Mamane Barka started his professional life as a teenage schoolteacher, then a teenage headmaster—he was sixteen—then a musician, a player of a two-stringed, skinny-necked, banjo-like, plucked instrument called the gurumi, a native of his native Niger. Over two decades he built up a repertoire of more than 200 gurumi songs, making a name for himself in Niger and neighbouring Nigeria. It was as a gurami player that he performed for the first time outside Africa, in Pyongyang, where, he noted, the streets were very clean. And it was as a gurumi player that he released his first international album, Guidan Haya, which came out last year through Beauty Saloon Music.
In 2002 Barka decided to pursue an additional instrument, the biram, and this is where the story of Introducing Mamane Barka begins. Mastery of the biram is an endangered art. That is what the album blurb tells us, and I can’t find anything anywhere that contradicts it. To learn this instrument he travelled to Lake Chad and apprenticed himself to the single remaining biram expert, a man named Boukar Tar. Tar died before Introducing Mamane Barka was released, meaning that World Music Network can legitimately describe their musician as the “lone master of the biram.” They’ve not just nabbed any old biram player, they tell us, they’ve nabbed the only good one.
A biram looks like a small canoe with hide stretched and bound over the top. The instrument’s five strings are attached to a point at the centre of this canoe and radiate outward like a triangular sail fastened to a ‘mast’ that comes out of the prow of the boat and moves up and back with a curve. Barka’s homepage points out that the group this instrument belongs to, the Boudouma or Buduma, are “fishing nomads,” and it likens the shape of the biram to that of the shallow, narrow boat known as the pirogue. The noise it makes is not strong, not high, and not deep. If you had to pick a human voice to compare it to you might choose an alto. Like an acoustic guitar it has a nice woody twang, a burring texture that hangs in the air around each note.
On Introducing, as on Guidan Haya, Barka is accompanied by his longtime percussionist friend Oumarou Adamou. Their partnership is so tight that the album could equally be called Introducing Mamane Barka and Oumarou Adamou. There are times when the drums seem willing to take over completely. Adamou kicks and rolls, Barka responds with a cataract of notes, Adamou finds a new roll, Barka gives the same notes again, and the two of them tangle together like a big ball of string. The sound of it, the extended pattern-making, Barka’s half-chanting singing, all of this belongs to the same family as the folk music that Tinariwen and the other electric Saharan bands draw on, the low, lazy style that is likened to blues.
With only two musicians taking up most of the album, the sound here has an unadorned feel that puts it somewhere between a studio piece and a field recording. It should not, however, be mistaken for a purely traditional album, in spite of the promotional photographs that show Barka and Adamou sitting by Lake Chad in robes, staring at the naked landscape as if they’ve never been anywhere else in their lives. The swizzle of electric guitar in “Kiota” is enough to suggest that the success of the desert-blues bands has not gone unnoticed, and Adamou’s drumming seems to have been informed by African music that has bounced over to the Americas and bounced back in a more commercial shape. The noise he makes about two minutes and twenty seconds into “Doro Lelewa” has nothing field-recordingish about it.
If you want a biram album then this is obviously the one to buy. It’s not as if you’ve got much choice. It’s a good recording in its own right, too, quite apart from the whole “lone master of the biram” thing. Barka has tweaked the traditional sound of the area but it’s essentially undamaged. He keeps that sense of a long dance, or of a gathering of singing people with hours of spare time. The result might sometimes seem too long, too repetitive, but if you’ve been listening to some of the more commercial albums from the Sahara area, and you want something stripped-back without being a field recording—though if you do want a field recording then the Institut Du Monde Arabe series might be the place to start looking—then Introducing Mamane Barka is worth investigating.