Category Archives: Artist Profiles

Artist Profiles: Mim Suleiman

Mim Suleiman was born in Zanzibar (Tanzania) and lived in Shangani (Stone Town) for most of her childhood, where she attended Tumekuja School. Mim appeared on TVZ in children’s programs back in the late 70s and early 80’s, but soon after her family moved to UK.

A few years later, Mim Suleiman started hearing streams of voices, rhythm and poetry coming out of herself while working as a technical teacher of metallurgy at the University of Birmingham (UK). With no musical background whatsoever, Mim Suleiman left her job to pursue her dream.

She has been described as a fiery singer who never fails to indulge her audience! She revels in her East African singing and percussion traditions, is a versatile vocalist and vibrant performer.

Mim Suleiman has played from Europe to Asia, but ironically rarely in Africa. Her music ranges from soul, blues, funk, house, jazz, rock and dance tracks, to her African heritage. She writes in English and Kiswahili (her native tongue) and sings in a variety of languages including Fula.

Mim’s reputation grew fast. She worked with Justin Adams and Juldeh Camarah on their “Tell No Lies” album. In 2009 she also performed at Glastonbury and WOMAD festivals (UK) as well as led workshops.

Discography:

Tungi (2009)

Umbeya (2012)

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Artist Profiles: Jhikoman

Jhikoman
Jhikoman

Jhikoman is one of the best known Tanzanian reggae artists. His lyrics in English and Kiswahili and unique singing style and have been touching people since 1994. For Jhiko music presents an opportunity to raise awareness about social oppression and justice. It also provides a medium for communicating messages of peace, love and unity. He has produced several albums and performed widely in Europe and Africa.

On his album Chikondi, Jhiko Manyika explores roots reggae with acoustic African sounds. The album was realized in collaboration with other international artists including Baran M. from Kurdistan, Khalid Salih from Sudan], Uriel Seri from [[Ivory Coast, Thorbjørn Holte, Geir Inge Storli, Henrik Johnsen and ‘Jacob’ from Norway, OnRebel G from Mexico and Sister Yana from Brazil.

Discography:

Tupendane (2008)
Yapo (2009)
Chikondi (2010)
Moyo Unadunda (2012)

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Artist Profiles: Busi Mhlongo

Busi Mhlongo
Busi Mhlongo

I was always singing. At school, after school. I was the laziest one in my family because I just didn’t have time, my time was for music, you know. Always I was being punished, but I knew whenever I was punished it was because it had something to do with some notes – whether it was a band, or just a man playing guitar – that I was following” – Busi Mhlongo

Born in Kwa Zulu, Natal, Busi Mhlongo grew up with a song on her lips. Despite being raised within her family’s Methodist tradition that sadly had little recourse to music, Busi sought out other religious denominations with musical services and remembers, ”even following people, maybe someone with a guitar, to find out where there was music.”

Haunted by melodies, she persisted in the face of adversity and begun singing from an early age with groups led by her older and more musically advanced brother. Around 1963, the success of a great South African stage musical called King Kong, caused a talent drought when many of the currently hot musicians left the country to tour the show internationally. So Gallo Records had a talent competition and Busi and her brother went to Johannesburg and won it.

OK, the song we did was ‘My Boy Lollipop’,” said Busi Mhlongo. “I was a kid, really, and yes I was really rocking that My Boy Lollipop. It had been a hit for Milly in England – Island Records’ first hit – and I guess because of Apartheid and the way things were working, they sort of shut Milly out and My Boy Lollipop was moving. All this for me, it was for joy, not really knowing that I would be ripped off in the business.”

Busi took part in many theatrical productions throughout the 1960s, including the lead in Gibson Kente’s The Jazz Prophet and Liefa stage and film productions of Bertha Egnos’ Dingakaand Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and African Follies. She worked with most of South Africa’s greatest jazz and mbaqanga stars at festivals and gigs too numerous to mention and so it was that she met her husband, Early Mabuza.

Early was a drummer who played with Dollar Brand, but was more widely known for his role in a cinema commercial for condensed milk. When he joined the cast of a show Busi was appearing in, as the guest artist, she was at first dismissive: ”To me he was a tall guy who drank condensed milk at the movies, so when I saw him I thought, ‘Well he’s not so tall…’ “I was never so much in awe of Early as the rest of the cast and then, one day we were practising and I was sitting pretty. I had this mini skirt on and when I moved to pick something up, my legs opened and he hit me with a drum mallet. I flipped out, like, what is happening? He said, ‘Sit like a lady.’ That’s how he proposed! He was a very quiet man, he couldn’t speak. But he was a good drummer.”

Busi and Early had a daughter, Mpumi, but when the music called her away to tour the Portuguese cabaret circuit, Busi left him holding the baby and taking the opportunity, left South Africa for Portugal, via Mozambique and Angola. Barely a couple of months into her tour the sad news of Early’s sudden death reached her. Trying to overcome the tragic death of her husband Busi then spent five years playing in Portuguese casinos, performing the popular hits of the day and always closing the show with her African songs: ”I always sing my African songs because they make me feel really free. You know, like when you’ve been really serious and somebody says OK, now you can put on your shorts!”

