In 2008, Christopher Kirkley couldn’t stop thinking about a certain type of song. The former chemical engineer had become fascinated with tuareg, the guitar tradition of the Sahel, the semi-arid stretch of Africa just south of the Sahara. The Sahel is known for its mix of southern African and Arabic influences; tuareg guitar sounds like Middle Eastern trance psychedelic rock.
But tuareg wasn’t well known in the U.S. then. Since the 1970s, the Sahel has faced recurrent droughts, food insecurity, and political conflicts, and the region is largely disconnected from the market for world music (which draws more from the music from southern and west Africa anyway). “So I decided that I would just go there myself and learn about the music,” he says. He packed his bags, guitar in tow, and headed for Mali.
Back then, Kirkley had only been able to get his hands on a few CDs from the Sahel. Albums by performers Afel Bocoum and Ali Farka Touré had been on heavy rotation in Kirkley’s CD player. But once he landed in Mali, that music was everywhere. “I think one thing that helps is that people in that part of the world are very friendly and open, hospitable,” Kirkley tells me over the phone from his home in Portland. The guitar helped, too. “A lot of times when people saw a guitar, they’d call to me and ask me to play something, which would inevitably lead to other guitarists in town. People would say, oh, you’re a guitar player, you should meet this band.”
But even more important than his guitar was the digital recorder Kirkley brought along with him. Few people in the Sahel have access to CDs or reliable internet, so instead, they exchange music by transferring .mp3s from phone to phone, using SIM cards or thumb drives. On his first trip, as Kirkley jammed with local musicians, he recorded some of their sessions as well as others’ solo moments. Back in the states, he uploaded some of the recordings to his blog hoping to share them with curious listeners outside of West Africa. The site grew, and eventually, on future trips, Kirkley stopped playing along with the locals and started just recording their impromptu performances. It was the start of Sahelsounds, the record label.
Today Sahelsounds has put out more than forty releases, covering a wide range of music from the region. Last year’s Les Filles de Illighadad featured female tuareg performers Fatou Seidi Ghali and Alamnou Akrouni playing mesmerizing acoustic guitar duets with chant-like accompaniment. This year, the label put out TOP WZN, a genre of Mauritanian synth and lute music that sounds like cheesy prog rock for belly dancing.
The label’s latest album is a tuareg compilation Agrim Agadez, which includes more music from Fatou Seidi Ghali and a blistering Hendrix-referencing version of “Hey Joe” by Azna De l’Ader, complete with fuzzed-out feedback. “While it would be nice to claim that the record is comprehensive and academic, Agrim Agadez is not that album,” Kirkley explains. “However, it is a faithful document of the guitar as it’s heard, experienced in the open-air studios of Niger with a single microphone, with backdrops of children’s voices, crickets, and village ambience.” That’s been Kirkley’s mission—not to become an authority or academic, but to try to faithfully transmit the music he hears in the Sahel for a larger audience.
I spoke to Kirkley by phone at his home in Portland about his philosophy for the label, his business, and his plans for the future.
How do you find new acts for the label? Is it mostly through personal connections?
It’s a combination of things. Today, I’ll go on YouTube and find new songs that are circulating. I search for bands and musicians that I’m interested in, so that when I come back to the Sahel, I can locate those people and meet them. It’s a small scene, too. It’s not that big. If you hear somebody, or you see a picture, you can find out who they are pretty easily. Or I’ll collect .mp3 files when I’m there.
What interests me overall with the label is putting out music that people outside the region don’t hear, but that does represent something that you would hear if you were in the Sahel. WZN music is not avant-garde by any means—everyone listens to it in Mauritania. Fatou Seidi Ghali’s guitar playing is also very common in her part of the world [in rural Niger]. I don’t want to necessarily try to showcase something that’s an outlier.
I think most of this stuff is kind of—this is what I hear when I’m in the Sahel, and I want to be able to share that—because the music of the Sahel been sort of sidelined, for whatever reason. It doesn’t fit into the world music genre.
You’ve said that the field recordings of Alan Lomax from the ‘50s and ‘60s in the U.S. and abroad have been an influence on you, but it seems like what you’re doing with your label is different. I’m thinking about that cover of “Hey Joe” by Azna De L’Adar. I’m not sure Lomax would have recorded a cover of a popular American tune like that.
