In one of the most memorable scenes from Purple Rain, Prince takes his new-in-town romantic interest for a walk in the Minnesota countryside. As the woman (played by singer and model Apollonia Kotero) opens up about her showbiz dreams, the hero makes her stand scantily clad in the cold, asking her questions like, “Does that turn you on?” When she asks for help, he tells her no – not until she passes an initiation that involves skinny-dipping in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. (He neglects to mention that the body of water that they’re standing next to is not said lake.)
When Christopher Kirkley, an itinerant label owner most often based in Portland, and Mdou Moctar, a Tuareg guitarist whose Auto-Tuned tracks once went viral across the Sahara, decided to adapt Purple Rain and relocate the story in Agadez, Niger, they faced two years of strange hiccups and previously unconsidered questions. Beyond logistical issues, what should they call even call the thing, considering that Tamashek, the Tuareg language, doesn’t include a word for Prince’s signature color? They ultimately settled on Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai: “Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red In It.” (The film opens at the Anthology Film Archives in New York today.)
As far as the Lake Minnetonka scene, the crew had to deal with both Apollonia’s nudity and the fact that Prince is, well, kind of a jerk. “We had to tone that down a lot,” says Kirkley. “We would sit around in the evening talking with Mdou and his friends. Little by little they’d nix ideas, saying, ‘No, we can’t film that.’ Or ‘Oh, we gotta put this in!'”
Kirkley moved to West Africa not long after graduating from Oregon State, where he studied biology and feared that a career in music had passed him by. Landing on an unfamiliar continent, he set about trying to – as he puts – “record something important.” With no contacts, this involved moving from town to town with a guitar of his own. If an artist flagged him down, they’d jam and talk music, usually in French; if he heard a cassette, he’d attempt to track down the player behind it.
Moctar was an exception: As the ex-pat traveled, he repeatedly heard the singer’s blasted-out take on local Tuareg guitar music – the spacey rock fusion of acts like Tinariwen and Bombino – coming through the tinny speakers of Bluetooth-enabled cell phones. “Little by little people are getting more internet access,” Kirkley explains. “But at the time music was traveling around literally by peer-to-peer transfers: Someone would have a song on their phone, take it to another phone, send it. That person would travel on a bus to another town and send it to their friends there. I’ve dropped off music in Niger and found that same song in Mauritania. It had made its way 1000 kilometers.”
Kirkley released his first compilation of music found on such phones in 2010, and in 2013 he approached Moctar with the idea of remaking Purple Rain, a feat of cultural translation that he now describes as a “hair-brained scheme.” Moctar didn’t know much about Prince, but as soon as he watched the movie, he began thinking up ideas. “I picked Mdou because of who he was and how he played and our relationship, that I could sort of joke around with him,” says Kirkley. “And he seemed like he’d be up for the complexities and the problems that we’d encounter.”