Celia and Helene Faussart are genuine multicultural amalgams. Daughters of a Cameroonian mother and a French father, they were raised both in France and in the central African country of Chad.
With so many diverse cultural influences in their lives, the sisters credit their own mixed musical style to a number of factors. “We’re Afro-peans ”, says Celia, “so our music comes from everywhere. From our father we heard classical music and French singers like Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour. Our mother introduced us to Celia Cruz, Harry Belafonte and traditional African music. Our aunties exposed us to Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, and through our cousins we heard Herbie Hancock, Public Enemy, the beginnings of hip-hop, and AC/DC!
”Originally performing as an a cappella duo, Les Nubians began their own careers in local French clubs. “We were presenting Black music as a tree, going from the roots to the leaves”, says Faussart. “We were
doing traditional African music, then gospel, jazz covers, soul, reggae, calypso, hip-hop, a bit of everything.”
Les Nubians were spotted early by Virgin Records, who released the sisters’ debut album Princesses Nubiennes in ’98. A sophisticated, yet funky blend of soulful, jazzy grooves combined with a streetwise attitude, their hip Sade-meets-Zap Mama sound found an audience not only in France, but also somewhat surprisingly in America, where it was picked up by the college radio stations and sold over 400,000 copies.
“We were surprised”, says Celia. “At first we thought it was just the French-speaking people in the United States who were buying it. But then we were told that the stations there kept getting requests
for the single ‘Makeda’. It was comforting response for us, an affirmation of human nature. Music is its own language, and it showed that people are sometimes more open than you think they are.”
So with such a successful debut, why has it taken the Faussart sisters five years to record One Step Forward, their just-released second album? “Oh, we’ve been busy” explains Celia. “It took us a while to promote and perform the first album around the world. In between albums we also had kids and organised our own music company. We produced a spoken word poetry project as well, which hasn’t been released yet. Also we wanted to go back to real life, because living in hotel rooms doesn’t give you the true flavour of life. We needed to go back to our own lives and get inspiration from real people and places.”
One Step Foward features contributions from reggae group Morgan Heritage, African veterans Manu Dibango, Ray Lema and Richard Bona, with Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli and UK hip-hop producer I G Culture. There are also considerably more tracks sung in English on the new album.
“It came really naturally for us to use more English this time because with our tours to America and the recording work that we’ve done in London, we’ve gotten used to speaking a lot more English in the past few years”, says Faussart. “And we tried to mix generations too, bringing in some of the older players, along with some of the best new poet/rappers who are pushing away some of the musical barriers. That’s what we were searching to do on this album.”
Sharing a United States tour earlier this year with their Afropean vocal heroines Zap Mama, one might have expected some nationalistic Americans to take these French-speaking women to task over recent US/French disagreements on the Iraqi war. Les Nubians’ new song ‘La Guerre (The War)’
could also have been seen as fanning the controversial flames. But Faussart indicates that that wasn’t the case.
“We didn’t really experience any negativity. We were touring there when the war started, but the people who came to our shows weren’t in that state of mind. But the subject was definitely in the air and we had to talk about it. We’re just saying in the song that we’re the creators of our own reality. If we as humans want to create war, then we’re very good at doing that, but if we want instead to create a peaceful world, it’s also possible to give it a try for a change. My sister and I experienced war ourselves when we were growing up in Chad, and we don’t wish that on anybody. We were just trying to
make people think about it and that can’t be a bad thing.”
[This article originally appeared in “Rhythms” magazine (Australia)]
Adventurous audio explorer Jah Wobble keeps creating fresh sonic landscapes, with a little help from his friends. He discusses his latest projects with Seth
For an originally wild East End lad, first propelled at listeners as the somewhat menacing, bass-wielding counterpoint to John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) in the post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. (P.I.L), these days producer/bassist Jah Wobble, at 44, projects a much more reflective and settled demeanour.
Born John Wardle in 1958, his Jah Wobble moniker was famously bestowed on him by a drunken Sid Vicious, who slurringly introduced him as such. Given Wardle’s love of dub reggae the name seemed appropriate and stuck. Leaving P.I.L. in 1980, Wobble began to experiment, working on the classic ’83 album Snakecharmer,
alongside such art rockers Holger Czukay and Jaki Leibezeit from the German group Can, and U2 guitarist The Edge.
Opting out of the music industry for a time, Wobble disappeared completely for several years, working anonymously as a driver on the London Underground, before returning to the scene with a new band, The Invaders Of The Heart. Their ‘91 album Rising Above Bedlam spawned the surprise hit ‘Visions Of You’, which featured vocalist Sinead O’Connor. Wobble also created World music fusions, working with Najma, Natacha Atlas and Baaba Maal on ‘94’s Take Me To God.
Fronted by his own trademark rumbling basslines and studio production skills, Wobble’s collaborations have since included work with such diverse artists as Brian Eno, Bjork, Pharoah Sanders, Massive Attack, Primal Scream, Afro-Celt Sound System, and recent remixes for Tori Amos and Holly Valance.
Founding his own independent label 30 Hertz in ’97, Wobble has continued to release a prolific output of creative projects. His most recent work includes Molam Dub (2000) with Laotian group Molam Lao; RadioAxiom: A Dub Transmission (2001) with like-minded bassist/producer Bill Laswell; Shout At The Devil (2002) with ex-Transglobal duo Temple Of Sound; Solaris: Live In Concert (2002) with Laswell, Harold Budd, Graham Haynes and Jaki Leibezeit; and Fly (2003). He will shortly be releasing Five Beat with his current group Deep Space, as well as a soundtrack for the French film Fureur (Fury).
Jah Wobble lives with his wife Zi Lan, a traditional Chinese musician, in the northern English town of Stockport.
Jah, in your teenage years you enjoyed listening to late night radio oscillations, tuning into an array of far-off music and noise. Is that where you first learned the art of mixing diverse sounds?
I guess so. I was drawn to the sound of short-wave oscillations and I still love those low-end sounds. I continue to generate them myself in the studio with mutating systems that my engineer has invented to gain control over those frequencies. The radio ones are great ‘cause they feel like they’re coming from
the sun. Very cosmic and infinite. As stations fade in and out it’s a natural collage, and you never know where it’s going to drift to. I used it to fall asleep to.
Is that also where you first heard more exotic forms of music, such as Arabic singing?
That’s right. I think I first heard Radio Cairo. It was the Egyptian singer Oum Khalsoum, although I didn’t know her at the time. I can still remember all this phased clapping as the signal bounced around through the stratosphere, just like in the studio when you mirror a signal, which I absolutely adore. It’s like the music’s coming from heaven.
These days you always seem to have so many projects going at once, from esoteric jazz experiments to pop remixes for the likes of Holly Valance. A pretty wide musical palette isn’t it?
Yeah I’m always working, it’s always flowing, and keeping it diverse keeps it interesting. At the moment I’m buzzing on a mix I did the other night that I can’t get out of my head, with the trumpeter Harry Beckett. It’s a very slow New Orleans kind of thing.
Harry was involved with your latest album ‘Fly’, where he occasionally sounds very much like Miles Davis with that muted far-away sound. Miles’ music is still very important to you isn’t it?
Yeah he’s been quite an influence. I was 18 or 19 when I first heard Miles’ during his electric period, all those multi-layered textures. He was like an architect. I actually tried to bring some of that attitude to P.I.L., building up the sound. Miles was fantastic.
The ‘Fly’ album sounds quite different to many of your past projects. How did it come about?
I was just trying to have some fun. I was actually working on the soundtrack for the French film Fureur, and I was having a few barneys with the director. They kept changing their minds as to what they wanted. They were very much into me doing the music as we went, which actually can be quite exciting, rather than
afterwards. But they kept changing even how the film would go. So after I’d written a number of things, they wanted it different. Since I’d already had the big studio booked, I just said, “Okay you go make your mind up about what you want, and meanwhile I’ll just have some fun here for myself. So some of the
tracks on Fly came from that, and when I got home I added to it and properly mixed it. Even though it started off in a rather ad hoc fashion, it’s actually quite a disciplined album, with a strong uniformity of sound, a specific approach. It’s pretty electronic really with a lot of juicy synths in there,
with phasing and mutations. It’s quite a hip kind of sound I think. Apparently it’s appealing to some of the club people in London, the ones with ironic haircuts and glasses.
In setting up your own 30 Hertz label in ’97, were you just fed up with the corporate attitude to music as a product that could easily be identified into marketable genres?
I realised a long time ago that that approach was insane and illogical and wasteful. I came to that depressing conclusion more than 17 years ago. When I came back into the scene in the late 80’s I just saw the big companies as venture capitalists, people that you hustled money from to make records. It was
a dubious business and I could see that it wasn’t the way to go if you wanted to make really interesting music. In order to have some power and momentum I felt I needed to eventually form my own company. A lot of people said “You’re making a big mistake, you won’t have enough money to keep it happening”, but I just kept at it and so far it’s going okay. We’ve actually been in profit for the last few years, and my music is still readily available for people who want it. Some people tell me that I put out too much music and it just makes me laugh. I always think of the analogy between musicians and painters. Would we ever think of saying, “Oh I quite like Monet’s Water Lilies, but I think he did too much stuff”? The development is just as important as the results. Should he have set fire to the rest of them and just kept the best ones?
In the end it’s about an artist’s total body of work?
Yes, but I’m not doing what I do for posterity, I’m doing it ‘cause it’s fun, and I’ll let other people either make sense of it when I’m dead or ignore it. The important thing is to get it out there now. This stupid, outmoded system where you think tactically, you plan your career like a fox, carefully planning
each album, trying to get the image just right, trying to get a Levi’s ad for maximum marketing exposure. I’d rather face life and music head-on like a lion, brave and taking some chances, not like a careful tactical fox.
Speaking of brave music, the recent live Solaris album is a pretty full-on set isn’t it?
That was a dream proposition. I was approached by a promoter here who said, “Put together your dream band”, and I just said right, that would be Bill Laswell and Harold Budd and Jaki, and then we got Graham Haynes in too. And it actually happened, we toured, recorded it, and it was intense.
Your collaborations with Laswell over the years have always been very inventive. Your approaches to both bass-playing and production seem totally compatible.
Well of all the people I’ve gotten to work with, the easiest and most inspiring has been Bill. He just really gets it, and with just a few words. He’s the Quiet American in a heroic mode. We’ve got pretty similar musical tastes, there’s the bass link, and we share a similar sense of humour too. He’s a joy to work with and you come away inspired for your next project. The same’s true with Holger Czukay and Jaki, they’re very deep. I’m not prone to hyperbole, but with these sorts of people you’re in genius areas. They’re teachers, and I don’t use that term lightly. They reinforce good habits and good practice in making music.
