Christopher Kirkley (Sahel Sounds): “Purple Rain in the Sahara.” Interview by Bob Baker Fish


The Sahel region of Western and North Central Africa extends from Senegal to the Sudan, forming a transitional zone between the Sahara desert to the North and Sudanian Savanas to the south. It’s a part of the world that Portland based Chris Kirkley began travelling in over a decade ago, armed with a guitar and a handheld recorder, not entirely sure what he was doing. The music he experienced and relationships he formed left an indelible impression, and he has returned repeatedly to countries like Niger, Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania ever since. In 2009 he formed Sahel Sounds, a record label specialising in music from the region, all gathered by Kirkley, either recorded by him or uncovered via his relationship with the artists themselves.

The label is probably best known for its first release, ‘Music From Saharan Cellphones,’ a compilation of music gathered from songs swapped via mobile phones across the region, though he also recently directed the first Tuareg language musical in Niger – Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai or what he likes to refer to it as: Purple Rain in the Sahara. He also toured the film’s star, the charismatic guitarist Mdou Moctar’s band through Europe last year, with this writer managing to catch their incendiary sold out show in London. It was the washout from this show, the raw feverish garage rock of Mdou and band that had me frantically trawling UK record stores in subsequent days looking for anything with the Sahel Sounds logo on it. From traditional Tuareg vocal drone music, to sparse cosmic synth from Niger, to modern electro soundclash parties in Mali, Kirkley’s label felt like something new and raw, a world away from the hyper polished elegant sounds of larger more established ‘world music’ labels.

“I was talking with a band from Mali about Vieux Farka Toure,” offers Kirkley over a scratchy SKYPE connection from a record store in Portland. “They had played with him and they said Vieux Farka plays ‘world music.’ I asked what’s world music to you? And they said world music is when you take a bit of western music and mix it with your African music and you take a little of salsa music and you mix that in too. And I thought wow, when you say ‘world music’ over here you mean African music. For them ‘world music’ meant you’ve changed your music to fit something else. I thought it was a telling moment to hear that.”

When Kirkley first travelled to the Sahel like every budding ethnomusicologist he was searching for authenticity, looking for the traditional sounds of the region, and was dismayed by his inability to find them. Instead he encountered younger people, predominantly young guitarists who spoke French looking to jam. It was just through playing and hanging out that he discovered something that he didn’t even realise he was looking for.

“It’s not that it wasn’t there,” Kirkley clarifies. “It was there. I just didn’t have access to it. The traditional music is made by people who aren’t going to speak French or English. They’re people in the villages, way off the grid. Maybe it’s made for some type of ceremonial purposes. I would need someone to be my interpreter and guide in that case. With me wandering around with a guitar in the city, I was meeting people who wanted to hang out, young kids who wanted to meet me. So I was forced to modify what I was looking for, and then it became about my experience. In that way it became a really personal project, without so much direction. What am I stumbling upon?”

“With the cellphone music it was the same kind of thing,” he continues. “Okay I’m just going to start looking at what’s crossing my path – not try and direct it so much. I’m hanging out with these guitarists, they’re playing their cellphones all the time, and I started thinking how can I explore this instead of what I thought I would be doing?”

Yet Kirkley never intended to run a label. He refers to Sahel Sounds as a ‘reluctant label,’ and to some extent it evolved more chance than by design, when a Portland record store got hold of a CDR of the field recordings he’d been handing out to friends, and wanted to release it. This release would become ‘Ishilan n-Tenere,‘ which was released with Mississippi Records.

“With that first record I got paid $5,000 for the rights. I took $1,000 for myself and the $4,000 I just gave to the musicians. I called them and checked with them and made sure they were alright with it and paid them.”

It’s a model that he has continued, ensuring both artists are paid and the costs of the music are kept down much to his own financial detriment. When he returned to West Africa for the second time it was with the intention of rolling the dice and giving the label a go, though even talking about it now his disdain or perhaps mistrust of the music business is clearly evident. In fact to some extent his relationship to the region has also changed. Whilst he will always be an outsider, a foreigner from a rich country in an impoverished land, where money is at the core of virtually every transaction, it’s further exacerbated now he has come to represent opportunity within certain circles.

“Now a lot of time you get linked to a specific musician,” he laughs. “Like in Niger now all the Tuareg guitarists know me as Mdou Moctar’s white guy. Other musicians want to make a movie with me or put out a record. It’s hard because I’m not even a music business guy. I could be a good stepping stone for these guys to get known, but even Mdou knows I can’t offer them what they want long term, which is to be internationally touring musicians. I’m not a manager, I don’t want to be, I’m okay with being a stepping stone. They can get out there, and they can go on from there.”

“Going back it is harder sometimes. The musicians I feel best about are when I have the time to spend with people. When I have a week to hang out, then I feel better about it. I don’t like just showing up and going, ‘okay, you play this, here’s a microphone, record, here’s how my contracts work.’ I don’t want to do that. It’s not rewarding.”

Kirkley has long championed the work of Niger guitarist Mdou Moctar, having released his material in various formats, firstly on the Cellphones compilation and later on his own releases, touring him through Europe and casting him in Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai or ‘Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in it’ – if you get his drift. Moctar live is a charismatic performer, grinning manically as he closes his eyes leans back and shreds an incredibly lyrical guitar solo or just endlessly jams out a repetative riff. He is raw and dangerous, offering an intoxicating form of Tuareg garage rock that is something to behold. Kirkley first heard his music on cellphones in Kidal, the incredible Tuareg guitar riffs with this wacked out effected autotune music. His song “Tahoultine” was a huge hit in the region, but no one knew who he was or where to find him.

