BANNED MEDIA MONTH #3: Music From Saharan Cellphones, by Sahel Sounds (2011)

Type of Media: Music Album (Compilation)

'World music' has always been an unpleasant term to me. The idea of clumping different kinds of musical styles from all over the non-Western world into one category, simply because they're exotic to us, undermines the highly varied cultural heritages and meanings behind said styles. With an all-encompassing term like that you're throwing everything foreign into a big ethnic stew and you miss out on what makes different kinds of regional sounds special.

Take, for instance, the music of Mali. The African country of Mali has a long, rich musical tradition that still pervades its culture. If you can think of a major music award, a Malian musician has probably won that award at some point in history. From traditional singers backed by stringed kora, to Tuareg guitarists playing desert blues, to politically-charged rappers influenced by trap beats, Mali's music is considered a valuable resource by music fans and artists all over the world.

What they lack, however, is a reliable distribution network. With internet access spotty in parts of the country, particularly the desert, many Malians don't have instant access to recordings of their own country's music. To work around this, Malians will store music on the memory cards of their phones, and then share their collections with people they meet via Bluetooth. On a trip to Northern Mali, Christopher Kirkley of music archiving project Sahel Sounds collected the most popular songs from these cellphone distribution networks, tracked down the artists, and put together the compilation Music From Saharan Cellphones.

Music From Saharan Cellphones avoids Malian artists that are internationally-known in favor of musicians whose popularity is pretty much just local. Group Anmataff starts off the record with their song Tinariwen (written in tribute to Grammy Award-winning Malian band Tinariwen), which features a couple guitars jamming to a basic drum machine loop with droning vocals, sounding both very old and quite new at the same time. A couple tracks later we get a Tuareg guitar track in Alghafiat, as Northeastern Mali favorites Amanar play a desert-influenced form of blues with sing-talked lyrics and an occasional blast of wooden flute.

The songs in the middle of the album sound more modern, most notably rap song Yereyira by Papito and Iba One with its trap influences and too-clean Fruity Loops production. However, even these songs have clear traditional influences, like Moribiyassa by Kaba Blon, which despite a fast synthesized drum loop sounds more like an old call-and-response folk song. The closing track Aicha by Bayta Ag Bay brings things back to string instruments, though this time more somber than the chill, upbeat songs from before. If this song is a dirge for lost love or hardship, I wouldn't be surprised.

With such amazing music played all over Mali, you would think that local musicians would be universally respected. However, the rise of extremist Muslim groups in the region in 2012 forced nightclubs, concerts, and artists underground. Radical Islamists, following a strict interpretation of Sharia law, put a ban on all music. They burned instruments and threatened musicians with violence if they played, worried that the artists' songs might give people a voice against their message. Until last year, when the violence quieted a bit, radios in northern Mali could only play Qur'anic verse readings. 

Now, though, the extremists are being driven away and people are playing music in Mali again. Malians say going to concerts and playing music from their phones helps them feel like things are returning to normal. With such great music to listen to, as demonstrated on this album, it's not hard to see why.