Portland Label Sahel Sounds and Malian Singer Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud
We’re going a bit outside the box on Vinyl Roots this week, diving into the remarkable catalog of Portland, Oregon-based record label Sahel Sounds. Led by young field collector Chris Kirkely, Sahel Sounds started off as a travel blog with stunningly beautiful writing and streamable sound files taken from Kirkely’s field recordings in Mali and Niger. Fascinated by the desert sounds of the Tuareg people – the same traditions that brought us popular groups like Tinariwen, Terakaft, and Bombino – Kirkely has taken a decidedly non-academic approach to his recordings. He reissues most of them on vinyl – though he’s moved to cassette recently – and he’s focusing on cutting-edge African traditions that involve autotune and are passed around via cell phone. (He’s also written a really cool piece about Mali’s digital music markets).
I recently picked up a new vinyl record from Sahel Sounds, released in partnership with another very cool Portland institution of vinyl, Mississippi Records. It’s actually a re-issue of a 2008 cassette tape of powerful North Malian singer Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud.
The album design is gorgeous, and the record itself pulses with desert heat. The singer, Inamoud, has a strong, powerful voice with a hint of cracked fragility, and the men accompanying her create a continual drone over which she sings. The music here is called Isswat, and it’s usually performed by unmarried women. Kirkley is a beautiful writer, so I asked him to describe it:
Isswat, for lack of a better word, is what people have the habit of calling this particular music from the desert. It’s a style that, like many things, seems to be localized and specific to one particular region of the world – a tiny circle of Azawad, North of Mali, in the Adrar D’Ifoghas. The Adrar is desert, but instead of the Sahara of dunes, it is a landscape of vast open sky, wiry bushes and twisted trees scattered across a surface of parched earth. There are low mountains, rendered spectacular in the otherwise planar landscape. In comparison, they seem enormous. It is nothing like the mountains of Air with mountaintop villages and citrus filled oases, but there is a rugged beauty to the emptiness and repeated motifs that you can name and comprehend – seven types of tree, three types of bush, three type of wild animal, four directions. But innumerable starlight.
Isswat is an activity relegated to the night. After the stars have come out, the families have finished dinner, the youth sneak off. Perhaps one will begin playing a tende. The other young and unmarried youth will hear this, the distant low pounding of the drum. Sneaking off to some locale away from the camp, the youth assemble. The music of the issawat is characterized by the sigadah, the low humming of the men, which provides a bass, and the woman who will sing the melody. The songs are often provocative, songs of love, albeit it in a very coy and covert manner. Issawat is also the opportunity for the youth to meet and flirt, and in the periphery of the performance, the young boys and girls whisper to one another.
Kirkley picked up the 2008 cassette recording of Inamoud in his travels in the area, along with a bunch of others. It had been made in Kidal in Northern Mali, by a Luxembourgian NGO at the Maison de Luxembourg, and it’s one of the few existing recordings of Isswat music, even though this music forms some of the basis for the popular Tuareg guitar styles that have been featured all over the world in recent years.
After securing permission to release this on vinyl, he actually tracked down a speaker of the Tuareg language Tamasheq – Ibrahim Ag Mouhamadine – who was living close to Kirkley’s house in Portland and together they undertook a translation of the lyrics of Inamoud. He found them to be starkly and surprisingly beautiful.
Beyond what Kirkley had to say, we talked a little more deeply about those recordings as well.
Devon Leger: Tell me more about this recording and how you originally got it.
Chris Kirkley: Fadimoutou’s recordings were first published as a cassette by the now-defunct studio in Kidal, Mali. The studio was part of a Luxembourg-based NGO, and produced a handful of recordings. I came across the cassette when I was living in Kidal and brought a bunch back home.
How did you track down a Tamasheq translator in Portland, Oregon? What were some difficulties with translating Fadimoutou’s poetry?
My neighbor happens to be one of a handful of Tuaregs on the West Coast. He worked on translating the lyrics, which were a bit of a surprise. I had expected the music to be much more evocative of the desert, but it’s much more modern than I would have anticipated. There are lyrics comparing beauty and valor to the power of [a] Toyota Land Cruiser. Translation is always an art, but we tried to stay as literal as possible.
What pushed you to use vinyl? What’s pushing you now to go back to cassettes?
I love the vinyl format. Especially for this record, as we handmade the covers, and worked up a really beautiful design based on Tuareg motifs, that was offset printed at a local printshop here in Portland. Lately I’ve had to move back into cassettes for some releases. Vinyl turnaround times have increased, making it unsustainable for me to have money tied up with record-pressing plants. Unfortunately, the vinyl revival has just pushed the smaller labels to the back of the line, in order to get out those essential re-presses of dollar bin records.
What’s the story on the outfit she’s wearing on the cover and the design of the LP? It’s so cool!
[It’s] custom Tuareg design. It’s got a few of the motifs common to the region, including the symbol Khomeissa, a necklace worn by woman in the Hoggar region of Southern Algeria and Northern Mali.
How was Fadimoutou affected by the recent upheaval in neighboring Mali? Where was this album recorded and where is she living now?
Fadimoutou lives outside of Tessalit, far up in the North of Mali, near the border with Algeria. Of course she’s been affected by this. The studio where it was recorded was destroyed by Jihadists, and she can no longer perform. As secure as the south of Mali is, the North is still just as dangerous as before, and while it’s not outright prohibited to perform music, no one in Tessalit will.
Where did she learn this tradition?
This music is very old. It’s the traditional music of the region, played in the evening by young people in the nomad camps. The songs are still passed around from person to person. Anyone who was raised in the country in Adrar knows the songs. But Fadimoutou is an exceptional singer.
I also hugely recommend Sahelsounds’ Music from Saharan Cell Phones series, their reissue of Malian synth master Mamman Sani’s 1980s album, anything they put out from Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar, and this other album of Isswat music from the singer Idassane Wallet Mohamed.
To close the column this week, and to demonstrate the beauty of Inamoud’s songwriting, here is a translation of her song, “Yalalela”:
This land is huge. My mother, my father, we are separated.
I am in the deep nostalgia of my memories, and I’m drowning in it.
This nostalgia is stronger than the wind blowing in the season of gharat and the dust devils that come before the stars fall down.
Me, I won’t leave him even is he is married, if it is not God that has decided, or if the earth is split in two to separate us.
My friend I want to tell you, the one you love, you can’t leave him.
Tell him to stay with me and if he refuses it is better to leave him until the bodies and the hearts separate.
When he speaks, pretend you don’t hear him. When he comes towards you, don’t wait for him.
Now let’s hear about what I have lived through, nostalgia and mourning just seeing the place he used to sleep.
After the last prayer, I slept late and the nostalgia woke me up. I said to this nostalgia, oh poor me. I miss his broken teeth.
I was so hurt when he left that I watched until he turned around the trees and the moment that he went towards the west.
My heart said to me that it wants to come out and I told it, patience! God created love, it gnaws at me, but I hide it.
By God, my heart burns in my chest, it doesn’t get water to refresh it. This man, he took my heart and he broke it, and he left the people around me to sew it. I told my heart, pray to God, that is what will refresh it.