Although he doesn’t make a ton of money doing it, Portland, Oregon record producer Christopher Kirkley has a passion for travelling to West Africa to discover tremendous world music talents and give them a bigger spotlight on the world stage. It’s a difficult job considering that the most reliable recording devices and ways to transferring files are cell phones and Bluetooth headsets, but despite some criticisms that he might be profiting off of the poverty of others (which seems unfounded given how broke he seems to be most of the time), Kirkley soldiers on with his label, trying to foster productive and lucrative arrangements for the artists he signs.
Directed by a committee of filmmakers known simply as neopankollektiv, A Story of Sahel Sounds boasts some terrific musical performances while the rest of the film struggles for anything deep or meaningful to say. One barely gets to know Kirkley, and we get to learn even less about most of the artists who pass through his orbit. The film moves at a fast pace, but it never slows down long enough for an uninitiated viewer to understand anything about the people or economics involved in such an endeavour.
There are some good bits, like watching Kirkley try to unspool a mess of magnetic recording tape to hear the works of a masterful, Hendrix-like guitarist or watching how much work it takes to get a visa to travel from West Africa to Europe for a tour, but those moments are fleeting and feel largely devoid of any greater context.
The only point to A Story of Sahel Sounds seems to be a finger aimed straight at a bunch of musical artists that are worth checking out, but as a film it gives no one other than the choir it’s pitched at a reason to care. At least it’s not a commercial for Kirkley’s label, but in hindsight, maybe it would at least be a more balanced film if it was. At least then it would have a sense of personality and dramatic momentum.