“I spent some time, two trips afterwards looking for information about him,” reveals Kirkley. “I eventually found him on facebook and went to Niger and hung out with him for two weeks and did some recordings of what would become that first album Afelan. I think with Mdou, I thought when I was looking for him I’d find this guy who made autotune guitar. I thought that was really cool, but instead of that, the autotune thing had been sort of an accident. He’d recorded it in a Nigerian studio that did that, and he’s like ‘I don’t use autotune.’But his music was really good, he had a really nice voice, and he had his own compositions, and we really hit it off. He’s a really sarcastic and funny guy. We had a fun time just hanging out. From that point on when I went back to work on this movie project I was going through different musicians who I could work with and it sort of fell to Mdou, because of our relationship, the fact that he was a really good musician and also political things, because Niger was pretty stable at the time. He seemed like a pretty good person to go to.”

“He’s a funny guy,” Kirkley continues, “and doing the movie, we’re sort of like punk in our aesthetic, in how we do things. We’re not that serious, and if I’m working with a musician who wants some level of professionalism they’re not going to get it with me. If we have some shitty little cameras, we’re using things like a paint pole for our boom mic. I like to do things cheap, and I knew Mdou could get behind that he wasn’t going to be too much of a star to put up with that.”

The idea for the film came from Kirkley during his travels, far from home in Nouakchott, just thinking up absurd and slightly ridiculous ideas with a Canadian friend, like a buddy cop movie in Mauritania, or showing Twin Peaks in Chinguetti. Though the one that stuck was Purple Rain in the Sahara. Eventually he was able to secure a producer, gather finance, and set about filming it in Agadez. Simple. Right?

“The process was a nightmare,” he offers wearily. “It was really hard. It was exciting there was lots of adrenalin. We didn’t sleep for eight days. It was really draining. A lot of actors weren’t so enthusiastic about the movie. They were like ‘we’re cool with this’ but then they’d do a take and want to go home. Mdou and the musicians and some actors were enthusiastic, we had some amazing actors, I don’t want to say all of them, but I think that’s not unique to this movie. From what I’ve been hearing from other filmmakers its always a nightmare to shoot stuff in a finite amount of time like that.”

He expands upon this in a post on his blog, highlighting the difficulties of filmmaking by committee and the desire of the actors to portray both their town and themselves in the best possible light.

“We didn’t necessarily have that low of a budget,” he continues, “but we were splitting the profits of the film between Jerome Fino (the producer), Mdou and myself. At first Mdou was like ‘oh man buy all this shit,’ but when he worked out the split he was like ‘okay we’re gonna hire the cheapest car possible,’ and then the car would break down, and then the motorcycle would break down and we’d have to get another purple motorcycle. We were trying to do it on a real shoestring budget, cutting corners that you shouldn’t cut. You need a vehicle that works. We had to push start our car every day. You could see the whole crew push starting the car.”

Despite incredible experiences such as shooting a film in Niger or recording weddings in Mauritania, Kirkley is also cognisant of the propensity for political instability in the region, and his own safety is something that he has to increasingly consider.

“I think at the end of the day our closest calls were traffic related,” Kirkley reflects. “What kills the highest number of foreign expats living in West Africa is traffic. I know it’s not as sexy to talk about as kidnapping. The problem with kidnapping is that it is terrorism, and it is an unknown. On the last trip we had a scare. I was with three Germans, we got a call saying that someone said Al-Qaeda is 40km from the town, they’re coming to kidnap you guys. But I also didn’t trust the person saying that. I thought it was political and they wanted us to leave the town. But I passed one night where we had to change houses, and had to hide out and had this weird hour long ride through the desert back to the main road. During that time it was one night of feeling really shitty about potentially putting myself in danger, but I’d also put these other three people, our Tuareg translator who if anything happens to us he will go to jail and his family. You don’t want that to happen because it ripples up too. Anything that happens to you is going to have a huge effect on all of your friends over there too.”

“Also fear is always going to be played up. The more it appears to be dangerous. The government over there is getting funding from the US and the French military, so it’s a political show game that you’re in the middle of. The best thing I try to do is try and keep a low profile, keep out of the cities if I can, never tell people where I’m going and never volunteer any more information than you have to. Try to hang out just with people you really trust.”

With plans to release the film on DVD – particularly in West Africa where Kirkley hopes it will be a hit, i.e heavily bootlegged, another trip to Mali planned this year, as well as having just come off another Mdou Moctar European tour, Kirkley has his hands full. He’s just released the soundtrack to the film, an album of Tuareg drone music from Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud, and he also has an album of Mauritanian wedding music he recorded in 2011 planned. Yet it’s all taking its toll.

“I can’t really live off this label,” he offers. “I’ve been trying to, but its not possible. It’s cheap to live here, I’m in Portland. I might try go at it for another year and then I might have to be done with it. Because I can’t afford to pay myself enough money, make the records affordable and pay the artists well. It’s not a viable business model in a certain way. I don’t think it’s much of a long term thing unless I can find some crazy opportunities.”

Whilst Kirkley seemed to have been in the right place at the right time, and captured a unique moment in time, bringing to Western ears both contemporary and traditional sounds that had never previously made their way out of Western Africa, with the widespread prolifieration of technology, even in the Sahel, times are definitely changing – a fact not lost on Kirkley.

“There’s this App, whatsApp on iPhone. It’s an App that allows people to send messages and media on their phone via the internet. I signed up to it a few days ago and musicians are sending me their songs from all over Niger. A rapper from Burkina Faso just sent me his album. It’s going directly to my phone and all I need to do is press play. I’m listening to their songs. It’s interesting. It’s weird.”

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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.