Published on October 23rd, 2015 | by Hondo1
Abba Gargando – Abba Gargando
A couple of years ago I interviewed Andy Kershaw for Wanderlust magazine. He was promoting his autobiography, No Off Switch. After a short chat about his adventures in Amsterdam with Billy Bragg, our conversation turned to African music.
Andy is famously attributed with ‘discovering’ Ali Farka Touré, although he was quick to point out in our chat that ‘discovering’ in this case amounted to being the first DJ to play him on national radio.
It was the subsequent trip up the Niger River with Ali to record a documentary for BBC Radio 4 that was more intriguing. At the beginning of the journey Ali presented him with a sheep – a great honour, apparently – and it accompanied them to Niafunke where it was duly slaughtered.
As they headed up they Niger River, they were greeted like royalty at each stop. Andy recorded the whole time: the sounds around him, Ali Farka Touré playing and singing on the boat, the musicians he was introduced to in each new town.
Andy told me a lovely story about his time in Timbuktu when Ali Farka Toureé brings a local female singer to the foyer of the hotel he was staying in.
“Ali sat there and played the guitar and she sang and I recorded it,’ Kersahw told me. “It was extraordinary.”
That idea of travelling to parts unknown and discovering new sounds really resonates with me. It’s why I’m more than a little jealous of Chris Kirkley, the man behind the extraordinary Sahel Sounds record label.
The label started as a blog, a document of the field recordings he was making as he travelled around Mali.
In his travels around Mali, Chris stumbled upon a local music phenomena – artists recording and distributing their music by cellphones. He followed its tentacles right across the Sahel region and now you’re just as likely to find him in a Taureg refugee camp in Mauritania as a Balani Show on a dusty street in Bamako.
Chris’s latest project is self-titled album by Abba Gargando. Abba is from a small village near Timbuktu, and before it fell into rebel hands he played at weddings and political events and distributed his music first by cassette and then as mp3s on memory cards.
When Timbuktu fell, Abba fled to Mauritania with his family. Chris found him in Nouakchott, living in a tent outside a building site, guarding it for its owner. They spoke of recording something together and Abba played him some songs he recorded on his phone.
“I recorded this in the camps,” he explained. “It was night so I had to play quietly.”
Abba didn’t have enough songs on his own phone to make up an album, so he called all his friends together to meet that night to get the different songs they had on their phones. After Chris had copied all the songs available, Abba pulled out his guitar and played for a couple of hours. His friends switched their phones back on, threw them onto the floor to record what he was playing.
Chris says the album is a homage to recording and listening to music on cellphones. Sure, it’s lo-fi: you’ll hear the occasional dog bark, pot clank or children laughing. But it’s also raw and hypnotic – the aural equivalent of watching a fire.
In his blog about the recording of Abba’s album, Chris reflects on how technology, even on this crude level, is giving artists more say in the creation and distribution of their work. He hopes Western mediators like himself will end up having to say less because it is already being said.
Personally, I still think there is a place for people like Chris – musical explorers who go to the edges and report back for those of us who can’t attend a Balani show in Bamako or swap songs over Bluetooth in a dusty bus stop in Niger.
Even though we would really, really love to.