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An Interview with Christopher Kirkley from Sahel Sounds

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Christopher Kirkley is the founder of the Sahel Sounds record label based out of Portland, Oregon and the man responsible for bringing Les Filles de Illighadad to Montreal during the Suoni Per Il Popolo Festival in June 2017.

Louis Rastelli, director of ARCMTL (Archive Montreal) and resident CKUT DJ (Montreal Sound Ark on Fridays 3 – 5 pm), invited Kirkley for a conversation at Archive Montreal’s archive centre in the Mile Ex district a few days after the Filles de Illighadad concert on June 21.

There is a local connection to the Sahel Sounds label by way of the old underground record co-op Backroom Records, which ran from the mid 2000s until 2015 in a back alley just south of the train tracks in the Mile End. That’s where Warren Hill, local record collector and Backroom Records founder, began putting out cassette and LP compilations of old blues, gospel and music from around the world on the Mississippi Records imprint. Around 2009, Warren began visiting Portland regularly to coordinate Mississippi Records releases with the local record store of the same name. A chance meeting in the shop with Christopher Kirkley led to the first Sahel Sounds releases. Just a few years later, the label boasts a catalogue of around 50 albums, documenting dozens of Sahel musicians and acts whose music would not likely have ever been preserved otherwise. Among the best loved of these records are two volumes called Music from Saharan Cellphones, compilations documenting independently produced musicians and bands whose recordings were mainly shared through memory cards on cellphones.

Rastelli spoke to Kirkley about how this all began and about how he discovered Les Filles de Illighadad. By the way: don’t forget to catch them on their second swing back in Montreal this Wednesday June 28 at Sala Rossa!

L: I’m curious about the challenges you face dealing with the kinds of artists you work with. For example, all the stuff that you copy off of people’s memory cards, it must be a huge range of digital files?

C: Yeah, I try to copy as much as possible, and I use that to source a lot of material for the albums, because a lot of time they only exist as MP3 and there’s no higher quality version. When I was first doing that for the Saharan Cellphone compilations, they were basically found MP3s. I thought I’d find the artists and contact them to get the master files, but there were no master files.

L: Were you able to contact a lot of them?

C: Yeah, everything on there was fully licensed and I was in touch with everybody, which presented its own difficulties — just finding people based on an ID3 tag on an MP3. Nobody was putting their phone number out there, which they really should be… If you don’t exist on the internet but you’re using this underground network of distribution, it needs some sort of tag or some way to verify that your name is attached to the file. What would happen is you’d have local cyber cafes, and they were the most savvy ones because they knew how to use computers, they would take out the ID3 information and replace it with the name of their own cyber cafe, so for a long time I kept zeroing in on the cyber cafes.

I spent about two years travelling around West Africa writing the Sahel Sounds blog. I was over there on a one-way ticket just travelling and recording without any commercial angle. When I got back to Portland, that’s when I walked into the Mississippi Records shop with a bunch of CDs of recorded music that I was passing around, and I dropped one off at Mississippi Records, primarily because I wanted it in the store and I saw that they were selling music from that part of the world, some of the Sublime Frequencies releases for example. And I thought, “what do these guys know about West African music? Here’s a CD…” But I wasn’t really looking for any label or anything, I was just looking for people to share the music with and talk about it with.

L: How’d you end up in West African for two years?

C: I’d saved up some money, paid off my college loans, so I decided I’d quit the job and see the world. I was playing guitar at the time and had heard some of the guitar music from Mali-

L: Ali Farka Touré is a big name.

C: Yep, Ali Farka Toure, and Afel Bocoum, and some of the other musicians who played with them… But looking on the internet was sort of a dead end, so I decided that I’d just go there and see what I could find. In some ways, this network of trading is like an internet, it’s a metaphoric internet where people are keeping and maintaining these files on their cell phones, and then trading it in peer-to-peer connections with other people where you literally have to hold the phones up together to transfer files. And so if you look on people’s cell phones in a particular city, you find songs that reflect the actual geographic routes that people are travelling. In a town like Gao you have migrants travelling on to Libya, so you find music from people coming up from Ghana that are passing through, trying to get to Europe, so you find those songs on those cell phones in Gao. Whereas, if you’ve travelled a few cities over, not on the trans-Saharan route, you wouldn’t find those songs, you’d find different songs.

