What first caught my attention about director Christopher Kirkley’s film Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (2015) was the English translation of its title: Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red In It. The flow and phrasing of the words is so beautiful and poetic that I had to stop and take a closer look. It turns out that the title is a translation of Purple Rain, and the film is a very loose adaptation of Prince’s rock opera. It stars Nigerien musician Mdou Moctar, and it is the first full-length film shot entirely in the Tuareg language, a language that does not have a word for the color of purple.
While I am certainly a fan of Purple Rain (1984), as indicated in the tribute I wrote about the film upon the death of Prince, the relation to the Prince film is not what caught my attention. I was attracted to this film because of its montage of cultures – the combination of traditional nomadic people of the Sahara playing rock music modeled after an American pop idol in the beautifully desolate desert. The multiple intersections and tensions between traditional Berber culture and American pop culture stitched together through music seemed like it would offer a fantastically embroidered cinematic quilt (like the title suggests). This is what made me absolutely not miss this film on the one and only night it screened in Tucson.
The film is as sparsely beautiful and poetic as the translated title suggests. Though it does have a story arc in which Mdou Moctar devotes his heart and life to his music, navigates the tender terrain of love, and confronts generational cultural conflict with his father, the film also weaves seamlessly between scenes as if the film’s loose story is a piece of red thread sewing itself through a swath of blue, creating a new vision of purple and of rock guitar. While Mdou Moctar is the central figure riding through the film on a pieced together purple motorcycle with his guitar on his back, he is also always part of the larger Tuareg community, and in particular the music community which focuses on guitar and electronic music sharing through cell phones.
Mdou is always floating within multiple worlds: the one inside his own head and musical heart; the traditional world of his culture and his father; his relationship with his girlfriend; and his place in the larger guitar scene in his community. The guitar and music sharing culture is vibrant and vital to the life of young people living in Niger and whose sole outlet for expression and connection is music. They have adopted electric guitar and used it to mesh traditional music with contemporary global expression into a uniquely vibrant rock that sounds like Jimi Hendrix playing sitar through the warm hum of a stack of tube amps. They then share the music freely through cell phones, bypassing the market that creates pop stars. The Tuareg guitar sound represents an incredible mash-up of culture and music.
It makes sense that blue is featured in the title rather than purple. The most notable symbol of the Tuareg people is the often indigo blue-colored veil called Alasho which protects their faces from the ever blowing Saharan dust and also is known to dye human skin blue. So the people literally become blue sometimes with a little red in them. In the film, Mdou Moctar’s veil is blue with a little red, as is his robe, and his motorcycle. He is beautifully surreal in his shimmering purple attire and his classic black and white American Fender Stratocaster as he rolls through the film with motorbike and guitar wanting nothing more than to bring his songs to life.
The cinematography operates like a quiet song. The barren desert landscape is painted with the bright colors of clothing and buildings. The film was a very low budget project in which everyone pulled together to create a beautiful DIY object. Director Christopher Kirkley says: “The overall project was really a collaborative piece. I’m the director of the film only because I was the only one willing to take on that role. All of us on the team did everything, picking up food, driving cars, painting the motorcycles, making tea, holding booms, organizing crowds. Every aspect was shared, and it’s reflected in the final film.”
All elements of the film resonate with creative collaboration. The young musicians ride motorcycles which are quietly rugged, patched together with duct tape, spray paint, and spare parts. The motorbikes are nameless nomads in their own right, pieced together from scraps with no name to contain them, yet they are strong; they run; they have integrity, and they purr, just like the guitars their riders play.
Guitar and song ripple through the film in waves of sound color, a merging of American rock with traditional Native music. Mdou pulls solos from his Strat with the assured sincerity of Hendrix but also with a thread of honor for the culture from which he comes. The music is also a mash-up, being distinctly Tuareg while also possessing the heart-penetrating purity of rock n roll. Even if the film didn’t have subtitles, we would be able to understand what it is saying because it speaks through the universal language of music, and through that language we feel Mdou’s passion and struggles.
Tradition and conflict do not come in the form of the Bible reciting drunken father we see in the original Prince film, but rather in the form of a white-robed religious conservative father. In a very quiet scene, Mdou returns home to find his guitar missing. He walks out into the desert and spots flames in the distance. He moves closer to discover that his father is burning the guitar which, to his father, is a symbol of cultural and religious corruption. We quietly watch with Mdou as the instrument that gives him freedom goes up in flames and sparks fly off into the night. It is the quietness of the scene that is so effective. We feel Mdou’s loss but also the painful struggle between the old and the new, between religious tradition and the sincerity of creative expression.
When Mdou discovers his father’s poetry, it is like he is unearthing magic relics. The Tuareg language is written in beautiful hieroglyphics, symbols that resonate with poetry and art. Mdou’s girlfriend gives him a new Strat as a gift, and Mdou translates his father’s poetry into a song that he performs at a local “battle of the bands” type contest after one of his original songs is stolen. Through Mdou’s song – his rock guitar playing merged with his father’s words written in the traditional Tuareg language and form – the young musician bridges the gap between generations and the clashes between cultures in a song that literally feels like it could move the earth along with our hearts.
In the final scene, worlds, generations, and cultures are joined through music in a utopian moment that shows that art still has the ability to transcend and even resolve struggle and conflict. Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai may be the first film shot in the Tuareg language, but it is a universal story that can be understood by anyone and tells a tale we all need to be reminded of. To your own heart be true, especially when picking up a guitar, plugging it into an amp, and letting your feelings hum without censorship or barriers. Music is a language we can all speak. It can bridge cultures and conflict. It can lead us through the desert and bring us to a place where we can dance together in rain the color of blue with a little red in it.