Ahmedou Ahmed Lowla
"What music do you think of when you think of the Sahara desert? Traditional folk ballads of nomadic, wandering tribes? You might be picturing droning loops and heavy percussion. Perhaps you’ve heard the frenetic, driving tunes of bands who play the ‘desert blues’? But this, the music you can hear right now? Probably not."
The Sahel region of Africa is a hot, dry, arid and seemingly inhospitable frontier land that straddles the southern coast of the Sahara desert, from Eritrea in the east to Mauritania in the west. It is about as remote as it is possible to be. However, in spite of its location, the Sahel is a region of thriving culture, especially when it comes to music – an oasis of sound encircled by the silent oblivion of the Sahara.
The recent advent of widely available personal technology in the region means this music can be shared to whoever, wherever, and this has engendered a musical ecosystem that delves into the sort of styles you would not expect to come out from a region most famous for its driving 'desert blues' bands.
Chris Kirkley & Mdou Moctar
Recent years have seen, if not an explosion, then a slow bubbling up of musicians from the Sahel creating music on synthesisers instead of guitars, swapping strings for keys and the blues for warping, trancing, electric jams. The new sound of Sahel is not that easy to find from afar, so I spoke with Chris Kirkley, head of Portland based label Sahel Sounds, who has travelled widely in the region to document the left-field music being made and supporting the artists creating it.
Music from Saharan Cellphones, Vol. 1, is probably the record that put Sahel Sounds on the map – a compilation album of the finest songs Chris picked up from the mobiles of people he'd met on his travels. This was followed by releases from a selection of artists, like the Mauritanian wedding synth wizard, Ahmedou Ahmed Lowla, whose music we hear on this episode, alongside the earliest iterations of the Sahel synth made by the great Mamman Sani. We also play a few songs from Hama, a Nigerien synth player whose mix of trancey loops with traditional rhythms and harmony on his 2019 record Houmeissa makes for a fascinating listen.
This 'other' music of the Sahel is so unexpected it provides a fascinating counterpoint to the highlife, afrobeat and desert blues sounds that have come to define Sahelian music. It also proves that the avant-garde needn't be stuck in cloistered conservatoires – give the right people the right materials, and experimentation and fusion can grow anywhere.
“There's so much other stuff happening [in the Sahel] that doesn't necessarily jump on the radar. And I think with the label in general, I'm interested in those artists that aren't on the radar for whatever reason ... their music is maybe outside of what the scope is - it's a little too left-field.”
Hama – Dounia (Houmeissa // Sahel Sounds)
Ali Farka Touré & Ry Cooder – Soukora (Talking Timbuktu // World Circuit Limited)
Hama – Terroir (Houmeissa // Sahel Sounds)
Hama – Touareg (Houmeissa // Sahel Sounds)
Mamman Sani – Lidda (La Musique Electronique du Niger // Sahel Sounds)
Ahmedou Ahmed Lowla – El Jedida (Top WZN // Sahel Sounds)
Hama – Wassa (Houmeissa // Sahel Sounds)
Group Anmataff – Tinariwen (Music from Saharan Cellphones // Sahel Sounds)
Hama – Houmeissa (Houmeissa // Sahel Sounds)