Sahel Sounds: Inspiration from West Africa

AiW Guest: Kev Kelly

This post originally appeared on Sign Records’ blog and is re-published with their permission.


Sahel sounds 1

We love Sahel Sounds. Set up by the adventurous Christopher Kirkley, it started as a project to release interesting and rare music from West Africa. This is easily epitomised by the compelling compilation Music from Saharan Cellphones (yes, that’s tracks found on cellphone memory cards).

Chris is an archivist, artist, curator, and DJ who explores popular music and culture across the Sahel region of Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. It all began as a blog in 2009 to share recordings and evolved into a platform to explore and exhibit art and sounds, and the people behind them, to the rest of the world.

A fantastic recent offering from Sahel Sounds is Unreleased Tapes 1981-1984 by Mamman Sani. Described as an experiment in early electronic music, where dreamy organs and droning melodies reinterpret ancient folk tradition into a sublime fantastical soundscape. It’s hypnotically good.

We get excited when labels do something different, and Sahel Sounds does that with aplomb. The ‘rogue ethnomusicologist’ is first and foremost passionate about finding rich expressions, stories and sounds, and bringing them to new audiences.

Chris describes it in his own words:

Sahel Sounds started as a blog to document music during my travels in West Africa, but it’s since evolved into a multifaceted project, concerned not just with music, but with cultural exchange. A central tenet of the project has been to increase the level of involvement in every aspect of the exchange, from creation to representation. I think we’re at a unique time where technology is allowing new ways of global communication, and it’s exciting to see the benefits of this expressed through sound.

As well as musical releases from the likes of L’Orchestre National de Mauritanie and Alkibar Gignorto, Chris recently created an exhibition exploring the story of the Malian emperor Abu Bakr II and his purported discovery New World during his 1311 exploration of the Atlantic Ocean.

This year joined Norient for their 2016 Musikfilm Festival in Switzerland and also dipping down to Niger to work on a new film about immigrant desert crossings and a mythical city in the Sahara.

By recording and representing old and new music that otherwise might be lost, Sahel Sounds creates a selection and study of music with reflections on the culture around it, making this accessible to new audiences. Chris also curates projects and works on films; so let’s just say he’s pretty busy right now.

The thing that appeals to him is working between worlds and introducing them to each other. Chris elaborates:

For example, trying to explain to an amateur wedding band in Niger that I want to release a record of their music in the USA and what that means can be tricky; and then explaining to people in the USA about this amateur wedding band from Niger. There are loads of misconceptions on both sides, and I’m in the middle of this discussion.

We like that kind of musical connection and we think it’s inspiring. And if you’ve got to the end of this blog post then you probably do too, so take a look and a listen and find out more at


Kev Kelly

Kev Kelly is interested in literature, cinema, art and music, and has travelled widely, including living and working in Barcelona and Stockholm. He currently lives in London and works in communications strategy and copywriting for advertising and brand agencies. This is his first blog for Africa in Words.

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1 reply

  1. I personally shared with him a stage, he is a great pianist, well he did move our hearts at Nyege Nyege international festival.

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