12/16/2013 09:15 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2013

You've Never Heard Cell Phone Music Like This Before

Sahel Sounds

Africa has been called the first mobile-only continent. Mobile phones double as payment devices, flashlights and music players. Songs from far-flung locales are swapped via SIM cards on city streets and at dusty truck stops, and a single cell phone can provide a plethora of music from all over Africa.

Far away in Portland, Ore., Christopher Kirkley, a self-described "gentleman explorer and rogue ethno-musicologist," currently makes a living releasing music from Saharan cell phones.

In 2008, Kirkley went to West Africa to record folk music. "At first I ignored the cell phones because that’s not part of what I was looking for. I wanted to record traditional music. It took me a while to look at the cell phone and be like, it’s the radio, it’s the television, it’s how people are consuming media now."

Returning to Portland, Kirkley released his first album of collected Saharan music, "Music From Saharan Cellphones, Volume 1." Today through his label Sahel Sounds, he works full-time making West African music more widely available in digital and vinyl formats.

The Huffington Post recently interviewed Kirkley about his work:

You said when you first got to Africa, you ignored cell phone music because you wanted to record live music. When did you start paying attention to what people in Africa stored on their phones?

I was hanging out with one of the head officers of customs in Kidal [in Mali], and he had a really nice phone, like the iPhone 3 or something. And people were going through their phone sharing what music they had. And he was going through his phone sharing all the music he had recorded. He was like, “Now cell phones are going to start to be able to record music.”

And he was going through and showing all the recordings that he had made, and it really put my own work in perspective. Here I was, this foreigner, going around with a recorder trying to record music, and here was this guy from Kidal recording it himself. So that was the moment when I started thinking maybe I should start looking into these cell phones and see what’s inside them.

What's your favorite track that you've released a recording of?

You know that Mdou Moctar track "Tahoultine"? That one.

What I really like was its autotune, that crazy blown-out autotune. Like if Cher knew about that, she probably would’ve regretted it. She probably already regrets it. But what’s very distinctive about that Mdou Moctar track is that it’s Tuareg guitar music, but it has a drum machine and this crazy autotune and it sounds sort of like a robot or like a spacey anthem.

It was really mysterious, too, because it was on every cell phone in Kidal and everyone knew about it, but no one knew who [the artist] was. I think that sort of defines how the project of collecting and tracking down these musicians ended up being. There’s a hugely popular song, you find it everywhere, but you don’t know who [the artist] is. That’s a narrative I encountered time and time again.

How did you track down the artists? I saw on your website that artists get 60 percent of the profits from the album, but musicians making recordings on cell phones seem incredibly hard to track down. How did you do that?

Well, so I had friends back in Mali I could ask, and sometimes I'd send them a track and get a name. But others they couldn't recognize. Mdou, for example, was the hardest to track down. I ended up meeting someone from Niger who recognized his accent and said he was from a certain part of Niger. So I ended up going on Facebook and looking for anyone from that particular region of Niger who had a guitar in their Facebook profile picture.

And then every person who had a guitar I sent a message to, saying, “Do you know this song? Do you know who it is?” And I just copied and pasted that message over and over again. And eventually I got a response from a kid that said, “Yeah, that’s Mdou. I don’t have his number but I have the number of his friend." Through the chain of people I eventually got Mdou on the phone, and that’s sort of how it happened.

Now I think the story of how we met has become this urban legend in Niger. When I went back there, people would be like, “Oh, I heard about Mdou. He met an American because of a track on a cell phone.” So, yeah, it’s become part of the folklore in Niger.

Speaking of Mdou Moctar and his tracks, why is there all this love in West Africa for really blown-out autotune? I mean it's really awesome, but where did all this autotune come from?

In the north of Nigeria, [artists] were really influenced by Bollywood musical films. So to emulate this sound of Hindi film stars, they started using a lot of autotune, making really syrupy pop songs with a lot of autotune. And it’s had an influence in other parts of West Africa.

You focus mainly on collecting from sub-Saharan West Africa right now -- Niger, Mali, Nigeria. Do you plan on traveling to other parts of Africa soon, or will you stick to West Africa for now?

There’s a lot of work to be done in West Africa. And I’m interested in that region in particular because it’s still an area that’s not that glamorous to go to. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hot. There's scrubland, desert. The food’s terrible. There are no big attractions for tourists. Because of that, there’s a lot of musical tradition we’re not finding out about. So for me, it’s a constant source of material, and I keep finding things each time that I go back.


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