There’s a sound you hear in the desert, a hum that can only be felt in the deepest silence. It is the high tone of vibrating nerves, the rush of blood in the veins. It’s the ultimate beat, the dance of the body itself.
This sound lies behind filmmaker, producer, and former VJ Kathi von Koerber’s three-part exploration of the life, worldview, and creativity of the nomadic Tuareg peoples of the Sahara. Envisioned from the start as a feature-length documentary film and soundtrack, Footsteps in Africa (KiahKeya Productions; 2009) reveals the vibrant cultural life of the world’s most forbidding climate and is coming to select festivals across North America and the world in 2010.
The sounds Von Koerber uncovered deep in the desert find new resonances on re-imagined tracks of Footsteps in Africa Soundtrack: Nomadic Remix (BFM Digital; April 22, 2010). Brought together by producer and conscious compiler Joshua Jacobs of Ambient Groove, DJs from across the planetary dance floor—from the ambient healing of Rara Avis to the worldly downtempo of the Kaya Project, from rising stars like DimmSummer to global remix icons like Cheb i Sabbah—explore the nature of the desert and its unexpectedly global nomadic denizens, with part of the profits going directly back to Tuareg communities.
“In the desert, there are no birds, no trees, just this denseness. You feel an amazing hertz frequency,” von Koerber explains. So she and soundtrack composer Jamshied Sharifi decided they needed to do something innovative. They invited throat singer Benno Klandt to vocalize over the entire film, a subtle sound only audible on a good sound system yet quietly uniting the soundtrack.
This sound, the hidden hum of the desert, was instantly picked up on by dubstepper Solar Lion. He added a sitar and brought the desert buzz front and center on his remix of the film’s “End Titles.” “You listen to this track and all of a sudden, you can hear it,” Von Koerber smiles; “the tone of the desert.”
DJs had unusually rich material to play with as they created their remixes. Von Koerber, in the process of filming and recording, went to festivals throughout the Tuareg region, events where nomads from Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger met and made music together. There, tent jams go on for days on end and put events like Burning Man to shame.
“Westerners gather in mad chaos, but at festivals like the one in Goosi, where some of the tracks were recorded, it’s all about the community, singing together for hours,” von Koerber explains. ”The people who come out live in desert all the time. They hold family and tribal conferences. The music and the gatherings have the intention of promoting exchange and peace at meetings that can’t take place anywhere else.”
In addition to striking on-the-spot recordings, von Koerber enlisted some of the best popular performers from North Africa, such as Moroccan trance legend Hassan Hakmoun. Sharifi, a Persian-American composer with a strong jazz and classical background and an unfailing global ear, brought this varied vibrant soundscape together to support Von Koerber’s vivid images.
The eclectic international approach echoes the Tuaregs’ own distant roots, which stretch back through North African to Spain and Yemen to India, in a centuries-long journey resembling that of the Roma. “If you speak with Tuareg leaders and elders,” Von Koerber notes, “they’ll tell you they came from the east originally.”
Cheb i Sabbah embraces the entire geographic scope of their travels with his artful analog meets digital touch on “Hyena,” while New York global beat masters Nickodemus and EarthRise SoundSystem weave in elements from Asia to Africa. On “Open,” Bombay Dub Orchestra took Hakmoun’s gritty and compelling voice and emphasized its power by bringing in unexpected acoustic instruments like the djembe. “The DJs really felt what needed to happen and what was right for the desert,” von Koerber enthuses. “They took it to a whole new level.”
Von Koerber and her collaborators’ engagement with the stunning sights and sounds of the Sahara stretches into new territory, as well. She, along with groups like Reality Engine (“Tuareg Goosi Jam Audio-Visual Remix”), hope to transform Tuareg tracks into multi-platform creations people can experience live. “I’ve spent a decade creating installations and multi-media presentations,” explains von Koerber. “I’d like to bring that to dancers and listeners, the images and animation that emphasize the message of the music and the film.”
Water and music often intertwine in Tuareg proverbs and songs. As von Koerber puts it, “Water gives life to the body, as music gives life to the soul.” To honor this understanding, fifteen percent of all profits from the remix album will be returned to the community, to support clean water projects. “I wanted to bring the film back to them,” Von Koerber reflects. “It’s their voice, words and thoughts translated. The music and film are representations of them, and I wanted to give back.”
Instead of simply writing a check to charity, von Koerber is using her close ties to Tuareg community leaders to improve wells and purchase covers and new pumping systems as part of the Nomadic Villagers Clean Water Awareness Fund. This collaborative charitable initiative between KiahKeya Productions, the Indigenous Cultural Educational Center, and local Tuareg leaders featured in the film will make simple yet vital changes to improve daily life, yet not alter it radically from its traditional nomad roots.
Along with helping the bold and hardy people who captured her imagination years ago as she backpacked through her native Africa, von Koerber, herself a global trans-cultural nomad, feels the Tuareg have something valuable to give the world. “The Tuareg are nomads, and freedom is their music,” muses von Koerber. “The album awakens you to the nomad in every one of us. It brings you to that joy you feel in the desert, by getting you out on the dance floor. That joy is like water: we all need it.”