As a Dub fan and connoisseur, what do you see as the next trend there, now that we’ve heard it used most recently within drum n’ bass and jungle contexts?
It always shifting. I heard some interesting things recently, almost hinting at Nigerian juju rhythmic patterns. Lots of people know how to use those heavy dub tones now, and the continuing development of software technology makes it horribly convenient to make music using computers. That’s been good news for
people with taste and skill, but worse for those who haven’t. It makes for a lot of interchangeable music.
But the dub thing will continue to mutate. Sometimes it will lean towards a more naturalistic jazz thing, with people actually playing their instruments, but with a good solid sonic treatment. But because of the availability of technology we’ll also probably hear more digital dub too, which in some hands
can be rather one-dimensional, or it can be a wonderful freedom if it’s based on real skill and imagination.
Some still know him as Dollar Brand, others by his adopted moniker of Abdullah Ibrahim, which he began using in the late 60’s after his conversion to Islam. Either way, the piano styling of this remarkable South African musician have made their indelible mark in both the jazz and world genres for over half a century.Now 66, Ibrahim was born Adolphe Johannes Brand in Capetown in 1934, and quickly nicknamed “Dollar”. Learning the piano from the age of 7, he honed his early talent in the church. By the late 40’s he was already playing with local jazz big bands.
In the early 60’s alongside trumpeter Hugh Masekela, saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, he was a central figure in South Africa’s own “progressive jazz” movement which took its lead from the New York-based sounds being articulated at the time by John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk amongst others. His “Jazz Epistles” group, which included Masekela and Gwangwa, broke new musical ground, with a distinctive African influence added to the jazz improvisation.
He left South Africa in 1962 due to the worsening political situation and, in a now-legendary meeting, his new Dollar Brand Trio was “discovered” by Duke Ellington while playing in Zurich, Switzerland club. Ellington quickly arranged a recording session with Reprise Records, and the Trio began playing the major
American and European jazz festivals to enthusiastic acclaim. Brand/Ibrahim’s powerful tonal clusters, repeating African melodies, and creative improvisations were to become his trademarks.
He returned briefly to South Africa in the mid-70’s, but found the conditions so oppressive that he went back into exile in New York. He finally returned to live in Capetown in 1990.
His discography as both a leader and sideman lists well over a hundred album credits, including “African Space Program””, “Ekaya”, “Tintinyana” and “Black Lightning”. He composed the award-winning soundtrack for the ’88 French/African film “Chocolat”. His most recent releases include “Cape Town Revisited” and
“Township One More Time”.
His last performances in Australia occurred on a solo tour in the early ‘80s. He recently returned for an exclusive one-off Melbourne performance with his
SETH JORDAN spoke to him for “Rhythms”.
Abdullah, as a child you played piano in the family church. What drew you to play there, and how closely related to African-American gospel were the songs that you learned?
Both my mother and my grandmother were pianists in the church, so I was exposed to it at an early age. It was part of a family tradition, Sunday church and Wednesday night prayer meetings. My grandmother was a founding member of the AME church in Capetown, that’s the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was
founded in Philadelphia USA, by and African American pastor, Richard Allen, who had come up from the Southern states. He was refused entry into an all-white church, so he began his own. Since our church was linked to theirs, I learned many American spirituals and hymns at a young age. And of course many of those
songs had originally come from Africa.
So how did you make the leap from the holy songs of God to the jazz tunes that some people back then thought were the devil’s own music?
Yeah (laughs) that old story! Actually my family was very supportive. They sent me to the local school teacher to learn how to read music. Jazz music by then was already part of the South African tradition. American jazz music was very popular and we had our own local jazz bands. During that period, the swing era, you could hardly distinguish whether a riff was a Basie riff from America, or whether it came out of the townships.
So the music you played in the 50’s with big bands like the Streamland Brothers and the Tuxedo Slickers was really a mix of American swing and traditional African tunes?
Exactly. At that time the South African music was called marabi, with its roots in the Maraba township in Pretoria. It was a basic three-chord progression with a repeated melody, and a bit of room to play solos on top. But we mixed it with things like “Tuxedo Junction” written by Erskine Hawkins, tunes by Joe Liggins, Basie, yeah, all of that old stuff.
I’ve read that there was also a link between South African songs and some of the early New Orleans jazz tradition too. Is that correct?
Yeah, there was a strong connection. We had a Confederate ship called the “Alabama” that came to Capetown, and that brought the minstrel influence to us. There’s a close link, almost like a socio-economic-cultural connection, specifically between New Orleans and Capetown. Street parades, carnival time, even the population mix. In New Orleans you have Basin Street, the red light district, musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, who was Creole, and then in Storyville you had the African descendents, the blacks like Louis Armstrong and all the others. Well in Capetown you have the so-called “colored” community and their musical influences, right up alongside the black community and their music. So there’s always been a very similar dynamic.
When you were recording in the early 60’s alongside Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa as The Jazz Epistles, your first album was hailed at the time as being the first modern jazz recording out of South Africa. Was there a sufficient audience there for this new, more contemporary sound?
There was always a large audience for what we were doing then. People were hungry for any new sounds. We were being denied so much; there was a really massive response to new and different musical ideas. People just wanted to listen to everything.
Unfortunately, so many black South African musicians felt it necessary to actually leave the country right at that musically fertile time. Was that a difficult decision for you to make personally or a very clear-cut one?
It was both. It was very difficult, but we knew we had to leave after the Sharpeville massacre. It became quite evident that we were coming under closer scrutiny from the government regime. We started to be identified as part of the resistance movement. When we decided to leave it was partly that we wanted to
pursue, to strive for our own excellence as artists, but it was also quite clear that we were subject to harassment and arrest just like everybody else. It was terrible to have to go, but our concern was more for the condition of our people, our families, rather than for the music.
Once you were in Europe, and then later in New York, you were able to mix with a very wide circle of other musicians. You’ve often cited both Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington as major influences. I believe there was a time when you actually got to lead the Ellington Orchestra for a few dates. Was he ill?
No, he was writing music for the film “Anatomy of a Murder” on the American West coast, and his band was on the East coast. So I was asked to play piano for about five of their concerts. Playing with Ellington on record was one thing, playing with him in concert was another, but being asked to take his place
inside there was absolutely terrifying. The scope and depth of Ellington was never really been fully appreciated. Those of us who access the music and who actually met those masters, Ellington and also Billy Strayhorn, are in absolute awe of their achievement and how far they were able to penetrate that realm of
With retrospective tributes and more academic examination of his music occurring around the world, do you think it’s being better understood today?
I hope so! Whatever type of music you’re involved with, jazz or whatever, you’re touched by Ellington one way or another. His influence has been tremendous. There are big problems though. I’ll give you an example of how he is misrepresented or misinterpreted. We’ve checked with a number of students coming out of these jazz schools, and if you ask any one of them to play something like “Take The ‘A’ Train”, one of his most popular songs, and none of them are actually even able to play the melody line correctly. It’s because it’s been passed on from one transcriber to another, and then onto the students in this totally incorrect mode. With Ellington, as with Monk, you have to listen very, very carefully and understand the depth and the nuances with which they wrote.
I don’t think I’ve heard or read of anyone ever saying anything unkind about Ellington. What’s your own personal memory of the man?
I sat with Duke talking for many hours after concerts. His vision was far beyond just the music. It led us to feel, even at that time, that we don’t need missionaries, what we need are visionaries. And he was one of those rare people. A truly unique man.
Once you were living in New York, did it feed your own creativity to be working amongst that imaginative collection of musicians who were there at that time?
Sure! It was a marvelous rare moment, a time when people of like mind we’re all getting together at the same point. In New York there was John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins. We were all like a close-knit unit. Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey, we were all friends, but more
importantly we were striving for excellence. We practiced for many hours a day with a vengeance.
Do you still spend much time in New York?
Not so much these days. I’m more involved with my projects in South Africa.
You’ve been quoted in the past as saying that South Africa is a political model for the rest of the world. Are you still feeling that way?
Of course. We have to commend our leadership that was begun by President Nelson Mandela. And also all of those unsung heroes whose names never appear in the media, but who we know have been very important, and still are, in the development of our community and our nation, and of us as individuals.
I also saw a wonderful quote of yours where you said, “South Africa is the only place in the world where a revolution has been made to the accompaniment of four-part harmonies”. Music really did play a major role in the people of South Africa gaining their freedom, didn’t it?
That’s right. Our experience has always been communication between individuals and family. Whatever we do is in the context of the extended family, which is the basis of harmony.
There has been some criticism of the ANC-led government since Mandela’s departure. Are you still feeling supportive of what is happening now?
Many years ago my martial arts teacher said to me, “To make a revolution is very easy, but afterwards it becomes very difficult”. So we understand what it is that we hope to achieve. We do have immense problems, but we’re facing them. We were left with a legacy of a society in disrepair. We have to recreate a new and
viable nation now. It’s not easy.
You’ve set up your own Conservatory in South Africa in the last few years for
teaching young students. What’s the plan?
The original idea was that it would just be a music academy. But as we started teaching we realized that especially in the disadvantaged communities, we had to deal with issues beyond just giving people performance skills. For example we had to deal with giving them a sense of focus, increasing their attention span. Health care is still an issue for our students. So we created a project called
M7. Music, movement, meditation, martial arts, medicine, menu, masters. Music of course covers all of the expected areas of musical learning; movement, basically we dance; meditation and martial arts addresses focus and discipline; medicine looks at the health care needs; menu pays attention to aspects of nutrition; and masters deals with all of the available teachers in these different disciplines.
We’ve started a project in Capetown, sending out several of our lecturers into the primary schools. We’re looking now at securing a new, more adequate building of our own, because our enrollment has grown tremendously. We’re also getting requests from international students to come and study. In Johannesburg we have a new Sounds and Images company “Masangeta ”, which means “miracle”, which has pooled its resources with an old friend of mine from my record company, along with a CEO from a diamond jewelry company. We’re using the business expertise and marketing skills of these associates to market a couple of new CDs, and we’ve just bought a building in Johannesburg, and one whole floor there will house M7.
So we’re working so far in Johannesburg and Capetown.
Has it become easier for young musicians in South Africa to find venues to play at, to tour, and to record?
We don’t take that attitude anymore. It’s not our dispensation to be waiting for others to offer us these things. We now have a free market economy, so we have to create our own opportunities. Create places to play, create record companies, create an entirely new infrastructure, both educational and commercial, to offer to these young players.
Is there better interaction between white and black musicians these days?
I think so. I’ve just created a 15-piece big band that is all black, but I’m also working with a 60-piece chamber orchestra from the classical field and they’re mostly white. Our M7 lecturers come from all ethnic groups. It’s precisely what the entire struggle was all about, you know? There are regional separations of
course, but in the end there’s only one culture, and that’s the culture of truth. It’s one’s heart’s deepest wish.
