that I’m tapping into with this. Because a lot of it– that is universal. If you want to talk about conflict with family, with regards to music, that’s a huge thing. And writing the story with Mdou and his friends, we’re also able to tap into a lot of common stories of other Tuareg musicians, like our friend Commando, our guitarist from Tchintabaraden, whose guitar was burned by his parents and they made a fire to make tea out of the guitar, or Almanar telling me a story about how a song he had written was stolen by cell phone recording. These type of plots– we’re writing this into the movie to make something accurate that any Tuareg musician can sit down and be like “Yeah, that makes sense.”

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SB: I know that music in the region gets circulated by cell phone. Once the movie is released, have you thought about how you’re going to get it out to people?

CK: The Hausa DVD industry is actually really big in Agadez. The DVDs that are made in Nigeria are released all over Niger. So, we’re going to make DVDs. I have some connections in Kano for duplication and we’re just going to go manufacture a bunch of DVDs through the Nigerian film industry and have them delivered up to Agadez. However that’s going to be handled– if we hand that off to Mdou or his friends– it’s not really something we’re interested in as a financial return, because I don’t really know if that’s possible. I don’t really care too much about that. But I think that we need to do that in order for it to be a viable film.

SB: And how about in West? Clearly you’re making DVDs here too.

CK: Yeah, we’re making DVDs. I think we’ll also do festivals, or if not festivals then it’ll be screening for different theaters. Some people have written with some interest for screening the film. And I’m setting up a tour for Mdou and the band in June or July in Europe, so maybe we’ll tour with the film, too.

SB:You’re doing the whole project with a collaborator, right? Jerome Fino.

CK: Jerome Fino, yeah. Jerome’s a guy I met in Marseille that invited me to DJ down there one time. He’s part of a collective called L’improbable. They do a lot of experimental film. They do concerts and arts events in Marseille. Jerome is an experimental filmmaker. Over the years, since film isn’t really my forte, I’ve had a lot of people be like, “Yeah, I want to go to Africa with you and do this project,” but nothing’s ever happened. Jerome was like, “I want to go to Niger. Let’s talk about it. Let’s Skype. OK, I’ve booked my ticket.” Just boom, boom, boom. And it’s been great to work with him. He had never been to West Africa, but just jumped right in and was unfazed about the stuff that I found really difficult when I first went there. It’s cool to have this project evolve and to become a collaborative effort, particularly with someone from France because I’m often limited by non-French speakers in the States, and I think there’ll be a lot of interest in this movie in France.

SB: One of the things I think has been really interesting over the past few years is that I feel like we’ve been getting a lot of music from Niger- there’s Tal National, there’s Bombino.  I think it’s cool to have this region get a lot of attention for a change– or you know, some attention for a change.

CK: I think that Niger is sort of the logical extension. If you look at a lot of countries in Francophone Africa or West Africa, Niger is one we haven’t heard too much about. It’s very recent to hear thing from there instead of… like Mali, of course. Man, when people think of the entire African continent’s music, Mali dominates a lot of that stuff. So it makes sense that people are looking into some of the neighboring countries.

SB: One of the things that I’m excited about from the film is to get a taste of Agadez. I was wondering if you could talk about what it’s like there– what the music scene is like.

CK: Agadez is really interesting. Tuareg music is definitely the music of Agadez. It’s Tuareg rock music. It’s a lot more electrified than Mali. In Mali a lot of times you find people playing acoustic guitars. Acoustic guitars are really rare in Agadez. It’s mostly electric. There is a correlation to rebellion and rebel music because Niger had rebellions and a lot of the music’s origin is tied to that as well, but the Tuareg pop music, Tuareg guitar music in Niger is not really tied to rebellion anymore. It’s pretty much love songs, rock songs, and it’s also very insular in the sense that people are playing music in Agadez to play music in Agadez. The aspirations for international tours are always going to be there, but you can make a lot of money playing music in Agadez. Every night there’s three or four weddings happening. It’s a big city and that’s really the key there– it’s to become a star in Agadez, not to get on a Western music label or do a tour.

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SB: So it’s a ‘recordings to fuel live shows’ and not vice versa type situation?

CK: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of musicians don’t have recordings. Besides cell phone recordings, they’re not releasing albums, but they are playing weddings all the time. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a guitar or a guitarist in Agadez. That’s a bad metaphor because I’m not going to hit a guitarist with a rock, but you stand out every night and you can hear music happening from different parts of town– from the really refined bands with good equipment and good amplifiers because Bombino or someone has come back with a new Fender for them, to really rough musicians playing with crappy amplifiers and guitars with a few strings that are held together by bike cables, a bricolage of musical instruments. I think that what’s cool about it is that there’s lots of different levels of what you can play.