I always moved because of music,” she said. ”Music has been my ticket.” She went to London briefly in 1972 and recorded with Dudu Pukwana, Julian Bahula, George Lee, and Lucky Ranku. She even worked with Osibisa as their lead singer.

It wasn’t music that lead Busi to America, however, but illness. She had developed cancer and had to be treated in hospital there. Fortunately, she recovered and completely healed. As soon as she was well enough, Busi accepted an invitation to join the cast of a stage comedy called Reefer Gladness in Toronto, Canada, in which she got to sing the songs made famous by Billy Holliday and Bessie Smith. Jackson Pollock, the abstract painter, was enchanted by her and his influence led to Busi being given her own starring vehicle, called Ship Of Fools.

It was a great relief for Busi to be performing again and she had a wonderful time playing gigs with her own band at St Lawrence Hall but, in 1979, after five years in Canada, she got the chance to return to Africa on a tour of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Lesotho.

She slipped into South Africa, a decade after she’d left but the Security Forces were quickly on her case so, after nine months, Busi was obliged to accept an invitation to return to Portugal to join a musical called Black Ground. Of course her agent called the minute he heard she was back, so Busi went around the casino circuit one more time, but she knew that this was just a passing moment and that she had to move on. One New Year’s Eve in Madeira, a Dutch family invited her to Holland. When they rang a few days later and repeated the offer, she accepted and quickly left.

Through her Dutch friends, Busi made contact first with a group of Senegalese musicians, and later with a Gambian group, Ifang Bondi and spent a couple of years based in Amsterdam, playing African music at major festivals and shows.

As one of the highlights of the Africa Roots Festival, she worked with many visiting African musicians and began to develop her own inimitable style. In the mid-eighties, Busi returned again to South Africa and formed the original Twasa band with the late “Doc” Mthalane. She played with Twasa and Winston Mankunku Ngozi to packed houses at The Blue Note in Durban before moving back to Holland in 1988. Her shows at the Melk Weg in Amsterdam drew rave reviews and led to a series of workshops which she ran at the club, then to a series of government-sponsored concerts in schools throughout Holland.

Billed alongside Salif Keita and Manu Dibango, Busi was the highlight of the African Music Festival in Delft in 1989. There, she met Brice Wassy who had been instrumental in the creation of the Urban Zulu album and worked as the musical director of her band. She then returned once again to South Africa to reform Twasa. After touring Holland and Belgium in 1993, she recorded her debut album with Twasa – the majority of which was composed by “Doc” Mthalane, before returning to Durban in 1994. As a part of a program to reconnect township youth with their roots, Busi ran workshops in Zulu singing and dancing in Clermont, Natal.

In 1995, Busi topped a popularity poll on Radio Metro, and appeared on the main stage of the Grahamstown Arts Festival with Sipho Gumede as well as taking part, with Madala Kunene and other M.E.L.T. 2000 (then B&W Music) artists in the Outernational Meltdown concert at the Limpopo Club of the Africa Centre in London. She appears on Sipho’s album, Ubuntu – Humanity and also on Madala Kunene’s Kon’ko Man.

Busi kicked off 1996 by appearing with Hugh Masekela at a concert in London to mark the end of the Africa ’95 festival and was subsequently invited to tour France and Germany. She has supported the world famous Ladysmith Black Mambazo and also collaborated with Max Lässer on the recording of his album, She also toured with Pops Mohammed and members of Amampondo.

Busi recorded two solo albums in Europe, Babhemu and Urban Zulu. The latter, produced by Will Mowat brought her international fame and recognition and was released on MELT in 1998. Drawing on a number of styles such mbaqanga, maskanda and marabi, Busi was inspired by The “Sxaxa Mbij” (“pulling together”) Peace project led by Khaba Mkhize in KwaZulu-Natal.

Urban Zulu is essentially Busi’s reinterpretation of maskanda – traditional Zulu music normally sung by Zulu working class men – for which she pulled in the expertise of Phuzekhemisi, a famed maskanda band. Two members of this group Themba Ngcobo and Mkhalelwa Ngwazi co-composed and co-wrote the entire album with Busi. In addition to the various Zulu musicians she worked with on this album, Brice Wassy –who has also worked with Salif Keita – contributed to the direction and production of the CD.

Holding the No.1 spot in the European world music charts for two months solid Busi’s position as one of the leading South African divas was firmly established. Touring internationally and bewitching audiences with her powerful stage presence and vocal prowess she rightfully took her seat in the musical arena as one of the most phenomenal and exciting musicians to have emerged from South Africa.

