Oumou Sangare – The Malian Songbird Returns

In the galaxy of West African music, Oumou Sangare really is one of the brightest stars. She was a star in Mali before Nick Gold went to Bamako in 1991. When the World Circuit label founder visited that year, he said he heard the same beautiful voice being played out on cassettes at markets, in cafés, shop stalls, bus stations. All over the city, Oumou Sangare was in the air. “You couldn’t escape that music. And you didn’t want to. It was everywhere. As soon as you left a café where they were playing it, the baton was taken up by a passing car and then the next market stall. I spent that week in Bamako hearing Oumou wherever I went. And I mean everywhere” he says. She was 22. After signing to Gold’s label, Sangare’s debut Moussoulou (‘Women’) became an international phenomenon and, along with Salif Keita and Ali Farka Touré, she was an early global ambassador for music from Mali, a country that has more recently given us Amadou & Mariam and Bassekou Kouyaté.

Sangare is gifted with a voice that can ululate like birdsong yet carries with it enormous emotional depth. Her upbringing was anything but easy. With an absent father, and a mother who often had to leave the household when Sangare was a girl, she grew up fast. “I was the mother, I was the father, at the age of 13 I was already head of the family. And that’s what has given me strength in my life. I learnt very early how to be responsible.” At this early age Sangare learnt how to be tenacious, and how to make money. And her greatest resource was her voice. “I’d wait until I heard a djembe…I would throw myself in the middle of the crowd and sing. When I opened my mouth…wow! People would give me coins.” This combination of talent and determination eventually brought Sangare enormous success.

“Since I’d been absent for a while, my intention was to produce something joyful”, she says, then adds, “but in amongst that joy I always take the opportunity to slip in messages that educate my nation and my country.” Part of Sangare’s huge appeal is her ability to simultaneously communicate both traditional and modern themes within her songs. Seya is rich with reference to her family’s Wassoulou culture. Donso is a song about the hunter-warrior caste who used to protect towns in pre-colonial days. Other songs reflect Sangare’s more modern ideas, albeit set in time-honoured themes. Sounsoumba (‘Big tree’) concerns a girl who before marrying was a Sounsoum Ba, a big tree, vibrant and alive, whose many branches signify her many friendships, but once forced into marriage she becomes a lonely, little tree stump.

Sangare’s outspoken campaigns for women’s rights have made her a powerful, if at times controversial, figure in Africa. She is an Ambassador of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as well as other organizations that look for role models who speak out against gender inequality on the continent. “In Mali I became famous for the message contained in my music – the rights of women, the rights of children too.” While there is often a social and political significance to her songs, Sangare’s popularity comes above all from the sheer quality of her music; the rhythms, the melodies, the instrumentation and of course, her extraordinary, deeply moving voice.

Mondomix

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Oliver Mtukudzi – African Soul Rebel

“Music is life. Music gives hope to people. Without people there is no music”. Oliver Mtukudzi’s logic is clear and economical. They are the words of a musician whose career has been inexorably linked with Zimbabwe’s tumultuous history.

Yet from his 1975 debut single, Stop After Orange to today’s performances, he has tried to emphasize the intrinsic quality of music as its own entity, as something above politics. When I ask him about music’s function as a political tool, he replies,

“I wouldn’t understand the word ‘politics’ itself. In my culture music gives information, it gives hope, it gives life to the people. That is the reason for a song.”

In the context of Zimbabwe’s independence and postcolonial struggles, ‘information’ may inevitably be political, but Oliver’s message has always been rooted in social issues – the people come first. Dzandimonotera was Mtukudzi’s first big hit, produced in 1977 with Thomas Mapfumo and the Wagon Wheels Band. The song depicted the black population’s struggle under the oppressive white minority regime. It established Mtukudzi as a singer with substance.

Oliver_show

In 1979 Mtukudzi went solo and formed his own band, The Black Spirits. A group of stylish, young ghetto boys, they fast became icons. And today, some 56 albums later, Mtukudzi remains a major figure in African music. Inspired by Zimbabwean traditional chimurenga, JIT music and South African mbaqanga, the Black Spirits produce liquid, guitar-based melodies that gravitate around Mtukudzi’s weighty voice and lyrics.

