Sahel Sounds mastermind Chris Kirkley has maintained a consistent aesthetic throughout the work that he has curated/presented on record, download, blog, installation, gif, etc, and “I Sing the Desert Electric,” the short film released through his Sahel Sounds blog, is no exception. Kirkley describes it as a “window into contemporary performance in Western Sahel,” and the resulting views are both engrossing and thought provoking. Through the lens of Kirkley’s camera, we experience musical scenes that feel (from a Western perspective at least) simultaneously deeply rooted in traditional culture and so completely current that we could almost call them ultra-modern. This an association that the film’s title (which references a Walt Whitman line, ‘I sing the body electric’, which is also the title of a collection of Ray Bradbury short stories) effectively brings to the fore.
First stop: wedding bands in Nouakchott Mauritania, where sedately dressed men play electrified ngonis and guitars with traditional animal skin drums. Next we go to electro street parties in Bamako, Mali, where DJs play thunderous digital beats as women gyrate their hips and boys wobble, fanning their knees, ducking their arms over their heads, dancing barefoot on the red earth. Then we follow Tuareg rockers in Abalak, Niger, from quiet afternoon sessions to raucous nighttime parties, where the spectators are all men dressed in polo shirts, jumping around wailing guitarists dressed in Tuareg desert garb. A drummer pounds digitally influenced beats on a ragged drum-set, as the crowd pushes around him.
What is it about these scenes from the Sahel that are so attractive, so exciting, so cool to our foreign, Western eyes? What is so appealing about the meeting of technological innovation and traditional art forms? Electric guitars in the hands of nomads? DJs with laptops spinning to boys dancing barefoot on the red dirt? At least some of the film’s impact comes from the way that these encounters challenge Western concepts of modernity as a singular set of cultural forms linking economic progress and technological advance. “I Sing the Desert Electric” presents a radically alternate technological reality, one that harnesses a DIY approach capable of mixing the impact of international western culture and continuing power of more traditional African forms of cultural expression. It’s a hell of ride.
If you like it, stay tuned for more- Chris is working with us on an Afropop show that will be aired at the end of June!