And the biggest change now, since the internet has become more available there, is that we are seeing this music being transmitted, and it can be uploaded, but it largely isn’t, because people still don’t know how to use the internet, a lot of people are illiterate… A lot of people are using WhatsApp to send songs to each other…

L: Doesn’t that delete itself?

C: It does, but you can download it onto your phone. So now this peer-to-peer connection means you can send music a bit further, but it’s still confined within the network — it’s just that the network isn’t geographic anymore.

L: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think of northern Mali and the Sahel and the southern Sahara and all that, it’s very nomadic, a lot of cultures exist in tents and caravans, no fixed address…

C: Well, that’s the historic way of being, the nomad, and there are still those nomads, but they primarily don’t have telephones or they’re not travelling with songs or if they do travel, they’re going from one well to another in a very small area. But the modern young people, young men in particular, are nomadic in the sense that they travel a lot through the diaspora. The Tuaregs might spend some time in Agadez, and then will travel to Libya, and then will travel to Mali… they’re looking for work, they’re unemployed a lot of the time, and they move around. That’s kind of your modern nomad, just young people who don’t have employment but have family and friends in different cities and they follow the road.

L: I have to ask how you found Les Filles de Illighadad in particular…

C: I found them through the internet… I found a photo that was being shared on Facebook, I’m connected on Facebook now to a huge number of Tuareg, maybe 1000 of my Facebook friends are Tuareg… So there was a picture circulating of Fatou with a guitar, and I saw the photo and I send a copy of it to Amadou who’s in the band, and I said, “who’s this woman with the guitar, do you know this person?” And he says, “yeah, that’s my cousin,” so it just happened that Amadou, who I work with (Note: he played in Montreal with Mdou Moctar in June 2016), is related to her and they’re from the same town. A few months later, when I was in Niger, I said, “well, I wanna meet her while I’m travelling and go to her village.” Since it’s his home village it was really easy to arrange, we travelled there and spent a few days in Illighadad, doing the recordings that would turn into this album.

L: What was their situation?

C: There’s not very many women who play the guitar in Tuareg society. This guitar music is popular, it’s sort of a folk pop music that everybody plays but it’s also male-dominated, so it’s not very common to see a woman playing. What women do play is this music called tende, which is a name basically of a water drum. The guitar music is actually derived from tende, men trying to perform something that sounded similar to tende when they were in exile, fighting wars abroad, so there’s a very strong connection between the two musics. Tende is everywhere — in every single Tuareg village that you go to, at nighttime the young women of the nomad camps, they get together and perform tende. This is actually music specifically from the nomad camp, this is not music from the cities or the villages, this is music from where people live under tents with animals, and during the rainy season they all come together and this is where a lot of tende music comes from. So in this particular village, we had Fatou and Alamnou and all their friends who performed tende. It’s not ceremonial music, it’s really just music for people to play during the night, young people can come and meet under the cover of darkness and flirt with each other. It’s also performed sometimes with camels to welcome people home, for some ceremonial things.

L: The tende side of their album is amazing but how did the side with their songs come together?

C: We created the group, in essence, for the record. We had these recordings, and had the opportunity to tour, so then they had to transform it into a stage act.

L: So they had never even performed in this manner there?

C: No. She’s performed at some weddings before, but nothing like what we’ve been doing on this tour. What I really like about the band right now is that seeing them perform, it’s so raw, and it’s so natural. They’re very new on this world stage, so their music hasn’t changed. When they perform tende, they’re performing tende just like they were performing it at home. And in ten years, I sincerely doubt that will be the case — they’re going to take it in a different direction just based on their experience because performing at a venue isn’t the same as performing where they’re from.

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Les Fillles de Illighadad perform at Sala Rossa on June 28, 2017, doors at 9 pm. Their album, as well as recent Sahel Sounds releases, are generally available in local record stores that sell African records, such as Phonopolis, Cheap Thrills, Aux 33 Tours, Atom Heart and others. For more information about the record label, check out the Sahel Sounds blog, http://sahelsounds.com/ .