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Sounds of Digital Bamako

Wonders From Mali's MP3 Underground

In Mali, there’s a thriving digital music scene based on hand-shared MP3’s, cybercafes where téléchargeurs curate collections and load them onto USB sticks or mobile phones, and street recordings of desert blues.

This is the compelling portrait drawn, anyway, in a recent piece by Africa correspondent Lydia Polgreen in the NY Times Magazine - A Music Sharing Network for the Unconnected.

Intrigued, I chased down some of the sounds described or referenced in the article. You can catch an earful and buy some of these sounds described in the article at Sahelsounds, the website of Christopher Kirkley, the Portland-and-Mali-based musicologist described in the NYT article.

Sahelsounds unique approach is to through a variety of approaches including “field recording, interviews, video, youtube archeology, cellphone data collection” to tell the story of saharan folk and pop music.

Here’s an example of one of their releases, a gorgeous cascade of guitar mirages and galloping rhythms by Mdou Moctar. The album apparently is the soundtrack to a film called “Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in it” which documents the artists rise to fame in his home city of Agadez.

“Music From Saharan Cellphones” gets to the heart of the phenomenon mentioned in the magazine feature - music collected from the mobile devices of West Africans for who “cellphones are used as all purpose multimedia devices.” The album notes go on to observe that “In lieu of personal computers and high speed internet, the knockoff cellphones house portable music collections, playback songs on tinny built in speakers, and swap files in a very literal peer to peer Bluetooth wireless transfer.”

There’s also the fresh, high energy sounds of “Balani Show Super Hits: Electronic Street Parties from Mali” which sound great bumped from big speakers or blasted from a blown-out cellphone.

There’s loads more on the Sahelsounds website.

For a more wide-ranging view of Mali’s music scene by Afropop Worldwide, check out their full episode on the subject here:

In Polgreen’s piece, she observes that despite the intermittent cellphone service in Mali, the community would always keep their phones charged up, even when service was down. She wondered why, until she realized that a “cellphone is a digital Swiss Army knife: flashlight, calculator, camera and, yes, audio player. Mali’s homegrown, offline digital music has created a space for sharing songs that is in many ways more vibrant than the algorithm-driven way music is so often experienced in the United States — more personal, more curated, more human.”

TAGS: folktech audio