Interview: Hama

27 Mar 2015 — Anaïs Duplan

Throughout our conversation, Hama referred to his synthesizer as a piano. This is telling. The Niamey-based musician insists that his music is, all in all, traditional Nigerien music – despite the futuristic quality that the vibrant synth tones and processed drum-kits lend to Hama’s latest album, Torodi. It’s perhaps this play on the ancient-future that has brought Hama such critical acclaim across The Republic of Niger and the countries that surround it; however, Hama’s music was virtually unheard of in the United States until Sahelsounds, a record label founded by ethnomusicologist Christopher Kirkley, which features the music of 50+ musicians whose music Kirkley came across during his travels in West Africa.

About the futurism of Hama’s Torodi, Kirley says, “I would say it's futuristic in the sense of the innovation, being the first person to do this – programming the traditional rhythms on the drum machine. I don't think he's necessarily composing with that in mind – the songs are really folk guitar songs that he has worked out versions of on the piano.” Hama’s thoughts are similar. He calls his compositions “modifications” on music he has heard and collected over the years, including traditional music, but ranging from contemporary American pop music to Detroit techno.

In many senses, my coming to hear the album at all was a matter of serendipity. “Sahelsounds became a record label by chance,” says Kirkley. “I had lived in West Africa for two years and was back home in Portland. I had a blog, but no intention to turn it into a label. I met the folks at Mississippi Records who suggested releasing a record. After time it's turned into a label, somewhat reluctantly. There's a demand for the music, people in West Africa can get exposure, get paid, and I can finance trips back to West Africa and have a part in releasing what I think is important and overlooked music.”

When I first called Hama, he expressed being quite happy that I’d taken interest in Torodi. I, on the other hand, was surprised to find that no one had yet interviewed him about it. The compositions, to my ear, are significant insofar as they provide a point-of-reference for modern American Afrofuturism. Though I may be alone in drawing such comparisons, when I tune into Hama, I can’t help but hear the synth drums in the intro to Kelela’s track “Cut 4 Me” or certain elements of FlyLo’s “Turkey Dog Coma.” Or even, reaching in a slightly different direction, Phil Cohran’s “The Dogon” from the 2010 album, African Skies.

Hama and I spoke in a mix of French and English, each of us struggling to overcome the language barrier. (As a result, I’ve translated the parts of our conversation that occurred in French into English.) In many ways, it is a conversation I am still processing. I wonder, in particular, whether music can do the work of Afrofuturism without doing so deliberately. I wonder whether it is misguided to hear the future in something that insists that it is, in fact, traditional. Nonetheless, Torodi is an important release for its innovation, regardless of whether that innovation seats itself in the past or in the future.

Read the interview after the break.