Recordings from the North African desert and the Sahel, which borders it to the south, have been a staple of the world-music marketplace ever since Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré released his eighth, self-titled album 24 years ago on World Circuit. With its fingerpicked guitar figures, which recall American country blues, Ali Farka Touré resonated with audiences raised on rock, even though its rhythms and lyrics are rooted in Africa. The loping calabash grooves suggest a camel's walk, and the songs—which Touré sang in a panoply of Malian tongues—praise the yields of hardworking farmers and call for cooperation among Mali's ethnic groups. Because Touré died in 2006, he's been spared seeing Mali split in two—earlier this month Tuareg rebels declared its arid northern provinces an independent state called Azawad.
His son Vieux Farka Touré sings in Malian languages and can play guitar much like dad, but he's more rock oriented: he's made a song and video with Dave Matthews and played for millions during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 World Cup. Vieux appears at the Old Town School on Thursday with the Touré-Raichel Collective, which he leads with Israeli pianist Idan Raichel. The collaboration may say encouraging things about cross-cultural harmony, but it's hardly Touré's finest hour—and certainly doesn't match the taut clarity of his father's best music.
According to the breathless liner notes of the collective's album, The Tel Aviv Session (Cumbancha), the two met in 2008 in a German airport, where Raichel made a proposal: "I will leave my band and join yours as a keyboard player. I don't care if I get paid or anything, I just want to follow you around and see how you do it." A guy whose first album went triple platinum in his home country can easily afford such a gesture; in any case, Raichel flew to Spain and joined Touré onstage.
Two years later, Raichel invited Touré to join him for a concert at the Tel Aviv Opera House, after which they retired to a studio furnished to feel like a living room. An afternoon of improvising yielded the raw material for The Tel Aviv Session, over which Raichel overdubbed a French harmonica player, an Ethiopian-born singer, and soloists on tar and kamanche (lute and spike fiddle, both Persian). Because Touré sticks to acoustic guitar and Raichel to a piano prepared to sound like a kora, the music lacks the former's desert-rock bite and the latter's sing-along choruses and elaborate electronic production. The result is a bland melange that plays to neither party's strengths—but I'm sure it'll sound swell in the gift shop of a vacation destination.
Because it's so clearly aimed at an international audience, The Tel Aviv Session provides a useful point of contrast with the music that people in North Africa are making for one another. Local artists in Mauritania, Senegal, Niger, and Mali continue to tell their stories with guitars, and in 2009 Christopher Kirkley, a nomadic musicologist and blogger based in Portland, Oregon, set out to make field recordings of some of them. But he ended up collecting music from other sources too. While staying in Kidal (then part of Mali, now in Azawad), he did what the natives do—hang out, drink tea, and swap tunes.
Cheap cell phones have flooded the region, even towns with no phone reception or Internet. Their owners use them as multimedia devices, and urban areas are soundtracked by a collage of competing phones and taxicab stereos playing Arabic pop, Bollywood hits, and a wide spectrum of American and European music, from Akon and Michael Jackson to Dire Straits and the Scorpions. But what really caught Kirkley's ear were the homegrown sounds that used contemporary technology on their own terms: blown-out hip-hop in local tongues, desert blues accompanied by drum machines, call-and-response chants drawn from ancient dances and powered by FruityLoops beats.
This music is circulated partly at bazaars, where the guys who repair phones also sell tunes harvested from customers, but it also passes directly from person to person—via friends and acquaintances swapping the contents of their phones via Bluetooth or memory card. Hits aren't delivered to audiences via radio, YouTube, record labels, or any other corporate channel. They're selected by a Darwinian process: if you hear it coming out of a preponderance of phones and cabs, it's a hit.
Kirkley joined the party, exchanging Townes Van Zandt and Elliott Smith tunes for whatever people had on their phones. After he returned to the States, his Sahel Sounds label not only released three LPs of the guitar music he'd recorded in the field but also two cassettes of his favorite cell phone finds, titled Music From Saharan Cellphones. WFMU's DJ Rupture started playing the tapes, paying special attention to some Malian hip-hop and an astonishing track originally identified as "Autotune." Its electronic beats approximate the kind of subtly off-kilter pattern you might hear traditional Tuareg groups create with hand claps, and the rudimentary guitar melody wouldn't be out of place on a Tinariwen record. The instruments are muffled, as though the music's been bounced from cassette to cassette, but cutting through the haze like a neon sign is a deeply soulful voice deep-fried in the same effect made ubiquitous by T-Pain, sounding something like a robotic muezzin.
Kirkley had heard it coming out of phones in Kidal, but when he put out the first tape in 2010 he didn't know who sang it. Some diligent searching on Facebook located the performer, Mdou Moctar of Abalak, Niger. "Tahoultine," as it's now called, also appears on a single-LP edit of Music From Saharan Cellphones. Moctar had recorded it as part of an album he never released but shared with friends in town. He had no idea that people elsewhere were listening to it, let alone that it was a hit in Kidal, more than 1,200 kilometers away. The song spread cab to cab, person to person, and memory card to memory card, borne by its own instant appeal.
That appeal has served it well in the U.S. too. Late last year Sahel Sounds put the song on a seven-inch, backed by a version remixed by Portland's Gulls, aka Boomarm Nation label founder Jesse Munro Johnson. (Boomarm collaborated on the release.) It's also available on Music for Saharan Cellphones, a series of remixes and interpretations of music from the cassettes that's downloadable from the Sahel Sounds website. Kirkley sent these reinterpretations back to Kidal via MicroSD cards distributed to the town's taxi drivers in early March, just days before rebels took the city. It remains to be seen if these remixes will travel through a war zone as easily as "Tahoultine" crossed the desert, but one thing's for sure—they're not fading into the background in anyone's gift shop.