I ask him what makes him happy in life. The answers are as abrupt as my question.

“To be alive the next day” he states. I wait for him to continue. He does, after a long pause. “Just living”, he adds. “Having life”, he concludes. The simplicity of his response has the desired effect. I think of Zimbabwe, and its long troubles.

Right now Oliver Mtukudzi is touring the UK with fellow African Soul Rebels Senegalese legend Baaba Maal, and Obama favourites Extra Golden. “The idea of this tour is great. It shows how versatile African music is. We are traveling as three different groups, totally unique, but still as Africans.” Mtukudzi describes Baaba Maal as ‘a true African’, adding “there’s no doubt in his music.” Clearly, he relishes playing on a pan-African bill. “We click in our music. As Africans, we share the same sentiments. We are one and the same people.”

One thing is certain, listening to Mtukudzi is an educational experience. Throughout his career he has used the richness of the Shona language and his super-melodic music to carry metaphors and ideas that have provided Zimbabweans with a sense of identity and self-belief. Gracing the front cover of Time magazine a few years back, he was described as the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’.

Mondomix

Tunng with Tinariwen – Soho meets the Sahara

The BBC Radio 3 ‘Late Junction’ session was a grand experiment. Saharan desert blues legends Tinariwen shared the Maida Vale studio with Soho-based folktronica group Tunng to record three songs for broadcast in February 2009. The results were dazzling.

“We sat down together in a circle”, explains Mike Lindsay from Tunng.“The third tune we made kind of came out of jamming that led into an eight minute trance. Someone pressed play and then eventually stop on the recorder. It was a real ‘wow’ moment.”

“Then someone had an idea to go further and actually organize a tour together”, says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni from Tinariwen, “We were keen on the idea, because as musicians, it’s very important to interact with and learn from other musicians.”

I ask them how their different sounds complement each other.

Abdallah: “It’s clear that their music is very different from ours, but it’s very open too. It’s the kind of music that invites other musicians and other sounds to join in.”

Mike: “The recordings together were very fresh, almost a new music entirely. In some instances we’ll need to be careful not to go overboard on certain electronics.” Mike is sensitive to the cultural and musical differences between the groups. Tinariwen’s distinctive desert blues, whose fans include Thom Yorke and Bono, is charged with powerful electric guitar chords and singing that carries the full weight of their message. Their music encompasses their mission: to raise awareness for desert peoples living in political and economic isolation in the southern Sahara. You can easily imagine their songs resonating across vast desert plains.

Tunng, on the other hand, fuse delicate electronic touches with contemporary folky sounds. Hearing the melodies that underscore their songs, it comes as no surprise to learn that Tunng member Sam Genders is a big Beatles fan. Both bands’ originality stems from the collective groups of individuals producing their music. I ask them how their environment has inspired them as artists and what currently influences them.

Abdallah: “Everything we sing, every word we say, everything we think and do has been shaped by the Sahara. The Sahara is our home, our cradle, our teacher and our inspiration. Until most of us were adults, we didn’t know anything except the Sahara.”

Mike: “Being in London hasn’t really influenced our music. Perhaps subconsciously the city has influenced the urban electronic work me and Phil (Winter) come up with. Other influences; dodgy ‘80s powerpop, Journey, Electric Light Orchestra. And I’m not really joking! We listen to all sorts. Moondog recently. All sorts of Latin percussion. Deerhoof.”

The ensemble, which features three members of Tinariwen, have spent some intense time together preparing their set before the tour kicks off. Their music encompasses “entirely different subject matters” says Mike.

Abdallah admits, “I can’t claim that I really understood Tunng’s music before”. Will the universal language of music transcend these enormous differences? On their own, both these bands have had an extraordinary impact crossing genres and reaching new audiences. This collaborative effort promises to be inspiring.

