Mali Music Culture Defined By The Cellphone

Digital Content

In Northern Mali, one of the towns where French and African troops have been trying to unseat Islamist rebels is Kidal — a small, dusty hub of trans-Saharan traffic and trade.

Portland, Ore., musicologist Christopher Kirkley spent several months there in 2009 and 2010, collecting music rarely heard by the rest of the world.

He had traveled to West Africa with an acoustic guitar, a digital recorder and a small laptop, with the intention of recording traditional guitar music.

Instead he found the Saharan soundscape full of tinny digital audio blaring from cheap, off-brand cellphones.

“People use them as portable hard drives,” Kirkley said. “It actually was kind of a pain when I first encountered it, because I was there with my microphone, expecting to be trading these folk songs while people were playing them on guitar. And a lot of times I’d ask somebody, I’d say, ‘Play that song you were talking about, that old rebellion song.’ And rather than play it, someone would take out their cellphone and hit play.”

People were sharing the songs using Bluetooth wireless technology, which works without phone service or Internet.

With villagers, nomads, immigrants, traders, truck drivers and refugees all crossing paths in Kidal, the web of music Kirkley found there was like “the Internet without the Internet,” he said.

He started collecting the MP3s from the cellphone memory cards, and has since put out two compilations of Saharan cellphone music — the latest was just released on vinyl.

“These MP3s that are on cellphones often don’t have any information on them besides a file name and an ID3 tag, so when it came to tracking down the musicians, it was a really laborious process of trying to decode this really minimal information and find out A, where the musician was coming from and B, who they were,” Kirkley said.

Much of the music he collected from cellphones is the product of a “DIY revolution of cheap technology,” Kirkley said — songs created on computers in homemade studios in villages and towns. Occasionally, songs were recorded directly onto cellphones.

Many of the people Kirkley met in Kidal have since fled, because of the extremists who took over. In some places, extremists have instituted Sharia law, essentially banning cellphone music.

“The Islamists have actually even taken to destroying cellphone towers, seeing them as indicative of this popular music culture,” Kirkley said.

The phones have also been one of the only ways to capture the conflict there.

Kirkley plans to return to Mali next month — this time with the goal of collecting videos relating to the rebellion.

“Once the data isn’t transferred anymore, then it does disappear, due to size constraints on cellphones and the fact that it’s not being archived,” Kirkley said. “So in particular with the rebellion, I think that the really important story of what’s been happening in Northern Mali does exist on cellphone medium. And we’ll see what happens.”