Music from Saharan Cellphones



by Chris Kirkley (from and

Music from Saharan Cellphones is a compilation of music collected from memory cards of cellular phones in the Saharan desert.

In much of West Africa, cellphones are are used as all purpose multimedia devices. In lieu of personal computers and high speed internet, the knockoff cellphones house portable music collections, playback songs on tinny built in speakers, and swap files in a very literal peer to peer Bluetooth wireless transfer.

The songs chosen for the compilation were some of the highlights — music that is immensely popular on the unofficial mp3/cellphone network from Abidjan to Bamako to Algiers, but have limited or no commercial release. They’re also songs that tend towards this new world of self production — Fruity Loops, home studios, synthesizers, and Autotune.

The “Music from Saharan Cell Phones” compilation was this idea that I had when I was doing field recordings. I noticed that there was a lot of other music that people were listening to on their cell phones. West African people use their cell phones like people use their iPods, or iPhones, or iTunes – it’s a way to store and trade your digital mp3s. I noticed that people were listening on their phones to stuff that I had never heard before – crazy stuff, with drum machines, Autotune…

All this really contemporary music that I couldn’t find anything about. You couldn’t Google it- it didn’t exist on the Internet.  Sometimes people didn’t know who the composers were on the music, they just had these unidentified mp3s on their phones. So I started collecting mp3s from people’s cell phones and I brought that back to the states. Over the next couple years, I worked on tracking down a some of my favorite tracks that I collected, finding out who made those songs, contacting them, licensing them, and putting together a compilation.

The cell phones that people are using in West Africa have this Bluetooth capability so you can send a file from phone to phone with a file transfer. If you hold up the phones next to each other, you can send a file from one to another.

Music is shared from phone to phone. So if you hold up your phone to another phone, you just hit send, and you can trade and share these files. So there’s this culture of file sharing now, where if a bunch of kids are sitting around and playing music on their phones and one of the songs elicits interest, you can pretty quickly say, “Hey, I like that song, can you send me that?” and with a few clicks on your phone, you’ve made a copy.

It’s created this huge network of file sharing across West Africa where people take songs from their friends, get on a bus, travel 10 hours, go to a new city, transfer a song again. And these songs can be shared without really any internet; there’s no central network that exists, just people moving with their cell phones.

One of the cool things that has popped up over the past few years is the mp3 market. So, while you can download music and copy music onto your phone from another phone, these Bluetooth wireless file transfers take a long time. So in order to fill this need for quicker file transfers, cell phone vendors have started selling music as well,  pretty much in every cell phone market in Mali.

In Bamako, downtown in the central market, there’s a cellphone market. It’s just alongside one of the main streets. There are vendors sitting under umbrellas with glass cases showing off their different cell phones for sale. But every vendor also has a laptop connected to a pair of speakers playing their latest music. And if you go up to these guys and ask them for the songs, you can buy the mp3s for a set price. You can choose the songs you’d like and they’ll fill up your phone or USB key with the latest songs.

Needless to say, there’s no money that’s given back to the artist, so it’s technically piracy, but none of the younger artists seem too concerned with this. In fact, a lot of younger artists – the rappers, for example, or the DJs – they’ll actually go to the vendors with their new songs with the intention of utilizing them to distribute their music and make them popular, even going so far as to pay the mp3 vendors for promotion purposes.

You can find people selling mp3s everywhere from Kidel to Niafunké to Bamako, but the really big mp3 markets are in the capital cities, where you can see computers lined up one after another with a myriad of cables sprouting from them for plugging in different memory cards and USBs. There’s this amazing competition of sound, of people blasting out the music from their computers.

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