Mondomix

Baaba Maal – Voice of the people

One of Africa’s biggest stars, Baaba Maal, will be playing ten concerts across the UK in March with his acclaimed band Daande Lenol (Voice Of The People) as part of the African Soul Rebels tour. The bill also features the Kenyan-American benga-rock band Extra Golden, and Zimbabwean giant Oliver Mtukudzi with the Black Spirits.

Maal is clearly excited at the prospect.

‘It’s always great to tour with other people. It’s a great opportunity for us to play together, discover together, share our music and bring new ideas and combinations to people.’

His unique voice and frenetic stage dances are as youthful as ever, but Baaba Maal is not new to the game. Born in the 1950s in Podor in Senegal, his early influences are as diverse as his music suggests.

‘My parents were musicians. My father was a religious musician, a muezzin. My mother was a popular singer. I watched them. I used to sing with my mother. Everyone noticed I had a great voice – me too! I realised I wanted to be a musician.’

From an early age Maal was aware of his Fula heritage.

‘The place where I was born in central Senegal was an important cultural centre. Nomadic groups from Mauritania and other neighbouring countries would stay in our town, and the Fula people shared this nomadic culture, which of course included music.’

Maal grew up during Africa’s wave of independence movements. He was strongly influenced, he says, by the theme of liberation that marked the music of the 1960s, particularly in Guinea, with legendary orchestra Bembeya Jazz getting special mention.

Maal’s music education was furthered by a postgraduate music scholarship at the Beaux-Arts University in Paris where he spent several years with his close friend, the blind griot guitarist Mansour Seck. After a number of prior cassettes and albums, they collaborated to produce the beautifully serene ‘Djam Leelii’ in 1989. The album was my introduction to West African music and it remains an absolute classic. Mostly complex string patterns overlaid with Maal’s crisp, high, distinctive voice; sometimes joyful, sometimes sad, here he set a precedent for producing songs that evoke an unusual range of human emotions.

‘When I write a song or go to the studio or go on stage to perform’, he says, ‘I sing music like melodies. But the words that come from my mouth are, I think, the words of the people. It is the people inside me. In Africa, people live with music. Music accompanies ceremonies that teach people about responsibilities and society.’

Having played concerts all over Africa, Maal is familiar with many of the challenges facing the continent and takes an active position when it comes to using his music as a platform for social and health issues. He represents the United Nations Development Program as a spokesman on the issue of HIV/Aids in Africa as well as being an ambassador for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 campaign. Two decades on Baaba Maal remains a key figure in African music. He has performed all over the world and produced over a dozen albums, at times embarking on brave fusion experiments incorporating ragga, rap, salsa and even Breton harp into his repertoire. He has worked with a range of producers, including Brian Eno on 1998 release Nomad Soul.

More recently he took part in Africa Express shows in London, Lagos and Liverpool – the live collaboration project conceived by Damon Albarn feature African, American and UK musicians including Franz Ferdinand, Amadou & Mariam, The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Daara J and many more.

The new édition bootleg On the Road, a collection of his favourite live acoustic performances, is the artist’s first album release in seven years. Acoustic sets will define Baaba Maal’s African Soul Rebels performances this March – it is always a huge treat to hear him play with Daande Lenol, a line-up which still includes long-time collaborator and friend Mansour Seck, this is an all-time classic African live music act. Not to be missed!

Mondomix

Extra Golden

Any band’s early years are precarious, but Extra Golden’s continued existence seems utterly miraculous. The band’s rollercoaster journey would be too much for most. Along the way they have experienced bizarre luck and displayed unusual tenacity. Musically and logistically the band span cultural and continental divides. Yet Alex Minhoff tells me that American rock and Kenyan benga are well-paired.

“It works well. There are lots of similarities between the musics. The general chord structure in benga is pretty much the same as blues-based rock.”

Benga is the upbeat Luo dance music driven by melodic guitars and bouncy choruses originally from Nyanza in Western Kenya and popular since the 1960s. The guitar style is said to borrow heavily from the sound of the nyatiti – the traditional Luo lyre. When Luo people formed communities in Nairobi they introduced a thriving benga scene to the city.

