Caught by the River

Sahel Sounds

Ian Preece | 13th June 2020

An extract from Ian Preece’s book Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels, published by Omnibus Press. Sahel Sounds Records, on whom the following extract focuses, have kindly made us an accompanying mix, which you can listen to below (or via our Mixcloud page, where a full track list is available).

Having noted what Brian Shimkovitz was doing with Awesome Tapes from Africa, Christopher Kirkley was writing a blog about his time in the Western Sahel and was keen to share the music he’d recorded there when he walked into Mississippi Records in Portland and saw they were selling not just African music but Tuareg guitar music: ‘I’d just come back from Africa, after two years, and was like, “Who are these guys? What do they know about Tuareg music?” I walked up, and Eric [Isaacson] was working, and I gave him the CD – an early mixtape – and I think you’re apprehensive, usually, going in a record shop – like clerks tend to have a bad reputation: “What? You want me to listen to this? Get the fuck out of here.” But Eric was very nice and took the CD and like, the next day he wrote back, and it just floored me.’ 

It’s something of an oversimplification, but you can broadly split Sahel Sounds releases into two camps. There’s the multiple shades, bottomless ocean of Tuareg guitar, acoustic and electric, usually from the Saharan outback – typical would be the beautifully atmospheric 2012 collection, Laila Je T’Aime, a joint Mississippi/Sahel release, which features field recordings from Mali and Niger, Mauritania and Senegal. Or there’s the sometimes wilder, more intense hip-hop and Balani street-party-influenced electronic dance music. A Balani show is a kind of Malian block party, with its roots in the capital, Bamako. The road would be closed off, speakers positioned in the street – a sort of soundclash from Tivoli Gardens with laptops and a beats-per-minute count more in line with South African Shangaan electro than rocksteady. For a hi-energy mash-up of balafon, programmed beats, Coupé-Décalé and rap there’s the 2014 Sahel compilation Balani Show Super Hits: Electronic Street Parties from Mali – or for something fractionally mellower there’s side a of the cassette mixtape DJ Sandji’s 100% Balani Show

Released in late 2011, initially as a cassette, Music from Saharan Cellphones has shades of Tuareg guitar but veers towards the autotuned electronics of home-produced cheap, computer-programmed beatmaking – sourced as it was from MP3s circulating on mobile phones. It’s a groundbreaking collection – the almost seminal feel echoed in the back-cover artwork’s nod to Exile on Main Street. One track, Amanar’s ‘Alghafiat’ (‘Peace’), with its delayed start and rolling groove, feels like it could be a subdued cousin of/Sahel equivalent to the proto-hipster nineties anthem ‘Mathar’ by Indian Vibes. Whenever I played ‘Alghafiat’ while DJing (at the kids’ school fête; fortieth or fiftieth birthday parties) someone would always want to know what the track was. It’s not entirely typical of the Cellphone collection, though, which also includes the intense rap of Papito featuring Iba One’s ‘Yereyira’, the Balani show madness of Kaba Blon’s ‘Moribiyassa’, and the tumbling beats and probing synth of Negib Ould Ngainich’s ‘Guetna’. 

During his travels in 2009–10 Chris would drive his motorbike to local bus stations and tea shacks in desert towns such as Kidal in the north of Mali and hang out at dusk listening to tracks on other people’s phones or blaring from the speakers by a market stall. He writes in the Cellphones sleevenotes of ‘the Sahelian soundscape filled with an orchestra of tinny digital audio’, autotuned beats wafting on the desert breeze. With Bluetooth activated, transferring a song to your own phone was easy: ‘If you held the phones up together you could send the song. Physically someone had to travel the first 20 miles with it on a phone, then give it to someone else – like a baton it would be passed – and so different cities had different types of music, depending on who was migrating through a place, and that kind of created influences and styles in different towns. Sort of like cassette trading, or whatever went before, but you don’t typically think of digital music in that sense.’

Another highlight of Music from Saharan Cellphones is Mdou Moctar’s ‘Tahoultine’, released prior to the compilation as a single. ‘Tahoultine’ means ‘a greeting to everyone’, and the autotuned love song was hugely popular with teenagers in Niger. It went down equally well at London’s Vinyl Therapy when I played the 7-inch on a Dansette to a room full of mostly middle-aged men, who nodded their approval. Chris laughs and recounts how, on Mdou’s recent visit to Portland that February, they’d recorded a new solo album in a studio Sousoume Tamachek, a bunch of ‘Tahoultine’-era love songs that Mdou used to play on acoustic guitar with his friends before he went electric with a full band. Christopher told him, ‘“You can just play around: you can do as many overdubs as you want.” So he did crazy overdubs, he put his vocals, like, four times, overdubbed his vocals, putting five guitars on top of each other – sort of a one-man-band playing everything. So it’s a very mellow record but it’s interesting, it’s not like his rock record.’


Christopher’s enforced move east into Niger from Mali has led to even richer rewards. Alternate tunings, different traditions and miles of empty scrubland and desert might separate Mali and Niger, but in Agrim Agadez, Sahel Sounds has released a Nigerien guitar compilation every bit the equal of Laila Je T’Aime – the bottom line is: all Tuareg guitar is rebel music. There’s an irresistibly infectious fuzz guitar on Agadez wedding band Etran de L’Aïr’s title track; the beautiful playing and soft vocal of ‘Bahouche’ by Amaria Hamadalher, one of the few female Tuareg guitarists; and an almost sixties folk feel to John Safokoley’s lovely ‘Anashua’. I mention to Chris that when I bought a second copy recently in Honest Jon’s the guy behind the counter considered it album of the year (for 2017). ‘Wow, crazy. That’s nice to hear,’ he says. ‘That’s the stuff I don’t usually get to hear. I don’t get a load of feedback, you know. That keeps me working.’ 

It would have been no surprise to see smoke coming out of the back of the speakers when I played the last track on side one, Azna de L’Ader’s version of ‘Hey Joe’, at my mate Pete’s fiftieth birthday party. ‘That’s so bad, so loud too – so rough,’ laughs Chris, of the track I nearly left in my bag for fear it would sound just like a bad karaoke version of Hendrix (it didn’t, it was like an immense jolt of electricity through the bar). ‘Yeah, it was surreal too,’ he says, ‘having Mona dust off his old purple suit and go up and play “Hey Joe”, like this muddled, out-of-practise fuzzy version at this military bar where we recorded it. I feel sometimes recordings like that just need to exist, to just kind of jar people a little bit and say, “Look, that happens here too.”’ In the sleevenotes to the compilation, Mona, grizzled veteran leader of The Crocodiles and the ‘Hendrix-inspired psychedelic rock orchestra’ Azna de L’Ader, points out that his Nigerien ancestors took all the blues with them onto the slave ships destined for the US – Hendrix was only blasting back what came from Africa in the first place.


Listening to the Wind is out now, published by Omnibus Press. You can order a copy here. Read a previous extract, on Frances Castle’s Clay Pipe Music label, here.