A young "downloader" waits for clients in a Bamako market. Photo taken by our Observer Seydou Tangara.

You can spot them all over Bamako: in the streets, at bus stations, and in markets. Armed with laptops, “downloaders” (“téléchargeurs” in French) can unearth any song you want, even the most obscure. They then transfer it to a CD or, more often, directly onto your mobile phone. This is quite practical in a country where many people don’t have Internet access.

But that’s not all the downloaders do: they also give recommendations and tell clients about new artists. In short, they are the record dealers of today – except for the fact that their tunes are all illegally downloaded.

A downloader in the streets of Bamako. Photo taken by our Observer Seydou Tangara.

"A customer sang three notes from a song, and the downloader immediately recognised it!"

Boubacar Alkouraichi is a freelance journalist in Bamako.

I met some downloaders at a bus station. They agreed to tell me about their business, but they did not want to be officially interviewed, because they know what they are doing is technically illegal. They have already been bothered by the police in the past, when Malian artists tried to take action against them. However, this did not go very far, and some of them have now settled in proper storefronts. I was told there are three levels to the business: wholesalers, who download heavily, semi-wholesalers, who run the stores, and street vendors.

The downloaders sell burnt CDs packed with everything they can download – films, music – but CDs are now old-fashioned. Most Malians listen to music on their mobile phones. So most of the time, downloaders transfer music on small memory cards, or directly onto mobile phones.

There are two kinds of customers. There are young Bamako residents, who have Internet connections, but who don’t necessarily have the technical savvy to use "torrent" software to download music. They listen to all kinds of artists. At the moment, Nigerian R’n’B is all the rage, but they also listen to a lot of American, Ivorian and Malian music. Then there are those who don’t have Internet connections. When people who live in villages come to Bamako, they stock up on music at the downloaders. They don’t buy just one song or one album; they buy a whole collection. They mostly listen to Malian artists.

Downloaders transfer files from their hard drives to their clients' USB keys or mobile phones. Photo by our Observer Seydou Tangara.

"They know all the artists, be it local ones or rising stars"

The music is cheap. For the modest sum of one euro [about $1,13], you can buy Salif Keïta’s latest album, for example. And the more songs you buy, the less expensive it is. If they can’t provide you with the song you want, they can download it in front of you – if they’re equipped with an Internet access key. If they don’t have one, they take your order and you just come back the next day.

The downloaders are super trendy. They are on top of all new music styles. They know all the artists, be it local ones or rising stars. Often, when a customer says they like a certain musician, the downloader will suggest similar ones. I once saw a customer singing three notes from a song she heard on the street. She did not know who the musician was. The downloader recognised it right away. It is a bit like the Shazam application in Europe, but with a human being…!

Some downloaders work in Internet cafés. Photo taken by our Observer Seydou Tangara.