Tag Archives: saharan cellphones

abba’s home recordings, or how whatsapp is changing everything (pt 1)

The sand in Mauritania always carries the scent of the sea. You can tell you’re far from the iron rich dust of Timbouctou. Sitting under a tent in a wide empty space of sand and brush, dominated by hulking concrete half finished mansions, I meet with Tuareg guitarist and longtime collaborator Abba Gargando.

I first met Abba after hearing a grainy cassette playing outside of Bassikinou. Over the years we have met various times, though always near his home. This time, we are in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Abba had been here for over two years now, living between here and refugee camps in the east. Ex military, he now works as a guardian, moving his family and tent outside the houses as they are being built to scare away would be thieves.

While we are talking about “what to do next” he plays me some songs he has recorded on his cellphone. A drum machine clicks out a rhythm, while he strikes out the notes in mechanical time, singly softly. “I recorded this on my cellphone in the camps,” he explains. “It was night so I had to play quietly.”

We decide to piece together an album. The recordings are lofi – but so is Abba’s entire oeuvre; he is known today because of his music on cellphones, playing through the tiny speakers. The album could be a sort of homage to the cellphones recordings and listening, recorded by Abba. Unfortunately, he only has a few recordings on his phone, so he suggests to regroup all the youth from Timbouctou.

That night, he organizes a small gathering. We collect songs from the cellphones of Nouakchott’s Gargando-in-exile. There are hundreds of mp3s – recorded in festivals in Timbouctou, weddings in Nouakchott, or small informal sessions like tonight. Abba rewards the group with a few hours of guitar. When he starts playing, they switch on their phones, start recording, and throw them onto the floor.

I have no chance to listen to all the music until later, on the other side of the world. I make a selection and check with Abba. Five years prior this would have been arduous task – playing the songs over the phone connection, waiting for an SMS with the correct spelling, repeat. But times had changed. I send him the files over WhatsApp, to which he replies, identifying the songs and altering the tracklist to his choosing.

His final record hints and what will likely be the next phase of artists control over their own work, as it translates into the West. The role of record label/blog/writing about “the other” is as mediator between cultures, but rife with problematic issues of representation and exoticism. Holding to task the most exotic ethnography and offensive ‘world music’, it may be simplistic to think we can cut through decades of misappropriation with technology. But it does suggest the increasing role that artists may have in their creation and representation abroad – the Western mediators saying less, because it’s already being said.

Home taping is killing music

On a near moonless night, the bus rumbles to a halt. The passengers all debark along the side of the road — a vast clear plain clouded in by the shadows of the Dogon cliffs — somewhere on the national highway between Douentza and Hombori. As all the weary passengers sit, they all are pulling out cellphones, and soon the mass is illuminated by little square blue screens. There is no cellular phone reception here — this is not important. They are not making calls. Rather, what ensues is an orchestra of tinny digital audio, a menagerie of sound, beamed out like starlight over the plain.

Douentza recording

The cellular phone in its current incarnation is a recent phenomena here, but one with sweeping effects. In the past few years, the market was flooded with cheaply designed Chinese cellphones (bearing names like Samsong or Sqny), equipped with memory cards and featuring Video, Photo, and Audio, as well as Bluetooth wireless transfer. The ability to make calls is rather superfluous, and they are likely distributed in villages that have no cellular access whatsoever.

Interview with Amadou, chaffeur

One of the repercussions is the death of the cassette. For a long time, the cassette has held sway as the primary audio device in the Sahel and Sahara. While vinyl was popular in the capitals, in the radio stations, it never gained mass distribution — the simple environmental considerations would render it useless after a single hot season. As are CDs, quickly destroyed by the degenerative effects of dust and sand. The hardy cassette was the chosen media for the desert. But now, it seems they are breathing their last breath. Original cassettes are plummeting. While pirate cassette vendors are still a mainstay in every market, their compilations are not recorded from studio produced originals, but dubbed from mp3 to tape recorders.

Interview with Mouda Maiga, cassette vendor

The amateur recordings on cellphones are the envy of any ethnomusicologist — Tamashek poetry, tende drumming, multiphonic issawat chanting. All, in fact, done without the chasm the foreigner, an outsider whose motives are questioned and ability to understand hampered by culture and language. The ethnomusicologist cannot ignore the effect of the cellular phone, nor the utility that it plays in research.


Interview regarding the Christian Tamashek guitar of Pastor Mohammed, from Timbouctou, conducted over cellular phone recording.

The new media places the technology in the hands of the Africans. And as such, questions the role of the intrepid collector, the documentary filmmaker, the anthropologist, the photographer. The foreigner who has descended onto the continent over the past centuries has benefited from the technological inequity to become the voice, the conduit. Like the cassette, his days are numbered.


‘Mashup’ of assorted music collected from cellphones in Gao and Kidal.