“What emerged from that is a sort of metaphoric internet, this network of file-sharing that wasn’t dictated by the internet, it was dictated by physical people travelling. Someone getting a song in one city, then getting on a bus and travelling to a different city, meeting with friends and sharing that.”
The most popular songs were metaphorically viral hits, on cellphones in Gao, Bamako or even Lagos. “They were the same songs, often unattributed, and no one knew who they were by. They were these mystery mp3s that had spread through this network,” he says.
“In Africa in general, the cellphone was the first digital device. And in the US, it was desktop computers and laptops, and then it was the miniaturisation of a laptop into a cellphone. I think that people in Africa embrace the cellphone in this variety of ways, with a lot more openness than people in the US have been able to. So the way that people are using technology in Africa has always been more futuristic. Really, anywhere in the world that’s not Europe or the US.”
A natural archivist, Kirkley collected everything from mp3 files to video and graphics, trading with people along the way.
The Sahel Sounds story
Back in Portland, Kirkley created a mixtape compilation of some of the music he’d discovered. It got significant attention online and he realised he could do more with it, if he could identify the tracks and artists to license their songs.
“It was hugely difficult at the time to track down the artists. Part of the process was using online resources, and travelling back to the region, playing the song for people and seeing if they could identify something.”
Kirkley tells the story of how he tracked down Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar via a taxi driver from Niger, who identified the dialect of Tamasheq on the song.