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July 20, 2011

Root Hog or Die

Music from African cell phones

The Sahel — the massive brown-green belt that separates North from Sub-Saharan Africa — is one of the world’s last great liminal spaces. It’s everywhere, stretching across a dozen African nations, and nowhere at all, as it’s home to a predominantly semi-nomadic population whose transhumant roots reach far into the past, to a time well before the establishment of those nations and their often arbitrary boundaries. The Western Sahel, in particular, is in a near-constant state of political, technological and cultural change. It’s an ethnic and artistic crucible. It’s also a vision of the world’s musical future — namely, the future of how music is created, disseminated and enjoyed.

The native Sahelian Bedouin — Sahrawi in the far west, Kel Tamashek in the west-central Sahara — have been agitating for independence for decades, and their music, much of it born in exile in Algerian and Libyan refugee camps, is among the most exciting made anywhere. Sahrawi artists like Mariem Hassan and Group Doueh and the Tamashek ensembles of Tinariwen, Tartit, and Etran Finatawa — actually half Tamashek and half Wodaabe — are playing some of the last genuine rebel music on earth, and their traditional nomadic existence is expressed succinctly in their sound. Long with no fixed address (the camps notwithstanding), they draw on ages of Berber, Arab and griot folk, and mix it with nearly every major iteration of the West African diaspora — blues, reggae, hip-hop, rock ’n’ roll. There are even hints of fado and flamenco. They make music both timeless and contemporary, and wholly their own. Tinariwen happens to be the best band in the world, but that’s not germane to the discussion.

What is germane are cell phones. It’s hard to overstate their impact on life in the Sahel, and hard for a sedentary population like ours to comprehend just how revolutionary they have been for its nomadic people. Cassettes remain the dominant medium there, but phones are launching a challenge, as Bluetooth transfers make sharing music exponentially easier. An army of amateur media-pirates digitally transfer tapes from local dealers, and off the contents go, bouncing around at 56 kilobits per second from one cheap Chinese-made mobile device to another.

Whether in desert encampments, river settlements, established cities or political exile across the Algerian border, the tribespeople of the Western Sahel — Sahrawi and Songhai, Tamashek and Toucouleur, Wodaabe and Wolof —  are listening not only to each other’s music but also to Algerian raï, Senegalese mbalax, Côte d’Ivorian Coupé-Décalé, Jamaican dancehall, American hip-hop, Egyptian pop, Bollywood hits and Dire Straits. It’s no wonder that in a region as diverse as this one, tastes are among the world’s most ecumenical.

As our task-masters at Google and Apple whip us into a tizzy over the coming messiah of musical storage in the “cloud,” and we remain in thrall of music not so much for music’s sake, but as vague lifestyle affirmation — exemplified by the dull, safe arcs described by Pandora and the playlists of the local Triple A radio station — there are much wilder developments afoot in the Western Sahel; much to be both excited about and afraid of. Here music’s cultural emplacements are torn asunder, its fidelity is compromised to an almost laughable degree, and it’s available to everyone, liberated entirely from any semblance of the marketplace. Here music matters deeply; it retains all of its power to awe, excite, incite and defy boundaries of genre and clan and country, yet it can no longer be harnessed by those who would profit from its domestication. It’s as if, like anarchy unfolding in the wake of a great empire’s collapse, the collective decline of the world’s music industries have loosed their creations to run feral and free here, reverting to a de facto trans-cultural public domain, untamable, and just approachable enough to be momentarily, subjectively re-contextualized by anyone with a cell phone tucked into a daraa or a pair of G-Star jeans.

It’s going to happen. We might as well learn how to handle it by watching — and listening to — the Sahel.

Visit SahelSounds.com for a boundlessly edifying exploration of Western Sahelian musical life, and their two Music From African Cell Phones compilations.

Nathan Salsburg is an archivist and producer for the Alan Lomax Archive, curator of the Twos & Fews label, and host of “Root Hog Or Die” on East Village Radio.