Review: ‘A Story of Sahel Sounds’

Hot Docs 2017

6 mins read

A Story of Sahel Sounds
(Germany, 82 mi.)
Programme: Artscapes (North American Premiere)


There’s a term that has gained credence in recent years to describe the new wave of interest in non-Western music: World Music 2.0. Epitomised by the globetrotting Sublime Frequencies record label, it has also been applied to more localised endeavours like the blog-turned-label Awesome Tapes From Africa and the similar Portland-based venture Sahel Sounds. The Sahel—the semi-arid region directly south of the Sahara desert, stretching from Mauritania through Sudan—is well known even among World Music 1.0 aficionados as the home of the great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré and the band Tinariwen, among others. Sahel Sounds specializes in the region’s diverse contemporary musics, branching out from those familiar blues and rock forms into electronic and hip hop territory.

It’s probably been five years since a friend of mine first told me to check out a weird compilation of songs recorded on cellphones in the Sahara desert, and I’ve been a fan of Sahel Sounds ever since. I have around a dozen of the label’s releases, including Music from Saharan Cellphones, the hypnotic minimal wave gem Mammane Sani et son orgue, and the bizarre autotune trip Kani by Pheno S. But my personal favourite is Nigerien guitarist Mdou Moctar’s Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai OST, a Tuareg reimagining of Prince’s Purple Rain. Moctar’s major obstacle: his language, Tamasheq, has no word for purple—the title literally translates as “rain the colour of blue with a little red in it.” If the title is a bit of a joke, the music isn’t: it’s some of the most impressive guitar work that you’ll ever hear.

A Story of Sahel Sounds, a new film about the label directed by the Neopan Kollektiv and proudly crowdfunded, seems to assume familiarity with some of that background. One of the first scenes is in Portland’s Mississippi Records store—immediately recognisable if you’ve been there or if you’re familiar with its own record label, which specializes in archival releases of American and global music, but to anyone else must look like just another hipster record store—at which there’s a mumbled reference to one of the label’s lesser-known releases, a compilation of Bollywood-influence Nigerian music. I got it, but I’m not sure non-initiates would.

The film’s focal point is, naturally enough, Christopher Kirkley, the one-man show behind the label. It follows Kirkley on a trip to Niger where he meets up with Moctar, Sani, keyboardist Hama, and others, organising and attending a European tour for Moctar, and talking about the label’s philosophy to the camera. Unsurprisingly, it’s full of great music—Moctar’s performance for a dozen or so devotees by the side of a road in Niger is particularly transporting—but in most other ways it’s a pretty unconventional music doc.

Idolatry is played down in favour of ethics. Aware of the critiques of old-fashioned ethnography with labels like Sublime Frequencies alleging exploitative or even neocolonial practices, Kirkley stresses the importance of paying artists what they’re owed. The film also focuses on the strangeness of his position as a seemingly privileged white American dude producing records by poor Tuaregs half a world away. With ethics so much on the film’s front burner, discussion or analysis of the music itself is largely reduced to enthusiastic exclamations.

As a protagonist, Kirkley strikes a funny pose—lacking the psycho-beatnik cool of the Sublime Frequencies crew, the swagger of the record exec or the intellectual arrogance of the academic ethnographer, he comes across as a thoughtful, sincere and slightly awkward fan whose enthusiasm consistently surprises and delights his favourite musicians. The artists themselves are uniformly charming, of course. There’s the gregarious Moctar laughing about Europeans asking him what amp he wants to use—he has no preference; they’re all better than anything in Niger. There’s the soft-spoken family man Hama playing a song for Kirkley in the pitch dark after a day’s work as a chauffeur. There’s Sani introducing himself as an English teacher before a performance. And like earlier African stars like Fela Kuti, famously inspired by James Brown and Otis Redding, the Sahel Sounds musicians are as into American and other African music as those of their own traditions. Moctar is, of course, a Prince devotee; ’70s guitarist Mona plays his guitar with his teeth à la Hendrix; Hama says that people compare his stuff to Ethiopian music; and so on.

Although, for me, A Story of Sahel Sounds’ focus on ethics over aesthetics means it’s not quite the film that it could be, its pleasures are still many.

A Story of Sahel Sounds screens:
-Friday, April 28 at Hart House at 7:00 PM
-Saturday 29, Isabel Bader at 12:00 PM
-Sunday, May 7 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 9:15 PM

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