In 2008, Christopher Kirkley went to Africa in hopes of capturing sounds rarely heard by the rest of the world. Traveling southwest from Morocco, carrying little more than a backpack, an acoustic guitar and a digital recorder, the shaven-headed Portland native, then in his late 20s, recorded every form of regional music he encountered, from urban dance bands to nomadic Tuareg singers. As he pushed into the Sahara, though, a trend developed. At night, Kirkley would frequently sit around a fire, drinking tea with other young musicians. He'd strum a tune for the locals, then hand the guitar over and ask them to show him a song from their own culture. Often, they'd put the instrument aside, pull out a cellphone, and play him a tinny MP3—usually by an artist they couldn't identify, and featuring elements of Western-style production, such as drum machines and Auto-Tuned vocals.
"It was really annoying," Kirkley says. "My first thought was, 'These cellphones have ruined everything.'"
But as he continued to explore the Sahel—a vast geographic belt covering parts of Senegal, Mali, Mauritania and Niger—Kirkley began to hear many of those same songs emanating from phones all over the region. It soon dawned on him that he had stumbled upon precisely what he'd come to Africa to find: a rich, self-contained, largely undiscovered musical tradition. Only, instead of an old, possibly fading tradition like he expected, he'd come across a new, wholly modern one.
While other technological advancements, such as personal computers, have been slow to arrive in West Africa, cellphones, specifically of the cheap, off-brand variety, are even more integral to everyday life than they are in America, Kirkley observed, functioning less as communication devices than as pocket-size storage units containing photos, videos and, especially, eclectic music libraries. As in other parts of the world, the digital music collections of those living in the Sahara are built primarily through file sharing, except instead of taking place anonymously in cyberspace, the exchange happens face-to-face via Bluetooth. In a region without reliable Internet connections, the people there had, inadvertently, created a kind of ambulatory, regionalized peer-to-peer network. "Instead of fiber-optic cables," Kirkley says, "you have highways, and people on buses with phones."
Five years later, Kirkley, 32, is an internationally recognized authority, not just on contemporary African pop but on the role of cellphones in West African society. Since returning to the United States in 2010, he's put together two compilations of songs copied from SD cards during the year he spent in Mali. Initially available only as a cassette and through his blog, the online popularity of Music From Saharan Cellphones—wildly divergent mixes showcasing everything from Malian hip-hop to Mauritanian synth music—inspired Kirkley to start a label, Sahelsounds, through which he's released several more albums of rare African music. He's been interviewed by the Guardian and the BBC, and gave presentations at the Time Based Arts Festival and the WW-sponsored Portland Digital eXperience. Recently he flew to France to speak at a tech conference in Paris. He's even been contacted by phone companies looking for advice on opening up the Saharan market. And all for uncovering a thoroughly offline culture and bringing it online.
"It's crazy how things happen on the Internet," he says.
For his first four months in Africa, Kirkley lived in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, where he recorded primarily vaguely bluesy, amplified wedding bands. It wasn't until he got to Kidal, in northern Mali, that Kirkley became aware of the crucial role cellphones play in disseminating a broad variety of music throughout the Sahel. A small, dusty border town miles from the nearest paved road, Kidal's proximity to both Algeria and Niger nonetheless makes it a well-traveled "desert port" of sorts. As such, the phones in Kidal offer especially dynamic surveys of West African popular music, the result of MP3 trading between the local population and the truckers, drug smugglers and sub-Saharan migrants passing through on their way elsewhere. Along with outdated rock and pop hits from the United States and Europe, the collections Kirkley gained access to ran a spectacularly wide gamut, from the Ivory Coast's stuttering dance genre coupé décalé to electronic updates of the Algerian folk style of raï to the entrancing, psychedelic assouf music made globally popular by Mali's own Tinariwen.
Kirkley was especially drawn to music born seemingly from odd cross-cultural exchanges, such as that of Mdou Moctar, a guitarist from Niger whose self-recordings feature the prominent use of Auto-Tune. But as Kirkley explains, "He wasn't, like, this Tuareg kid who heard T-Pain." Rather, he went to Nigeria and became exposed to the country's Bollywood-obsessed film industry, in which producers utilize pitch-correcting technology in an attempt to mimic Indian movie soundtracks. So Moctar is, in fact, a kid filtering Tuareg guitar through Indian-influenced Nigerian film music with distant, unintended echoes of current American pop radio. "It's a very weird web," Kirkley says.
Of course, the image of a white man going into Africa and emerging with a trove of uncopyrighted music carries some negative connotations, and Kirkley's had to deal with them from the moment he made his first compilation available for download. A few blogs misreported that Kirkley had scavenged the songs from discarded SD cards. In truth, he traded for them directly, usually in exchange for a Townes Van Zandt or Elliott Smith album. And when he decided to press Music From Saharan Cellphones to vinyl and sell it, Kirkley burned through international phone cards trying to track down each artist and sign them to a contract, agreeing to split the revenues evenly. Besides, just because the musicians come from impoverished countries doesn't mean they lack business sense. After all, they're the ones who took the technology available to them and turned it into a distribution model, which some have used to build lucrative touring careers. Some even turned down Kirkley's contract offer, considering the money too paltry. In a way, Kirkley says, the artists of the Sahel understand the current music economy better than a lot of record executives do.
"Music wasn't always a recorded thing that was commercialized," he says. "Recorded music is pretty new in the history of music. So it's not like music is going to stop being made. It was made before there were commercial recordings, and it'll be made after. And I think these kids are more on top of it than people are here."
But the phenomenon Kirkley observed may have been a fleeting one. In the five years since he first visited the Sahara, things are already starting to change. On return visits to the region, Kirkley found Internet speeds, once grindingly slow, gradually improving, along with the speed of culture: Formerly enthralled by the likes of the Scorpions and Dire Straits, people in West Africa are catching on to au courant pop stars almost as soon as they break here. Even though he knows firsthand the way the Web can transform lives, Kirkley regards the encroachment of the Internet in the Sahel—with its tendency to absorb everything it touches into a homogenous monoculture—with trepidation.
"The whole landscape is going to change drastically," he says. "The idea of this closed network—once Internet speeds are quick enough to allow uploading songs, and kids can make their own websites and have their own version of SoundCloud, it'll change everything. So the Internet's coming there. Itâs just taking its time.â
SEE IT: Christopher Kirkley, aka DJ Sahelsounds, performs a DJ set at 13 Months of Sunshine: African Sounds Dance Party at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., on Wednesday, Oct. 24. 9 pm. $3. Visit Kirkley's blog at sahelsounds.com, and see his top five favorite West African tracks here.