On Music From Saharan Cellphones

by Thomas Brett

I recently came across some interesting field recordings assembled by Christopher Kirkley, a music blogger who writes at sahelsounds.com.  Kirkley’s blog is about sound and music and his research interests include making recordings in the Sahel region of Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal.  The recordings in question are compiled on two releases, Music From Saharan Cellphones, Vol. 1 and 2.  What makes the releases (downloads) interesting is that Kirkley acquired the music from the MP3 memory cards of cellphones in the Kidal region of northern Mali through a casual process of trading music files with folks he met on the street. According to Kirkley, “the cellphone is such a fixture of west Africa. Everyone has a phone even in villages lacking reception.  They’re not just phones, they’re all-purpose media devices. In the west we maintain a repository of data on hard drives, in Sahel, the cellphone does the same thing.”  Contrary to some of the stories circulating around this project that describe it as derived from a collection of discarded cell phone memory cards (see for instance, a story in the Guardian here), Kirkley in fact copied tracks from other people’s phones, offering some country music in return: “In the effort of cultural exchange, I traded for a few Townes Van Zandt albums; we’ll see if they’ve survived next time I’m back in Kidal.”  Once Kirkley had a number of tracks, he put them onto cassette, which was then dubbed back into MP3, making for a low-fi chain of copying.  Observes Kirkley, “It’s a weird chain of analogue to digital to analogue to digital.”

You can download Volume 2 here.

If you do download these tracks, notice on Track 1, “Mdou – Niger” the heavy use of Auto-Tune on the voice.  Yes, you guessed right, Auto-Tune has made its way to the African Sahel.  (More about this in a later post.)

For some observers, the Music From Saharan Cellphones releases fill a “niche” in music releases from the African Sahel region.  Consider, for instance, this comment from Other Music (a wonderful record store in NYC) on another Kirkley-compiled release, Ishilan n-Tenere: Guitar music from the Western Sahel (Mississippi Records):

“Despite the ever-increasingly visibility and popularity of the guitar music of the African Sahel, its local context remains obscure.  Records by groups like Tinariwen, Tartit, and Etran Finatawa are prepared for export in well-appointed studios, and presented through the tourist-friendly Festival in the Desert and on the circuit of any number of Western “world music” showcases, but there’s been precious little presented of what’s listened and danced to in the poor neighborhoods, remote villages, and encampments of the Sahel.  Don’t get me wrong, the music made by the likes of Tinariwen is sublime but Ishilan N-Tenere is an exceedingly welcome addition to the catalog.”

Likewise, over at Pitchfork.com, Mark Richardson writes about Music From Saharan Cellphones in terms of “musical scarcity.”  For Richardson, Kikley has unearthed not simply some obscure tracks, but also a new way to ascribe value to what we listen to.  Simply put, if the compilations are unique and out there enough, they seem scarce and thus have value:

“In my world, this music is unheard and thus in its own way rare.  I don’t know what it is, or who made it, or when it was recorded.  I only have words like “Niger” and “AutoTune”, and otherwise I’m left with just sound.  No one else that I know has any idea what it is, not surprising considering how it was assembled and disseminated, so it seems more valuable.  Projects like Music From Saharan Cellphones Vol. 1 are satisfying at this moment because they create the illusion of scarcity.  Yes, I downloaded the tape from Megaupload, and you and a million other people could go there right now and do the same thing.  But the process of the tape, the lack of information, and the unusual origins of the music make it feel special…”