What’s your take on the increasing infiltration of rap and hip-hop styles into South African music in recent years?
Infiltration? We outfiltrated it! We rapped a long ago, we just didn’t call it that. We exported it to the world! My daughter is one of the rising stars of rap music at the moment in New York. She calls herself “What What”.
So you think the homeboys in Brooklyn would admit to rap originally coming from South Africa?
Well you’d have to ask them. The thing is that in the Diaspora there’s really no difference, whether it’s the Dreamtime from Mornington Island, or songs of the people from the Kalahari, or a rapper in Brooklyn, or haiku from Hokkaido. It all comes from the same place.
Abdullah, you’ve still out there, playing WOMAD festivals, performing around the globe. Are you still enjoying going out on tour, and life on the road at his point in your career?
“Enjoying” may not be the right word (laughs). But really this travel thing is getting too strenuous. Because of all of my activities in South Africa, from next year they’ll be less traveling time available. We’re also creating a new festival in Capetown, so perhaps it’s an opportune time to start touring a
little less now. But, God willing, I’ll still be staying very busy.
There’s something subtle going on in India these days. After centuries of subservience to their male counterparts, there’s a new generation of young Indian women making their mark in the Arts, not only at home, but internationally as well. Articulate, well educated, independently minded and extremely talented, the two most notable examples thus far have been writer Arundhati Roy (“The God of Small Things”) and film director Deepa Mehta (“Fire” & “Earth”).
In the world of classical Indian music there’s also been a quiet gender revolution occurring. As the old masters such as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan slow down, there’s an exciting generation of young players moving up, and for the first time some of the very best are women. Shankar’s own daughter Anoushka has already firmly established her own career as a talented sitarist, while his long-time tabla partner, the late Ustad Alla Rakha, who died in February, has bequeathed the world not only his acclaimed tabla playing son Zakir Hussain, but another favoured student, (and the first woman to play tabla professionally), Anuradha Pal.
Although not from a traditionally music-oriented family background, Anuradha has been performing publicly since the age of eleven. With a devoted dedication to long hours of practice and a strong determination to succeed, she received favourable critical attention at an early age and became a student disciple of both Alla Rakha and Zakir.
She now regularly appears at India’s most important classical festivals and is an A-Grade Artist with All India Radio. She has appeared with some of the country’s most distinguished musicians, including Hariprasad Chaurasia and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. She has won numerous awards, is now touring internationally, and in ’96 founded India’s first all-female Percussion Ensemble, “Stree Shakti”.
Last year Anuradha toured Australia for the first time, alongside the Melbourne-based Afghani sitarist, Khalil Gudaz. Her solo tabla demonstrations were a highlight at the ’99 Bellingen Global Carnival with audiences enraptured by her irrepressible creativity, spontaneity, good humour and overwhelming rhythmic prowess. She recently returned to Australia for well-received performances in Melbourne and Sydney, accompanying India’s reigning sitar star, Shahid Parvez.
She spoke to SETH JORDAN for “DIASPORA”.
Anu, not coming from a musical family, how did you choose the tabla, which is usually considered a male instrument, as your means of expression, or did it choose you?
Well I come from an academic professional family. It was almost mandatory to learn some form of the Arts in my family, so I originally was learning vocal classical music. As an adjunct I started to learn tabla when I was seven or eight, basically just to get a sense of rhythm. Then it took over my life. When I was about eleven I really began to enjoy it, the act of performing, the act of communicating to audiences. I hadn’t actually decided that this is what I wanted to do up until that point, but then I performed at a prestigious music festival in Bombay and I was the only teenager involved. The response of the audience was very encouraging and I realised that this is what I really wanted to do.
You must have realised even at that time though that this was not an accepted role socially for a young woman to take on?
When I first made my decision it was not to break through any barrier, it was simply because I was enjoying playing so much, so attracted to the complexity of sounds that can be produced on the instrument, the technique, the communication. My parents were always very supportive, but yes I met with a lot of opposition. First people would say, “But you are only a girl, you’re not supposed to play tabla. Your fingers are too small, not enough power, no stamina. The thing about me though is if you try and stop me from doing something, I want to do it all the more. So when people tried to dissuade me, that’s when I got more determined to improve. I was breaking a mould, breaking the shackles of whatis traditionally supposed to be a male preserve. So there was that prejudice which is an unfair thing to go through, especially so young. But I continued to work at it and sometimes I still have to.
What sort of practice schedule were you expected to maintain?
I would normally put in seven to eight hours per day. When I was on summer vacation from school I would undertake a forty day rigorous practice schedule where you play for ten hours continuously, with maybe a break after four or five hours. If you do stop you have to start all over again. I did that every year.
It was very demanding, a big struggle, because I was also expected to be do well with my school studies too, so it was a balancing act between tabla and my other studies.
In India there are often people in the audience who have enormous knowledge of the music, very critical listeners. Did this ever worry you?
When I was young, playing was just about having fun. As I got older I realised that there is a responsibility that I carried onto the stage. It can be intimidating to know that there are so many in the audience that know so much. But I think that’s where the main challenge really lies in India, it’s the acid test. If a musician can perform successfully in India he can perform anywhere in the world. His acceptability may vary, his popularity may vary, but he has been raised on firm ground. If he can get critical acclaim there, he can get in anywhere. It’s a great learning experience.
How did you go about finding the best teachers for your tabla education?
Initially I was learning from Benares teachers, and at about the age of thirteen I started attending concerts, which is where I first heard my gurus, Ustad Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain. They had also seen me perform and knew that I was very interested. It started very informally with Zakir inviting me over to their house. I went to Ustad Alla Rakha and said, “Please treat me as one of your sons, be as strict with me as you would with them. Slap me, hit me if you must, but teach me.” He agreed and sure enough he was uncompromising in what he expected and I am really grateful to him for that.
Alla Rakha died just recently. In the West he was known primarily as Ravi Shankar’s musical partner, but can you summarise the impact and influence that he had within India itself?
I think not only within India. Today wherever Indian music is played in the world it is because of the contribution of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha. They opened the doors of Indian classical music forever. They made people realise and appreciate the value of this music. As far as the rhythmic aspect
goes, Ustad Alla Rakha created a new language of tabla. He fine-tuned it as an accompanying instrument, creating new possibilities, a variety of sounds. He could blend it with any other instrument. He created his own individual unique stamp. Also he was a pioneer as a tabla soloist, making people accept the instrument as a solo voice, not necessarily just as an accompanying sound. His style was rhythmical complicated, technically beautiful and yet universally appealing. That is his greatest contribution and I believe tabla players, other musicians and music lovers will value him for centuries.
His son Zakir Hussain has obviously inherited the family brilliance as a player. Are there differences or similarities in learning from the father as well as the son?
It is a very demanding thing to learn from such people, because since they have set such exacting standards for themselves, they expect the same from their students. Zakir has also been very strict with me, he’s a perfectionist. That’s appropriate and has really helped me have the confidence to play in any
situation, with any artist. My training is good, my foundation is good. That confidence, which you inherit from your teachers, is essential.
When you’re playing as a tabla accompanist you often have to defer to the lead melody instrument. Is it difficult to hand over that musical responsibility when you have your own strong direction?
That is actually where my biggest struggle was. As an accompanist it depends very much on the other musician and what he expects of you. He may not be able to articulate what he expects of you very well. It’s really a matter of getting under the musician’s skin, literally. Get into his style, his temperament, into his mind. You have to actually be able to think before he does, to anticipate where he’s going, to know by intuition. It’s a very tough role. Comparatively when I play tabla solo I’m the boss of the stage, it’s just me and the audience. But as an accompanist you have to be simultaneously one step behind and one step ahead. It’s a difficult process, but it comes from your training, your experience. It’s something that you just feel. I listen to other tabla players accompanying individual musicians and try to assimilate what they’re doing well, calculate what needs to be a bit more or less when I’m playing with that person. I have to find the right combination, the right mix so that the performer’s happy, I’m happy, and the audience is happy.
You’re playing now more often to Western audiences, who in most circumstances do not have the same understanding of your classical tradition as the Indian audiences. They may even be hearing live Indian music for the first time. Do you have to adjust your approach depending on the audience you’re playing to?
You can never underestimate an audience. Every audience knows if what they’re hearing is right or wrong, even if they are not as musically educated. To teach an audience is to learn more yourself. They may have more or less preconceived notions, their attention span may be different, and yes it may require more explanation, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s very challenging. The Indian audiences are the most difficult to please, because they’ve heard so much great music, it’s part of their culture and you’re not a novelty for them. You are either good quality or nothing at all. You’re judged on that.
Some Indian musicians seem to find Western audiences, if anything, even more enthusiastic and less inhibited about showing their appreciation than their Indian counterparts. Do you agree?
Oh absolutely! When I played last year with my female ensemble at the WOMAD Festival in England it was an amazing experience. The way the people were swinging and dancing and shouting out for more, they were so enthusiastic! Perhaps in India we have so much music, an overdose of it sometimes, that we might tend to undervalue it. It can take more to get people really involved with the performance.
Tell me about this percussion ensemble of yours, “Stree Shakti”.
I started it off in ’96 and it’s a combination of Hindustani and Carnatic music, bringing together vocal, instrumental and percussion music, which is rather rare. All members are women and all are excellent performers. I change the group’s size depending on the venue and the budget. Sometimes it’s just a percussion ensemble and other times it’s a bigger group with the Hindustani vocals, veena and violin. “Stree” means women and “Shakti” of course means power. This is not a feminist statement though.
It’s not the Indian equivalent of the Spice Girls’ “Girl Power” then?
Definitely not! But it does come from the fact that I have encountered opposition and prejudice when I came into the field, and I feel that while nothing less should be expected of women, we should be able to take our rightful place in the mainstream. Don’t discriminate on the basis of our gender, that’s our only statement. “Stree Shakti” is more of a coming together for the members involved, it’s a celebration of life.
The two most well-known tabla players in the world at the moment, your teacher Zakir Hussain and Trilok Gurtu, both have made a habit of not only playing in the classical mode, but also working on musical projects that bridge across to more contemporary forms, such as jazz, cross-cultural experiments, and the whole Indian/English Bhangra/Techno/Hip-Hop dance scene with all the Indian mixmaster DJs. Do you see yourself getting involved with that type of crossover music in the coming years, or will you be staying more in the traditional camp?
My first love will always be Indian classical music, but there are really no holds barred. I would like to experiment with other musicians, I like jazz and rock and most of the other forms. I played with Japanese drummers when I was performing at a festival in Japan, which was like a big jam session. I’ve also done some work with Flamenco players. So yes I like to experiment too. I think it opens your mind.
