While debate rages in the so-called western world over the role of file-sharing in the decline of the music industry, the music scene in Western Africa is, in fact, thriving because of it.
In places where computers are difficult to come by (to say nothing of high-speed internet), music fans—and musicians themselves—swap mp3s using the most readily available technology to them: mobile phones. Beatmakers, scenesters, and casual fans alike trade songs from phone-to-phone via Bluetooth, allowing new music to travel through a slightly-higher-tech version of word-of-mouth. This system isn’t without its flaws—the artists behind songs that become hits are often uncredited and, subsequently, aren’t compensated for their work—but has picked up enough steam to reach ubiquity on the African continent.
Fortunately—for both fans of the music and the people that make it—Oregon native Christopher Kirkley is attempting to bring the music of Western Africa’s cell phone culture to the rest of the world. For years, Kirkley compiled music while traveling the continent, eventually releasing two volumes of Music From Saharan Cell Phones, initially on cassette but eventually following with a digital release. Kirkley, who has since tracked down all of the compliations’ contributors (to whom 60% of the money generated from sales goes), discovered the scene accidentally:
I was in the Northern regions of Mali on a recording project. One night I was sitting with a friend who was touting his cellular phone. He was cycling through all these sound clips of traditional poetry and vocal folk songs that he had recorded himself. I realized right there the limits of my role. Archiving and documentation is built largely these technological inequities. I started to collect mp3s from friends as a secondary collection, with the idea of finding first hand recordings of these things I had no access to. But the data collections evolved into a representative survey of multimedia circulating on the cellphone networks.
Kirkley—who started his own Sahel Sounds label to release his compilations—is currently travelling through the region for which the label is named, recording local musicians and blogging about the results.
A. Darryl Moton is a freelance writer/Iowan/curmudgeon driving a bus in Portland, Oregon.