If you find “world music” a little too polished, with too many African superstars touring bands comprised of dreadlocked Frenchmen playing slap bass, then Sahel Sounds are for you. The Sahel region of Western and North Central Africa extends from Senegal to the Sudan, forming a transitional zone between the Sahara desert to the North and Sudanian Savanas to the south. It’s a part of the world that Portland based Chris Kirkley began traveling over a decade ago, armed with a guitar and a handheld recorder. The music he experienced and relationships he formed left an indelible impression, and he has returned repeatedly to countries like Niger, Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania ever since. In 2009 he formed Sahel Sounds, a record label specialising in music from the region. The beauty of Sahel Sounds is that there is no prettying up or westernizing of the sounds.
They first gained attention via their Saharan Cellphones compilation, where Kirkley discovered a booming trade in swapping music on phone cards in the desert. It uncovered one superstar in particular, the garage blues guitarist from Niger, Mdou Moctar, who they’ve since given the lead in their first film project – a remake of Purple Rain in the Sahara. Yet it’s the diversity of their roster that’s so impressive. Whether its ancient Tuareg vocal chants, early rudimentary African electronics, Bollywood inspired film music from Nigeria, or music from Mali street parties, Sahel Sounds feels real, and couldn’t be further from bass slapping Frenchmen.