In Rotation: Various Artists, “Music from Saharan Cellphones”
A series in Sunday Calendar about what Times writers & contributors are listening to right now...
The notion behind the volumes is nearly as exciting as the music within this mix-tape series, put out by the collectors/digital archaeologists at SahelSounds.com of Portland, Ore., over the past year and a half. Gathered from memory cards of cellphones in Saharan Africa, the arrival of these fantastic collections in 2010 and 2011 hints at the future of archival music discovery circa 2050 — a digital version of record collectors “digging in the crates.”
The journey of these songs began on cellphones, many spread from person to person via Bluetooth and phone-to-phone sharing that circumvented not only the music industry but the Internet. While traveling, collector Christopher Kirkley gathered them by culling memory cards and collected the best of them for release on, ironically, cassette tape, which he passed around to friends and fellow enthusiasts. Inevitably, “Music from Saharan Cellphones” landed on the Internet, where the website now offers it as a free download. It’s as fascinating a glimpse into modern-day West and North African music as “The Guitar and the Gun” collection of Ghanian high life was in 1983.
Auguste Solo’s “Decale” sounds like something M.I.A. will probably adapt in a few years — if she hasn’t already, a snare-drum-heavy romp with West African high life-inspired guitar riffs and an exuberant melodica and synthesizer. Morib’s “Kabablon” is one of the weirdest, wildest rap/North African mergers I’ve ever heard, a wind sprint that sounds a century old, until you realize that a lot of the sounds aren’t man-made but computer-generated. And the mysterious track “Mix” — some songs Kirkley has yet to accurately identify — is a strange, minimal AutoTune chant that taps into some universal groove that conjures not only the Sahara but the Middle East, Asian chants and Brooklyn hip-hop.
In late August the label posted a campaign to raise funds to press a two-volume LP of “Saharan Cellphones” and in the process continue to track down the artists whose work traveled this long, strange trip to compensate them for this unlikely collection. Which means that, if the funds are generated, the music will have moved from digital memory card in northern Nigeria to analog cassette to digital mp3 and an “official” release on ... analog vinyl. If that happens, someone needs to dub it onto eight-track tape pronto.