• 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.

  • Interview with Rare Blues Collector John Tefteller, who bought a $37,100 record

    John Tefteller is a well-known rare blues record collector. In 2013, Tefteller purchased "Alcohol and Jake Blues" by Tommy Johnson (1930), a very rare blues 78 rpm record, on eBay for $37,100.

    Tommy Johnson made five records for the Paramount label in 1929 and 1930. Johnson, unrelated to bluesman Robert Johnson, was a little known and very under-appreciated singer/guitar player from Crystal Springs, Mississippi.

    I love collecting records (mainly 33 rpm). However, being the budget-conscious (i.e. "cheap") record consumer, I will gripe when paying over $37 for a record at Amoeba Music while John Tefteller paid $37,100 for one.

    What made this Tommy Johnson blues record so rare? How did Tefteller get into collecting 78 rpm records? What advice does he have for folks wanting to get into collecting 78 rpm records? John Tefteller was kind enough to speak to me and provide insights on the unique world of 78 record collecting.

    Why is "Alcohol and Jake Blues" by Tommy Johnson the rarest blues record?

    That's not the rarest blues record. It's complicated when you say "rarest." The way I look at it, "rarest" means that only one copy remains in existence. Then, you can call it the "rarest."

    What makes these blues 78s so rare today?

    In the 1920s and 1930s the companies that produced these records made limited copies of the records for a limited audience. That small audience, through time, either broke, wore the records out or threw them away. The record companies rarely kept any masters and there was no way to trace the purchasing and selling of the music. So, it's made these blues records from that period extraordinarily hard to find.

    Everything changed after WWII. There was better record keeping. However, the records from 1926 to 1935, if you can find them today, are super rare.

    Back to the "Alcohol and Jake Blues" by Tommy Johnson record, how did you find that?

    I had a copy of that record (before the eBay purchase), which was the only [known] copy in existence. But it was really beat up, noisy and distorted. On eBay, I saw that somebody in South Carolina was selling it. He had a picture of it and it was in nice shape. I put in a really "stupid" high bid because here's a chance for me to get another copy of that record. I had no idea what the record would sell for. I knew how rare it was but didn't know how desirable it was.

    Well, I made it (the winning bid) for $37,100. When it was first listed, the seller was asking $100 for it but within a few days, the price shot up.

    Did the seller of the record realize how rare it was?

    I don't think so. The owner bought it at an estate sale for a few dollars. [Note: Tefteller went to South Carolina to pick up the record in person.]

    How many records do you own including all the formats: 78, 33, 45 etc.?

    My business, World's Rarest Records, has an inventory about half a million records. While my person collection is around 5,000 records.

    When did you start collecting 78 rpms and blues 78 rpms? 

    1972. I was a kid in Jr. High School back then. But it wasn't until the 1980s when I started to collect blues records.

    Vinyl album sales in the U.S. have grown for the 13th consecutive year. Any insights on vinyl's popularity?

    What I see is that people are tired of music that doesn't come with anything. The music comes off a computer or phone, but it doesn't have a cover to it, photographs, liner notes—there's nothing to attach to other than the music.

    The young people buying records like the concept of a visual thing with the listening pleasure. When you combine the two together, it's a more powerful experience than just downloading the song from a computer. Young people are enjoying the option of holding a 33 rpm record or 45 rpm record. There are some companies that are even reproducing 78 rpm records.

    Artist Robert Crumb is a famous 78 rpm collector. Any other famous folks who collect 78s?

    Keith Richards is a collector. The actor Matt Dillon collects rare pre-Castro era Cuban 78s.

    Robert Crumb was a big 78 collector and still has a very diverse collection which includes jazz, jug bands, popular acts, ethnic music, blues, etc. My collection has a focus on blues, rare blues. Crumb is currently really not buying anything these days.

    Any advice for folks looking to get into collecting 78 rpms?

    There is different advice for folks collecting specific types of records. It's best first-off to limit yourself to things you really like and that are affordable to you. Stay within your ability to buy them.

    And for purchasing a 78 rpm record player?

    You can get a cheap 78 rpm record player on the market today for $100. But I don't advise you doing that; in fact, you might do more harm to the records. There are players in the $500-600 range that are decent. Then, there are turntables that cost thousands of dollars.

    I often come across 78 rpms in thrift stores and garage sales. Is that a good way to get into collecting 78s?

    I don't recommend collecting the "old way": thrift stores, estate sales, swap meets. You can do that, but you'll be combing through a lot of beat up records in poor condition. That approach to collecting takes a lot of time, patience and dealing with frustrations.

    Find out who the 78 rpm dealers are, the honest guys, the ones who specialize in the genre you're looking to collect. Go with them and stick with them.

    According to John Tefteller, this particular audio "is taken from the original super beat up copy and poorly equalized. It sounds awful."

    Tefteller suggests checking out the good-sounding reissues on CD sold on BluesImages.com There are also loads of fantastic blues-related items like CDs, shirts, calendars, posters, etc.

    Image: The Vinyl Factory

  • Monk digs Johnny Griffin's Pants

    Jazz genius Thelonious Monk was often known for his laconic mumbling and other idiosyncrasies beside his legendary compositions, technique, and contributions to jazz. But in this short clip, Monk is crystal clear in sharing his thoughts on fellow bandmate saxophonist Johnny Griffin's new pants.

    "Some bad muthafuckers" indeed!

    Further reading:

    "Thelonious Monk's surreally strange and spartan genius gets its due" The Guardian

    "The Secret Life of Thelonious Monk" The Atlantic

    Image: YouTube