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. Continue reading