TALLAHASSEE, Florida — The African Sahel is a semi-arid region stretching between the Sahara Desert to the north and the tropical savanna to the south. This disparate, conflict-ridden region is home to some of Africa’s most talented musicians. Some of the musicians are featured on the Oregon-based record label Sahel Sounds, which shares the music of West Africa. This independent label shares the rich musical culture of the Sahel with the world, providing its artists with opportunities to make a living off their songs and highlighting the unique ways in which Sahel artists boldly overcome poverty barriers to spread their work.
Music From Saharan Cellphones
In 2009, Christopher Kirkley, a self-identified “guerilla ethnomusicologist” from Portland, Oregon founded Sahel Sounds following a two-year trip to the Sahel to study musical styles and collect field recordings. It was there that Kirkley learned about a unique tradition of sharing and copying music using Bluetooth on cellphones. According to Kirkley, cellphones are a “fixture” of West Africa, acting primarily as multimedia storage devices. Despite many areas having little to no reception, it was common for people to swap songs between themselves using peer-to-peer connections, giving rise to popular songs and musicians that lacked proper commercial releases.
It was during Kirkley’s first visit to Africa when he participated in the cellphone-based mp3 trade, compiling a tape of nine tracks from artists around the Sahel and Sahara whose names were mostly unknown to him at the time. The compilation entitled “Music from Saharan Cellphones,” picked up interest after being posted online, inspiring Kirkley to distribute a physical release on vinyl. This led the upcoming label owner on an extensive search, bringing him back to Africa, to properly credit and reimburse each artist on the compilation.
Following the success of “Music from Saharan Cellphones,” Sahel Sounds became an official label focused entirely on music from countries in the Sahel like Mali, Niger and Mauritania. Kirkley emphasized the importance of an ethical and transparent record label and claimed that half of the label’s profits go directly to the artists. On average, artists around the world received only 12% of profits made from their music in 2017 according to a 2018 Citibank report.
Ongoing Conflicts in the Sahel Region
An ongoing conflict in Mali over the autonomy of its northern region, known as Azawad, has impacted many of the musicians that Sahel Sounds supports. The National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), alongside groups of nomadic Tuareg rebels, committed a series of attacks since 2012 over the liberation of Azawad, forcing the displacement of more than 370,000 Malians.
Ahmed Ag Kaedi, exiled Tuareg and frontman of Sahel Sounds-managed band Amanar, employs traditional Tuareg-style guitar playing and poetic lyrics to provide a message of unity for the Tuareg and condemn the corrupt conditions of northern Mali and neighboring countries. While displaced across the Sahel region among the tensions of civil war, Kaedi and his band have released three albums since 2010 under Sahel Sounds. The label continues to support the band through challenging times using their online store on the audio distribution website Bandcamp, where users can purchase both digital and physical copies of the music.
Mdou Moctar – The Star of Sahel Sounds
Of the artists on Sahel Sounds’ roster, Mahamadou Souleymane, better known as Mdou Moctar, has received the largest amount of international success for his music, representing some of the diverse music of West Africa. The Nigerien-born guitarist had humble beginnings learning Tuareg-style playing in the mining town he grew up in. Moctar’s desire to play heavily conflicted with his strict Muslim upbringing and despite the disapproval of secular music from his parents, Moctar improved in talent by playing on a homemade guitar which he built out of wood and bicycle cables.
Upon meeting each other, Kirkley and Moctar quickly set out to release Afelan as a showcase of the guitarist’s desert blues style which quickly sold more than 500 copies. The two sought to upscale after their modest first release and took their efforts to the big screen.
“Rain the Color of Blue” and “Illana: The Creator”
In 2015, Kirkley directed “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai,” or “Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It,” a homage to Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The film stars Moctar as a guitarist from Agadez, Niger that presents Tuareg culture while emphasizing the power of art in an impoverished nation where “musicians will do anything to succeed.” “Rain the Color of Blue” is the first Tuareg-spoken fiction film and a well-received collaboration between two diverse cultures.
Mdou Moctar and Sahel Sounds gained international recognition following the successful release of the 2019 album “Illana: The Creator.” Nowadays, Moctar tours worldwide and continues to preserve Tuareg culture in his work. At his concerts, Moctar sells Tuareg jewelry to raise money for a girls’ school he plans to build in Niger. The artist strives to support his people with the money made from his music. Moctar stated that he wanted “to be able to share the benefits of traveling to the West and aid their development – to provide them with money, musical gear and knowledge. From day one I have felt deeply moved to do this.”
Sahel Sounds constantly works to share the music of West Africa, thwarting challenges that war and poverty have caused to help talented musicians sustain careers in art. Christopher Kirkley’s work demonstrates a strong and meaningful cross-cultural relationship powered by a passion for music-making. As of 2022, the label has eight artists and continues to spread Sahel and Tuareg culture beyond its national boundaries.
– Evan Lemole
Photo: Wikipedia Commons