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.
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.
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.
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.
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.