Nicknamed after the guerrilla pseudonym used by the African freedom fighter and Kenya’s first head of state, Jomo Kenyatta, Winston Rodney is known better to most of the world as long-time reggae veteran Burning Spear.
He was born in March 1945 in St.Ann’s Bay on Jamaica’s north coast, also the birthplace of both Bob Marley and Jamaica’s national hero Marcus Garvey. Spear has many times told the story of walking along in the hills above St. Ann’s and running into the young Marley. “Bob was going to his farm. The man was moving with a donkey, some buckets, a fork, a cutlass and plants. We just reason man-to-man and I-man say I would like to get involved in the music business. Bob say ‘Alright, just check Studio One.’”. And the rest, as they say is reggae history.Following Spear’s success at the legendary Studio One, his 70’s albums Marcus
Garvey, Man In The Hills, Dry & Heavy, Live! and Garvey’s Ghost confirmed his status on the international reggae scene. Following Marley’s untimely death, many in the reggae community saw Spear as the most legitimate heir to the reggae musical throne.
Always dedicated to the original rastaman themes of spirituality, social consciousness, and the divinity of Jah Rastafari, his 80’s output included more crucial classics such as Farover and Resistance. During the 90’s, while many of the other original Jamaican stars fell by the wayside, Spear continued his
string of non-stop releases, producing the Grammy-nominated Jah Kingdom, Rasta Business, Appointment With His Majesty, and his ongoing series of Living Dub remixes.
Having just picked up this year’s Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album for ‘99’s Calling Rastafari, featuring his revitalised Burning Band, and celebrating his 30th anniversary of recording, Winston Rodney spoke with SETH JORDAN for RHYTHMS.
Winston, there was a rumour at one stage that you had once said that you wouldn’t play down here in Australia until indigenous rights were recognized in this country. Is that true and is that one of the reasons why we’ve had to wait so long to see you live?
That’s the first I’ve heard about that! (Laughs) I know for sure that we’ve had a lot of calls over the years from people who’ve wanted to bring us to Australia. We didn’t know if the time was right, and if those were the right people, so we preferred to lay back, and now we’re working with the right sort
of people to do it for, so the time must be right too, and here we come!
There’s so many permutations of reggae these days; hip-hop reggae, electro-reggae, rapping reggae, all the dancehall tracks. Are you liking what you hear in the new sounds or do you prefer to stick with the more traditional conscious rasta roots?
There are so many different aspects of reggae these days, all of us trying to do our thing. It’s left up to some of us to do the right thing. If the music is preaching violence, I don’t approve of that. If the music presents as outrageousness, I don’t approve of that. Music should present consciousness, upliftment, unity, love, equality. Speak about the roots, the culture, speak about the history, speak about the development amongst people. Those are the things I approve of.
How about the reggae that’s coming out of Africa these days? You going to be sharing some shows done here in Australia with South Africa’s Lucky Dube, and other performers such as Alpha Blondy up in West Africa seem to have found a strong fusion between Jamaican and African styles.
Today reggae is coming from so many different places. This music carries such a strength and power and potential, it mobilises people from many different countries and Africa is an obvious place for reggae to take root and be heard by the people. I don’t mind other people playing the music as long as the music
they play has some substance and some good understanding within it.
Lucky Dube’s been doing it now for a good while and has a really good following, especially in Europe. I think he’s a really good singer.
Your own music has been an integral part of Jamaica’s musical history, and yet it’s almost always mentioned second to that of Bob Marley. Have you ever minded being in that position, maybe just a little in the shadow of Marley’s music?
I don’t really mind the position I’m in. Whatever I’m seen as today I think I put myself in this position and the people also put I in this position. I’m here for the people. Reggae is the people’s music. So there’s no problem. I’m here to do what I do best, making music for the people.
Central to your music both then and now has been the teachings of the Jamaican educator Marcus Garvey. Are you feeling that his work is still relevant for the 21st century?
I think so. There’s a lot of people who have never been told of these sort of good things that we present through the music. Self-determination, self-reliance. People still need to be taught about it, to hear what is possible, to give them hope and let them know that it’s worked for some people and that it can work for them also.
Also central to your music and rasta culture in general has been your dedication to the life of Haile Selassie, the former King of Ethiopia. In retrospect of history has your personal attitude toward him and his legacy changed at all?
It’s both ways now to be honest. I and I grow up on His Majesty, his teachings, the world philosophy around the teachings. We see His Majesty as King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. We see His Majesty as our saviour. Other people see other things. There’s one Creator, but the Creator comes with so many names, so many labels. Some call him Christ, some call him Jesus, some call him Lord. I and I say Jah Rastafari! You know what I’m saying? It continues.
Your own output over the last few years has been pretty prolific. A new album almost every year plus a dub version as well. You enjoy changing the new mixes around and altering the sound?
Oh yeah I love the dubbin’! I’ve done Volume 1,2 3, and 4 now, and I’ve already done Volume 5 but I’m not ready to release it yet. It’s just another experience of the music. Less vocal, listening to more instrument, mixing them down, adding a few things, playing with effects. I find it very exciting.
The studios now must be a fair bit different from the old Studio One days?
It’s a lot of advancement! So many machines! You can get a completely different sound, 24 tracks, 36 tracks, 48 tracks, whatever you want. It’s so different from the old days when we just play and it was recorded altogether. Now you can go back, clean up any mistakes, add what you want. Make it sound really good!
Winston you’ve just won your first Grammy Award after being nominated what, six times?
It ‘s been eight times!
Sorry, eight I lost count. Is it important to you to have that sort of commercial success and recognition for your music?
To be truthful I already felt recognised before winning the Grammy. I’ve been recognised ever since I began in the music business. I’ve always been popular and known to the world. Winning the Grammy is just another step. But I give thanks, knowing that I finally won this year. So many good musicians never get
nominated or if they do they don’t win, so I am grateful.
Do you think reggae will ever experience a major resurgence to the prominence that it enjoyed a couple of decades ago when it was seen as the cutting edge, a revolutionary force for musical and social change?
Well I think we need advise for this music to reach deeply into the commercial scene. We have the talent of the artists, the musicians. We do what we do, but it takes more to reach a wider audience. It’s really up to the record companies and the music industry to take that next step. We’ve got a dedicated audience
already, but I don’t know if the record companies are that interested to give us that major sort of exposure. We’re a big international music and yet we don’t get the big exposure. If they gave it that sort of push then it could be one of the biggest types of music in the world.
On the latest album you ask if anyone still remembers Burning Spear. I don’t think that’s really ever going to be much of a problem and your place in music history is secure, but how would you yourself like to be remembered?
I’d just like to be remembered as a hard working man who was involved in the music business for many years. I’d just like people to remember my work, my music, my philosophy, my doctrine, and my religion.
The man who put together the Buena Vista Social Club talks to Seth Jordan about
“the old guys”, his current Afro-Cuban All Stars, and saving the Cuban economy with music.
Juan de Marcos González is a quiet achiever. The man who actually went out and found the veteran Cuban musicians, many of whom were already in retirement, and assembled them into the now-famous Buena Vista Social Club, is justifiably proud of his achievement, but more than willing to fully acknowledge the massive talents of the players involved. Even before the Buena Vista success story unfolded though, González had already become one of the most important figures in Cuban music today. Born in Havana in 1954, González grew up surrounded by music, as his father was a singer who performed in Arsenio Rodriguez’s famed band. Studying hydraulic
engineering and Russian at university, González co-founded the traditional septeto group Sierra Maestra in ’78 while still at school. Already an accomplished tres player (the small Cuban guitar with three sets of double strings), González’s aim for the young group was to encourage an appreciation for the rural son style amongst Cuban youth. Sierra Maestra went on to record fourteen albums in Cuba, and their best-selling international releases (‘94’s “Dundunbanza” and ‘97’s “Tibiri Tabara”) brought them to the world’s attention. Those albums, both on the UK-based World Circuit label, also firmly established González’s friendship with English producer Nick Gold, who was to become another crucial figure in the Buena Vista project.
With Gold’s urging, and having long harboured a desire to put together a band that combined the younger generation of Cuban players alongside some of the old veterans of the genre, González set out to locate some of the forgotten “old masters” and assemble them all into one working band. The resulting and now
legendary ’97 sessions at Havana’s famous Egrem studios were originally set up to produce two albums, the first Afro-Cuban All Stars release, “A Toda Cuba le Gusto” and the original “Buena Vista Social Club”. Everyone at the sessions was so impressed with the playing of pianist Ruben González (no relation) during the recordings that a third album featuring the 78 year old, (who Ry Cooder called “a cross between Thelonius Monk and Felix the Cat”), was also released. All
three albums sold exceptionally well all around the world and received huge critical acclaim.
González then led the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Ruben González on their debut U.S. and European tours and directed the Buena Vista Social Club concerts in Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Hall. The shows were filmed as part of Wim Wender’s award-winning documentary on the band and the rest, as they say, is
Buena Vista history.
With the release late in ’99 of the second Afro-Cuban All Stars album “Distinto, Diferente” and on the eve of their first Australian tour, Juan de Marcos González spoke with Seth Jordan for “Rhythms”.
Marcos, did you have any idea, say five years ago, that Cuban music would today be having such an enormous impact on the international music scene?
Well I had the idea, and in fact I always believed in the music of my country, but I never imagined this sort of success. What’s happening is something well beyond my expectations and we’ve started to reclaim the place Cuban music had before, during the first half of the 20th century, when our music was a best-seller in the tropical dance market. I’m particularly proud because my original idea to try and recreate the spirit of that golden period of Cuban culture has been a success. All these old guys who I went to look for a few
years ago, right now they’re really on the top. It’s something special for me and something special for my country and my culture.
Back in ’96 when World Circuit producer Nick Gold approached you to seek out some of these older players and singers, I believe the original idea was to bring over some African musicians to play alongside the Cubans. Is that right?
Yeah, but the original idea was actually mine. I wanted to make an album that featured some of the most important Cuban musicians, most of them already retired, and to recreate that sound from the ‘50s. At the same time Nick wanted to record an album mixing the eastern Cuban son, a simple music with acoustic
guitar and tres, this special string sound, and bring in a guitar player and a kora player from West Africa, as well as Ry Cooder, to make a sort of fusion album. Unfortunately the African musicians never came to Havana because of visa problems. In the end I put together a team, my Afro-Cuban All Stars, and we also
specifically went looking for Compay Segundo who’s a specialist of eastern Cuban music, along with Eliades Ochoa, Barbarito Torres and all the others. The first album we made was the first All Stars album, “A Toda Cuba le Gusto” and the second one was the one that has gotten most of the publicity all around the
world, “The Buena Vista Social Club”. The film gave it an even bigger push.
