Lost in Translation: The Story Behind Making 'Purple Rain' in the Sahara Desert

'Purple Rain in the Sahara' tries to understand America's love of Tuareg music, starting with itself.

Dec 22 2015, 4:10pm

Illustration by Nick Gazin

The windy season was just rolling in when Christopher Kirkley arrived in the city of Agadez in northern Niger in March 2014. Big clouds of dust were coming over the horizon, blotting out the sky and wreaking havoc on his plans. That was just one of his worries.

The 35-year-old Portlander, founder of the record label Sahel Sounds, arrived at this frontier town on the edge of the Sahara Desert in West Africa with a tiny budget and a French cinematographer, Jerome Fino. They were there to shoot Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, a feature film Kirkley dubs “Purple Rain in the Sahara.” He had his star, the Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar, and a local cast and crew to bring his vision to life. But the group was skeptical of Kirkley’s plans.

On set, actors would rewrite lines. They’d balk at doing second takes. They’d even veto scenes outright. One morning, the movie’s co-star—a popular local Tuareg guitarist named Kader Tanoutanoute—simply didn’t show up. The crew needed him for a crucial scene: his big standoff with Moctar, unfolding at a picnic in the countryside. But, as Kirkley recalls, Tanoutanoute had more important things to do that day. Kirkley found him at a local recording studio working on a song for the Prime Minister’s wife, who was coming to town for a visit. Kirkley says he had to beg Tanoutanoute to take a break, giving them just enough time to get the scene in one take.

“I think it’s kind of a miracle that we made a movie out of what we shot,” Kirkley recalls.

It’s not surprising that Kirkley had such a hard time making Akounak. He’s a first-time-filmmaker, but more notably he’s an outsider—a guy from the West traveling in a part of the world where one’s privilege and outsider status invariably shapes all interactions with the locals. Akounak is first and foremost about Moctar and his fellow guitarists. But with its velvet touch, Prince-inspried framework and lo-fi production quality, the movie also says a lot about the relationship these musicians had with Kirkley. The film is a piece of rock star lore, but all the mechanics are plain to see: differing interests, misunderstandings, and cross-cultural exchanges manifest in the movie’s most head-scratching moments. Working with his local cast and crew, Kirkley came up with a delightful but flawed film. It’s a celebration of culture and creativity, counteracting the fear, ignorance, and Islamophobia spread by ISIS and Donald Trump. But it also raises important questions about the politics of myth-making and appropriation, raising issues that have always lurked behind Western representations of the rest of the world.

The original Purple Rain is set in the Minneapolis music scene of the 1980s. By turns raunchy, goofy, sexist, and melodramatic, the movie was a hit when it was first released in 1984, grossing $68.3 million in US theaters. It centers around Prince, referred throughout simply as "The Kid,” who struggles with an abusive father, battles his rival Morris Day and faces down his own personal demons—all while blowing away audiences every week at the First Avenue nightclub. The movie touches on some heavy themes, but is self-aware of its camp and decadence. Today Purple Rain is regarded as a cult classic, beloved for the movie’s swooning, nearly nine-minute title anthem as well as for the Purple One’s own iconic poses and androgynous style.

Akounak is a charmingly low-budget attempt at retrofitting Prince’s movie for the music scene of Agadez. The Tuareg, a semi-nomadic people who make their home in the west-central Sahel and Sahara, are famed for their hypnotic, Jimi Hendrix-influenced guitar music. Moctar is a member of the bustling scene in Agadez, and in Akounak, he, like Prince, plays a mythologized version of himself—a stylish, egotistical rocker eager to find success on the arid plains. The crowds love him, and he strikes up a chaste romance with a young Tuareg woman (played by Ghaicha Ibrahim). However, his father, a pious Muslim, disapproves of his musical pursuits, and a fellow guitarist, the devilishly entertaining Tanoutanoute, is determined to sabotage Moctar’s bid for victory at an upcoming battle-of-the-bands.

Many scenes in Kirkley’s film directly reference Prince’s original; Moctar himself is cast in Prince’s image, albeit in a more Saharan way, with elaborate tagelmust headscarves and a rugged purple motorbike. However, everything else—the storylines, the setting, the dialogue, all in the Tuareg language of Tamashek—is totally different from Prince’s movie. In real life, Moctar doesn’t listen to Prince, nor do many other Nigeriens. His music sounds nothing like Prince’s. The fundamental schism between Prince’s world and Moctar’s is made clear in the title, which means “Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It” in Tamashek—a nod to the fact that the Tuareg actually have no word for “purple” in their native language.

Kirkley says he came up with the idea for Akounak as a joke with a friend while living in Mauritania—a play on the way we often see familiar narratives and constructions in foreign contexts. He decided to run with it because it fits in with Sahel Sounds’ mission.

