Last year, we rolled out Music from Saharan Cellphones, a vinyl compilation of popular music circulating on the unofficial cellphone music exchange networks of West Africa. In the preceding years, I’ve located more artists via internet tools like Facebook profile searches and Youtube comments, as well as my travels back to West Africa (where I met Ami Wassidje, Pheno S., Mouma Bob, and Mdou Moctar). The kickstarter is now underway, with competitively priced pre-orders on the vinyl ($15 w/shipping) as well as some new reward levels (like a cellphone from the Sahara loaded with mp3s or a MicroSD card release). Expected release date is around November.
The first rains were falling outside Timbouctou. A cold wind carried the bruised clouds over the river and the waving grasses, dampening the scorched ocher of red earth. I remember hearing about Abba, listening to a muffled cassette in Nema, across the border in Mauritania. The rain was also falling then, and the drops were pelting the tent roof. A woman waiting at the station supplied the cassette and his name. She was also from Gargando. I noted this on my map.
The landscape around Timbouctou is dense with villages, and most of the villages are separated by language and ethnicity — distinctive Tuareg, Sonrai, and Pulaar towns. Gargando is a Tuareg town, more specifically a town of the Kel Ansar tribe, more specifically still that of a large family. The sand is white and cool in the daytime, the water brackish and difficult to drink. Abba comes from that Gargando family that includes many of the members of the group Tartit, the organizers of the Festival au Desert in Timbouctou, and many of the Tuareg university students and intelligentsia of Bamako.
It’s also the area an area that was strongly affected by the last Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. There was a massacre in Lere in 1992 where the elder men were killed, an event that has no internet reference outside of Amnesty International reports, but something that stands significantly in the memory of the region. It was a signal of exodus, all of the Tuareg as well as Malian Arabs in the region fleeing to neighboring Mauritania.
Abba was a child when he left Gargando. Today it is again a Tuareg village, though mostly of the elderly and the young children. Abba is both a guitarist and a member of the Gendarmerie and is now stationed in the Goundam. The politics have shifted, and while the music might sing of rebellion, the new multi-ethnic military patrols are looking for Al-Qaedi and drug traffickers.
Goundam is a Sonrai town, and at night the youth of Gargando have come to Abba’s compound. There’s no more than 15 young kids — some are back from Bamako with jeans and fitted t-shirts, while a few have come from the village. The amplifier hums in the silences between songs as the kids whisper in quiet voices. As we sit in the orange glow of a streetlight in the dirt yard, Abba plays a set as the youth watch with rapt attention and smiles. There is an intimacy in the music, and it feels less like a performance and much more like a reunion of the children of Gargando.
The new proverb says “all roads lead to Kickstarter,” and I’ve joined the fray in this latest push — to bring “Music from Saharan Cellphones” to a vinyl.
In a rather ironic twist the musicians whose sounds were found on communication devices are incredibly difficult to locate. Google search algorithms notwithstanding, the network of cellphones and music trading and even communication exists fiercely independent of the global internet network. The project has been an exercise in Sisyphean patience, flinging messages out in bottles every few months or so: Facebook queries to whomever lives in the composer’s city, Skype out calls to numbers in blurry CD scans across six or seven countries, Youtube comments on every video containing a fragment of a song, and finally a few face to face meetings in Bamako with a handful of Mali’s stars (I regrettably had to give up on Cheba Wasila when every phone number for her studio listed seemed to be answered by confused Moroccan grandmothers).
But enough of the past. I’ve got a crew of artists and their songs together, and we’re making a record. The vinyl will be an amalgam of the first two cassette volumes, remastered, accompanied by liner notes with a short bio of all the artists. It’s an initial run of 2,000 copies — also to be available on bandcamp. The kickstarter is clear and simple — pre-orders of the vinyl available at $15 shipping included, to be wrapping up around end of October. Inchallah.
The sun has set by 8:00pm, the hour of sundown rarely changing this close to the equator, and the paved streets are bumper to bumper after evening salah — rusty Mercedes and aged Peugots, held together with wire and prayer, fighting along with evasive turns and blasts of the horns. Headlights bounce along the asphalt, illuminating white draas of the young men trudging along the roadside in the early evening promenade, congregating beneath the neon glow of a generic Shwarma/Hamburger fast food joint.
My taxi is piloted by a man who speaks only a few words in French or is not in the mood for conversation. We are far to the south, in one of the new and indistinguishable peripheral neighborhoods of Nouakchott. The radio plays a muddled recording of drumming and praise, accompanied by this liquefied guitar. I ask him about the cassette. “C’est Mohammed. Medeh. Guitar. Rosso.” A cool sandy wind blows in through the open window. “Zein, zein hatta!” I reply, in a poor facsimile of Hassaniya. He looks straight ahead.
We stop at a crossroads, a gas station assembled on a sandy plot alongside a road of deadlocked shuddering vehicles of indeterminable age, salt and sand eaten husks. I pay my fare with a few purple bills of Ougiya, in a similar disheveled state. And a larger pink bill: “Pour le cassette…faut me vende cas.” He pauses, looks at the bill, takes it, and ejects an old worn cassette. Smiling, he bids me goodnight.
Medeh (previously) is a religious praise song for the prophet Mohammed, often performed on Fridays, usually performed by Haratine, almost ubiquitously performed by men, accompanied by drumming and clapping, but sometimes, as here, accompanied by guitar:
download full cassette here (mediafire link)
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!)
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.