“A revolutionary story of guitars, motorcycles, cell phones – and the music of a new generation” is how director Christopher Kirkley describes his West African re-imagining of Purple Rain. Set in the Saharan city of Agadez in Niger, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (Akounak for short) is a visually sumptuous and musically thrilling movie that works splendidly with or without the Purple Rain mythos. But riffing on Prince’s tale locates Purple Rain’s universal heartbeat.
Like the lone, nameless gunslinger in a Sergio Leone western, the central character in Kirkley’s film, musician Mdou Moctar, travels through the desert with a guitar instead of a rifle or Colt 45. And instead of a horse, he rides a motorcycle… a purple one. The gunslinger analogy is apt because guitar players in Agadez and surrounding areas battle among themselves to gain status as the fastest gun in the west, with six strings replacing six bullets. It’s a rivalry that is rooted in a culture where young men still embrace old school notions of masculinity. The whole cowboy thing has been transposed to musicianship. If wars are to be fought then let the bullets be musical notes.
Moctar is a self-taught guitarist who plays in the Tuareg style of artists like Bombino and Tinariwen. Guitar-driven, rhythmic and often wildly psychedelic, Tuareg music taps into something deep within the listener’s body and soul. It resonates on a higher plane. Moctar’s playing has an almost alchemical effect. It puts me in a zone where magic happens. The fact that this magic is stored and shared on cell phones by West African music fans is a fascinating collision of cultures. In an area where personal computers and high speed internet are scarce to non-existent, cellphones have become the medium through which music is collected and broadcast. Fans swap files wirelessly via Bluetooth. High tech crate digging in a desert as old as time.
Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai translates into English as “Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It,” which is a poetic mouthful. For its theatrical release it’s simply titled Akounak.The combination of Moctar’s live performances, the otherworldly beauty of the Sahara, Jeremy Fino’s luminous cinematography and Kirkley’s intimate and supple style of direction make Anounak one of those rare fictional films about music that has the pulse of real life and the resonance of great art. Additionally, it’s a milestone in that it’s the first fiction film shot in the Tuareg language.
Akounak is the creation of visionaries who are attempting to—in the lyrics of the song “Purple Rain”—“reach out for something new.” In my view, they’ve succeeded. I’ve never seen a movie like Akounak. It’s a revelation.
For more information about Akounak and to purchase the movie’s soundtrack, among many other fabulous West African recordings, visit Sahel Sounds. The site also has Mdou Moctar’s current European touring schedule. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he extends the tour to the USA.
Update: WFMU radio is presenting a screening tonight (Nov. 14) of Akounak. If you live in the Jersey City, NJ area get your tickets here.
Director Christopher Kirkley generously allowed Dangerous Minds to share this clip from Akounak
Photos: Jeremy Fino.