"While making it I most certainly got back to the roots of the initial joke—the idea that began the whole process," Kirkley explains in an email. "And it's an idea at the center of my work: communication of ideas across cultures. As a Westerner coming to work on a film in Agadez, of course it makes sense that I'm bringing my own cultural ideas, be it film, media, art, whatever—and when I think musical film, I have my own references. By wearing that on the sleeve, I think that became a very self conscious aspect of the process."

All photos courtesty Christopher Kirkley

I’ve been obsessed with Akounak this year. I’ve watched the movie at least half a dozen times, and for the most part I’ve found it to be delightful. Kirkley and cinematographer Jerome Fino, working off a script co-written by Moctar and featuring a local cast of musicians from the city, capture the scene dramas and daily rhythms of Agadez in bold relief. It’s a potent mix of myth-making and “docu-fiction” reality, showing Western audiences a different side of Niger, a poor country that doesn’t usually make headlines unless it’s in reference to drought, uranium or regional conflicts with Boko Haram.

Kirkley says he made his movie in part as a way to dispel some of the tired cliches surrounding Tuareg guitar music. Originally pioneered by bands like Tinariwen in the 1980s and 90s, this hypnotic music—full of loping rhythms, droning chord sequences and poetry centered around the idea of assouf, akin to melancholy or emotional pain–has given a modern voice to the struggles of the Tuareg, whose vast desert homeland in Saharan countries like Mali, Niger and Libya is haunted by political conflict and environmental instability.

The original Tuareg guitarists—like Tinariwen's founder and leader, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib—were exiles and rebels. They picked up guitars and listened to Dire Straits cassettes in the 80s while living in refugee camps and frontier cities; later, after training in Libyan refugee camps, many of them joined other Tuareg men in an armed rebellion against the governments of Mali and Niger. In more recent years, Western journalists have picked up on this intense origin story, bandying-about terms like “desert blues” and “rebel music” in reference to the music. But times have changed. The founding members of Tinariwen long ago put away the guns, and now they’re darlings of the US and European festival circuits. Their success over the years has paved the way for a number of younger Tuareg stars like Omara “Bombino” Moctar (no relation to Mdou), a guitarist from Agadez known for his ecstatic solos and faster style.

“I think that any good musician is simply like a mirror of what surrounds him or her,” Bombino, who recorded his 2013 album Nomad in Nashville with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, says via email. “I have absorbed certain influences in my life that my parent's generation did not, like rock music from the West. Now, after I have toured the world for several years, I notice that my music is becoming more cosmopolitan, in a certain sense. It will involve more arrangements, different sections, and of course more speed and more energy.

I notice of course that young guitarists in Niger are noticing what I do and learning from it. So in the next generation the music will go even further. If the music is good and pure it will grow and change right next to the people making it.”

Moctar, for his part, is basically a pop artist. He’s got a mellow guitar style, and his sweetly evocative lyrics mostly revolve around love. He’s never fought in a rebellion, but he has recorded songs using Auto-Tune. Akounak shows the world he's emerging from, where songs of desert melancholy and talk of rebellion has given way to lighthearted jams and battle-of-the-bands-style competition.

“I just wanted to reflect what I’ve seen, and I think that that Kalashnikov-toting guitarist—it’s not that accurate,” Kirkley says, speaking by phone from his home base in Portland. ”It’s where it came from, but it’s not where it is now, and that’s definitely not where it is in Agadez.”

In Purple Rain, Prince's arch-nemesis is Morris Day, a vainglorious buffoon who guns for Prince's girlfriend, Apollonia Kotero, and undercuts Prince's live show with a much trendier take on 80s funk. In Akounak, Moctar’s rival is Tanoutanoute. The singer's music might be different from Day’s, but he's every bit as egotistical and conniving, flashing a wonderfully devilish smile as he sets his plot against Moctar in motion.

Naturally, Prince's battles with Day reach an explosive and comical climax in Purple Rain, and the same thing happens in Akounak. Only instead of it all going down in an alley behind a nightclub, Moctar's big standoff with Tanoutanoute happens at an afternoon picnic. Though the scene was put together in haste due to Tanoutanoute's busy schedule that day, it’s by far the most entertaining part of the whole movie—a battle of underhanded moves and back-handed compliments unfolding behind a veneer of tea-party etiquette and decorum. As the tension builds, the positive good vibes of a "Kumbaya"-style guitar jam takes on an ugly new tenor. Moctar ends up humiliated, his ego bruised, and then he turns his ire on those closest to him. “You know what’s going on here? I don’t need anybody,” he declares to a bandmate, before dusting off his hands in disgust and tearing off on his purple motorbike.