When Nick brought Ry into the project, that brought a certain credibility to it as a commercial venture, but do you feel his involvement was necessary from a purely musical standpoint? Could it have been successful without him?
God knows! I think it was a good idea to bring Ry in. I mean he’s not really a top star in Western music, but he’s an important musician and very intelligent and he’s done fusion music before. His album with Ali Farka Toure (“Talking Timbuktu”) that he had already done with Nick Gold had been a big success.
That’s why Nick called Ry. I think it was an excellent idea because as a producer I would never have tried to create the sound going all the way back to the ‘40s. That was a Ry idea. It was something really special for the audiences in the Western world to hear. So would it have been successful without him? I don’t know, but at the moment I think the old guys have become bigger stars than Ry! Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben González are certainly both bigger right now.
When you originally went looking for the older players and singers did you already have an inkling that some of these fellows wouldn’t actually mind being coaxed out of retirement?
I knew that some of them would enjoy joining the band and to start working again. A few of them were quite disappointed with what had happened to their music environment. They felt that they had been completely forgotten. Ibrahim for example was just doing things at home and shining shoes on the street. He never thought about coming back to the music because he was completely disappointed. He had never had the success that he deserved. He was an excellent singer, but he had never really been lucky, he was always in the background of the top stars. He sang in Beny More’s band and Beny was the most important Cuban
singer of the ‘50s. He wanted to sing boleros but he had never had the opportunity to with those bands because he wasn’t the star. I can tell you though that’s what’s happening with Ibrahim today is completely incredible. Right now I think he’s more famous than Ricky Martin! He has a wider audience, not just teenagers, but old people and middle-aged people. It’s incredible and he’s on the top.
Maybe Ibrahim and Ricky should do a duet together? That would have to be a hit!
Yeah of course! Why not? It would be a good idea, lots of action, but I don’t think Ricky knows how to sing real Cuban music though. He’s from Puerto Rico and he only does the pop songs
And what about Rubén González? He’s such a master on the piano, but he claimed that before Buena Vista he hadn’t touched a piano in years.
No, it’s a lie. He didn’t have a piano, but he used to go to the houses of other old musicians like him and play a bit. He just pretended he hadn’t been playing at all. But he was pretty old and nobody was taking care of him when I went looking for him. The piano he has now at home is one that I bought him in ’98.
Marcos you’ve uncovered so many of the great old players, but lately in the wake of Buena Vista we keep having new “old” players being rediscovered. Surely there isn’t a never-ending supply of them?
Well I’m using a lot more of the younger players now from the third generation, but there are still lots of the older performers out there too. For example on that first group of albums we didn’t have the voice of Celina González. She was working somewhere in Europe and it was impossible to find her then. There are so
many important musicians of that generation. Right now we have Ibrahim and Omara (Portuondo) and there are maybe 20 or 25 important older guys still in Cuba who deserve to be heard. I’ll try and give them all the space they deserve.
As the project leader of all this activity Marcos you must be a busy man these days. Before all this started you were leading Sierra Maestra around the world. Are they continuing to tour?
Oh yes. They made a film a couple of months ago called “La Salsa”, so they’re actors now too. I’m not working with them now because it was impossible to do everything at once. I was leading the All Stars and the Buena Vista tours, as well as Sierra Maestra up until the beginning of ’98, but then we split. Sierra
Maestra are still very successful in Europe. Their last album is the soundtrack of the film, but their film isn’t like the Buena Vista documentary though, it’s more commercial and it’s fiction. It was directed by the grand-daughter of Luis Bunuel.
With the All Stars you’re starting to change around a number of players. Ruben, Barbarito, bassist Cachaito Lopez and others have moved on and you’re replacing them with generally younger players. What’s the current mix?
Yes that’s the plan. The Afro-Cuban All Stars isn’t a band, it’s a project. I try to bring in the most important players who are interested in developing the roots of Cuban music along with the more contemporary side. At the moment the group is getting younger. I still have Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, one of the singers from the Buena Vista Social Club, he’s an old guy, and I have Teresita Garcia Caturia and Felix Valoy who started the project with me. But the lead
trumpet player now is only 24 years old. I want to show the world the diversity available and that it’s possible to have a multi-generational band.
I assume that some of the older players might not really want to endlessly continue the sometimes gruelling pace of international touring and might prefer a quieter time at home these days?
Yeah sure, although some of them are still going strong. Ibrahim and Ruben aren’t tired yet and Compay is still doing it at 92, really strong! But some of them do get tired. In the beginning I was using Raul Planas who’s one of the classic singers from the ‘50s, but he’s too old now for touring now and he has health problems. And Celina (González) is very ill now too. But with Ibrahim’s band at the moment you can see a lot of old guys with terrific spirit, and with my All Stars there are about three or four really strong old guys.
What were you trying to do on the latest All Stars album “Distinto, Diferente” which was distinct and different from the first album?
After the success of the first group of albums, some people started thinking that the only music we have in our country is the old music with old musicians. So with this one I wanted to show that we have contemporary music, still mixing the spirit of the old times, but with a more contemporary sound. I wanted to
show that over the past 40 or 45 years Cuban music has continued to develop, with lots of styles and a modern language for the regional music.
In the liner notes you wrote about the possibilities of this being considered a controversial album because it isn’t purist. Has that proved to be true? Has there been criticism?
Yes, from some people. You know when you have a success with a certain style of music, people expect you to repeat the same thing again and again. But I wanted to break the rules. For some people the album is too contemporary, too strong, not as pure as before. For me though it’s okay since I intended for it to sound
The All Stars were scheduled to play here in Australia a couple of years ago, but I believe there was a dispute between the sponsor, Bacardi Rum, and your president, Mr. Castro, which stopped you from being able to come?
Yeah, they had a problem, there was a trial because Bacardi started in Cuba, but moved away, and unfortunately sometimes in Cuba everything is inside of politics, so it was impossible for us to play in Australia for that event, but now we’re happy that we’re able to come and work.
Cuba’s had a rough go financially since the Soviet Union stop subsidising it a while back, and some people have suggested that the current popularity in the country’s music could actually save the economy. Do you feel a personal responsibility on that level and has Fidel sent you a good box of cigars yet in thanks?
It’s true that Cuban music is a very important wing of the Cuban economy right now and it can in fact really help to solve some of our economic problems. Maybe he will send some cigars if it keeps happening.
Are you concerned at all that the current popularity of Cuban music internationally might fade once it stops getting a big commercial push?
Because we’re re-establishing ourselves internationally we have to push it a bit right now. It’ll probably still be in fashion for another couple of years. At the end the boom is going to finish, but the music will remain as an option for people who want to follow tropical dance music. So it’s important for us all to work really hard right now, because we are in our own time. I know the boom will finish but after being isolated for so long it’s our big chance to work seriously.
Can you explain how the American boycott of all things Cuban, that’s been in place since the ‘60s, affected the opportunities for Cuban musicians to tour and be heard?
There were no real possibilities to develop a career. It’s very easy to study in Cuba because we have a very good educational system, but it was hard to develop a career just in Cuba because there’s no market. People don’t have money to buy CD’s and touring is very limited. So for many of the musicians, especially the
jazz musicians they wanted to go to New York and Europe. But with the American boycott of Cuba and without an income it was impossible to travel or to get good contracts with an important label that could distribute your music worldwide. But in a certain sense it was positive in that we kept alive our roots. Without the boycott Cuban music could have become just an artificial pop sound.
Does it ever surprise you that Cuban music translates so well to audiences as diverse as Japan, Scandinavia, and even down here in Australia?
It has a very special strength. I think it’s a strength that comes from the mix of different cultures that make up Cuba. It’s got that special hook. Even if an unknown Cuban band plays somewhere, it will get to the people because it’s not the people playing it, it’s the music itself. It’s like honey. Everybody enjoys
Producer/keyboardist/guitarist Nitin Sawhney may not be a household name quite yet, but all you have to do is put one of his albums on the stereo, give it some volume, and people are inevitably drawn into his luxurious, intoxicating, Anglo-Indian sound creations.
With five albums to his credit (93’s Spirit Dance, Migration in ’95, Displacing The Priest in ’96, the award-winning Beyond Skin in ’99, and the just-released Prophesy (V2/Zomba, 2001), he is currently being seen as one of England’s most creative producer/musicians. He has remixed for Paul McCartney and Sting, written for Sinead O’Connor, and just produced part of the latest album from Algerian rai star Cheb Mami. Suddenly, Nitin Sawhney is hot property. It’s important to have an empathic connection with what’s around you. If I
was listening to the sounds of insects up in Arnhem Land, or waves on the beach in Mumbai, I’d try to tune into what was in my immediate environment and incorporate the sounds into the song. I know it sounds a bit hippie-ish, but it was something I thought was necessary to do.
Were you travelling on your own?
No, I was fortunate enough to have some people with me taking photographs and filming the journey. They were very sensitive to the process, as we were trying to be as un-intrusive as possible. We wanted to incorporate the filming of where we were into the live performance of the music later, but not to have the focus on us. It felt good with that particular group of people who came along.
The opening single ‘Sunset’ has such a simple melody line, but it’s one of those tunes that really auto-loops itself into the memory. What’s its story?
I like to create songs that are very accessible to bring people into the beginning of an album. That one’s really about when you’re feeling down, when things aren’t going all that well. You can sometimes end up coming back stronger because of it. One of my favourite phrases is “From oppression comes expression”, because I think that’s true. Like in Soweto township in South Africa, you see kids who are so much brighter and stronger than you could imagine, given their situation. They had the Bantu Education Act there,
specifically to teach black people to be menial workers for white people. And yet they’ve come back stronger. You can see that sort of thing all around the world. Even in Australia with the Reconciliation movement. People who have been pushed back, who have their rights and lives taken away from them, come back stronger, with more determination. That’s what ‘Sunset’ is about, it’s an analogy and a symbol of that process.
Talking about Soweto, you had the opportunity to spend a little time with Nelson Mandela while you were in South Africa. I take that it you were as impressed by him as most people are?
He’s incredible. To me he’s one of the true visionaries of our time. He could always see ahead of what was going on. Even before he was put in prison he had a very focused vision of multiculturalism. He wasn’t really into pushing himself as a leader, he was more interested in people being able to live together in an egalitarian way. Even now when you meet him, he’s a very humble person. His personality suits his public reputation. It was a humbling experience for me to meet him.
Did he know your music previously?
