“Unlike the landscape, the people living in the Sahel are anything but homogenous. In every town is another language, culture, tradition, a demonstration of vastness of human complexity… so it goes with the guitar.”
The Sahel is the region in Africa where desert becomes savanna—a scrubby, harsh blur of land that stretches across the entire continent and includes parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria, and to the East, areas in Chad and Sudan. Formal political borders are overwhelmed by the monotonous landscape and, by contrast, the diverse peoples who live in the Sahel, many of whom are nomadic. In the Western part, there is a long history of conflict among the Taureg people, the desert countries’ governments (Mali, in particular), and severe Islamist regimes. This means a history of displacement and uncertainty, diasporas created and then dispersed. In fact, due to a recent outbreak of violence in Northern Mali, the region’s most famous musical event, the Festival Au Desert, has been exiled, reconfigured into travelling caravans rather than the typical gathering in Timbuktu. However, as home studio technology becomes more available in the Western Sahara, this remote region’s complex musical traditions are only becoming richer, but also less far-away and inaccessible to those on the outside.
This post is meant to serve as an AD introduction to a relatively young and exciting label called Sahel Sounds. Began in 2009, it’s part ethnomusicology project worthy of the academy, part DIY label with a patchwork, lo-fi aesthetic, part personal passion project for founder Christopher Kirkley. He’s from Portland, Oregon, but has traveled extensively amongst various townships in the Western Sahel. He operates a travel/mp3 blog as well Sahel Sounds’ bandcamp, where one can stream most of the label’s output and purchase digital and vinyl copies (pressed in tandem with Portland’s own and excellent Mississippi Records).
There’s a wild story here: Kirkley initially set out to capture otherwise undocumented music in the region’s remote settlements—a sort of rogue, Lomax-esque romance. He journeyed around the West African interior with an acoustic guitar and a digital recorder, but his initial success as a documentarian came when he identified a musical community formed through peoples’ cellphones. Kirkley caught a moment in the Sahel where the internet was shitty and computers were uncommon, but many people had cellphones—cheap-o, knock off devices that held pictures, videos, and personal music collections. All sorts of stuff was in there—some American pop, Bollywood hits, Bollywood-inspired tracks from popular Nigerian “Nollywood” movies, music in the Algerian folk style, rai… and, of course, Saharan music. These songs were a dizzying mishmash of traditional desert styles and all sorts of genres from around the world, many self-produced on personal computers with cracked copies of Fruity Loops and Autotune. Despite their popularity, most of their recordings were not commercially available. File sharing happened via Bluetooth (reception isn’t great in the desert), and an “unofficial mp3/cellphone network” formed off the grid. Kirkley traded his own music for the Saharan stuff and compiled a best-of mixtape, Music From Saharan Cellphones, that was widely circulated, remixed, and re-interpreted over the internet. The tape’s popularity sparked the creation of Sahel Sounds to help properly compensate the musicians, and now the label serves as an outlet for the many “field recordings” Kirkley accumulated over the years—Lomax fantasies come true.
The cellphone music network is unique, but Kirkley’s many live recordings of town bands and traveling musicians are just as delightful. Sahel Sounds put out five releases this year alone, mostly comprised of performances set to silicon at Kirkley’s ad hoc studios in peoples’ homes and outside of bars and cafes. Inevitably these tracks will raise questions about authenticity, tradition, trans-national influence and transmission for the performers. They will also highlight Kirkley’s ethics as a foreigner in a culture far removed from his own—as an anthropologist and as businessman. Plus, most of his recordings focus on the specific genre of guitar music (as opposed to say, minimal synth music or that autotuned stuff). But let’s put intrigue before critical complications and enjoy the music: perhaps the best point of entry into this quickly thickening discography is the compilation, Laila Je T’Aime.
The recordings on Laila are rough. The musicians slip up and make mistakes. Noise and chatter creep in the background, but that’s part of the appeal. The offerings are stylistically varied, but the record’s unifying sound is that of the guitar… or of a jerry-rigged, Frankensteined instrument that approximates the guitar. Proper instruments are scare, strings a rare commodity. Judging by the album’s accompanying photos, most of this most music was made on gear that could have been junked from a suburban Guitar Center. Fans of the “desert blues”—that genre made famous by the likes of the Malian master Ali Farka Touré and the Taureg-Berber guitar-posse Tinariwen—will recognize some familiar sounds. But while plenty of Western Saharan guitar music has found its way into international markets, these are folk recordings that are raw, immediate, and most importantly, recent—all from the past few years. Sahel Sounds attempts to represent the everyman musician, the sub-Saharan analogs to garage rockers or folkie troubadours. Even on Kirkley’s end there’s a folk quality that adds to this mystique: his guerilla recording techniques, the pay-as-you-like price, liner notes that blend factual identification in with observations, stories, and memories.
Take “Bamana” by Souleyman Niafounke. It’s a minute and a half long ditty that’s quite a groove. He’s called “Souleyman Niafounke” because Niafounke is the name of the town where Kirkley recorded Souleyman outside of a boutique. A stranger to Kirkley’s friends in town, Souleyman pulled over on his motorcycle just to play this tune… then he promptly got back on his bike and drove off. The engine’s roar is audible throughout the track.
On the other hand, Alkibar Gignor is a popular band in Niafounke. They have a whole album out on Sahel Sounds called La Paix. “Kaounare” is a trance inducing guitar groove accompanied by a scratchy, hypnotic violin sound that’s produced by a single string instrument called the ndjarka, an “instrument said to be capable of invoking mystical djinn.” The skittery attacks on the guitar sound like a serious homage to hometown hero, Ali Farke Touré, but the mood is lightened when a child peeps his high voice over the instruments.
The title track is harder to pin down. “Laila Je T’Aime” is stunning and somber. Lilting arpeggios are clawed out on a tinny guitar. At times it sounds like a stripped down soul number sung in French. The liner notes claim the performer is a foreigner in the town of Kidal, Mali, perhaps from farther south, who identified himself only as “Le Marchand Du Soleil”—the merchant of the sun.
The quote at the top of this piece comes from Laila’s liner notes, and despite the many differences in language, culture, and tradition in the Western Sahara, the guitar has a unifying quality. Consciously or not, it plugs these musicians into some trans-cultural guitarist archetype. It’s a social instrument, relatively accessible to those who want to learn how to play, as well as a malleable folk symbol that can communicate across the various tribes and ethnic groups of the Sahel but also across borders, geographic regions… continents. The treasure here is how diverse and original these tacks sound while having something in common. But then most obviously, there are covers. Consider the final track on Laila Je T’Aime: it’s set to the tune of “Message in a Bottle” by The Police. words/ a spoto