More than anything, it's this central conflict that gives purpose to Purple Rain as a framework for Kirkley's movie. Like Prince's film, Akounak offers an examination of the nasty ego battles that take hold in a tight-knit music scene. Speaking by phone from his home in Niger, Moctar says that guitarists in Agadez are just as competitive in real life. Borrowing and stealing of each others' songs is common, though Moctar adds that he doesn't have to worry about this, since he’s been getting more famous lately.

"I'm more of a composer, and I have the support of young people, so that's a good thing for me," Moctar says, speaking French through an interpreter. "Right now, I have access to going to a studio to put my songs together. And currently people know if it's one of my songs. Even if you try to steal one of my works, people will understand that it's my song."

Moctar, who was born in 1984 and grew up in the town of Abalak, first got in contact with Kirkley in 2011, and they’ve been working together ever since. In addition to teaming up on Akounak, Kirkley has taken on a management role for Moctar, putting out his music on Sahel Sounds and booking him international tour dates.

“If there's someone who wants to work with you, then you're truly happy,” Moctar says, noting that this would be considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many struggling guitarists in Niger. “There isn’t an artist who doesn't want to be on tour, to be known around the whole world.”

No doubt, Moctar's starring role in Akounak will help him boost his public profile further. Part of the reason Kirkley made it was to offer Moctar a showcase for his talents, and Kirkley does a pretty good job of making Moctar look as “rock star” as possible. Most sensational of all is the closing shot, which captures him in a freeze-frame just as Prince is in Purple Rain: bathed in stage lights, gazing off into the distance.

Kirkley says he didn’t want to make another boring Tuareg guitar documentary. He wanted to make a movie that could appeal to African and Western audiences alike, and wanted to get away from cliché—like the “rebel music” thing.

“It feels a little weird to me to exploit that to sell records,” he says, referring to the “rebel music” tag. “I don’t like the idea of creating myths to sell records. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think we can tell the truth about things and that truth is interesting enough to carry it on its own.”

Yet that’s exactly what he’s doing in Akounak. And ultimately, there’s a limit to what the movie can accomplish. For all of the things that make it wonderful—the music, the shots of the city, the clips of Moctar performing at wedding ceremonies and in shaded rehearsal spaces—the perspective feels myopic. And that goes back to Kirkley’s own Purple Rain conceit: Instead of telling the story straight, he decided to impose his own foreign narrative from the outside. As a result, the movie is heavy on rock star posturing and simple storytelling, but the bigger picture is totally glossed over.

The truth is, Agadez is already a fascinating place. Founded hundreds of years ago, it’s home to diverse ethnic groups, uranium miners, wayward travelers and migrants passing through (some of them embarking on the dangerous trek north to find work in Libya or asylum in Europe). The Tuareg guitar scene there is just the latest example of a tradition of regional cross-cultural exchange that goes back hundreds of years. If today Moctar and his friends swap mp3s over cellphones—which Kirkley documents both in the movie and on previous Sahel Sounds releases—the past saw songs traveling via trans-Saharan camel caravan routes and pilgrimages across the Sahel to Mecca.

“That’s why you see a lot of similarities in the sounds that can travel the trans-Saharan trade,” says Conerly Casey, an associate professor of anthropology at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who has done extensive research in northern Nigeria and Niger. “And this is pre-colonial, right? This is way before the colonial government set up modern states—what is today the state structures that we have. People were moving, going on pilgrimages. There’s also a lot of economic trade back and forth, and of course music is part of that.”


Kirkley started Sahel Sounds in 2009, and his label’s releases underscore the global and regional connections that have been forged out of this desert culture. Bumming around West African frontier cities like Kidal and Agadez, Kirkley has collected field recordings, swapped mp3s with people over cellphone memory cards, and tracked down obscure artists. As a result, he’s offered Western ears exposure to unexpected regional sounds, like Tuareg synth music and Bollywood-influenced, Hausa-language electro-pop. It’s tough to understand why he didn’t take a more straightforward approach with Akounak as well, when the subject of the story itself can stand on its own.

Kirkley’s role as an outsider and lack of understanding of the local scene played into the challenges he came across while making the film. The movie came together in a ten-day shoot. On set one day, he says a cast member refused to do a scene where he goes to a witch doctor to cast a spell on another musician—a practice many local musicians still partake in—worrying that people might take this “docu-fiction” film the wrong way and think he actually did it.

During shoots for another pivotal scene, Moctar refused to raise his voice as he engaged an actor playing his father (who was actually Moctar’s brother, Abdoulaye Souleymane) in an argument. In the movie, the scene is a cruel twist, a career setback for Moctar coming when he’s already been kicked down. But it’s also totally anti-climactic, Moctar addressing his dad in a respectful manner before walking off into the night.

