For the better part of a decade, Christopher Kirkley has been a conduit, funneling the music of West Africa to the rest of the world through his record label Sahel Sounds. It’s been a passion project for the Portland native, fueled by his love of the music from Mali and Niger, and a desire to financially support artists that might otherwise quietly scrape by through cash earned from gigs at weddings and rallies. And it’s through his label that global music lovers have come to learn about artists like the Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar, the Bamako-based rap group Supreme Talent Show, and the all-female ensemble Les Filles de Illighadad.
Sahel Sounds made its first splash in 2011 with the release of Music from Saharan Cellphones, a compilation of tracks salvaged from the SIM cards of discarded mobile phones—the recording studio and music sharing device of choice for many West African artists. In recent years, musicians have started embracing WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app, capturing their performances and sending them to friends and family. Quick to catch on to the trend, Kirkley has been releasing digital EPs collecting some of these recordings for each month of 2020… but only for a limited time.
The latest of these releases is the best one yet, featuring four songs from Amaria Hamadalher, a rare female guitarist in Agadez, Niger—the hub for Tuareg music—who recently joined Les Filles de Illighadad. It’s one of the most joyous records I’ve heard this year and the perfect salve for our strange and difficult times.
Wanting to know more about these short run digital releases, how the artists that he works with are managing as coronavirus continues its spread around the world, and the new streaming channel the label launched on Twitch, I sent some questions to Kirkley via email.
PORTLAND MERCURY: What are you hearing from the artists you work with about how the pandemic is affecting their lives and the lives of those around them?
Christopher Kirkley: The pandemic has definitely affected the artists on the label, largely in economic fallout. We had four groups on our roster that had to cancel their international tours, which was a big blow. But even back home, it's affected a lot of the musical activities. Nearly all of our artists make most of their income back home playing in social events, like weddings, baptisms, or political events. That's all come to standstill now. A lot of parts of the countries enacted nightly curfews, so no one can get around after dark. And food prices have increased.
Mobile phones have been the recording device of choice for a good chunk of Sahel Sounds' catalog, but when did Whatsapp become the chosen delivery service?
For a short period in West Africa, it seemed like everyone had a cellphone, but no one had the internet. So cellphones existed in this retro sense of a personal computer. People recorded music and traded songs, but it was all done in close contact, Bluetooth transfers. Then around five years ago, the most of the cellphone carriers started implementing internet into their service. WhatsApp emerged as the killer app, for sending short vocal messages, setting up massive group chats, helping non-literate people communicate, and trading media.
Your latest in the Whatsapp EP series is a release by Amaria Hamadalher. What can you tell us about that artist?
Amaria is from a small village outside of Agadez, Niger. She plays in the Tuareg guitar style made popular by Tinariwen and Bombino, and one of only a few women who play in what is otherwise a very male dominated field. She's part of a large community of guitarists and musicians, and her repertoire draws from this sort of informal jam session atmosphere. She recently joined the group Les Filles de Illighadad, and will be featured on the next album.
What can you tell us about the Twitch stream that you started up?
The idea to have a Twitch stream came out of this whole slowdown. During this pandemic time, we had a lot of events and travel cancelled, so I decided to spend some time organizing our archives. I unearthed this box of hundreds of VCDs that I found at this old defunct media store in Niger, and there was some amazing material on there. I liked the idea of making all of our videos available on a stream, it sort of reflects the temporality of our WhatsApp project. As we've all retreated into digital worlds with anything at our fingertips, there's a space for media where you don't get to choose, but can dip in and out to see what's happening.
What comes next for the label?
The music industry is in an uncertain state right now. We're going to continue this WhatsApp project through the rest of the year, and I hope it will foster some new ideas of recording and releasing music, less bound to medium. On the other hand, our next vinyl release is going the other way, getting back to the early days of the work with Mississippi Records, making limited runs, stamping and assembling all the records by hand. It's a bizarre time to be making any plans. But we have a community of artists that are really depending on getting their music out there, so if people are listening, we'll find a way.