Sahel Sounds started life as a blog to share field recordings and to explore regional African arts and music. Perhaps best known for the compilation Music from Saharan Cellphones, a collection of tracks found on cellphone memory cards across the Sahara and La Musique Électronique Du Niger, a record of the early recordings by Mammane Sani. Kirkley's work includes contemporary music with traditional roots, focussing on Mali, Mauritania and Nigeria, releasing tracks from L'Orchestre National de Mauritanie and Alkibar Gignorto to name a few. For Carhartt WIP Radio, Christopher Kirkley has prepared an exclusive mix of the radical material from Sahel Sounds that accompanies the exihibtion called "Uchronia: The Unequivocal Interpretation of Reality“ that was curated by Kirkley and the photographer Maciek Pozoga to find out if the Malian emperor Abu Bakr II really discovered the New World during his 1311 exploration of the Atlantic Ocean. For the exhibition Pozoga and Kirkley mix science fiction with Afro-futurism, folklorism, fakelorism, and social documentary to explore themes of geography (or the end of geography), inter-connectivity, globalism, fabrication, memory, history, and interpretation. The exhibition will take place in Paris at the gallery 12Mail from September 04 to October 16. Soon more information about it on this place. For now just listen to our Cahartt WIP Sahel Sounds Radio show and gain some insights on the label and the story behind the exhibition in our interview with Christopher Kirkley below.
(Christopher Kirkley and Mdou Moctar on his pink motocylce)
Hi Christopher, can you introduce your label Sahel Sounds a bit to our readers?
Christopher Kirkley: Sahel Sounds is a project documenting music in West Africa. It began as a blog to showcase some of my recordings while I was living and traveling in the Sahel. Since 2009, it has expanded into a record label, tour support for musicians abroad, and gradually moved into curation, artist projects, and filmmaking.
Any role models, inspirations, or benchmarks for Sahel Sounds when it was launched in 2009 with the exhilarating compilation Ishilan n-Tenere?
Christopher Kirkley: I started the work because of a general interest in field recordings and folk music. And how it's not enough to document things, but necessary to share them. Alan Lomax for example wasn't motivated by just an academic mission, but a passion and ear for the music he recorded. Or Violeta Parra, who was both a musician and folklorist, and traveled throughout Chile learning and playing songs as a means of keeping the tradition current.
What do you find most challenging about the work you do?
Christopher Kirkley: Working between two worlds, and trying to mediate between cultures - in whatever form that may be. For example, trying to explain to an amateur wedding band in Niger that I want to release a record of their music in the USA, and what that means. And then explaining to people in the USA about this amateur wedding band from Niger. There are loads of misconceptions on both sides, and I'm in the middle of this discussion.
What do you want to accomplish with the music you release?
Christopher Kirkley: I want to release compelling records from the Sahel that are unrepresented - whether contemporary subgenres, "lost" archival recordings, or individual musicians with singular sounds. It's important that the records can tell a story, that in the end they are complete objects with a lot of care and thought put into them.
Sahel Sounds also produced to our knowledge the movie Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai featuring Mdou Moctar in the leading role. Can you tell us a bit about the movie.
Christopher Kirkley: Akounak is a fictional story based around Mdou Moctar, and his struggle to become a star in the Agadez wedding scene. We originally conceived the idea based around Prince's 1984 film Purple Rain, but it pretty quickly deviated into its own thing - mostly what remains is the title, a literal translation of the title in Tamashek, which has no word for Purple. The film is screening around festivals right now, but we should be releasing it on DVD in the fall.
Can you tell us a funny story out of your life as a record label maker that travels regulary to the Sahel region of Africa to find and record music?
Christopher Kirkley: In 2011, I brought a few copies of my first record to West Africa and left the LP with some music vendors. About two years later, my friend got a phone call from someone in Benin who said he had some West African music for sale. After exchanging emails, he sent us pictures of some various LPs -- included in the bunch was one of the copies of my record.