“I was like, ‘Mdou! We gotta do that again,’” Kirkley recalls. But Moctar stood firm. Moctar says it would've been completely unrealistic for a young Tuareg man to blow up at an elder. "You know, that’s the way it is with us here. It's how we're brought up,” he says. “You do not talk back to your parents or cry out.”

The movie could’ve very well ended up as a superficial Sahel Sounds advert, just another pointless project advanced by a hapless Westerner traveling the African continent. But all those awkward moments on screen speak to something genuine about the nature of Kirkley and Moctar’s collaboration. In a way, Kirkley’s clumsy approach feels refreshing. He’s imposing a completely foreign narrative on the guitarists of Agadez, but that imposition is also acknowledged in the movie’s untranslatable title. It serves as meta-commentary: An allusion to Kirkley’s own place in the story, and an acknowledgement that what he’s making is invariably colored by his perspective as a privileged Western outsider.

Still, Kirkley’s movie hits on a central critique that academics and critics have made for years about “curator” types like himself—record label owners, crate-diggers, DJs—who’ve carved out niches for themselves on the African continent. Some, like labels Sublime Frequencies and Awesome Tapes from Africa, have given desired exposure and succes to otherwise obscure artists from Africa and elsewhere. But their work tends to get romanticized, and some critics see the situation in a clearer light. In his 2010 essay “The Scramble for Vinyl,” the DJ and writer Chief Boima Tucker likens “rare-groove” DJs and reissue labels scouring Africa for lost gems to the European and British colonialists who parceled out the continent for themselves back in the 19th century. Chief Tucker points out that while some African artists have benefited from such collaborations, the curators are reaping profits as well. Meanwhile, some of Africa’s biggest genres end up ignored because they’re not as marketable to Western audiences.

“In the past, the tendency was to look for ‘authentic’ music that sounded more ‘traditional,’” Chief Boima writes. “Are they now shying away from things that sound too… African?”

Akounak hasn’t come out in theaters yet. Kirkley says he’s got 700 DVD copies of the movie sitting in his basement, and he’s currently talking to distributors with hopes of setting it up for wide release next year. However, he has been showing the movie at tour stops and screenings across the globe all year. He says the crowd who saw the screening in Agadez enjoyed it, and he’s even gained the approval of Tanoutanoute, the guitarist who skipped out on a shoot because he had more important matters.

"He's fine now. He's happy about the film. He sends me messages on Facebook," Kirkley says.

Akounak isn’t groundbreaking stuff; in some ways it feels like a missed opportunity, a superficial story that could’ve been much more. When it comes to cultural exposure, curators like Kirkley feel increasingly irrelevant, thanks in part to the rise of blogs like Okayafrica and Africa is a Country, and novelists like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. New media outlets and social media venues continue to amplify diverse perspectives in unprecedented ways. Aziz Ansari is challenging Indian stereotypes on his Netflix series Master of None. Trevor Noah, a South African comedian, is now the host of The Daily Show. And as far as recent Saharan cinema goes, Akounak doesn’t hold a candle to Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, a masterful portrait of the jihadi takeover in 2012 of the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu—a movie that’s all about complex character studies and heartbreaking visual poetry.

But Akounak's value is in its imperfections. The lo-fi production, the stilted dialogue, and the awkward moments like the one Moctar has with his dad—all of this helps pull back the curtain on how the “world music” sausage is made when artists are marketed and sold to international audiences. In its own haphazard, self-aware way, the movie reminds us that stories and sounds don’t come magically out of the ether; they’re manufactured, products of savvy curation and marketing. It’s an important message to take to heart, especially considering that American culture tends to be very insular; political decision-makers, cultural creators and consumers often aren’t interested in other parts of the world, unless what’s happening their coincides with our own interests—in which case sometimes our involvement can have disastrous effects. (See: the Iraq war.) If more effort was put into looking beyond the American-centric point of view, thinking critically about the way stories are told and reaching out for new sources of information, that could create the conditions for a wider distribution of diverse viewpoints in art and music, and expand peoples’ compassion and understanding in general. Progress might be happening. But we’re also still being served the same old narratives.

Going forward with Sahel Sounds, Kirkley seems eager to contribute meaningfully to the public discussion—even if it means stepping further into the background.

"I think that the most important thing for me is that Mdou and any musician I work with, that they can just sort of be musicians," he says. "A French musician who plays on tour, they play psychedelic rock in America, they can be a psychedelic rock musician. They don’t have to have a backdrop of the Eiffel Tower and wear a beret. They don’t have to be 'French.' They can just be a musician. And I think the next step… I mean, we’re not there yet, I realize that. [But] it would be encouraging if the musicians from Niger could also be musicians, and not pigeonholed.

"I think it’s part of autonomy," he adds. "I don’t want to look back on the stuff we did 20 years from now, and have people say, ‘That was part of the problem.’"

Peter Holslin is a journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.