Behind The Music: Saharan Cellphones Edition

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In July of 2007 I first listened to music on a cellphone. I'd just waited a few hours outside the Apple Store on 14th Street for a chance to buy a state of the art 3G iPhone. (It came out that day.) To me, a guy who had previously filled his pockets with both a flip-phone and a 40GB (sixty pound) iPod, this was the future. I had been waiting for this moment since the first time I saw an iPod. "What if they put a phone inside the iPod? Now THAT would rule," I remember thinking. Little did I know that far, far away, in the middle of the Sahara, people had already taken to using cellphones to both store and transfer media — pictures, songs and movies.

Armchair musicologist Christopher Kirkley noticed the trend and began searching through old cellphones for relics of contemporary culture. What he uncovered was an immense variety of largely self-produced, mostly underground popular music that expressed an extraordinary diversity of musical interest throughout the region. After releasing the songs on a series of unmarked cassettes, Christopher returned to West Africa to meticulously track down the origins of each track — so that he could release the entire compilation on vinyl.  We recently chatted about his experiences and exactly what he found on those cellphones. 

First things first…what first drew you to the Sahara and how did you first encounter jams on cellphones? DId it hit you immediately, or was it a gradual process, one through which, over time, you thought, "Man, I gotta share this stuff"?

I came to the Sahara to work on this independent project studying music and culture of the Sahel through musical field recordings. I eventually ended up in Kidal, a Tuareg town in the North of Mali where I stayed for six months. It's an interesting place, an old city of settled nomads on the trans-saharan route. The pace of life there is slow — much of your time is centered around leisurely drinking tea. Everyone has cellphones that can store and play mp3s with these tiny built in speakers. So we spent a lot of time getting caffeinated and listening to music collections. There was the typical Western pop — Michael Jackson, Akon, Celine Dion. But equally represented were these incredible regional styles of Tuareg guitar, Ivorian dance, Mauritanian synth, Niger Hausa film music, or Bamako Hip Hop. I started to collect the mp3s in the context of documentation and archiving, as a secondary source for study, to analyze and speculate on the bizarre routes of cultural transmission across the Sahara. It was about six months later back in the states that I realized I had this amazing music, much that had never been heard outside of the cellphone network in the Sahara.

Personally, I remember the first time I heard Hamdawa. Can you remember which of these you first came across? Initially what struck you?

One of the first tracks that really stands out is Group Anmataff with their song "Tinariwen" (labeled "Baye - Tinariwen"). I've heard a lot of Tuareg guitar and I was living with a group of guitarists at the time — but this was the first time I'd ever heard a drum machine. The Tuareg folk style guitar uses this ancient drumming rhythm that's supposed to mimic the pace of a camel. It's this kind of looping, hypnotic sound. Apparently these guys got their hands on a Groovebox and programmed the rhythm.

Do you have a particular favorite artist or track showcased on the comp? Or perhaps, one with a unique identity all its own you think embodies something about the project?

I really like Mdou Moctar's "Tahoultine" (labeled "Niger — Autotune"). It's the most insanely prodigious use of autotune, and probably the first time the effect has ever been used in the desert. The track became immensely popular all over West Africa. Kids were listening to it in Nouakchott which is 1,500 miles away. But no one knew who the artist was. Mdou never released his album, but his song was everywhere. Eventually I got a tip from a friend who said that the dialect in the song sounded like someone from Tahoua, Niger and I was able to track Mdou down via random Facebook messages to people who lived in his town. I think it's indicative of the power of this network that music is able to travel over such immense distances and that he attained this anonymous success.

Over the past few years the tapes have made the rounds on the Web. Why finally bring the release to the physical realm?

Ever since I've had these songs I've been looking for the people who wrote them. The compilation was largely anonymous because it had to be; there was nothing to go on. Now that I've tracked them down, it's only appropriate for the artists to get credit and retribution for their work.

A couple of the tracks are listed as "?" — How did you come across these tracks? Have you any idea who they may be from, or where they came from (location wise)? In turn, is there anything you can tell us about the mystery tracks.

There are two tracks on the first cassette that remain unknown. The first is this a guitar instrumental track — definitely Coupé Décalé from Ivory Coast. The other is a Tuareg track which I think is from the 1980s. There's this apocryphal early Tinariwen recording from Abidjan with lots of synth. Maybe it's one of their lost tapes?

Have you done any additional scouring since the first trip?

I recently returned from Nouakchott, Mauritania. One of the newest innovations on the mp3 front has been the establishment of these market stalls that sell individual songs. It's mostly young kids selling the music off old refurbished PCs. You pick a style, and they browse through the songs and you choose the ones you want. It's like walking into a physical version of the iTunes store.

What is the musical climate currently like in that part of the world?

It's a really interesting point in time. While there's been a creeping influence of media from the exterior since colonization it's now a barrage. Although there's nostalgia for certain traditions being lost, the same technologies that permit this global exchange of media allow for the creation of very distinctive and localized cultural products. There's a real explosion in home recording and DIY production. Tuareg kids in Kidal may be listening to American hip hop, but they're making beats in Fruityloops and rapping in Tamashek and sending it out to all of their friends. The music succeeds on the basis of taste. It's pure Darwinian P2P. There's no Clear Channel or homogeneous structures regulating what gets heard. In many ways, it's way more free than the Western model of music consumption.

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