Extra Golden was created in 2004 when Alex visited fellow American and old college friend Ian Eagleson in Nairobi. Ian was researching into Kenyan music for his PhD and had already begun playing with the benga musicians he had set out to study. They began to write songs with singer/guitarist Otieno Jagwasi and drummer Onyango Wuod Omari.

“It just kinda happened”, says Alex casually.

Extra Golden have made a virtue out of playing in unforgiving circumstances. Ok-Oyot System, the name of the band’s debut album, is derived from the Luo phrase ok oyot, meaning ‘it’s not easy’.

They recorded the songs for Ok-Oyot System in a single afternoon set up in the back of a nightclub using a broken drum-kit. Then in 2005 founding band member Otieno Jagwasi died after a long struggle with liver disease. Catalysing the urge to get the music heard they released the album in 2006. The challenges continued – the Americans ran into problems with the Kenyan police. The Kenyan musicians were forever facing travel restrictions. In 2006 they suffered civil war in their homeland and post election violence two years later.

Despite all this Extra Golden are still on the tracks, not least due to President Barack Obama. It was Obama’s authority, as Senator of Illinois, that was sought to provide the Kenyans’ visas for their debut US tour in 2006 when they were invited to play the Chicago World Music Festival, going on to tour for six weeks across the States, honing their sound.

“If we hadn’t got visas we probably wouldn’t still be a band”, says Alex.

So Extra Golden, following the Luo tradition, wrote the song Obama, thanking their benefactor. Another twist in this unlikely tale.

Their follow up album Hera Ma Nono (meaning ‘love in vain’), is more cohesive and rock-driven, with popular Benga star Opiyo Bilongo now on guitar, vocals and production but still glazed throughout with the lush, liquid electric guitar-playing associated with benga. And their lyrics share traditional themes.

“Our songs are an acknowledgment of our struggles. Lots of folk songs in Luo talk of the world’s uncertainty”, says Ian.

Extra Golden have survived and are making a name for themselves because their enormous passion for benga-rock has overridden the challenges they face when ‘it’s not easy’.

In March Extra Golden will be part of the triple-bill African Soul Rebels UK tour, with Oliver Mtukudzi and Baaba Maal. Their new album Thank You Very Quickly will be released in March 2009.

Mondomix

Toumani Diabate – My mission is to play

toumaniHe plays in the Hogon club, Bamako, at Carnegie Hall, New York, and the Barbican, London. He has played with Damon Albarn, Taj Mahal and Peter Gabriel, with Bassekou Kouyaté, Ballaké Sissoko, Baaba Maal, and a thousand other African greats, most of whom remain unknown to the world at large. For Toumani Diabaté, Mali’s great kora maestro, the most important thing is to keep playing.

“My mission is to play” he says. And so far he’s doing pretty well. The 42-year old Diabaté started learning the kora, West Africa’s 21-stringed harp-like instrument, when he was five. Since then he has performed at over 2000 concerts and more than 170 festivals.

Diabaté is descended from 70 generations of griots, a West African term meaning praise-singer, poet, or bard. His heritage is rich with musical talent and an innate understanding of the social obligations of the role, whose origins can be found in the 13th century courts of the Malinke Empire. His father Sidiki Diabaté was known as the ‘King of the kora’; internationally famous before the commercial brand ‘world music’ existed.

‘The griot is the memory of West Africa’ says Diabaté. ‘We are the archive, the bibliothèque of West Africa. In the 13th century during the Malinke empire, when the kings were living in Mali, there was no-one to write about what was happening; there were no historians. Music is one of the best ways to communicate’. On the broader, quasi-diplomatic functions of his caste he adds,

‘The griot helps to organise the ceremony of birth and weddings. The griot is a peacemaker between men and women, between nations’.

Hearing him play at Womad this year was a hypnotic experience. The dulcet, melodious trickles of sound he creates via his fingertips are simply mesmerizing. These multi-layered, almost transcendental compositions won him a Grammy in 2006, in his collaboration with the late Ali Farka Touré, producing the widely-acclaimed album, In the Heart of the Moon. It becomes clear that it is the sheer beauty of his music that dignifies such ceremonies with a grace borne of religious origins.

