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Sahel Sounds: Music from 21st-Century West Africa

Vendredi, 19 Février, 2016 - 13:37

Sahel Sounds: Music from 21st-Century West Africa

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Ecoutes Au Vert / Genève / Aventures sonores au grand air! / Sahel Sounds: Music from 21st-Century West Africa / 1475410733

Sahel Sounds’ Christopher Kirkley is a label owner like many before him, tapped into the music and creative energies of a particular territory and on a mission to bring its ear-bending sounds to the rest of the world. Unlike nearly any label owner before him, though, Kirkley's territory covers the Sahel region of northwestern Africa, which spans Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, along with dozens of languages and dialects. It is an ambitious and very 21st-century undertaking for a 35-year-old from Portland, Oregon who knew very little about the territory he was visiting when he first touched down in 2009. In fact, he picked the Sahel in part because it was so hard to find English-language information about it.

Seven years later, the label's 30-plus releases stretch far beyond the timeless desert blues of better-known exponents like Tinariwen and into the truly contemporary, highlighting the chaotic balafon-inflected Balani street parties of Bamako, the Auto-Tuned, Bollywood-influenced Hausa soundtrack scene in northern Niger, sci-fi teenage hip-hop from Mali, and more. Like much English-language pop music, it is the sound of the present crashing into the future, new technologies applied to old ideas by young minds. It is the sound of now sung in African modes over African grooves.

The video for rapper Pheno S.'s "Mouché Aroukourou" was shot in his hometown of Gao, Mali. 


Though he was originally inspired by famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and the vast Smithsonian Folkways archive, Kirkley is a more informal recordist with less grandiose visions of documentation; he’s more of a fan than a historian. “I was a typical backpacker-tourist, except I had a small field recorder,” he says of his first Sahel trip. “So as I was traveling, I was looking for music." When he arrived, he didn't even speak French, the common language of the region. And unlike Lomax, Kirkley had a guitar with him—on some of the early casual recordings posted on his Sahel Sounds blog before he launched his label proper, Kirkley even jammed along, not sounding out of place. He soon stopped, preferring to stay out of the way.

While Kirkley started out by looking for musicians themselves, he quickly found a more efficient method of discovery: Cell phones had arrived in the region not long before him, transforming the creative landscape. (Until the advent of file-based audio, cassettes were the medium of choice in the desert, being cheaper and more sand-friendly than easily-fried CD players.) While there was little proper Internet access at first—and rarely any actual cell phone service—music and media exploded as fans played music for each other over cell speakers and traded their favorites phone-to-phone through Bluetooth, SIM cards, and FM-enabled USB sticks, sometimes stocked with MP3s at street bazaars by vendors selling files from racks of hard drives.

Once Kirkley came upon this trading network, it wasn’t long before he found Mdou Moctar. A guitarist from Agadez, in central Niger, Moctar had scored big hits on the region’s hard-to-quantify phone-to-phone hit parade after traveling to Kano, the Nigerian cradle of the Hausa film industry. There, he recorded a handful of Auto-Tuned originals in the nomadic Tuareg tradition, which is marked by its pentatonic scales and mournful vibe; seemingly rooted in the same sources as American blues, the style went electric in the early '80s, infamously influenced by Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler.

A trailer for the compilation Harafin So, which features Bollywood-inspired music from Nigeria.


Staying in Africa for almost two years after his 2009 arrival, Kirkley lived in various cities for up to six months at a time, learning French and doing his best to absorb as much as he could. He has returned frequently since. By the time he started releasing music at the end of 2010—on Bandcamp, vinyl, and eventually cassette—he developed a guiding philosophy behind Sahel Sounds to avoid accusations of cultural appropriation.

“When I'm recording people and taking this music from one culture and sharing it with another, I'm mediating between cultures that are not only very different, but have big power differences in the ability to express themselves,” he explains. “A Tuareg musician in a village somewhere doesn't really have the ability to say, 'This is who I am,' so they're sort of entrusting me to say that. I'm very careful and I try to present things in a way that isn't demeaning or exoticizing to the person on the record."

"We're coming to a time when cultural distances are really breaking down," Kirkley continues. "And people like myself who are existing between cultures are held accountable for our actions in a way that older ethnomusicologists weren’t, because when they were doing field recordings in the '50s, the artists on those recordings never saw those records. But people today are going to see them: I can record a musician and we can immediately friend each other on Facebook. They see pictures of where I live. Over the past few years, we've bridged this chasm and [the cultures] don’t seem so far away anymore."

