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Music: the voices of the Sahel in tune with the world

It’s the same principle as the good old cassettes recorded in a cellar, copied a thousand times and shared between fans. Except that today, musicians from the Sahel just need a smartphone and a WhatsApp message to make themselves known around the world. This is what Ali Traoré, 26, hopes. In a dirt floor in Bamako, crowded with scooters and jerry cans, the young man, dressed all in black, begins to strum the strings of his acoustic guitar. At his side, Hamadoun Guindo strikes rhythmically on a calabash.

Malian musician Ali Traoré records a new song with his phone in the courtyard of his house in Bamako, October 26, 2020 © MICHELE CATTANI / AFP

Ali, whose artist name is “Bounaly”, sings his nostalgia, the dunes of Niafounké, his hometown, also that of the immense singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré, whom he left in 2010 to study in Bamako , two years before the advance of the jihadists in the North. Smiling, he presses the “stop” button on his smartphone after a few minutes. All you have to do is send the track via WhatsApp to Christopher Kirkley, the founder of the Sahel Sounds label, who lives in Oregon, on the west coast of the United States.

In a region of the world where the rate of unbanked remains high, where texting and mobile data traffic are overpriced, streaming is still struggling to become truly democratized in Africa. Also, local artists in search of notoriety have adopted the habit of circulating their music through the mobile instant messaging application WhatsApp.

The telephone as a means of producing and distributing music

The American label Sahel Sounds (“the Sons of the Sahel”) normally publishes vinyl records recorded in Mali, Mauritania, Niger or Senegal. In January 2020, his boss decided to ask musicians from these countries to send him their recordings by WhatsApp. He will then publish them, barely edited, on the online music sales platform Bandcamp, known for hosting independent artists.

Every month, new songs are released under the title “Music from Saharan WhatsApp”. For the Internet user, the price of the download is free. As for the artist, he receives 100% of the income during the month when his works are online. Ali Traoré recounts how Christopher Kirkley once asked him to “record some sounds in the phone”, then transfer them via WhatsApp. “I said OK, no problem, we’ll do it like that. Barely two weeks passed between the recording of the songs and their uploading in early November.

Produce barrier-free

“A label from Mali cannot take you to the United States or on international tours,” said the musician, hoping that this music by WhatsApp will bring him notoriety. “It’s essentially an experiment, to see how to break down the barriers to entry into the market for these artists from West Africa,” Christopher Kirkley told AFP. “There is a technological barrier that prevents them from participating in the global economy, simply because of where they live. But if you can save your music to phone anywhere and download it, what will happen? […] It is an experience which aims to offer African groups a more direct source of income and the means to monetize their own art all over the world, ”Kirkley explained on his blog, which is not at his first attempt. test.

Among those who took part in the project, some were “shocked” by the amounts they collected in such a short time for a few songs recorded on their phones, he says. “It was really great”, rejoices Amariam Hamadalher, member of the Tuareg blues group from Niger “Les Filles de Illighadad”.

Just five songs recorded at home, with friends, earned them 3,000 euros, she says, or 20 or 30 times the average salary in the region. “It has helped us a lot in this somewhat difficult period of coronavirus. ”

Sahel Sounds: explore other musical scenes

Christopher Kirkley founded his Sahel Sounds label in 2009, initially as a blog. Then he traveled for years, especially in the Sahel, a huge semi-desert region south of the Sahara, recording local musicians. He realized the importance of cell phones in the musical world of the sub-region.

At the time, we were no longer with duplicate cassettes, but the Internet was not yet widespread and it was necessary to use Bluetooth to exchange files between phones a few meters away. “It was really interesting to see what people had on their phones. In each city, it was different, and there were a lot of songs that you couldn’t find anywhere else, not on the radio and certainly not on YouTube ”, recalls the one that the magazine Les Inrockuptibles nicknamed “the adventurer turned producer”.

Ten years later, smartphones are everywhere, even in the Sahel, but Christopher Kirkley intends to “play a bit with the same idea”: to discover, and make known, music as it is played and shared in the Sahel, without the filter from a studio producer or record company.

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