‘I am spiritual’ says Diabaté, ‘Mali is 95 per cent Muslim. I was born into that. My music was never written. The music I have is divine inspiration’.

Clearly Toumani Diabaté keeps himself busy. His diverse collaborations and musical journeying bear witness to a creative endeavour unparalleled among contemporary African artists. From unique albums with Spanish flamenco band Ketama and bluesman Taj Mahal, to the grand collaborations of Albarn-inspired Africa Express and Mali Music, Diabaté is always open to new ideas. In October 2008 he played with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) at the Barbican.

‘It was an honour. I enjoyed it because it is a very prestigious orchestra’ he says in his casual way. Diabaté’s English accent and language reflect the French and American influences on his life and career.

‘Yeah, they (LSO) are great musicians, the venue was great. It was a very good opportunity. Today when you take African music, some people only think about percussion but in Africa we have more than that. The LSO’s music is not exclusively theirs. The LSO and I play the same classical music, close to the origin’.

When it comes to the business of next year’s work, he becomes secretive.

‘Insha’Allah (God willing) there will be a tour next year’, he says. ‘I will be continuing with The Mandé Variations project and working on some other different projects as well. I hope people will like what we produce’.

People have been dazzled by the virtuosity of The Mandé Variations, nominated for Best Album of 2008 by fRoots magazine. All-acoustic, it is Toumani’s first album of solo kora since his groundbreaking debut, ‘Kaira’, released almost twenty years ago. This year’s album has won praise in particular for its evocation of more traditional themes after the bolder, more experimental Boulevard de l’Indépendence, which he produced together with his Symmetric Orchestra in 2006.

When asked about other contemporary African musicians, Diabaté points out that ‘Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world financially, but today it is one of the number one countries culturally – Bassekou Kouyaté, Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangaré, Ali Farka Touré – all great artists in different ways, and all from Mali’. To emphasize the depth and diversity of his homeland’s wealth of performing artists, he adds, ‘You only know about 5 per cent of Mali’s music scene’.

And despite his elevated position among this pool of extraordinary talents, and the hyperbole that is often employed to describe his work, Diabaté maintains a mild, relaxed manner. There’s always a hint of humour in his eyes. He seems happy. The more excitable youth touring in the late 1980s has given way to a mellow, modest man. Perhaps his spirituality and a consciousness of his ancestry have instilled in Diabaté a genuine humility as well as a sense of responsibility.

‘I would like to do something for my people’ he states. One can be sure that most Malians who have had the privilege of hearing him play, not to mention the Friday night regulars at the Hogon club, would argue he’s already doing exactly that.

Mondomix

Herat

Once again I was woken to the rising cries of the muezzin. Below, in the square connected to the Darb Khosh, carpet dealers are rolling out their crimson wares. It was an everyday scene in an altogether remarkable setting. 14-year-old Mohammed, the sullen relation of lazy-eyed Jalid, the Hotel Jaam’s manager, entered my room with yet another pot of green tea. The curtains of the open window were flailing again, and the wind smelled of rotten mangoes and car fumes.

Like the searing winds that swirl around it for 120 days a year, Herat is a city whose history rarely sits still. The wide plains that characterise this region of Afghanistan have made it difficult to defend. Its strategic importance as a trading route between Pakistan and Iran have made Herat the trophy city of successive vanquishers. Persian, Russian, British and Afghan troops all fought to acquire this prized domain within their spheres of influence. It was the birthplace of the Timurid renaissance.

Gawar Shad

More than a pawn of empires, Herat has also played host to some of Asia’s greatest personalities; Jenghiz Khan, Tamerlane, Queen Gawhar Shad, Shah Rukh and Babur all made their mark. It was famously at the end of Robert Bryon’s ‘Road to Oxiana’, the confirmed Afghanophile gladly wrote: ‘Here at last is Asia without an inferiority complex.’ Were her glories still intact, or had the scars of war consigned Herat to the scrapheap of historical anonymity?