Since Kirkley launched his one-man label, centralized Internet arrived across the Sahel region, but MP3 trading is still prevalent. Practical boundaries continue to exist, though, even beyond language. African musicians, for example, still can't sell their music on DIY standard-bearer Bandcamp. But once such technical issues are resolved, there will be nothing stopping African artists from releasing their music into the world themselves. “Being a label that works with artists in Africa is maybe what it was like to be a label in the U.S. in the late '80s or early '90s, when the indies were coming and everything was about to change and everybody could be their own producer and launch their own music,” Kirkley acknowledges with some combination of resignation and pragmatism.

So far, the label is best known for the musical film Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red In it), a "docu-fiction" non-remake of Prince’s Purple Rain starring Moctar, and Kirkley has more ambitious plans than to simply put out records and MP3s. After returning from his most recent trip to Africa in September, he is preparing to return the week after we speak in early January, hoping to continue his collaboration on a new film project, which he describes as a “surreal fiction about the search for a lost city in the desert." Kirkley is also working with a filmmaker in Bamako to help realize the 3D film that combines local folklore with big action-movie concepts. "It's super-punk, but with such a big dream," he says.

The songs and artists below represent some of the best material in the Sahel Sounds catalog thus far. 

A sampling of Sahel Sounds album covers

Abba Gargando: "Inor In Tadalat"

The man known as Abba from the village of Gargando is the first artist on Sahel Sounds’ first-ever release, 2010’s Ishilan n-Tenerecompilation. "He's in the military and his post is central to the ongoing battle with the mysterious Al-Qaedi that haunts the deserts,"Kirkley wrote on his blog in 2011, just before Abba embarked on a "mission."

"In West Africa, life is violent, and mortality is present all the time," Kirkley tells me. "I never knew people who died before I started traveling to West Africa. Now I know people who've died in the rebellion, but also from disease and easily preventable things." Abba, thankfully, is not among them. Like the label itself, Abba's recent full-length contains a constantly surprising and rewarding breadth. Recorded on the artist's phone and produced via WhatsApp, the electric guitars go digitally fuzzy, the acoustics gain some weird shimmer, and the Casio beats combine with droning grooves to transform into a kind of motorik electro-boogie. When Abba performs, his fans toss their cell phones on the floor in front of him—the rituals of a homegrown taping scene excited to exchange the freshest live recordings.


Mdou Moctar: "Anar"

With a drum machine, gentle acoustic guitar, and Auto-Tuned vocals, Mdou Moctar's "Anar" rocketed the Agadez guitarist to success regionally—via cell phones—and then globally. His music eventually turned up in U.S. record stores and scored him European tour dates, including a spot on the Primavera Sound festival bill. This success cemented cell phones’ status as a combination radio network and distribution system, exposing Sahel artists to new listeners. The success of the two Music From Saharan Cell Phones albums "changed my relationship" with the region, Kirkley says. "I don't have to fight to record an artist, especially if I'm with Mdou. When we go to see a band, Mdou will explain how I work, what my philosophy is, how I'm not going to pay them up front but I won't release their music without paying them."


Mai Dawayya: "Oloflufemi"

Kano is where to go when trying to make it big in the Bollywood-influenced movies that come out of Nigeria's northern Hausa-speaking region. "The music scenes [in the films] are amazing," says Kirkley of the local films that began to spring up in the ’90s. But the music grabbed him the most. It represents some of the most global-sounding pop the label has documented: Auto-Tuned and cartoon-colored, filled with quick-cut changes, skittering e-drums, and melodramatic fun. The label's 2013 compilation Harafin So: Bollywood Inspired Film Music from Hausa Nigeria provides an overview of the genre, which offers an infectious sound world that seems likely to eventually spawn a global superstar-producer, or at least exert its influence on pop. "Oloflufemi" has a lighter-than-air bounce as it engenders the willingly over-the-top fantasies of Bollywood at its most bonkers. 


DJ Sandji: "Side A"

The most sheer overload on Sahel Sounds' releases comes with their documentation of the street party scene in the residential neighborhoods of Bamako, Mali's capital. A modernized offshoot of rural gatherings featuring balafon orchestras and percussionists, the urban sound systems turned to CDJs in the late '90s and, more recently, straight-up digital production. A confusion of songs and beats with clattering digital balafons, MCs, and refrains, the Balani Show is a medium as much as a genre. The parties themselves, Kirkley says, are often wild and drunken affairs. Issued on cassette and distributed in part in Africa as well as on Bandcamp, DJ Sandji's 100% Balani Show is two half-hour sides of unceasing choruses, responses, joyous synths, and fuck-you, lo-fi drop-outs, nothing short of a dizzying party.


