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    Inside the Cell Phone File Sharing Networks of Western Africa (Q+A)

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    Digital filesharing doesn’t need the internet. This is the case at least in Western Africa and other parts of the developing world, where computers aren’t yet consumer goods for most and, even if they were, web access isn’t exactly New York City. Lovers of music still get it done, however, sharing files between knockoff cell phones via bluetooth connections and accumulating song collections in memory cards and bitrates that would probably make most in our lossless world laugh. It’s created a music culture that’s uniquely underground, an awesome anything-goes world of No Limit-style rap marrying Megaman-synth workouts, strange new techno-folks, and various other things so far untaggable.

    Portlander Christopher Kirkley put together a compilation of stuff collected from the cell phones of music listeners in Western Africa and released it a few years ago on cassette, called simply Music From Saharan Cell Phones Vol. 1, via his Sahel Sounds. Since then, he’s taken on the mammoth task of tracking down every artist on it, who will now get 60-percent of the profits from a rerelease of the compilation last month on vinyl. Over the holidays, I got the chance to ask Kirkley a few questions about cell phone sharing culture and the process of putting the comp together.

    Download Music from Saharan Cell Phones vol 1 and Music from Saharan Cell Phones vol 2.

    How did you personally get involved in/find out about this phone-based music culture?

    I was in the Northern regions of Mali on a recording project. One night I was sitting with a friend who was touting his cellular phone. He was cycling through all these sound clips of traditional poetry and vocal folk songs that he had recorded himself. I realized right there the limits of my role. Archiving and documentation is built largely these technological inequities. I started to collect mp3s from friends as a secondary collection, with the idea of finding first hand recordings of these things I had no access to. But the data collections evolved into a representative survey of multimedia circulating on the cellphone networks.

    When you’re sharing a library via bluetooth, are you interfacing with that other person at all?

    You have to — the phones have to be right next to each other, the connections have to be “accepted” on the phone, and the transfers take at least 30 seconds. It’s not like people just wander around browsing through whatever phone is in proximity. Also, the majority of file sharing is between friends, sitting around, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, trying to pass the time. . .

    How did you, an American I presume, wind up with a phone that even had the capability of sharing tracks with people in Western Africa?

    I collected music on a tiny laptop. Each card has a microSD memory card inside, and if you throw it into an adapter and card reader it’s much quicker. That’s how a lot of people fill their cards. Usually via a cellphone vendor who has a computer full of mp3s that he accumulates every time someone brings a cellphone in for repair.

    What was your first big surprise on listening to what you downloaded?

    The most exciting tracks were those self-produced local tracks. Like Anmataff’s ‘Tinariwen,’ with this wicked drum machine. It’s the first time I ever heard a programmed drum in Tuareg guitar music.

    Are the songs you hear on this compilation and in phones the same you might hear out in a club or wherever? Is the economy of cellphone songs totally independent from the “normal” music economy? Is there any channel by which producers can get compensated?

    There really is no separation between music on cellphone and popular music in general. DJs are playing mp3s on mixing software, USB FM transmitters are in every taxi cab, and even old cassette decks can be rigged to boost a signal out of a cellphone speaker. It’s all the same music. Compensation is non-existent though. A lot of the artist discussion still focuses on the outmoded idea of ‘combating piracy,’ but most of the younger kids realize the inevitability of transfers.
    Purchasing music is a luxury item. Supporting musicians out of goodwill is offset by obligation to the needs of those more immediate and personal.

    How do people find out about this music initially, to even want to download it?

    The ubiquity of cellphones has created a busy soundscape. Music is always playing. So you’ll hear the same songs whether on a crowded bus, restaurant, or market. No one ever will ever ask anyone to turn off a cellphone, except during prayer.

    Can you tell me a bit about the musicians you tracked down? What were they like, what were they doing music with? Was this a networked “scene”?

    There’s a wide variety in the artists in the compilation and their responses. Joskar and Flamzy from Ivory Coast are already West African superstars and have toured throughout all the neighboring countries. Mdou Moctar is from a small village in Niger and plays locally, but had no idea his music was being played across the Sahara. But all of them are musicians, trying to evolve as artists and move forward. Most everyone wanted to use the royalties from the album to purchase new instruments or pay for studio time.

    What new thing do you want people in our “developed world” to understand after listening to these songs?

    I want people to listen to what’s happening musically in the Sahel. They can draw their own conclusions.

    Do you think there’s an analogous music culture in America to what you found there? Music that exists primarily in sharing networks, I mean.

    Isn’t all our music in sharing networks now? Are the entities like MTV and Clear Channel even relevant anymore? There a furious outcry by these corporate machines who based their business on distribution and propagation, but it’s just the sound of a system in its death throes.

    Did you get any interesting responses to the music that you shared?

    Not yet. But I’m headed back to Kidal in a month or so, and I’ll see if anyone’s still listening to it.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.

    Image: Christopher Kirkley.