Interview with founder of Sahel Sounds, a West African music label

Sahel Sounds is a record label, a recording project and artist collective focused on the culture in the West African Sahel. While based in Portland, Oregon, founder Christopher Kirkley frequently travels to West Africa to locate, record and work with musicians in that area. 

Sahel Sounds publishes a unique array of artists and genres including Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar, electronic synth composer Hama who plays modal, quarter tone “Arabic scales” on a Yamaha electronic keyboard, the sinuous singing and lilting melodies of Les Filles de Illighadad and a handful of other compelling artists.

Kirkley also writes extensively on the artists, how he met and recorded them as well as illuminating what makes their musical approach so distinctive. Also, the record label’s YouTube Channel features over 450 videos of the Sahel Sounds artists. 

Founder Christopher Kirkley took time to speak with Boing Boing to share his insights on the Sahel Sounds project. 

How and when did you start the label?

It was originally a blog that was kicked off in January of 2009. Simultaneously, I started the blog while I was traveling around West Africa to do this project of field recordings. But it was my own project and wasn’t financed by any external sources. 

What was the initial interest in this region of West Africa?

I heard some music from that part of the world and was really fascinated by it. However, I couldn’t find out enough information on that particular West African music online. I felt like I really need to go there myself and find out about it. 

Having read your blog on the Sahel Sounds site, I’m impressed by your knowledge of that music in the Sahel. What makes that music there so unique and varied? 

It’s big geographic area and there are all sorts of music coming from region. I think what jumped out to me immediately is the guitar music. For example, the norther Malian or Northern Niger guitar sound which is Pentatonic-based often has a call and response aspect to it. Also, the rhythms in the music can get quite complex in a way that Western ears are not used to it but there is something about it that resonates if you like guitar music or if you’re familiar with Blues or American folk music.

How do you go about locating these musicians? 

In the early days, it was mostly travel-based. More people in that region are on the Internet today and the music is easier to access now. However, it’s still very valuable to be on the ground because you might turn around the corner to a hear musician. Still, today, you can’t find 90% of this music on YouTube. 

One of the label’s releases is “Music from Saharan Cellphones” (Vol 1, Vol 2), which was a compilation of the most popular music circulating the Sahara desert on cellphones. Can you describe this project in more detail? 

Music is still shared by cellphones in the region but less so today. In 2006 cell phones arrived to Sahel in the form of Chinese models that were Bluetooth-enabled. These were often the first entry digital devices for many in West Africa because many back then didn’t have the Internet. So, music was often transferred from phone to phone. For example, a person could be playing a song when another person asks for that song. That person gets that song and then goes on a bus to another town where he or she shares that song with another person. I wanted to collect that music that was being recorded and shared while looking into the flow of how the music moved here and there. 

Outside of West Africa, how is the music produced by Sahel Sounds received? 

Some of the artists we worked with have toured with modern rock bands. It’s always interesting how they are received by those audiences. Sometimes it’s a cultural and political fight for the side of recognition, but we’re making strides. People are way more open to taking this music as music and not treating it as some exotic object. 

And for the future of Sahel Sounds and the artists you work with? 

We have a standard 50/50 deal of sharing the profits with the artists. We got new albums coming out in 2020 with more artists tours as well. We’re hoping to really make this West African region a cultural force by also bringing more people to work within that region. We’re looking for ways to finance more music and art projects and help the artist make the music and share it. 

Currently, two really compelling music acts from Sahel Sounds -- Mdou Moctar and Les Filles de Illighadad -- are touring the U.S. Be sure to check out their touring schedule.

Also check out the documentary “A Story of Sahel Sounds” available on Amazon as well as “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai” a film directed by Christopher Kirkley. 

Visit the official Sahel Sounds website for more information.