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Music Review: Various Performers – Footsteps In Africa – The Soundtrack

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About a month ago I reviewed a DVD, Footsteps In Africa: A Nomadic Journey, which was purportedly a documentary about the Tuareg people of the Northern Sahara desert. However, Kiahkeya, the group responsible for producing the film, didn't just set up cameras and film their subjects like most documentarians, as they had an agenda to promote. The group of "artists" who were responsible for shooting the movie weren't there to report on the living conditions of the Tuareg, or their struggles to hold on to their traditional way of life in the face of encroaching civilization. No they were there to try and capture the "experience" of being a nomad, and to show how the nomadic way of life has something to teach all of us.

The movie was as annoying as it sounds, in that you didn't learn anything about the Tuareg, except a couple of simplistic aphorisms spoken by a couple of members of the older generation about water being power in the desert and the necessity of sharing. Since those responsible for the movie also believed that part of the "secret" of being a nomad was passed down from generation to generation in the music they decided to experience that as well. However instead of merely listening and recording any performances given by the Tuareg and others, they had to participate and instigate what they called "jams". While there was some footage taken at The Festival In The Dessert of Tuareg musicians and dancers, it was hard to tell what was staged for the film and what wasn't.

Now, with the release of the movie's soundtrack, Footsteps In Africa, available as a download through I-Tunes, it's made clear how much of the music in the movie was actually created by Tuareg, and how much was instigated by the movie makers. Aside from two songs by the Tuareg band Tinariwen and a recording of Habib Koite, a Malian musician who is neither a Tuareg nor a nomad, performing at the Festival In The Desert, the rest of the music on the soundtrack disc was either made by a member of movie's crew, Jamshied Sharifi, a new age musician and film score composer or the result of "jams" between members of the production company and various groups of Tuareg.

While the two cuts by Tinariwen, "Assoul" and "Alkhar Dessouf" are as good as usual, and can be heard on the band's own recordings, Koite's recording doesn't do him justice as the sound quality is not very good and his vocals distort. Unfortunately those are the highlights of the disc as the rest of the music is really not that interesting. Sharifi's incidental music for the film was much what you'd expect as it was merely filler. Even when listening to it on the soundtrack I couldn't remember hearing it in the film.

I suppose the film makers wanted to create the impression that they were gathering field recordings of the Tuareg when they recorded the music they refer to as "Jams". Field recordings are just what they imply, recordings of people playing their indigenous music made on location using portable recording equipment. Normally these are made by music historians or anthropologists in order to create an authentic as possible recording for posterity and study. Normally those recording the session do not participate or instigate the performances, but act as passive observers so they can be sure of creating the most accurate record possible.

However that's not the case here, as in each of these "jams" musicians from the folk at Kiahkeya are involved as at least participants, if they didn't instigate them. While there is no doubt that some of what you hear is traditional Tuareg music, there's no proper context for it to tell us what significance the music could have for the people, nor is their any attempt made by those recording it to interpret what, if anything, is the meaning of what is being sung. For instance, what is the significance of the "Red Ladies Tent Jam"? Why is this music important to them? Is there any significance to the fact that the women are playing music together at this location, or is it just where everybody happened to be hanging out when the film makers instigated a performance?

One of the things the people behind the film claim is that within the music of the Tuareg there are messages about humanity's relationship with the earth. The film, and hence the soundtrack as well, are vehicles to allow the message of their music to be heard. Unfortunately neither the film nor the soundtrack give that argument any credence as they don't allow the music of the Tuareg to speak with an unadulterated voice. While it is true that most cultures create music which gives insight into their lives and their history, the soundtrack to the movie Footsteps In Africa, like the movie, speaks with the voice of the film makers, and what they have to say isn't really that interesting.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.