Monthly Archives: June 2011

everything is remix

The headquarters of Maadeny CD are in a tiny store along car choked road just next to the capital. In appearances, it’s hardly different from any of the other “standards” throughout the city — closet sized boutiques selling cassettes and cds. The wall is lined with wooden shelves of cassettes, photoshopped montages of the countries most popular griots poorly cropped and scattered onto a generic desert background. There’s something beautiful about the design, the juxtaposition of heavily pixelated google image search results and the over saturated lens flares and text renders. The aesthetic is like an Al-Jazeera advertisement, the popular glittering exuberance of the Moroccan style salon. And it’s in the music too — this slick synthesizer, the Yamaha programmed rhythms, the underwater phased guitar, and the operatic voices that tremble at raised timbres in competition.


Careers are launched and fame is generated through these semi-official trade of cassette mixtape/compilations known as “selections”. While the major part of musical performance still takes place at weddings, baptisms, and private invitations, these compilations are the bulk of recorded music. The worth of a certain griot, their asking price, fluctuates with their popularity, and their popularity exists because of the cassettes. Combined with the lack of intellectual copyright in Mauritania, the cassette distributors operate in a quasi-legal state that is neither contested nor supported by the griots.

Maadeny CD may not be the biggest producer/distributor of cassettes, but it is the most recognizable for the audio watermark that is inserted into every track that passes through it’s computer. Whatever subsequent route the song might take as it’s transferred to digital, to cellphone, to mp3, even to other cassette manufacturers and distributors — all will carry an advertisement and trademark. But while Maadeny CD may mark the songs, they are not always the producer. More often, the songs are simply marked and released. update from Tony — Maadeny CD makes videos too!)

Maadeny CD watermark

In a lot of ways, it’s reminiscent of hip hop mixtape culture with the informal market and the constant dj shoutouts dubbed over the tracks. Except that this isn’t some subculture or ancillary market — but in effect, this is the music industry of Mauritania and the only channel of distribution. It’s a free for all industry of visual remixing and open source copying. And there is no central archive for the cassettes or recordings, such that most of the artists couldn’t even begin to collect everything on which they are featured (the bulk of the recordings are either live, wedding recordings, or cassettes “on-demand” for paying patrons). It’s a sound that exists in the moment, the music of Nouakchott, making it both temporal and ephemeral like the city itself — a Mauritanian lovesong that fills the street, blasting out over the horns and exhaust of the market in the sweltering day and gliding over the half constructed rooftops by phantom gusts at night.

Mouna Mint Dendenni

Piracy, fun, terrorism.

Ishilan n Tenere has had its “official” African release — a limited run of 100 cassettes produced with the crew from Mississippi Records, for African export only. Considering the conditions of the Sahel, with suffocating midday heat, corrosive sand, and the destructive hands of little children, the cassette seemed the appropriate medium, as a souvenir and keepsake for the featured artists and as a strange artifact to drop into the African data stream. Hopefully the album will enjoy some notoriety in its distribution from Senegal to the North of Mali amongst bootleggers, radio stations, taxi drivers, chauffeurs, and even military police — the latter a bribe to permit forward travel in the shadowy threat of Al-Qaedi.

The cassette market, while not quite what it once was, is still active and turning a profit, however meager. In the cramped market streets of downtown Bamako, the humidity and the pollution hangs in the air like a damp rag. All available occupied space, every square meter packed with the charge of capitalism. The most common music vendor sells music in a pushcart, rolling down a street against an oncoming stream of rusted green SOTRAMA minibusses swerving by. The wooden carts are mounted with ragged stereo boom-boxes in constant rotation churning out duplicates and blaring amplified sound in advertisement. “The business isn’t like before,” Arouna, a vendor from Burkina explains. “Everyone is using memory cards, USB keys…” He assures me he will duplicate the cassette to the best of his ability.

One of the results of the digital bootlegging, especially as the price approaches free (individual mp3s sold from a market stall catch about 50 CFA, or $0.10) is a Darwinian replication of the most popular sounds, with no marketing or central point of distribution but the literal peer to peer networks — and a real dissolution of boundaries, physical and virtual. For example, arriving in Goundam to give a copy of Ishilan to Abba Gargando, we find that he already has a copy of his song. Someone had transferred it to his cellphone after downloading it from this website.

Ishilan cassette in Bamako market