Do you consider yourself as an musical archaeologist? Or do you see you work wider then only linked to music?
Christopher Kirkley: The project is much bigger than music. I'm more interested in the dialogue between the different worlds.
What is the difference with working together with young Sahel musicians like Mdou Moctar and older guys like Mammane Sanni?
Christopher Kirkley: The younger musicians are trying to build something. Mamman has been playing music for over 30 years.
Thanx to you the music of Mammane Sanni reached a wider attention again and he toured around the world. How was it for such an old musician to get rediscovered? And how was it for you to tour with him?
Christopher Kirkley: Mamman has been playing music for over 30 years. His music was well known in Niger, but it never had any attention abroad. The attention for the record surprised me as much as him. The subsequent tour as a real honor - traveling and playing the music was this sort of belated appreciation that in some ways, I think he was waiting for. He had a great time chatting up everyone with his old stories and showing off his various influences, like his Otis Redding covers, which I think surprised everyone at the shows.
What was the biggest Sahel Sounds hit so far?
Christopher Kirkley: I think Mamman Sani's first LP is the most repressed.
Which of the albums you released are you most proud of?
Christopher Kirkley: The National Orchestre of Mauritania record is probably the most important for me. The recordings nearly were destroyed in a military coup in 1978 and were saved by a radio engineer who secreted them away. They weren't available anywhere except on the reels - they were never released. Even the musicians from the band hadn't heard them since the 1970s. The release was well received in the US, but has been more important in Mauritania.
How important are the non-musical components of your releases, i.e. packaging and album art?
Christopher Kirkley: The packaging is crucial. Music doesn't need to exist on vinyl, so if you're going to make that step to create it on a big physical medium, it needs to have some thought. I design nearly all the records on the label, often with a concept in mind - playing around with them with questions like "what would a hip hop record look like in Mali if there was a vinyl industry?". I've bought vinyl for years and have a lot of love for the odd, the private press, and the outsider records. On smaller runs we screenprint covers, or cut and glue jackets by hand. It's exhausting work, but keeps you humble when you have to glue records for a week.
What is coming up on the label?
Christopher Kirkley: In the next months, there is a new record of Tuareg cellphone recordings from Timbouctou, a record of wedding songs from Mauritania, and some unreleased Mamman Sani tapes...
Your label released two Isswat records. Can you tell us a bit about them? Do the musicians still have to fear radical Islamists because of their singings about traditions and revolutionists?
Christopher Kirkley: For the moment, all music is still in this tenous position in the North of Mali. Radicals are still around, so for the moment there really isn't much music or performance. But the radicals know better than to have any direct conflict with Tuareg musicians - they are foreigners in Mali.
Sahel Sounds is somehow linked to Mississippi Records in Portland, Oregon. How come?
Christopher Kirkley: The first record, Ishilan n-Tenere was a co-release with Mississippi Records. I had just returned from West Africa with loads of music and I dropped it with the owner of the label, and the next day he offered to release it on vinyl.
For a new project in Mali you currently collaborate with the photographer Maciek Pozoga. Can you explain the project a bit to us?
Christopher Kirkley: The project is a collaboration between myself and Maciek Pozoga. We traveled to Bamako together to create and explore alternative histories of Mali through a science fiction lens. It's a multifaceted project, with photography and music, but with the attempt at a production that lies somewhere between fiction and reality.
Will there be also a Sahel Sound music release that will document your trip to Mali in June 2015?
Christopher Kirkley: The musical component of the exhibition is a vinyl record of field recordings from these "alternate realities" of Bamako. Also collaborative project, it was an opportunity to focus on exploring imaginations via a science fiction lens.
What was the last record you bought?
Christopher Kirkley: Alain Peters Rest' La Maloya. This is an amazing musician from Reunion Islands, recently released on Moi J'Connais Records in Geneva.
Sahel Sounds discography