NIGER: Houmeissa - Hama
Putting his own spin on both electronic music and the folk traditions of Niger, Hama has created an singular album that is all his own
Niger is often associated musically with the tishoumaren scene (also known as desert blues) that has grown popular especially in the country’s Tuareg communities. Musicians like Bombino, Tinariwen, and Les Filles de Illighadad, all from Niger, are well known for popularising this form of music. Mahamadou Moussa, known by his stage name of Hama, though he is inspired by the music of his home nation, has followed in a very different and much smaller African musical tradition – electronic music. The forefather of African electronic music is often considered to be the Cameroonian musician and author Francis Bebey, and while there is definitely something of Bebey’s influence in Hama’s music, it is very much its own thing. His Bandcamp page mentions the aforementioned Bebey as a key inspiration, listing him alongside the pioneering Nigerien synth maestro Mamman Sani, as well as contemporary Malian hip-hop artist Luka Productions, but even if one were to be familiar with all these artists, there is still something singular and unique about Hama’s debut album Houmeissa. It seems just as inspired by those artists as it does by German electro and krautrock bands like Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk. When listening to Houmeissa, one feels like one is listening to something both familiar and unknown, new and old simultaneously; it is an album out of time.
“Hama is following in the footsteps of musicians who have blazed the trail before him, but his music has something indescribable about it.”
Performed entirely on a Yamaha keyboard, and put together using studio software, Hama reinterpreted many traditional songs from across Niger and the Sahel and repurposed them in an electronic music style. The result is something that sounds like no other album I’ve listened to from this region. The title track is a great example of how this melange of electronic music and traditional Nigerien music mix together. The melody does sound like something you may hear on an album of music from the Sahel, but the transposition of the main melody onto futuristic synths, accompanied by synthetic beats and claps, pumping basslines and sonorous keyboard flourishes, the song is pushed into another realm via the unorthodox and lush instrumentation. Tuareg is another fantastic song, where Hama uses a synth sound akin to an electric guitar, referencing the Tuareg people’s great affinity and skill for making brilliant rock music, but once again, the synth melodies around that feel futuristic and space-age, while also feeling like it’s a retro throwback to the 1980s.
It also has the added benefit of being an album one can listen to passively as well as actively. It is certainly an album that can withstand multiple deep-dive listens, but it is also fun background music you can listen to while working or relaxing. It never comes close to ambient music, it’s far too melodic and up-tempo for that, but the repetitive rhythms and basslines do have a certain propulsive rhythm that allow for that duality.
In Houmeissa, Hama has created some truly fascinating and unique music. You can go through the album and pick apart the songs and look for his influences, but in reality, it is a piece of music to be enjoyed as a whole. To get a feel of the album, I’d say take a listen to the title track or to Tuareg, but I think the best advice is to simply start at Terroir and let the album sweep you up in its flow for 38 minutes. In an age of streaming and singles, this is a real album to be enjoyed as an album. Hama is following in the footsteps of musicians who have blazed the trail before him, but his music has something indescribable about it. On his Bandcamp page the music is described as if it could have come from a “Saharan 1980s sci-fi soundtrack or score to a Tuareg video game”, and while those descriptors are amusing and accurate, it might be more germane to say it’s Hama’s own personal take on African electro, and his own way of interpreting the music of his country and beyond. What makes it more impressive in some ways is that Niger has one of the lowest rates of access to electricity in Africa, with Hama himself even referencing having to make it using the “the spotty electric grid in Niamey”. I hope it is another progenitor, as Hama hopes, of the digital Sahara to come.
All quotes taken from the Bandcamp page for Houmeissa.