He didn’t really. In a way that made it even better. He kind of agreed to meet me without really knowing anything about me, just simply because I was interested in talking to him. He was that open. He invited into his house and spent time with me just because I’d asked to. At one point while we were talking
we were even interrupted by one of his administrators who said, “We’ve got the President on the phone to speak with you, and he says it’s urgent”. And Mandela turned to me and said “Do you have any more questions?”, and when I indicated that I had a few more, he had them tell the President to call back in a few minutes. I thought that was pretty phenomenal!
I take it that was the South African president, not George Dubya?
Yeah, it was Mbeki, but I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if it had been Bush!
You also had one of the best introductions to Australia that you can get, linking up with Mandawuy Yunupingu from Yothu Yindi, and getting to see some of his traditional land. How did that come about?
It was set up by my manager. I felt very fortunate to be invited up to Arnhem Land, as I’ve been taking an interest in what’s going on with Aboriginal Australians for a long time; the human rights issues with the U.N.; the Pauline Hanson situation a few years ago. Australia really doesn’t have a very good record on indigenous rights. Also the whole thing around mandatory sentencing and the detention of asylum seekers. So when Mandawuy invited me up, I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to get a more real flavour of what that part of Australia is all about. It was wonderful.
You’ve been very busy lately. Besides your own new album, you’ve been producing for others, you’re doing TV documentaries, teaching workshops in schools… How do you keep from spreading yourself too thin?
I don’t sleep or eat! Honestly I’m always busy and I love it. Just as an example of my last four days… I was on “Newsnight” with Jeremy Paxman here on TV the other night talking about multiculturalism, which was a weird experience. Then the following night I was at the Royal Albert Hall with Jools Holland and Julian
Joseph, who’s one of my favourite pianists, which was really cool. Then the next night I was DJ-ing at a club called “Ocean” which was fantastic fun. Today I’m going to be mixing the new single which we’re going to be putting out later in the year from the album, and then I meeting up with some people to talk about
writing the music for a West End musical. Then I‘m jumping on a plane for Japan tomorrow! So it’s kind of crazy, but I feel very privileged to be doing all the things I dreamt of doing when I was younger. I have a lot of energy for things that I believe in.
Your website at the moment is very clever place for people to check out. A little slow in loading perhaps, but well worth the wait. Did you have a hand in that too?
Yeah I did, especially with the visual and artwork. Everything reflects back on the whole project. I’m into the idea of it all having the same central focus, for the website to reflect the album and the DVD.
This has been a very quick visit to Australia, with just one gig each in Sydney and Melbourne. Any plans for a more extensive tour down here?
I’d love to! Maybe not this year, but we do want to return soon. This was just a chance to have a quick introduction to Australia with the new album, because I’ve wanted to play here for years. There may even be some way of starting a club down here in the future. We’ve been talking about that and we’ll definitely
see if it can happen.
Seth Jordan talks to Indian singer Sheila Chandra about Voice, Zen, Rhinitis & the English Countryside
That voice is back again. After a five year absence, the result of vocal health problems, Indian fusion pioneer Sheila Chandra has returned with an uncharacteristically edgy new album, This Sentence Is True (The Previous Sentence is False).
Born in South London to immigrant Indian parents, Chandra’s initial success came early, scoring a mainstream Top 10 hit, ‘Ever So Lonely’, in ’82, fronting the group Monsoon. Along with her husband/producer Steve Coe, she immediately embarked on a series of adventurous solo albums, charting new directions in vocal experimentation. Her trio of ground-breaking albums for Peter Gabriels’ Real World label in the early ‘90s, Weaving My Ancestor’s Voices, Zen Kiss, and AboneCroneDrone, solidified her growing legion of fans worldwide.
An integral forerunner for both the Anglo-Indian Bhangra dance scene and the current success of England’s ‘Asian Underground’ movement, Chandra absence from the World music stage for the last few years has been noticeable.
From her secluded rural home in Somerset, she spoke to SETH JORDAN for “RHYTHMS”.
Sheila, having gained popularity with a Top 10 single at the age of 16, your career has already spanned two decades, yet you’re still only in your mid-thirties.
Yes I started very young. I think people assume I’m much older than I am. That first single was fairly radical at the time, part of a genre that hadn’t even been invented yet, Asian fusion, and even the term World music wasn’t around then. I don’t think anyone used that term until 1987, and we recorded Monsoon
back in ’82.
Your early solo recordings were also heard as part of that early wave of ‘80s Ambient music. Was that the mood you were trying to invoke, the ethereal soundscape?
What fascinated me was what could be done combining Asian structures and the Western pop culture that I’d grown up with. How the voice could be used in that arena, how they could be married. The thing that was so apparent to me early on was that there were no teachers, no rulebook, no one to guide me through that
process. That’s why my first four solo albums between ’83 and ’85 were done so quickly. Four albums in two years is a very short succession, but I needed all that time in the studio, mapping out what could be done in this genre. That’s why they’re so experimental and why none of my solo work was ever singles-oriented.
Those four albums have all recently just been re-released. How does it feel to have people listening to your early experiments in retrospect?
It’s very nice. It’s lovely that people have now have the full story, the full chronology of what I’ve explored as an artist, because many have only heard my later work.
I started off with as little knowledge about Indian music as anyone else. Steve Coe wrote for Monsoon and introduced me to a lot of those structures; the way a drone supports the solo instrument, and the way fixed note structures can be used over the drone. From there on in we were learning together and it was a
very steep learning curve. So when people hear my current work, it might sound very complex, but if they’ve followed my earlier work, then I don’t think it’s so daunting.
With “This Sentence Is True” and going back to “Zen Kiss”, there seems to be an undercurrent of Zen references in your titles. Are you a closet Zen practitioner or do you just enjoy the mental wordplay?
I’m not a practitioner, but I probably should be! I don’t have any formal spiritual practice, but yes I do like the playfulness. It’s a religion with a sense of humour, which most others haven’t. It very well expresses that playful state that you get into as a creator. Creating can be god-like, especially in
the studio, mucking about, making your musical world as you would have it, and even the definition we use of God as the Creator. But I don’t think we should take things too seriously, and Zen doesn’t take words too seriously.
On your new website (www.sheilachandra.com), you have a list of “Sentences Which Are False”, including “That you are a deeply spiritual person” – false; “That you meditate for an hour before breakfast” – false; “That you were classically trained in Indian music” – false. Have you continually had to battle
that view from others, with people wanting you to be some exotic, deeply spiritual, Indian woman?
Twenty years ago it certainly was. All of those false sentences on the website are ones that I’ve actually been asked over and over. There were a lot of stereotypical expectations. Then the early 90s people were accusing me of being cold and calculating, because I was very articulate about how I’d constructed my
vision for solo voice. So people do suspect you when you’re not what they expect you to be. But it’s less now, as the second generation of Indians here in England grows up, people are more PC, much more aware, with less stereotyping.
In that trilogy of Real World albums, you explored a full range of vocal possibilities and techniques that really pushed your voice. Did the intensity of those vocal practices lead to the voice problems that you started to experience a few years ago?
I had a medical problem, but it wasn’t as a result from singing in that way. The problem was I developed chronic rhinitis (inflammation of the nasal membrane). It can happen to anyone. There was no official cause in my case, although perhaps all the flying I did for my first season of live concerts, including
coming down to Australia, didn’t have a very good effect on my sinuses. But I had food allergies before that and that’s another thing that probably set it off. So it wasn’t the singing, it was other things happening in my body. My body obviously wasn’t very happy. My voice eventually needed remedial exercises to build back up the muscle tone that I had lost. Apart from the sinuses though, I was in very good shape. By the time I got to Australia the problems had really started to show. I did a couple of shows afterwards, but that was my last tour, because I was having to fight too hard to keep the sound quality up.
In the work that you were performing then, you concentrated on vocal sound rather than lyrics, and the drone came to the fore. Cities certainly have a drone; even the countryside where you’re living has a background ambient drone. Is the drone central to your understanding of sound?
Yeah, we surround ourselves with drones, probably because we drone. The stapes bone in the middle ear emits a drone all the time, which apparently is an average of all the frequencies that you are. Also the blood sings in our ears, so even if we put ourselves in an isolation booth, we can’t be away from drones.
They’re the background to our life, and maybe even one could say, to life itself.
I do think that silence is an important backdrop to what I do, but with that trilogy of albums, making them so overtly about drone, it was going back to a commonality of musical heritage. Even Western music until 500 years ago was all based around drone. Anything else, all this modern upstart pop music, modern
classical stuff, it’s really an aberration. It’s not what the musical cultures of the world in the last 2,000 years, for the majority of time, have been doing. So yes, drone is a concept that’s very important to me.
Those Real World albums were very emotional pieces. What I was trying to do was to bring a number of techniques from vocal cultures around the world together, so that people could hear the commonality of the emotion, and how human beings in different places use the voice to express emotion.
Have you finished that vocal concept now? The new album sounds like it’s going in a quite different direction.
Yeah absolutely. I felt like I’d taken it to its ‘nth’ degree. The only exception is ‘AboneCroneDrone 7’ on the new album, because I felt that I could take it just one stage further and make the voice really almost invisible. I thought the listeners were ready for that. It’s a gorgeous, sonorous drone.
Your partner Steve comes to the fore more obviously than he has in the past, colouring your voice with a variety of sounds, even a bit of noise.
I wanted to get out of my voice-and-drone box. Steve’s been my producer and writer for the last 20 years. The perfect way to break out of my familiar territory was to let him also be an artist, and not to take everything so seriously. It’s a collaborative album with the Ganges Orchestra, which is the name for his projects.
So we were conscious that we were tapping into new sources, different working methods. We wanted to be a lot more playful. I exercised my right of veto much less, and at a later stage. I think that’s why this album is different. Steve has a mistrust of words, which gets fully explored on this album.
Why doesn’t he trust words?
Because he over-uses them! He’s aware of how easy they are to manipulate. As a producer he’s aware of how you can put a simple sound into various contexts to completely change your perception of it.
An example is the Gregorian chant on the track ‘True’. You’d normally hear that in a cathedral-like ambience, pretty much isolated, and with all the associated religious ideas that come as part of it. Juxtaposing it next to white noise, it takes on something completely different. So he knows very well how to manipulate sound, but he’s wary of words, it’s a dilemma for him, and he doesn’t know whether to trust them or not.
Even with Steve’s noises, your music doesn’t sound much like the other Indian-based stuff that’s coming out of urban London these days. How much does your rural lifestyle, the English countryside, affect your music?
It’s very divorced from the Asian Underground in that sense. It comes from a different essence, a different focus. It has silence as the backdrop, and you can’t do that in an urban environment, where you’re always dealing with other people’s noise.
Here silence makes any choice possible and my thought process isn’t interrupted.
And do you feel fully English yourself?
