Sahel Sounds started back in 2008 when I left to go wander around West Africa. I was living in Brooklyn when a Malian album came into my hands and gave me a destination. I started hanging out at the library, researching the desert. When the summer ended I bought a one way ticket to Paris, hitchhiked down to Morocco, and just started heading South. I spent the next year and a half traveling around with a little digital recorder and a guitar living that privileged life of wanderer — no time constraints, no plans, and no responsibilities. I tried to stay out of the cities, out of hotels. I learned French and a few words in probably 10 other languages. I know it sounds trite or cliché, but the people in the villages had this uncanny hospitality. And the guitar helped. Everywhere I'd meet some local musicians who would ask me to stick around for a day and I'd end up staying a week, after which I had to pry myself away. We'd play together and I recorded everything.
I started a blog in January of 2009. The site was a place where I could share some of the music I record, write about it, and also something I could throw my musician friends – an opportunity to get onto the internet, and get them so promotion.
The label didn't start until later. I came back to my hometown of Portland, fried, culture shocked, and broke. I got a job. A friend suggested I burn a CD of the “best of” recordings and give them out to people around town. So I did that. I gave CDs to everyone. I eventually made my way into Portland's Mississippi Records and gave one to Eric. He immediately wrote me back suggesting that we release a record. I had some serious hesitation — the idea wasn't on my radar to put out commercial releases. We worked to refine down a tracklist of songs from my friends, which we released as “Ishilan n-Tenere.”
About the same time, I was sitting on all these mp3s I had collected – gigabytes of all this slick studio pop, very different from the stuff I was recording. I put it out on some mixtapes called Music from Saharan Cellphones, followed up by a vinyl release.
The label is an extension of the website which at the end of the day is about collecting music — whether that is from field recordings or locally studio produced music. The releases are curated in a way that highlights either different musical phenomena. I'm constantly working to present this stuff in way that's conceptually interesting but that also stands alone as just solid music. There is just so much music happening – cheap recording devices and home PCs have just encouraged experimentation. We're not headed into some homogenization but a louder and new vibrant era of creation.
Working as a label has its idealogical confusion — you have to make decisions that are aesthetically sound but also profitable for the artists. This is even more particular when talking about Africa. There's a tendency for people to look at any Westerner's work in Africa as colonialist — for good reason, we have quite a track record. But it's amusing to get this knee jerk reaction of Westerners assuming labels like us aren't paying artists. This protective impulse, maybe it comes from a good place, but in the end it's very patronizing to the artists. It's denigrating! Sure, there is a financial differential between America and West Africa, but all the artists I work with are super business savvy. There are plenty big name Malian artists who wont even return my phone calls or give me the time of day because I'm too small time. They already have success in West Africa and could care less about the West — a vinyl compilation doesn't mean shit, these guys are buying cars with the money they earn in weddings!
I get back to West Africa all the time — it keeps the label grounded and relevant. Getting to travel and making these connections is what drives me. I love being out in the desert, learning the names of trees in regional dialects, wandering into a new village for the first time, or coming back and seeing the kids grow up. I've always loved the music and doing the label is a good excuse to get back over there.