Digital file sharing doesn’t need the internet. This is the case at least in Western Africa and other parts of the developing world, where computers aren’t yet consumer goods for most and, even if they were, web access isn’t exactly what it is in New York City. Lovers of music still get it done, however, sharing files between knockoff cell phones via bluetooth connections and accumulating song collections in memory cards and bitrates that would probably make most in our lossless world laugh. It’s created a music culture that’s uniquely underground, an awesome anything-goes world of No Limit-style rap marrying Megaman-synth workouts, strange new techno-folks, and various other things so far untaggable.
Portlander Christopher Kirkley put together a compilation of stuff collected from the cell phones of music listeners in Western Africa and released it a few years ago on cassette, called simply Music From Saharan Cell Phones Vol. 1, via his Sahel Sounds. Since then, he’s taken on the mammoth task of tracking down every artist on it, who will now get 60-percent of the profits from a re-release of the compilation last month on vinyl. Over the holidays, we got the chance to ask Kirkley a few questions about cell phone sharing culture and the process of putting the comp together.
Motherboard.TV: How did you personally get involved in/find out about this phone-based music culture?
I was in the Northern regions of Mali on a recording project. One night I was sitting with a friend who was touting his cellular phone. He was cycling through all these sound clips of traditional poetry and vocal folk songs that he had recorded himself. I realized right there the limits of my role. Archiving and documentation is built largely on these technological inequities. I started to collect mp3s from friends as a secondary collection, with the idea of finding firsthand recordings of these things I had no access to. But the data collections evolved into a representative survey of multimedia circulating on the cellphone networks.
When you’re sharing a library via bluetooth, are you interfacing with that other person at all?
You have to—the phones have to be right next to each other, the connections have to be “accepted” on the phone, and the transfers take at least 30 seconds. It’s not like people just wander around browsing through whatever phone is in proximity. Also, the majority of file sharing is between friends, sitting around, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, trying to pass the time…
How did you, an American I presume, wind up with a phone that even had the capability of sharing tracks with people in Western Africa?
I collected music on a tiny laptop. Each card has a microSD memory card inside, and if you throw it into an adapter and card reader, it’s much quicker. That’s how a lot of people fill their cards. Usually via a cellphone vendor who has a computer full of mp3s that he accumulates every time someone brings a cellphone in for repair.
What was your first big surprise on listening to what you downloaded?
The most exciting tracks were those self-produced local tracks. Like Anmataff’s ‘Tinariwen,’ with this wicked drum machine. It’s the first time I ever heard a programmed drum in Tuareg guitar music.
Are the songs you hear on this compilation and on the phones the same as those you might hear out in a club or wherever? Is the economy of cellphone songs totally independent from the “normal” music economy? Is there any channel by which producers can get compensated?
There really is no separation between music on cellphones and popular music in general. DJs are playing mp3s on mixing software, USB FM transmitters are in every taxi cab, and even old cassette decks can be rigged to boost a signal out of a cellphone speaker. It’s all the same music. Compensation is non-existent though. A lot of the artist discussion still focuses on the outmoded idea of ‘combating piracy,’ but most of the younger kids realize the inevitability of transfers.
Purchasing music is a luxury item. Supporting musicians out of goodwill is offset by obligation to the needs of those more immediate and personal.
To read the interview in full, visit Motherboard.TV