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West Africa's Filesharing Underground: A Chat With Christopher Kirkley

Digital filesharing doesn't need the internet.

Digital filesharing 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 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 rerelease of the compilation last month on vinyl. Over the holidays, I got the chance to ask Kirkley a few questions about cell phone sharing culture and the process of putting the comp together.

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 these technological inequities. I started to collect mp3s from friends as a secondary collection, with the idea of finding first hand 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.

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