It’s so difficult to answer. As I don’t speak any Indian languages, how I express myself is very English indeed. The English like the underdog, they like eccentrics. They foster and encourage eccentric forms of creativity. And I have been influenced by the English landscape. It’s home.
I don’t go back to India. Certainly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and until quite recently really, India regarded what was happening in the Asian Diaspora here in a very patronizing light. They felt that we were a cultural outpost, when in fact I think that what we’ve done here is much more musically adventurous, and
it’s now going back and influencing them. But it meant that in physical terms I cut off from India, and certainly didn’t feel that I needed to get any authority or validation from there.
Are you paying attention to the Asian Underground scene these days? Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney?
Not very much. They are mostly collaborators. They’re more DJs, writer/arrangers. Arranging other people. It’s an event and it requires a lot more people. They bounce off other musicians. I don’t think we really work in the same manner.
Are you planning on touring with the new music? Is it performable?
No, I’ve written it free from the constraints of wondering how it could be replicated onstage. It’s far too layered and complicated and not very practical in that way. I think of the studio as the leading edge of what I do. It has effects, like in the theatre, which you can’t get anywhere else. It’s the
dimensions and form of that place.
Also there’s my voice problem. It’s back to about 90% now, but what’s missing is stamina, and until that’s back and I feel confident that I’m not over-pushing it, I’ll restrict myself to the studio. So no live work for the moment, but I’m happy that I finally have my voice back again.
The unmistakable voice of Youssou N’dour, Senegal’s most successful export, comes down the line from Paris, patiently explaining the details of his unusual life and the release of his first album in over five years, “Joko”. With his command of the English language greatly improved since his last visit to Australia in ’92 for the inaugural Womadelaide Festival, N’dour is relaxed and expansive, carefully choosing his words, and remarkably free of the self-obsession that one often expects from major international stars. But then Youssou N’dour has always stood apart from the crowd.
Born in Dakar in 1959 N’dour, unlike many West African artists, does comes from a griot family on his mother’s side, the traditional keepers of the country’s oral history. Steeped in music from an early age, he gave his first public performance at the age of 12 and later studied music theory at Dakar’s Ecole des Arts. It was natural for him to gravitate to the city’s thriving club scene in the mid-70s, where he quickly gained the country’s attention as the new precocious young singer with the Star Band, already a Senegalese institution for over 15 years. By the early 80s, N’dour was West Africa’s biggest name musician and he took advantage of his popularity by forming his own band, Super Etoile, taking with him his longtime talking drum (tama) player Assane Thiam. Singing predominately in his native language, Wolof, with a smattering of French and English lyrics, he addressed topical issues familiar to his listeners, as well as emotive love songs and the more traditional historical stories. He also championed a new rhythmic style known as mbalax, which set the dance floors of Dakar alight.
He began touring Europe in ’83, penning his first international hit “Immigres” concerning the thousands of African migrants living in Paris and elsewhere, and coming to the attention of Peter Gabriel. “The thing that amazed me was his voice, like liquid silver”, said Gabriel at the time. “I felt the hairs rising on the back of my neck”. His involvement with Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and others on Amnesty International’s “Human Rights Now!” tour in ’88 gave him further international credibility, and his duet single with Gabriel, “Shakin’ The Tree”, received worldwide airplay. A short contract with Virgin Records produced the lacklustre “The Lion” in ’89, and the far better “Set” in ’90. He moved over to American film director Spike Lee’s fledgling “40 Acres And A Mule” label (through Columbia/Sony) in ‘92 for the gorgeous “Eyes Open”, and achieved his biggest chart success with ‘94’s “The Guide (Wommat)”, which spawned the massive hit duet single alongside Neneh Cherry, “Seven Seconds”.
In ’93 N’dour was appointed a special UNICEF ambassador, giving benefit concerts to raise awareness of the growing AIDS epidemic in Africa, especially among children. He also opened his own state-of-the-art Xippi Studio in Dakar, where he’s produced two fine albums for fellow Senegalese singer, Cheikh Lo, amongst others. He’s continued to tour regularly with Super Etoile, still one of the very best African bands in the business, featuring Jimmy Mbaye on guitar, Habib Faye on bass, and Thiam on tama.
Relatively quiet on the international scene for the last few years, N’dour has now returned with “Joko”. The new album reunites him with both Gabriel and Sting, and features shared production duties between England’s Johnny Dollar, Frenchmen Jean-Phillipe Rykiel and George Acogny and the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean from New York, who also contributes a couple of righteous raps.
Youssou, in the early 90s you released three albums, but until this new album, there’s been nothing
since “The Guide (Wommat)”. Was it time to take a break for a while over the last few years?
No, firstly I toured everywhere to support that last album and then I went back to Africa to do lots of things. I’ve been doing soundtracks and playing at clubs in Dakar, Abidjan, all over Africa, it’s been a busy time. I’ve also been doing a lot of production at my studio, exposing other African talent to the world. When you make an album it’s something that you have to wait for until you’re really ready.
The name “Joko”, that translates as “Hope”, is that correct?
Yeah, hope and connection between sound, between village and town, between people.
So often when the rest of the world looks at Africa, especially through the eyes of the nightly news, we see calamity and strife. We see wars, famine, floods and disease. Is there too much attention paid to these stories and not enough to the positive ones? Where do you see the hope that you sing about?
Well the floods in Mozambique, this is something natural. Africa doesn’t really need it, but it’s coming from God. Africa has plenty of positive things that I want to show the world. The Western image of Africa, disasters, war, AIDS, those things definitely exist, but there are always two sides of life and I want to concentrate on the positive things that are happening.
Despite all the production work you’ve been doing, when it came to producing “Joko”, you chose a number of other producers to come in on different tracks. We’re you trying for an album that had a wide variety of different sounds?
Yeah. Over the last ten years, I’ve travelled a lot, met a lot of different people, and I had it in my mind to connect my music with many other kinds. I need to join with other producers with different experience to help me make my message.
Was the travelling you speak of part of your musical touring over the last few years, or just travelling on your own?
Sometimes after I’ve been playing, the other musicians would leave and I’d stay on for a couple of days. Some places I just go by myself to listen to the music, feel the vibe. It’s funny because I travel a lot, I go far and when I’m very far away I think of home, I think of the sound of the village. The more you go far, the more you feel close to home.
I know that when you are home in Senegal because of your notoriety it’s sometimes difficult for you to go out without being recognised. Do you enjoy the anonymous nature of travelling to places where you’re not hassled as much?
Yes definitely! I like Senegal, it’s my place, but sometimes it gets too much for me, too much pressure. When I go to places where no one recognises me I feel free. I walk, I do my things, it’s different. I like the two ways, I like to leave Senegal, but it also always makes me think about home.
I hear quite a bit of acoustic guitar on the new album. You were trying to bring that sound to the fore?
Yes, for this album I used a lot of acoustic guitar, because the sound is closer to the percussion. The rhythms I use are coming from the south of Senegal, Casamance, traditional rhythms, and they blend well with the percussive way that the acoustic guitar can be played.
You’ve used some new and some old friends on the album, including a new vocal duet with Peter Gabriel. You two seemed to have remained close over the years.
Peter has a great respect for my music and music coming from different places, and he’s very involved with that connection. If you listen to his music today you hear elements coming from Asia, from Africa. It’s a pleasure for me to do something new with him. For this album I was trying to recreate my journeys, my travelling, and that always includes Peter Gabriel. I give him something and he gives me something, it’s great.
Gabriel of course is an exception because of his admirable work setting up the WOMAD organization and his Real World label, but do you ever have a problem with Western musicians using African influences, or indeed using African musicians, in order to take commercial advantage of the popularity of World music?
I don’t think so. Some people say, “They’re using our music”, but no one says how African music itself has also been influenced by Western ways. It’s certainly influenced mine. For myself I don’t mind if someone uses our music. They usually just check it in order to have something different for awhile and then on their next album they just leave it out and go on to something else.
The Western influence on your own music is obvious on the new album with your cover version of the old Smokey Robinson hit, “Don’t Look Back”. That was a bit of a surprise.
Yeah, in the past I used to buy a lot of those Temptations sort of things, the Motown vibe. I think that time was really very creative. When I met Wyclef Jean and we were talking about doing a cover, I just said that “Don’t Look Back” was one of my favourites. When I listen to old soul music, black music, I think that sort of music left Africa in the slavery period and I feel part of it. For me even something like Latino music feels very natural.
Wyclef has quite an influence on the album even though he only produces a few tracks. Where did you meet up with him?
I met Wyclef about two years ago in London. I just told him how much I liked his work with the Fugees. I thought their last album was really fantastic. He said that he really liked one of my songs and I thought that he meant “Seven Seconds”, but he said, “No, “Birima”. Now “Birima” had already been released in Senegal three years ago and he had heard it in Paris, and he really wanted us to do something together, so we remixed that song first.
Can you tell us a little about the story of “Birima”? I believe he was a young Senegalese king?
That’s right. In Kaolack in the centre of Senegal this king had the power. He was a little different and used to bring the griots together to sing a certain form of traditional song, and I’m a big fan of this kind of singing. This was when griots played a really big role in the traditional society. Birima brought them all together. I’m not really a singles artist, I think more of the whole album, but the music companies think that way, so we’ve done a new video for “Birima” and I’m proud to have it as a single.
Despite thinking of the songs in an album context, on the last album you had a huge success worldwide singing with Neneh Cherry on “Seven Seconds”. Did its incredible success surprise you, and given your long career does it bother you that such a commercial song is the one that most people know you for now?
“Seven Seconds” success was not something I was expecting. I think of it as a big door for the rest of my music. Neneh and I were really happy to do it. When it was really big everywhere though I was telling everybody, “Hey, hey, wait, I’m not someone just arriving, I’ve already had a career”, but now I just think of it as an opportunity to get people to listen to all my other music.
Do you ever feel that there’s a danger in watering down the traditional sound in favour of having a big commercial success?
Barriers mean that people are trying to go further. Every music has an influence from everywhere else. Some Western people think that African music is something pure and exotic and if we try to do something different, they think it’s worthless. An African is just a person. I travel a lot and I know how to write a universal song, a pop song. Sometimes I feel like writing something modern, other times I feel like staying closer to my traditional. It’s the way to keep the passion for music that I have, the passion that I really want to give. If I have to stay with only one style it’s going to be difficult for me. I try each time to keep it exciting.
You used the same production team from “Seven Seconds” on the new song “Don’t Walk Away”, which is a duet with Sting. That’s another old friendship, isn’t it?
Yeah, we met in ’88 on the Amnesty tour. I was a big fan of the Police, because I thought they were the pop connection to reggae. On the Amnesty tour we use to try and sing higher than each other on some parts, and it was a really funny time. So when I was writing this new song I heard his voice in my head and I just called him, and he was happy to do it. With the producers, after “Seven Seconds” I spent a lot of time with Johnny Dollar and he’s a great musician and he understands the way I like to work, so I used him again.