Mariam Ahmed and Fatou Seidi Ghali

"My label has been fairly male-dominated because I tend to record who I can hang out with, and the cultural norm is not to hang out with a lot of women,” says Kirkley. But perhaps the most beautiful music anywhere in the work Kirkley has broadcast through his Sahel Sounds platforms comes from the three tracks he has posted by what he claims are "the only two female Tuareg guitarists in Niger," Mariam Ahmed and Fatou Seidi Ghali. "The Tuareg guitar is a fairly male-dominated musical genre, so when I heard that there were women that played, I wanted to meet them,” Kirkley says. “I can't really speak to if there are social pressures or why more women don't play the guitar, but they are quite well-known for that now." This month, Sahel will release a full-length featuring Ghali; one side will feature her solo acoustic playing and singing, and the other will feature traditional tinde drumming.


Selections from a cyber cafe in Senegal

When the centralized Internet began to arrive in West Africa in the two years after Kirkley’s arrival, cyber cafes sprang up to provide access. Like the eclectic Napster "mic-in" folders of the early '00s, where users accidentally exposed certain audio files on their computers to curious seekers, the desktops in these cafes became strewn with stray files—a perfect source for a certain kind of digital collection. The cafes represented "a local chain of hard drives and memory sticks where traffic is not metaphoric, but represents real physical movement," wrote Kirkley in 2011. In one harvest, he presented ESL hip-hop and a long track of an English-to-Farsi language instruction tape that uses news stories to teach Persian vocabulary (with a side of exotic piano). At this point, with home and phone Internet access becoming more prevalent, "there are a lot of abandoned cafes, which is kind of surreal," Kirkley says. "They're still a great place to find a smattering of digital ephemera, but, increasingly, YouTube is a really good place for digging. Musicians often refer me to a YouTube now, which I could've just looked at from Portland—I didn't have to go to Africa, in some ways, to even hear the music."


Pheno S.: "Waihidjo" 

CDJs hit Mali around the turn of the century, and, according to Kirkley, "There is now an entire generation of kids that grew up with this remix culture and [Balani Show] music, and now they're making this music. Similarly, we're in the second generation of rappers [in the region] at this point." Sahel Sounds' first foray into local hip-hop came with Pheno S., a teenage rapper who rose to viral fame after using a barely-coded song to angrily call out his school director for sleeping with female students. The fallout involved scandal and suspension, but Pheno’s beats only got tighter. “These young kids [are] making the strangest, spacey lo-fi beats,” says Kirkley.


Mamman Sani: "Salamatu"

Perhaps the most left-field releases in the Sahel Sounds catalog come from Mamman Sami, who composed and performed keyboard interstitials for television and radio in Niger in the ’70s, popular and mysterious African library music. He clarifies, though, that Sahel Sounds isn't keen to do reissues—partly because a lot of music from the region was never released in the first place. “In Niger, they didn't have a record industry, so they didn't get to make these records,” Kirkley says. Mamman and Kirkley and crew have now embarked on several European tours, though they haven't made it to the States yet. "Sahel Sounds is just me, so it's a lot of work, and I haven't been approached by [an American] booking agency,” he says. “It's a process with a steep learning curve."


Brainstorm: "Vanessa"

The Sahel Sounds influence has spread far, stretching through various remix and cover projects back in the United States, including Portland band Brainstorm's phonetic cover of Mdou Moctar's "Anar," re-dubbed "Vanessa." Like the French tradition of artists covering American pop with different lyrics, the new words suit Moctar's song just fine, especially when leveled into the international language of Auto-Tune. And, like some of Sahel Sounds' cassettes, Kirkley brought the recording back to the Sahel, where it migrated into the cell network. Later, Kirkley says, "I heard it in Nouakchott, which means it jumped over from Niger all the way to Mauritania. I found it on a phone and got really excited, and nobody could understand why." 


Uchronia—Field Recordings From Alternate Realities: "Bambara Affirmations, Relaxation Cassette"

The most conceptual record in the Sahel Sounds pile is easily Uchronia: Field Records From Alternate Realities, in which Kirkley co-produced tracks with African artists with no thought towards authenticity other than collaboration. On "Bambara Affirmations, Relaxation Cassette," the Bamako producer Luka—the subject of one of the label's latest releases—tackled the idea of a new age jam. "We sat him down with his friends and explained what a new age affirmation cassette is,” says Kirley. “We had his girlfriend do these translations of like, 'You're a butterfly flying through the sky, your worries are melting away,' and sort of conceptualized what it would be like if taxi drivers were listening to relaxation cassettes." Kirkley is increasingly open to finding paths between independent African producers and their American counterparts. "I try to bring over some really esoteric stuff [to play for African musicians], and a lot of times it just doesn't go over that well." But many of the musicians are keen to collaborate, and Kirkley is excited about yet another form of exchange.

 Uchronia—Field Recordings From Alternate Realities: "Bambara Affirmations, Relaxation Cassette" (via SoundCloud)

Interview