Music from Saharan Cellphones
December 12, 2010 6:04 AM   Subscribe

Sahel Sounds is the blog of ethnomusicologist Christopher Kirkley, a.k.a. MeFi's own iamck. It's about the contemporary music of the Sahel, which is the Southern border of the Sahara, focusing on West Africa. It has long been a region of great musical ferment. The most famous musicians today are Tinariwen (previously), but there's a great deal more out there. Kirkley travels around trading music, Western songs in exchange for Saharan, which he mostly receives off cellphone memory cards. Kirkley has made three compilations, Sahelsounds, the Promo CD and Music from Saharan Cellphones volumes 1 and 2 (the numbers link to downloads). Kirkley has also collected and recorded videos. The Guardian interviewed Kirkley on the subject of cellphones' effect on Saharan music, which he has written about. Mark Richardson of Pitchfork was prompted by one of Kirkley's collections to write about musical scarcity in today's infoglut society. Besides the collections, there are a lot of other songs on the blog, the entire archive is wonderful and worth reading through.
posted by Kattullus (12 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
This is pretty fantastična! Thanks for posting it because I love Saharawi music and other music from this region of Africa so much!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:33 AM on December 12, 2010

Thanks for posting this, Kattallus. This is very cool!
posted by carter at 6:34 AM on December 12, 2010

I wonder if humans are hardwired to perceive scarcity as value, maybe because of the scarcity of calorie-rich food our distant ancestors faced. Or is it a cultural thing? Is a musician everyone else has heard a slut whore musician? /insert lady gaga derail here
posted by fleetmouse at 7:04 AM on December 12, 2010

This is pretty interesting, but 'songs found on abandoned Nigerian cellphone cards' sounds like the punchline to a joke about hipsters.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:07 AM on December 12, 2010

Great post, Kattullus, thanks. I've read most of the links but I've somehow missed something.. Are cellphones being used to record live music with the microphone? Or are they simply being used to store, transfer, and play back recorded music?

The Pitchfork article notes What is scarce now in music is new ideas; not technique, not style, not sounds, but ideas. I can't disagree, I love novelty in music, and even now I'm downloading all the Sahel stuff I can find in the hopes it's something good and new. But seeking novel music is not a new phenomenon. The Beats fascination with the Master Musicians of Joujouka led to Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones going to Morocco to record them, leading to a US and European hit record of ecstatic music. The introduction of the Gamelan at the 1889 Exposition in Paris led to Debussy and every other Western composer writing music in imitation of the gamelan, combining rhythm and melody in a way that was largely novel for European audiences.

Technology has certainly made it easier to find novel music. No one finds it surprising that Diplo worked with a British woman of Sri Lankan descent to remix a bunch of Brazilian beats that were inspired by Miami club music. What I don't understand is how all this novelty is being sifted so that something good comes out.
posted by Nelson at 8:17 AM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

The magic of "scarce" music from distinctly different communities is that it's not necessarily scarce, but it's something an outsider doesn't know about at all. It could be a local pop song, downloaded from the group's website or traded amongst fans.

I've felt this excitement on finding what I thought was something rare in used music shop. The difference with my finds was that I can usually search for the band name when I get home, and realize this is a common bootleg of a well-known English techno group. But for an hour, it was something special.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:26 AM on December 12, 2010

Been listening to the compilations and they are very good. What a find! I actually have a couple of old tapes form southern Morocco/northern Sahara from about 20 years ago. This music sounds very similar in places, with the exception of the auto-tuned vocals. I need to find someone trustworthy to make good digital copies of these tapes ...
posted by carter at 9:15 AM on December 12, 2010

Looks like the Malian hip hop artist Iba One featured on vol. 1 has some tracks on YouTube, for example "Kayes ba", "Yèrèfô", and "Alhamdoulillaye" which sounds/looks like a religious reworking of "Papito" (from the collection).
posted by The Mouthchew at 9:34 AM on December 12, 2010

Nelson: ".....Are cellphones being used to record live music with the microphone? Or are they simply being used to store, transfer, and play back recorded music?.....

I'm pretty sure that the cell phone [besides communicating and other functions] is mostly being used to store, transfer, and play back the music.

Nelson:"...What I don't understand is how all this novelty is being sifted so that something good comes out."

This filtering of determining how something is 'good' occurs through a couple ways and I've thought about this as well.

One would be those who have primary access the music in Africa [whether it's through performing field recordings or acquiring the music through a physical cassette in Africa]. Those people, like sahelsounds, I don't know if he posts everything he comes across, but he and at least one other west african music blogger [benn loxx du tucco ?] don't post the entire contents of a cassette or recording on the website, usually it's just a song or 2. How do they choose which ones to post ? I don't know, I'd assume whichever ones they thought best represented the entire recording or just sounded good [to them ? to their readers ?].

Also, I just thought, there may be another level of filtering even before that. The music that bloggers acquire in Africa or through submitted cassettes: someone has to offer to trade it to them. The music would be ''good'' to those whom had that music on their cell phones [assuming that they have it on there to listen to] in the first place to trade.

Secondly, there's labels like subliminal, dust to digital, and Soundway Records, that transfer vinyls issued in other places, including Africa [often from the 50s - 80s] and compilations re-issued on CDs. On their compilations, they're choosing which songs and albums to reissue onto CD.

Another one would be the music reviewers [pitchfork, and the other music bloggers] who would review the compilations released.
posted by fizzix at 9:37 AM on December 12, 2010

Thanks for this, Kattulus. Great post!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:58 PM on December 12, 2010

I totally love this, thanks for posting!!!
posted by Maias at 6:11 PM on December 12, 2010

I feel late to my party. Thanks for posting this!
posted by iamck at 8:48 PM on December 14, 2010

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