It was a Yamaha PSR-64, bought with a loan from his boss, that changed the life of a young Niger-born boy named Mouhamadou Moussa and set him on his musical journey.
In 2004, he borrowed money from the man he worked for at the time to buy the “Oriental Arabic Irani Turkish” keyboard, which allowed him to play Arabic scales or quarter tones.
Today, fans around the world listen to Moussa’s music, although he is better known to them as Hama, or Hama Techno. And his new album indicates he is no longer content with being mostly famous in the Sahel region of West Africa but ready to take over the world.
Released on 18 January, four years to the day after his debut, Hama is back with a breathtaking new album titled Houmeissa.
Imagine if mid-1990s techno masterpieces like Carl Craig’s Landcruising and Robert Hood’s Minimal Nation were born not in Detroit, but on the streets of Niger’s capital, Niamey. And that they didn’t draw on Detroit’s first wave of techno for influence – itself inspired by disco and electro – but on Haitian zouk, Tuareg guitar, Nigerian hip-hop, videogame scores and sci-fi soundtracks. That’s about as close as you can get to describing Hama’s new album.
He tells New Frame that his first musical inspiration was 1990s techno. But his electronic sound is hardly derivative, it’s a new mutant hybrid that seems to have emerged into the world fully formed.
He says fans hear all kinds of influences in his music, some that are there, some that are not. “Everyone has their own manner of thinking,” he says. “It depends on what you hear in the music.”
The new album
Opener Terroir is the first hint that Hama has moved on substantially in the four years since Torodi. Ambient swirling synths, menacing growls and banging techno beats combine effortlessly.
Dounia flutters into life with echoing ambient keys and sweeping synths, later joined by a beat that has a mutant dancehall swagger.
It’s way more subtle than Terroir, coming across like a hybrid of Bristol’s 1990s dub-inflected trip-hop and London’s more recent instrumental grime scene.
Touareg sounds like an early Italian house track, a genre to which Hama admits being partial.
It’s a cosmic, glitter-balled wonder that has melodies straight from the streets of mid-1990s Detroit.
The remix of Takamba, meanwhile, takes the original’s techno leanings and mutates them into a dubby dance floor filler.
It’s clear that Hama is part of an African electronic music lineage that includes Nigerien Mamman Sani, Cameroonian Francis Bebey and Algerian Ahmed Malek.
Sani’s hypnotic, late 1970s, organ-driven compositions have been released on Hama’s label, Sahel Sounds, while Bebey’s proto-electronic songs have been compiled by Born Bad Records and Malek’s previously unreleased Arabic soundscapes have seen the light of day thanks to Habibi Funk Records.
From a more global perspective, Hama is part of a long lineage that includes German funk robots Kraftwerk to Detroit techno originator Juan Atkins.
From a contemporary perspective, his compositions sit snuggly alongside the electro house of South Africa’s Aero Manyelo and Portugal’s Príncipe Discos label, whose young roster of producers take inspiration from Angolan rhythms to create weapons-grade dancefloor bangers.
Hama’s Houmeissa is a fascinating new hybrid in the world of electronic music that deserves its spot up there with the best.
It was the same Yamaha keyboard Hama bought as a boy that he used to record his debut album, Torodi, which was released globally in 2015.
To be accurate, though, the songs on Torodi were not Hama’s first compositions.
As his record label Sahel Sounds wrote in 2015, “his music has enjoyed wide acclaim throughout the country through his underground releases of unlabelled digital recordings on memory cards”.
Bluetooth transfers were another way his music spread in the Sahel region.
He would later tell a journalist that he recorded Torodi in 2002 and, in between that and its global release in 2015, he recorded another 10 albums.
Meanwhile, in the 13 years since Hama recorded his debut album, it had spread as far as Algeria, Libya and Mali as an unlabelled digital recording. The rest of the world had to wait until 2015.
Torodi stood out among Sahel Sounds’ releases, with its white cover featuring a long road of keyboard keys, a tattooed hand in the foreground, and a camel and palm tree in the background.
It wasn’t just the artwork, though.
Rooted in folk
Opening track Ataraghine delivered a Tuareg guitar riff synth-style, which rode upon an intense, ever-present bass rhythm and some extremely processed drums, interlocking to give the song its momentum, that famous Sahel shuffle.
The album was mesmerising stuff, earning reviews in music publications such as The Wire, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.
Looking back on those days, Hama hadn’t been expecting such a positive reaction to his debut album. “I was really surprised,” he says.
Hama says the reason his songs appealed to the people of the Sahel was because they already sounded familiar, as they were rooted in Nigerien folk music. Whether a nomadic herding ballad, an ancient caravan song or a ceremonial wedding chant, all were fair game to him.
The title track for Torodi was a popular song in his family’s village, originally played on a string instrument called a tehardine.
At the time Hama’s debut album was released, Sahel Sounds label boss Christopher Kirkley said his compositions were “futuristic” in the sense of the “innovation” involved, but that the songs were really folk songs that he reworked on the synthesiser.
Hama says he would take a melody from a Haitian zouk song or a guitar riff from a Tuareg desert blues song as his inspiration and then play it on the keyboard.
But he admits his inspiration was not always traditional. Sometimes a melody might be drawn from a Nigerian hip-hop track or a 1990s Detroit techno banger, to which he also listens.
“Techno, rap, zouk, traditional… I have it all in my head,” he told Berlin-based website No Fear of Pop in 2015.
Next come the beats, crafted on his computer. By the time he’s done, he has created something new: electronic renderings of traditional desert folk songs that he calls “modifications”.
“I can listen to any type of music,” he says. “I take what I like from it and make my own song.”
“But it has nothing to do with the original then. It’s my own modification and it becomes its own thing.”
Hama says he created Houmeissa using only a laptop and Fruity Loops production software (now known as FL Studio), a mode of working he adopted in 2008.
His Yamaha PSR-64 is no longer around, he says. It was destroyed in a house fire that started by accident.
He is still on the lookout for a replacement Yamaha PSR-64, with Kirkley pursuing a lead that there may be some such keyboards in Turkey.
When asked if there is any chance of catching him on stage in South Africa soon, Hama says he would love that opportunity.
“I work all the time,” he says. “I work hard, so I always have hope.”