Sunday, 21 November 2010

The last master of the Biram

Oh I wish I'd taken a camera.  It's always the way, it didn't even occur to me!  Last night we went to Mount Pleasant Ecological Park to see Mamane Barka play the Biram, the last instrument of it's kind.  If I'm honest I didn't really know what we were going to see, there were free tickets for the children and we just booked it.  But it feels as though we spent an evening in Niger.  Barka spent as much time talking about Niger and the stories around the Biram as he did playing and it was wonderful.

It is a five stringed instrument that is shaped a bit like a boat and comes from a fishing community on lake Chad.  It was played whenever there was sickness or other bad things happening in the village to call for protection from the spirit of the lake.  Barka (who is from a nomadic tribe in the North of Niger) came upon the instrument when he was researching the instruments of his country.  The old man who had the Biram had not played it for fifteen years because the villagers had become (in his words) 'modern' and no longer needed him to play.  As a result there was no-one to take over and when he died that would be the end of the Biram.  Barka was so moved by this that he spent four years finding funding to go and learn from the Biram master.  The old master has died now leaving Barka as the last master of the Biram. 

Barka is touring Europe to talk about the instrument but also to talk about the incredibly rich cultural history of Niger.  He is a fantastic speaker and we all loved it.  We came away wanting to visit Niger and the museum of musical instruments that he and his drummer work for.

His drummer Omar was incredible too, he is a griot which wikipedia describes as a 'repository of oral tradition'.  He played two drums, the douma or talking drum and the calabash below

He played the calabash using his hands and his foot to get different sounds.  While Mamane is an excellent talker and his instrument is interesting because of its history Omar's drumming was just amazing.  I feel as though the children (and us adults) learned so much in those few hours.  Stories of spirits and old ways of living were brought to life.  We all want to go to Niger although he didn't talk about any unrest there.  Failing that perhaps WOMAD next year.

One final thing he told us was that the village where the instrument is from has a market full of fish and the fishermen are not allowed to take money for fish so the people in the village will never go hungry.  Sadly the village he described is a dying way of life.  One where everything is natural and they fish and farm their own food, selling fish outside the village when they need money.  Barka and Omar live in the capital city and do not live such a natural life.  The master of the Biram used to be fed, housed and clothed by the rest of the community because his value was recognised.  The idea of not charging for food in your own community seemed so moral, a community where everyone has their role to play and everyone gets fed. 


  1. Sounds like a wonderful evening, with lots of thinking matter. I love the drums - although it always makes me want to get up and dance :-)

  2. we had to sit on school chairs (not comfortable) and jig in our seats