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The Prince of Agadez

Agadez, Niger

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Writer John Burns Photographer Jerome Fino

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Prince’s cult classic rock-u-drama ‘Purple Rain’ is getting a Tuareg makeover in the Saharan desert

‘I think it would be safe to say that no one had ever seen “Purple Rain,”’ says director Christopher Kirkley of the cast of his new film, ‘Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai’.

The desert setting of Agadez may not seem to have much in common with the 1984 cult classic ‘Purple Rain’, the film debut and seminal rock-u-drama of musician Prince. The dusty grid of alleyways that crisscross the city’s mudbrick low-rises appears at odds with the smoke-screened, slick city streets of Prince’s downtown Minneapolis.

Kirkley disagrees. Distortedly translated from Tamasheq as ‘Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It’, the director’s Tuareg remake sees Prince’s ‘against all odds’ plot transplanted to a modern day Agadez.

“Sensational projects that lend themselves to brief soundbites are more likely to flow in a culture of 140 characters”

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“We’re trying to make a film that resonates with the Tuareg community in Agadez for some reasons, and attracts foreign audiences for others”

‘Beside the fact that “Purple Rain” is stylistically amazing, it’s also a very universal story. It’s Joseph Campbell's hero as guitar player. The idea of a remake was really this challenge – would the universal story really be universal, could it be translated into another culture, and as such, by following this path, would it become a successful film in West Africa?’ he muses.

Kirkley is the founder of Sahel Sounds, a blog turned record label documenting the music and cultural phenomena of West Africa. His most popular imprint so far has been ‘Music from Saharan Cellphones’ – a compilation of Ivorian club jams, Mauritanian synth and Malian hip hop electro that circulated the Sahara desert through mp3s stored and played on cellphones, and traded via Bluetooth transfers. ‘At the core of my project is to present cultural projects that are both fascinating on their own, but that also reveal a larger story,’ he explains.

One of the standout tracks is Mdou Moctar’s ‘Tahoultine’ – a looping, simple Tuareg guitar refrain overlaid with Moctar’s auto-tuned vocals – which fast became an underground anthem. For Kirkley, Moctar was the perfect fit as the Saharan incarnation of Prince’s starring role, ‘The Kid’.

‘I knew that this type of work would be frustrating and difficult, so I needed someone who I could really collaborate with, not just a musician. I was already working with Mdou, and he’s such a strong guitarist. But he’s also a friend. We have a certain understanding with one another, we joke around.’

Mdou, originally from Abalak in the Azawagh desert of Niger, taught himself the guitar at a young age on a homemade instrument. Much like the stories of other musicians in Niger and Mali, his rise through the Saharan ranks to a status of local celebrity echoed The Kid’s plight in Minneapolis.

‘I hadn’t seen “Purple Rain” before I met Christopher. I like Prince’s music a lot now, very much, and his story too. It’s almost the same as mine, but I helped Christopher change some things to make the story relevant to Agadez,’ says Moctar.

As the film’s trailer proclaims, ‘guitar is king’ in Agadez – the de facto music of the desert – and to get to the top of the game is a lucrative opportunity. Most musicians in the city earn their money from playing weddings. ‘They can earn a successful living from this – far beyond what they earn from international touring. Once an artist becomes fashionable, they can ride out that popularity,’ Kirkley explains.

But it’s no mean feat: success in the Tuareg music scene means becoming the most sought after artist, securing all of the contracts and playing at every wedding. ‘Competition brings in all the nasty strategies, like stealing songs, showing up other musicians, breaking equipment, etc. I feel like we just barely dug into this in the film,’ Kirkley says.

In fact, the competition inherent in the local guitar scene threatened the reality of the film itself. ‘Other guitarists refused to take part, because they thought it would elevate Mdou’s status. Some even went as far as to sabotage some of our scenes, or so it was suspected!’

Neither Kirkley nor Moctar had any prior experience making fictional film. ‘It’s the first time I’ve ever acted,’ explains Moctar. Kirkley wrote the script via a few books on screenwriting and Wikipedia (‘It was a real blunt force approach’), and consulted Moctar, the local crew and actors afterwards in order to keep the film locally relevant: ‘Anything in the story that didn’t make sense, Mdou was quick to veto and change.’

Jerome Fino, who had met Kirkley in Marseilles as part of the musical collective L’improbable, joined the project, translating the script into French and acting as the director of photography, editor and, he says, ‘coffee maker’. ‘The idea is just crazy. But, coming from a record label, this re-adaptation makes sense – a perfect pretext to make a fictional film about music.’

In execution, Fino and Kirkley adapted techniques from the Poverty Row, Italian neo-realism and the experimental films of Jean Rouch, in particular ‘Moi, un noir’. ‘I think that the harsh realities of Niger are always there throughout the story. We didn’t have to try to focus on them for it to keep appearing. Many of the local crew would have preferred to shoot “prettier” things, but I wanted to keep it framed in real Agadez,’ explains Kirkley.

‘Purple Rain’ was, of course, a reference point throughout the whole process, revisited frequently to keep it fresh in everyone’s mind as a template. ‘We brought a copy to Agadez. I was worried that parts of the film would be too shocking, but then remembered that everyone has Arab satellite TV stations and is regularly watching the latest Hollywood trash. I mean, I watched “Saw IV” in Kidal,’ Kirkley says.

‘Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai’ was fully funded by small pledges donated to the project’s Kickstarter campaign. The goal was reached in just one week. ‘Of course, a lot of the appeal of the project was the “Purple Rain” element. There’s something sensational about it. Sensational projects that lend themselves to brief sound bites are more likely to flow in a culture of 140 characters,’ he says.

But the film runs deeper than its blogosphere-ready voxpops. ‘We’re trying to make a film that can exist in both places – a film that resonates with the Tuareg community in Agadez for some reasons, and attracts foreign audiences for others – all the while appealing to a universally shared concept of storytelling.’

‘Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai’ will eventually be released via screenings, DVDs and digital downloads across the world. But what the team is most excited about is how it will play in the Sahara.

‘We’re launching a campaign for the movie in Niger,’ says Kirkley. ‘Using some of my contacts in Kano, Nigeria, which heads up the Hausa film industry, we’re going to churn out thousands of cheap DVDs and film posters and distribute all over West Africa.’

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