Saharan Africa is hip at the moment, with no less than The Wall Street Journal calling Tuareg band Tinariwen “the rock stars of the Sahara Desert.” Also hip is the intersection of this region and its communication technology. Sublime Frequencies’ Radio Niger, which situates listeners on the receiving end of the state-run broadcasting entity for one of the planet’s most diverse nations, continues a trend previously explored by Christopher Kirkley’s Sahel Sounds on the two-volume Music from Saharan Cellphones.
The omnipresence of pop music (and dance, and groove-based Agadez guitars) keeps Radio Niger from being strictly a compilation of field recordings. Given, though, that studio creations in general are the product of a bevy of considered artistic decisions reached by the performer and their production team, questions of authorship become even stronger than they would with the less-invested, more off-the-cuff comments of the disc jockeys and callers featured throughout Radio Niger. It’s sometimes unclear what Sublime Frequencies co-founder Hisham Mayet and label partner Alan Bishop, who recorded and assembled these radio transmissions into an eight-track collage, want this project to be. Also unclear is whether the marketing of the album as an eclectic, unidentified blur of local color forgives the fact that they could have just done a bit of licensing legwork and released the music as a straightforward collection of contemporary Saharan music.
That said, the audio quality of the recordings, coupled with the human element of voices speaking fast and loud and sometimes marred by distortion or swathed in reverb, makes this a less-sterile endeavor than a po-faced Smithsonian Folkways record would be. Ultimately, it’s about connection, the need for people to interact, and the way a certain crack in the façade or uninhibited expression of enthusiasm can reach across cultural boundaries and have an emotional effect on listeners.
Technology is human because it’s created and controlled by humans. A lo-fi cassette heard through a radio signal can be hissy, a barrier to the kind of unfettered clarity most aspiring musicians strive for; the hiss, a byproduct of manmade machinery, has a poignancy that lingers with the listener as an artifact of its creation. The riskiness of live radio reminds us that machines have a limited amount of power in helping us communicate flawlessly and seamlessly, while listeners have all the power to end that one-way communication, to change the station or to return to an ongoing broadcast at a later time. The patchwork approach of Radio Niger conveys the fleeting nature of these transmissions, with narratives that never pick up where they leave off, voices we get to know and never hear again.
Even the track names promise more than they deliver, serving the album in the same way DVD chapter titles do by providing a mile marker (the rapid-fire beats that begin “Sahel Drum-Machine Gun” hew to the listener’s expectation of what that would sound like, if only temporarily) rather than a true definition of everything we’re about to hear. The titular “swagger” of the last track may come from the utterance of the word by the rare American-accented voice near the end of one snippet within the song, functioning almost as a punchline, though the music and excited talk that precede it have enough swagger of their own.
Radio Niger, for all its strengths, doesn’t feel that substantive, though perhaps Mayet and Bishop don’t intend for it to be much more than a single snapshot to add to a rapidly growing scrapbook that Westerners can peruse while seeking deeper insight into a newly spotlighted region of the third world.