Sahel Sounds is a portal into alternate realities. The small independent label has made music from the greater West African Sahel region accessible over the past decade, including from remote desert areas in Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
Founder Christopher Kirkley runs Sahel Sounds from Portland, Oregon, in the United States and the project encompasses writing, archives, research, film and a record label.
Sahel Sounds shines a spotlight on previously obscure artists from northwestern Africa. It has catapulted many careers by introducing their sounds to a global audience, including Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar, all-female guitar band Les Filles de Illighadad, keyboardist Hama and pioneering organist Mamman Sani.
“I want the label to be a way of de-exoticising things, through the process of learning about the music,” Kirkley says. “So, when you hear Hama and you find out he’s a chauffeur who got a keyboard from a friend and he started making music on Fruity Loops [production software] … you start to form an image of what it is to be a person in Niamey growing up in the 2000s … I want the work to be an invitation to learn about something.”