I think Lomax would have recorded that! I really think that what he was interested in, judging from what I’ve read of his writing—I don’t want to use “authenticity,” but he tried to find recordings that were representative of what was happening. When you make decisions about what to record and what not to record, you’re already creating a filter, and saying this belongs in the canon and this doesn’t. And as an outsider, as someone from outside the culture, any decision I make on what constitutes the repertoire of popular music, it’s a bias that I’m imposing.
And so rather than saying, this is representative and this is traditional and this isn’t, I err on the side of, well, let’s just record what is happening. And people can decide whether they think that’s a legitimate part of the canon or not. That’s up to the listener.
Has the label grown over time? Is it more visible and successful than when you started?
The label’s growing. A lot more people know about it; it’s become quite well-known in the Sahel. If you go to Niger or Mali, people know about Sahelsounds. We’re a record label primarily, so we release limited editions of vinyl. Our music is also on digital and streaming. So it’s grown in terms of releases.
We have three or four artists who have toured based on the work we’ve done. They’ve toured throughout Europe primarily, though [Nigerian guitarist] Mdou Moctar is here in Portland now. Fatou is touring, she just got back from a European tour.
Do you sell a good bit in the Sahel?
We don’t sell anything there because there’s really no market to sell vinyl. It’s all .mp3s. However, the music that I record or that I have a hand in producing is popular and gets passed around. So someone like Fatou, she never had any recordings beside what was made on cell phones. And I recorded her album with better equipment, including new songs in the studio. And those songs will all get back onto the local .mp3 networks, and will help her develop as an artist in Niger.
Doing this helps them get tour dates abroad and it also creates more of an audience in their own countries.
Is there a reason you work through Bandcamp particularly?
We’ve recently put everything onto all the platforms—I signed with a digital distributor to put stuff on iTunes as well. The reason I’ve been strictly on Bandcamp is that Bandcamp takes just a tiny percentage of the income. It’s really something that is geared more towards independent artists and labels, and is aimed at a direct relationship with the people supporting the music. With iTunes, you’re probably looking at a 50 percent cut that’s going to your digital distributor and Apple, so if you sell an album for $10, you might get $5, and then you’re splitting that with the artist, so it’s not very great.
What is your split with the artists?
We do a 50/50 split in most cases. There are some intricacies, but it’s more or less 50/50.
In theory someone from the Sahel could put their own music up on Bandcamp. Does anyone?
Nobody that I work with—they don’t have the know-how or access. You need a paypal account or a bank account to put your music on. I think one of the artists out of the 60 or 70 that are on our roster has a bank account—maybe one or two.
I’m not saying you can’t do that in West Africa, it might be possible to do it yourself, but the artists I work with don’t. And they wouldn’t. So… I mean, what I’ve attempted to do with the label is create a path to that. If anyone wants to learn that and start putting it out themselves, they can do that—I don’t have exclusivity. I want this to work in a way that if artists want to take on more responsibility, that’s totally open to them. It’s just that when I’ve tried to step back and say, when you have recordings send them to me, nothing happens. I still need to play a really active role right now until internet and finances are different in West Africa.
What music releases are you excited about coming up?
We just finished up an interesting Malian New Age record with a hip-hop producer—he’s composed this meditation/relaxation album. It’s really spacey, we’ve listened to a lot of experimental and electronic music together, and he used that to create this record. We’ve also got a new band from Tamanrasset, Algeria. They’re one of the hottest Tuareg bands in the Sahara now, but nobody outside the Sahara knows about them. So I’m really excited that we can push to make them a little more visible outside of Algeria.
Do you do the label full time? Do you have a day job?
No. This is what I work on full time.
And you make enough money?
No. [laughs] It’s a struggle to make ends meet. I’ve been working in art anyway, and anyone who’s an artist or a musician deals with these difficulties, working on what you love and trying to make ends meet.
The pay-off for me financially is relatively small compared to what it is for the artists. It’s been huge for the artists who are part of this. I’m happy with what it’s become for that.