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Music From Saharan Cellphones

like nothing you’ve ever heard lately. Promise.

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Music From Saharan Cellphones

Various Artists


In modern music ethnography compilations—the sort that are en vogue now, compiled from places like Nigeria or South Africa from labels like Strut and Soundway—technology tends to lose out in a largely ad hoc curatorial value system that places primacy on things perceived as old or traditional. There’s a heated race on for developing-world cultural documentation, but you’ll find documentarians forever more interested in the 78 than the MP3. No matter that technology and its growth/introduction are as much if not more a dominating force in cultural production in this world than in the First World. And that’s the first thing you see on the cover here: a sketched image of a man in flowing white Arabic garb holding up a clunky cell phone.

Music consumers in West Africa, the source of the music on this record, rely predominantly on cell phones for music consumption: a cheap speaker in a knockoff cell phone with a small library of digital music files, shared not via the internet (nonexistent for most) but via Bluetooth connections between listeners. The nine songs on Music From Saharan Cellphones were collected by Christopher Kirkley in the sand-ocean “port town” of Kidal just like that: swapping files from his own phone’s collection with phone-based collections around him via Bluetooth. Remarkably, despite these songs having little or no commercial release, Kirkley was able to hunt the artists down: 60 percent of the record’s proceeds go to them.

Technology, of course, is just as much a factor in the production of these songs as it is in the consumption. With mind-boggling home-studio software readily available and an internet full of competing tech tools and sounds, the sky’s pretty much the limit for production in the developed world. Artists in, say. West Africa are set back to bootlegged trailing-edge software like Fruity Loops—forget about producing much in the way of full-band recordings. No matter how much you currently hate Auto-Tune as a pop-music cancer, the armor falls off on Mdou Moctar’s sublime, sensual “Tahoultine,” a sort of techno-folk that wouldn’t know irony if it was pressed to vinyl record (from a poor bitrate digital cell phone file, get it?). Papito’s “Yereyira,” meanwhile, feels like mad-as-hell No Limit-style rap, but gets cut up with bright, squirrelly, and almost video-gamey synth because why not? Group Anmataff’s “Tinariwen” is like nothing you’ve heard ever, such a perfect six minutes of techno-folk or folk-techno/unclassifiable newness: deep vocal drones mingling with a loping drum-machine beat mingling with guitar/bass guitar licks that soak deeper than most anything you’ve heard lately. Promise.

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