The track that caught my ear immediately is the beautifully expansive “Yama”. That’s a song about
traditional African women?
I was thinking about the story of the village and that song celebrates all African women, the role that they play in village life. Think about with the kids, think about the food, everything. “Yama” is just a name to symbolise the woman in Africa, the role they play in a traditional way, and also the way they try today to be emancipated.
Has your great Super Etoile Band changed any members in the last few years?
I’ve kept most of them. I changed only two musicians. We’ve learned a lot of things together. I feel that when we’re travelling it’s like a family travelling. They’re really talented and they still like my music and my direction.
I remember when you were out here in ’92 for Womadelaide there were two African bands that year, yours and Remmy Ongala’s from Tanzania. Two very different bands. Remmy’s band was loose, fun and crazy, but Super Etoile was one of the most impressive, disciplined, unified and experienced groups I’d ever seen.
Yeah, we look like a team. We have a lot of experience. I think music for us is spiritual firstly. We are like ambassadors playing for our continent and the way we do it is important. To show the world a different image from Africa.
Speaking of ambassador work, are you still involved in your role with UNICEF?
Yeah I still work with them. It’s great. I think music is power. It’s a gift from God and we can use it to support justice and looking around to amplify the work of UNICEF or Amnesty International or Jubilee 2000 or something like that. I’m really someone who wants to move forward, more than just playing music or staying at home.
Youssou, last year your countryman and fellow singer Baaba Maal was out in Australia and he told me about the unusual social role that both you and he are accorded in Senegal these days. In the city it seems as though you’ve taken on part of the role that in a traditional village would belong to the Chief. Baaba said that you both have people lining up outside your houses on designated days, in order to petition your help for individual personal projects, to ask advise, to ask for financial assistance and to facilitate connections to the government or other important people. Is that essentially correct?
Yes. When I’m in Senegal we have the time to talk to people. It’s mostly social things, to help them. I think the role of musicians, artists is definitely changed now. The view people have of us is publicly different. The music and work we do now is 50% for us and 50% is for the people. It gives us a lot of background, a lot of culture, and we use it sometimes to help the people.
So the traditional griot’s role from past centuries, as an entertainer and historian, has turned into a wider one with more social responsibilities?
The traditional role is still here, but my generation has changed the role of musicians. Sometimes I think we look like a much more modern griot. Modern griot means people come to talk to you about the modern society, about giving them money, they pray, they believe in you, but you know, they’re wanting something from you. It’s become something we do.
You close the new album with a heartfelt song called “New Africa”, where you sing about a possible future Africa that has no borders. One nation, one continent. Do you see this as a realistic goal or is this concept just a dream that you have?
I think it’s more a beautiful dream. I’m not trying to resolve all the problems, I just propose my way, the way I’d like it to happen. Maybe it’s just a dream but maybe one day the dream will come true.
WOMADelaide 2003 – March 7th-9th
Botanic Park, Adelaide, Australia
Like a fine South Australian red wine, WOMADelaide has matured well with age. Debuting in ‘92 as part of the Adelaide Arts Festival, WOMADelaide quickly established its own identity, running bi-annually as a separate event over the last decade, in alternate years to the Arts Festival.
According to WOMAD’s international supremo Thomas Brooman, “WOMADelaide has become one of the jewels in the crown. It’s such a magic setting, the organisation is superb and the audience is truly wonderful”. Celebrating ten years of WOMAD in Australia, and nestled once again into its green Botanic Park home, Womadelaide 2003 opened on Friday night with a huge crowd.
The evening began with a short traditional “Welcome to Country” ceremony from the local indigenous Kaurna people on the main stage, followed by an energetic display of dance and percussion from Burkina Faso’s impressive musical family Badenya Les Freres Coulibaly. As the other two major stages kicked in with Scotland’s sprightly Shooglenifty and Canadian Celtic/Quebecois band La Volee d’Castors (The Flying Beavers), the festival was well and truly off and running.
An inspired set from Pakistan’s Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali showcased not only the still-maturing talents of the late Nusrat’s talented grandnephews, but also the dub backing of UK beatmeisters Temple of Sound. Having not played together for seven months the collaboration between the two groups was a little sloppy at times, but Count Dubulah’s bass-heavy lines still managed to mesh perfectly with the qawwalis’ potent and impassioned vocals. Muazzam’s body language was at times distinctly reminiscent of his famous uncle, all flailing arms and facial contortions, and their Pakistani backing chorus boasted some of the most enthusiastic hand-clappers I’ve ever seen. It should be fascinating to watch these young Ali Khan men develop more fully over coming years.
Another Friday highlight was an animated set from Mexico’s Zapatista-inspired ska/hiphop outfit Los de Abajo. Fresh-faced and full of fun they managed to create WOMADelaide’s first-ever mosh pit, with a blend of bright brass and righteous resistance. The night closed beautifully with the expected sarod brilliance of classical Indian maestro Amjad Ali Khan, accompanied by his two sons and musical heirs, Amaan and Ayaan.
Early on Saturday afternoon Australian acts King Kadu from the Torres Strait Islands and Papua New Guinean/Fijian/Aboriginal band Drum Drum were equally impressive. Both acts combine modern technology with traditional culture, and the group members all looked sensational. Other local acts that received good responses included Greek/Aussie instrumentalists Apodimi Compania and indigenous country/folk singer Kerrianne Cox.
Colombia’s ageless Toto La Momposina excited the Stage 2 crowd with her fiery, colourful display of cumbia and salsa rhythms, and a wardrobe that would put Las Vegas showgirls to shame. Her experienced band was relaxed, but tight, effortlessly shifting from lively Cuban son to bouncy bolero beats. Meanwhile diminutive young Irish singer Cara Dillon more than filled the vastness of Stage1, her strong tradition-based vocal renditions winning over the hearts of even the harshest Celtic critics.
As the afternoon began to fade, Jamaican guitar legend Ernest Ranglin didn’t have to work too hard in order to please the rapturous crowd. At 70 years of age and still skanking strongly, his flurried fret runs and laid-back demeanor was backed by a seasoned posse of Jamaican session players who swung freely. Looking like Nelson Mandela’s funky younger brother, and with his hollow-bodied guitar glistening in the sun, Ranglin effortlessly worked through his familiar jazz/reggae “Below The Bassline” repertoire. No surprises here, but sometimes the tunes that you know are just the ones that you want to hear. An understated triumph of cool groove.
Elsewhere, American guitar virtuoso Bob Brozman was in fine form on one of the smaller stages, dueting with veteran Okinawan sanshin player Takashi Hirayasu. Working the material from their two excellent collaborative albums, their sets and workshop were a delightful and educative journey into the pop/jazz stylings of Japan and Okinawa, with a little bit of Hawaii and vaudeville thrown in as well.
Less successful on Stage 1 was Benin/French singer Julien Jacob whose songs were based around his own made-up vocal language, and backed by a competent but underwhelming band. While pleasant enough, his set quickly became predictable once the language novelty wore off, and his repeated pacing of the stage didn’t make for a very visually stimulating show. Bobby McFerrin he’s not, and he really should have been presented on a smaller stage.
Later, Senegal’s dreadlocked wonder Cheikh Lo energized the record Saturday night audience with a stirring set. Looking like Sammy Davis Jr. gone to seed, the whippet-thin Lo led his excellent band through their paces. With complex Senegalese mbalax rhythms ricocheting against some exciting tama drum excursions, Lo himself was both visually and vocally strong. While possibly not as personally
magnetic onstage as past Senegalese WOMADelaide superstars Baaba Maal and mentor Youssou N’dour, Cheikh Lo’s eclectic performances this year would certainly have satisfied most West Africa music fans.
But the main man on Saturday night was French/Algerian bad-boy Rachid Taha. With a seemingly endless supply of attitude, arrogance and rock star pretension, Taha’s set was an explosion of frenetic electric oud and guitar soloing, screaming stadium cock-rock posing, and generally a whole lotta fun. Swinging his microphone like some crazed Arabic version of Roger Daltry (but lacking the finesse to actually catch it properly) Taha strutted the stage like a pumped-up rooster, urging his crack band to ever-increasing levels of testosterone-fuelled musical self-indulgence. Most of the crowd loved it of course, but divided opinions the next day varied from “The best thing I’ve ever seen” to “What a wanker!”. Rachid, it would seem, is something of an acquired taste.
For those with stamina the late night WoZone dance club, held at the Student Union of nearby Adelaide University, was a jammed-packed way to keep the party going through the wee hours. Highlights that I enjoyed, before finally succumbing to a few hours of much-needed sleep, were DJ Desperado (aka Thomas Brooman in retro-ska disguise), a dazzling beat-heavy session from the Temple of Sound fellas, and a sample-rich World sound montage from Melbourne’s disc-spinning, odd couple Systa BB & DJ Angelina.
Back at Botanic Park on Sunday afternoon, most acts took the opportunity to flog their CDs, appear on a different stage, and further impress with a second set. Tatarstan/Australian singer Zulya Kamalova led her band through a moving performance, her achingly beautiful voice highlighting the many reasons why it would be no surprise to see her increasingly representing this country overseas in coming years.
Spanish band Felpeyu demonstrated once again the group’s dexterous mastery of their Asturian/Celtic heritage, and solid second sets from Totó La Momposina (with big brass!), Ernest Ranglin, Cheikh Lo and Los de Abajo confirmed their star status. Yet another impassioned performance from Rachid Taha (actually the same set, just with different pants) was slightly more in a Bruce Springsteen mode this time, compared to his Saturday night Algerian Elvis impersonation. It was also impossible to get him off the stage at the end of his set. That guy was born to be contrary.
An all-star Festival Finale brought the weekend to a close. Bravely working by the Chaos Theory, English cellist Matthew Barley made a gallant attempt to supervise the unorganizable throng, which while ragged, still successfully encapsulated the musical spirit and comradery of the entire weekend. Notable contributions in this mad final set were made by Irish troubadour Andy White, Takashi Hirayasu, Ranglin, Zulya, various Temple of Sounders, Toto’s entire brass section and sundry Mexicans. The security boys had a nightmare trying to decide who to let onstage and who to turn away, and in the end, to their credit, simply gave up. A pleasant time was had by all. One helluva good festival.
As a result of a deal announced earlier in 2002 between WOMAD International and the South Australian Government, WOMADelaide will henceforth become an annual, rather than bi-annual, festival. Dates for the 2004 event are yet to be confirmed.
Your Connection to traditional and contemporary World Music including folk, roots and various types of global fusion