Review of Christopher Kirkley’s AkounakTedalatTahaTazoughai

By Ryan Skinner

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The first shot of the film AkounakTedalatTahaTazoughai is an image of the sun hanging over the city of Agadez in central Niger, its late-afternoon light filtered through a haze of smoke, dust, and Saharan sand. The first words are from a local radio announcer, talking about “peace, music, and the guitarists of Agadez,” his speech filtered through the lo-fi speakers of portable stereos.

Interspersed among the opening credits (written in Tamajeq using theNeo-Tifinaghscript)are a series of short scenes, depicting public and private life in this city on the northern fringes of the Sahel. As people dressand merchants sell their wares, we hear the syncopated pulse of a drum machine accompanied by the winding melodies and drone of a guitar—the telltale, if unadorned sounds of Tuaregpopular music.

Scenes continue. A stage is set. People are dressing up to go out. Headscarves are carefully wrapped. A cellphone is answered. What band was that on the television? A man rides a motorbike over broken asphalt. An audience gathers.A veiled man steps through a curtain of smoke, guitar in hand. The title appears, written in a jagged purple font: “Rain the Color of Blue with a little Red in it.”

For those raised in (or with nostalgia for) the U.S. during the 1980s, this should look very familiar.

The band on the television?Prince and the Revolution.The veiled guitarist?Agadez-based musicianMdouMoctar.The film? Christopher Kirkley’s contemporary West Africanhomage to Albert Magnoli’s 1984 American cult classic, Purple Rain.

It is an homage that, from the start, insinuates contradiction. Both the Tamajeq translation of “purple” and the idea of “rain” in central Niger’s hot and dry landscape suggest a very different context to Kirkley’s sub-Saharantake on the “universal story” of an artist trying to make it in the music business “against all odds.”

Yet, the apparent differences also highlight significant parallels.

Kirkley, who curates and administers the blog and record label Sahel Sounds, is particularly interested in the way technology, old and new, mediates musical experience. The unreleased tracks circulating on cellphones via Bluetooth in the Agadez art world echo the playback of demo recordings on cassette tape in the bygone Minneapolis music scene. And when MdouMoctar finds a collection of his father’s poetry in an old leather-bound notebook, while Prince discovers a trove of his old man’s sheet music in a discarded chest, we are reminded of the way (some) technologies persist, only to be repurposed, remediated, and resignified.

Both films also capture a particular sense of place. For Kirkley, it is the tensions of everyday life in the Sahel that come into focus. There, we discover the bustling, if precarious marketplace of Agadez on the rugged, if pastoral frontier of the Sahara. It is a world both beautiful and brutal, not unlike the late-industrial-yet-bucolic Minnesota portrayed in Purple Rain.

And, both films deal with the nature of the music business in these respective places. Of particular note are the venues that stand at the center of themusical dramas. In Minneapolis, the legendary club First Avenue represents the winner-take-all stepping-stone-to-fame inReagan’s neoliberal culture economy. While in Agadez, the Alliance Françaiseclub locale suggeststhe enduringinfluence of a (post)colonial presence in (French) West Africa.

What is missing from Kirkley’s cinematic reflection on the social and musical life of the Sahel is some sense of the stakes involved in the region’s current geopolitics; of an increased foreignmilitary presence and security apparatus alongside the flourishing local, regional, and transnational militias, parastatal organizations, and shadow economies along the Saharan borderlands.

There are hints.“The smugglers in Niger are in peace,” sings Kader Tanoutanoute, who plays MdouMoctar’s musical rival.Who are these smugglers? What (or who) are they smuggling? Of what does this peace consist? And how long will it last?

There is also Mdou Moctar’s father (portrayed in the film by Abdoulaye Souleymane), whose (initially) stark religious conservatism and damning indictments of musicians recall the Islamist crackdown on popular culture (and music in particular) during the 2012-13 crisis in neighboring Mali (the subject of two other recently released films: Johanna Schwartz’s documentaryThey Will Have To Kill Us First and AberrhamaneSissako’s feature Timbuktu).

This is perhaps where the narrative homage to Purple Rain’s now thoroughly clichéd musical parable gets the better of Kirkley’s screenplay; that the artist must ultimately confront his demons, win the contest, and, yes, get the girl in the end. It makes for a happy ending, but with an anxious ellipsis…

This does not, however, detract from the visual and musical beauty of “Rain the Color of Blue with a little Red in it.” More than a mere homage, the film is a loving portrayal of a music culture and social space that Kirkley clearly knows well, portrayed by actors who are local to the film’s setting and sounds; whose fictional lives and music are no less real.

Ryan Skinner is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at the Ohio State University and is currently a guest researcher in the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at Uppsala University (2015-16). He is the author of the book, Bamako Sounds: The Afropolitan Ethics of Malian Music (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).