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Mamane Barka (1959-2018)

We will always remember Mamane for his warm smile and generous nature, his quiet modesty as the World's only touring biram player and his determination to fulfil the promise he made to his teacher to take his instrument well beyond the borders of Niger. It was an enormous privilege to have represented Mamane, alongside his long-time faithful Griot friend and percussionist Oumarou Adamou, on his much anticipated UK tours. And later with Alhousseini Anivolla and Bammo Agonla from Etran Finatawa in the exclusive collaboration, "The Endless Journey" - their hypnotic musical groove evoking the breathless heat and shimmering horizon of the Sahara, heightened by the electric guitar beloved of Tuareg musicians and the haunting vocals of the Wodaabe. The sight and smell of Mamane brewing his special tea in our kitchen early in the morning will be an everlasting memory of a wonderful man.


In 2002 Mamane Barka embarked on a mission to learn the secrets of the biram, an ancient instrument played by the Boudouma tribe living on the shores of Lake Chad in Niger. Traditionally the exclusive preserve of religious initiates, the five-string harp - not unlike the Malian ngoni - was in grave danger of dying out and its only surviving practitioner was an old man named Boukar Tar.

Mamane got there in the nick of time. Tar died in 2006 but by then had taught his pupil to play the biram, initiated him into the instrument's holy lore and passed on the skills of its construction. "I felt a responsibility to the old man and to his instrument," Barka told Songlines in 2009. "Before he died I promised him I would show the biram to the world and so that's what I must do."

At home in Niamey, capital of Niger, he built the first new biram to be made in decades and found students to play them. On the world stage he performed at WOMAD in 2008 and the following year released the album Introducing Mamane Barka (World Music Network, reviewed in Songlines #61). He also toured with members of Etran Finitawa.

Born into the nomadic Toubou tribe, his death deprives Niger of one of its foremost cultural ambassadors. Fortunately, his missionary work means that the instrument he rescued from near extinction, and its rich and ancient traditions, will continue to live on.

NIGEL WILLIAMSON, Songlines #145.



Mamane Barka (1959-2018)

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