Just across from the twin towers of the Saudi Mosque, there is a market colloquially known as “hot point” or “cheb cheb” (Wolof for “thief”). On the streetside, young men huddle in groups, selling old battered cellphones from each hand, Nokia chargers trailing from pockets. Old men crouch in the shade of the market, stacks of rubber banded plastic cards with punch out SIM cards with the corresponding numbers scrawled in black felt marker. The stalls facing the mosque are decorated with the hand painted signs ubiquitous in the pictorial language of the West African marketplace — roughly drawn cellphones and calligraphic text hanging over the heads of Maurish shop owners standing before ceiling high collections of all things cellular. The streetside is crawling with activity, ambiance and confusion.
The market itself is a labyrinthine of stalls, glass display cases filled with “fake” Nokia/Samsung cellphones, sporting two or three SIM cards, cameras, mp3 players, and speakers. Deeper into the market, past the fancier shops, the stalls are simpler. In concrete boxes plastered with glossy hip hop posters and homemade montages, young men lounge behind computers, blasting music from pairs of speakers directed outwards, in an arms race of sonic amplitude. This is Nouakchott’s mp3 market.
This is no amateur operation. Every computer trails a variety inputs: USB multipliers, memory card receivers, and microSD adapters. A virus scan is initiated on each new connection. Each PC is running some version of a copy utility to facilitate the process. The price is a standard 40 ougiya per song, about $0.14; like every market, discounts are available for bulk purchases. The music on the computers is dictated by the owners. Hassaniya music is most often carried by young Maurs, Senegalese Mbalax and folk by Pulaar and Wolof kids. While I’m searching for Hausa film music, I’m directed to the sole Hausa man in the market, a vendor from Niamey. I sit with the vendors, scrolling through the songs on VLC, selecting with a nod or a pass, the files copied to a folder, tallied, and transferred to my USB.
No one in the market can tell me when the mp3 market began or where it will go. For the moment, it seems to be thriving, filling the youth’s cellphone and the taxi driver’s USB FM transmitter, a physical version of iTunes. In the free-for-all of digital exchange, the market has taken a demand and created a supply, accepting a meager payment for services rendered — not for the music, which everyone agrees, is a valueless item. After all, it’s so easy to copy, such a futile act to battle against.*
*for more on this, see theorist Marcus Boon’s new column in The Wire.