Mammane Sanni Abdoulaye is an iconic musician from Niger who reimagined his country's folkloric musical traditions through his electronic organ and established himself as a historical innovator of Taureg culture.
Known for his expressive and dreamlike keyboard riffs, he weaves unmistakable tapestries of free flowing and mind expanding composition with a refined simplicity is immediately recognisable - even without vocals - conveys directly the heartfelt narratives of the places and people he encountered.
Sani was aware that he grew up in a privileged position: his father was a librarian at the American Cultural Centre in Niger, and his grandfather was a Colonel during the first world war. As a result, he spent his young adulthood as a tributary for UNESCO, travelling to Europe and Japan, and encountering a world of variety which inspired his sonic landscapes.
During one of his UNESCO trips, Sani fell in love with the warm sounds of a 1970's Italian Orlo organ owned by a fellow delegate from Rwanda. He convinced the delegate to sell it to him, which would mark the earnest start of his musical journey - one that is indelibly linked to the instrument. Sani believes that at the time, it may have been the first of its kind of electric keyboard in the whole of Niger.
Sani's music has grown popular in Niger since his debut release in the late 70's, and now has found a contemporary global audience through the record label Sahel Sounds. As their website explains: "Sahel Sounds is a recording project and vinyl record label focused on culture in the West African Sahel... [it] began as a blog by founder Christopher Kirkley in 2009 to share field recordings. Today, it is a record label, artist collective, film production house, and arts organization."
In an interview with Sahel Sounds' founder Christopher Kirkley, Sani describes his first intentions to reimagine the folk music of his youth: “I wanted to make the Wodaabe songs on the keyboard, make the Tuareg tendé with the rhythm".
Sani would go on to make a track-list containing a fusion of remixed traditional tracks and inspired original compositions. In this way, folk melodies familiar to his home crowd would be unapologetically presented through unique interpretations on his trusty organ - interspersed with the creative flair of a brand new style of music, they became an instant classic. Sani is so unique and important, not only stylistically, but through demonstrating the careful balancing of preserving ancient tradition, and radical innovation.
His first and only studio album, Taarit, was recorded in 1978. Sani showed up to Niger's National Radio with his trusty organ and recorded it in just two takes. The Minister of Culture co-ordinated with a Nigerian distributor to release the music to the public - which despite being nationally famous in Niger to this day, used in countless adverts and TV shows - didn't go to plan and only around 100 original tapes were made. Sani has one, and 99 lucky individuals have the rest.
"In Niger we have sweet melodies. When the music is good, it's a positive vibration. When someone can cry because of a melody, there is something humane in them. If you are stressed, you can take this music like a tablet. It's music to cool down. It's not music for dancing, but maybe it can make you dream."
Sani even had a TV show on Niger television for a while, and despite being hard to find in national archives and on youtube, Sahel Sounds unearthed and uploaded a short clip of one of his most popular tracks 'Sulamatu' - a love song dedicated to his partner at the time.
You can find out more about their work at: www.sahelsounds.com
Mamman Sani's work can be found on his bandcamp: mammansani.bandcamp.com
words by Leo Russo