SB: Another reason that I’m so interested in this project is that it seems like it’s not going to be about the violence and radical Islamicists and a lot of the stuff that dominates the news about the north of Mali and Niger.

CK: Yeah, I don’t think that any of that’s in it right now. None of it is in our script. I don’t even think it gets a mention. And if the actors and if Mdou feel differently, if it deserves a mention in the film then that’ll happen, but so far that’s not part of the story. It doesn’t really make any sense for it to be part of the story. In Agadez, in Niger, the rebellion in Mali spilled over in some respects. There were attacks at the barracks. A bomb went off not too long ago– I think some time last year. But the attitude of most people there has been, “Look, we don’t want this shit happening here. Keep it out.”

SB: You’re describing the scene as really live and guitar-based, but the music on the Saharan Cellphones comp and a lot of the other stuff that you’ve released has been autotuned and electronic. How does that fit here?

CK: It might. I’m not sure. The script, as it’s written right now, is going to have the final song involve some autotune. It’s a little bit of cinematic fiction, but at the same time that is what set Mdou apart. His first album was autotuned and it was recorded in Hausa, Nigeria. And people in Agadez are familiar with Hausa music. In fact, the majority of people in Agadez speak Hausa. So, Hausa’s the main language there. Hausa music is huge there. Having Mdou play this Hausa-style autotuned stuff, I think, is important. It’s part of the story.

SB: One of the things that’s really impressed me about the music that you’ve recorded is that it up-ends a lot of the narratives that get thrown around the Western music media about West Africa, about Tuareg music. It’s raw and authentic, but it’s raw and authentically auto-tuned.

CK: Right. Right. We’re working with a few dominant narratives. The first is that it’s rebel music and maybe the second one being that it’s just raw guitar music. So, those are two things that I guess we’re working against. When I say we’re working against it, it’s like, it would be nice if there was something else besides that, but you can’t help but show something else besides it because those narratives aren’t really true anymore. As long as we can maintain making a movie that has a certain integrity to what Mdou wants to portray in it, I don’t think we’ll have any problem.

SB: Cool. (laughs) I’m really excited this movie.

CK: I’m excited too. I want to caution that it might not look as good as the trailer. I think we’ve set our bar really high. I mean– it’s going to look good– but, man, I do wake up every morning when I’m packing and preparing for the trip like, “What have I bitten off?” Because working in West Africa, especially in Agadez, the problems you can run into are huge.

SB: Problems like what?

CK: Well, like power outages or gas shortages. Or last time we spent half a day in police headquarters because the police didn’t arrest, but detained us because the rumor was they heard there were Arabs. We were wearing turbans and had light skin. I think it was more that they heard there were Westerners and wanted to check in to see if we were OK or not. But we still had to spend the day in the police station. So, these type of problems are what I’m trying to plan for– the unexpected stuff. It’s difficult enough to shoot a movie here, so to do it over there– it’s going to be an adventure. We’ll see what happens.

SB: Is there going to be performance footage?

CK: Yeah. A lot of performance footage. I want a lot of music to feature predominantly– how people play, like at weddings, but also at these picnics, getting together with friends out in the countryside and playing music, rehearsing at people’s houses– touching on a lot of the normal day-to-day activities.

SB: For Mdou, it’s also an amazing chance to get people to know his story, which is what Purple Rain did for Prince. He wasn’t that well known when he made the movie.

CK: Right. You know, I’m not sure so much about a lot of the facts surrounding Purple Rain, but the idea that I went into it with was that Prince was nobody and then he went and did Purple Rain and became a star. And whether or not that’s true, I think that would be a cool thing to do for Mdou– to push him out into the world, but also secure his place in Niger because Mdou is a really talented musician, but there’s a lot of guitarists in Agadez and in Niger, and a lot of Tuareg guitarists period. So what better way of becoming the top guitarist than making a movie and saying, “This is how Mdou became the number one guitarist in the world.” And then we create that fiction. And there you go.

SB: Is there going to be any rapping? Or is there not much rapping in Agadez?

CK: I don’t know. Maybe. That’s  a good point, so I’m glad you mentioned it to me. I want to leave a lot open for other musicians. I want to feature Mariam Ahmed, the woman guitarist, who I featured on the blog a little while back. I want to have her play some music in the film. And I want any musician who approaches us and says, “I want to be in the movie.” Why not put them in there?

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