The Hotel Jaam was full of Pakistani salesmen or groups of Afghan traders passing through. All would leave their bedroom doors wide open. We would gather in the lobby for dinner, a horde of ‘shalwar kamiz’ (the flowing robe-like clothing) and beards, glued to an old TV that seemed to show solely Bollywood music videos, 2nd rate action movies or the occasional anti-Taliban video sequence. Contrary to ‘hippie-trail’ perception, few Afghans smoke. It is, after all, a luxury not many can afford.

My days were spent soaking up the loaded feel of the streets. I would walk up the Jada-i Qumadari, to the old carpet and curio shops, full of dubious trinkets, muskets and knives amassed from fields and forts, and coins scavenged from the Musalla complex. While Shah Rukh (think chess) was responsible for the original complexion of the city, his remarkable wife, Gawhar Shad, started building this complex of mosque and madrassa (school for the teaching of Islam, and Islamic law) in 1417. What used to be 30 of the world’s tallest, most ornately-tiled minarets are now 5 wind-worn, leaning towers, and the ‘complex’ is little more than a rubbled wasteland with a main road running through its centreBuddha Bamiyan. Byron believed it represented ‘the most glorious production of Mohammedan architecture in the fifteenth century’. It is yet another Afghan treasure, like the Buddha’s of Bamiyan, violated by war.

 

There is something deeply historical about the atmosphere of Herat. Afghans themselves seem to represent all those years of consequence in their appearance. The face of an Afghan man mirrors the fate of his country. Furrowed brows and weathered skin reflect a life surrounded by conflict and climatic extremes. Great wreaths of facial hair and a handsome nose uphold a weighty dignity. And then the smile. It demonstrates the warmth of character so unique to these people. To the westerner who is so fortunate to see such radiance in a land of supposed gloom, it is an inspiration. Herat’s streets are full of such faces, walking and hawking along pock-marked asphalt, dirt and debris, where crazed cyclists dodge past horse-carts decorated with red pom-poms and bells and stalls selling all sorts, sidle the thoroughfares.

“It was easier under the Taliban”, said Yusuf, former de-miner for OMAR (Organisation for Mine clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation), referring to their lack of restraint when it came to the job of accessing and exploding the ordinances. Esther, a Swiss doctor, showed me around the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) Orthopaedic Centre. When asked about the Afghan people her face unmasked a raw emotion. “I’ve been trying to come here for years”, she said, as we moved through rooms of mine-victims, some paralysed from the waist down, some tetraplegic, others limping around with the aid of crutches. Many victims, if capable of using their arms, are employed after treatment in the making of others’ prosthetic limbs. “Many of our patients have relations who were in the Taliban. They don’t resent them”, she said. “I find the culture fascinating”, she sparkled intensely, and informed me that a female colleague believed the burka to be a source of liberty, like an invisibility cloak. The awful problems were evident enough but it was her inspiration, and her source of inspiration – the Afghan people –that gave one hope.

I had seen enough evidence of wars; the bullet-peppered walls of the Citadel, the guns-for-cash placards, the preponderance of crutches and cripples were all too visible. I had spoken to and seen many Afghans caring for their past, now I wanted to find Afghans who sought a bright future.

Masjid Herat

On my final day, I visited the Masjid-i Jami. It is undoubtedly Afghanistan’s finest surviving example of Islamic architecture. As I stood awe-stuck in the huge white marble courtyard, figures began to emerge from the shade of the hooded portals. They were University students preparing for an English exam the following day. Naturally, they hounded me, but my exasperation soon turned to admiration. I was being corrected on the passive tense and was subject to further enquiries of conjugation. They knew of Chaucer, quoted Shakespeare and venerated the classical 18th century English writers. Their youthful ambition in this harmonious, virtuous setting made me forget about war and suffering for an instant and believe that, more than just a hopeful future, Heratis are the possessors of something unique.

For this article I was awarded the Irish SMEDIA Award and shortlisted at the UK Guardian Student Media Awards for the category of Travel Journalism.