Busi scooped three awards at the FNB South African Music Awards, for Best Female Artist, Best Adult Contemporary Album (Africa), and Best African Pop Album. Ranked alongside Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu and The Mahotella Queens, unique in becoming the first female to be spreading the maskanda style of vocals internationally, Busi was applauded by audiences the world over.

Busi’s lyrics carried universally powerful and poignant messages. Her songs concerned the empowerment and reconciliation of peoples who, though sharing the same citizenship, have very different political aspirations. Inanda – where she grew up, was the birthplace of African Nationalist leader John Duke, and the late prophet Isiah Shembe and largely shaped Busi, ”The spirit of these great sons have served as a source of inspiration for me and my music”, she explained. ”I am a bit traditional and it is because of them. They taught us unity, love and peace among the people. Their legacy should live on.”

”Hear the cock crow the alarm for a new dawning! Change is the only constant. Open the gates of mercy in your wall of fear and anger so the blossom of compassion can bloom, feeding from the roots of courage. In churches, keep preaching truth. In schools, keep instructing right knowledge. At home, keep persevering through crises. Leaders, sit and reason with the people and listen to their talk. So let us unite and proclaim your right, as the cock crows the alarm, claim your right to the family of mankind!”

Busi Mhlongo died June 15th of 2010 of breast cancer at Albert Luthuli Hospital in Cato Manor, Durban. She was 62.

Discography:

Babhemu (Munich Records, 1993)
Urbanzulu (Melt 2000 BW2118, 2000)
Urbanzulu-Remixes (Melt 2000 BWSA3501, 2000)
Indiza – Voyages Through New Sounds (Melt 2000 MZA003, 2002)
Freedom (Chissa Records, 2002)
African Classics (Sheer Legacy, 2008)

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Artist Profiles: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars - Photo by Zach Smith
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars – Photo by Zach Smith

All the members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars lived in or near Sierra Leone’s capital city before fleeing Freetown during the country’s decade-long civil war. Throughout most of the 1990s, Freetown remained relatively sheltered from the rebel war that had turned much of the West African nation into a bloody battlefield. Near the turn of the 21st century, however, rebels attacked the city and forced a panicked mass exodus to neighboring countries.

Among the thousands who fled were Reuben Koroma and his wife Grace. Reuben and Grace had fared among the best, having fled Freetown in the midst of a rebel attack. In the camps, the couple had one another, but had lost everything else, including contact with family, friends, and the musical life they had known.

Walking through the squalid and dangerous Kalia Camp in Guinea, Reuben found Francis ‘Franco’ John Langba, a ‘musical brother’ from the pre-war music scene in Freetown. Franco had been separated from his wife and kids and had still not been able to learn anything of their fate. In camps like Kalia, discovering someone alive feels like a miracle. But the three took the miracle a step further by making music for their fellow refugees.

Soon, the camp was caught in the middle of the region’s fractious politics, and the defenseless refugees were relocated to Sembakounya Refugee Camp in the remote countryside away from the volatile borders. It was there that Reuben, Grace, and Franco met their future band mates; Arahim ‘Jah Voice,’ so called for his perfect high pitch, who was forced to watch rebels kill his father before they cut off his arm at the shoulder and left him for dead.

Mohammed Bangura had similarly been forced to watch the murder of his parents, his wife, and their infant child before having his hand severed.

Alhadji Jeffrey Kamara, called ‘Black Nature,’ is the youngest of the group. Orphaned by the war and tortured by police in Guinea where he had fled, Black Nature is considered an ‘adopted son’ by the others.

With the help of a Canadian NGO (CECI) the newly dubbed Refugee All Stars acquired beat-up instruments and a rusted-out sound system and began to play for their fellow refugees, bringing sorely needed hope and relief to a traumatized populace.

At Sembakounya Camp, American documentary filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles along with Canadian singer-songwriter Chris Velan encountered the Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.

The first-time filmmakers, both living in San Francisco, had previously had substantial experience in Africa, and were in Guinea looking for stories that would balance the Western media’s focus on the region’s violence with a sense of African society’s beauty and resilience. When they were introduced to the All Stars, Niles and White knew they had found their story.

They ended up following the band for three years as they moved from camp to camp and eventually returned home to face their war-torn country and reunite with family, friends and former band-mates, many of whom they believed may not have survived the violence.

It was during this trip that the current line-up of the band was cemented and their lifelong dream of recording in a studio was realized. It is in such grace notes – and in the warmth, humor, and searing candor with which the band members bear their personal and collective wounds – as well as in the music they make, that the All Stars express their fierce loyalty to each other and to their people, and indeed to refugees of all the world’s terrible conflicts.

They must face the present with courage and the future with hope in order to save their lives. Thus the band’s return to a barely reconstructed Island Studios in Freetown, while the devastation and a shaky peace treaty signed in 2002 keep many refugees away, comes as a powerful message of renewal.

On September, 26th 2006, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (SLRAS) realized what once seemed an impossible dream when Anti Records released their album Living Like a Refugee, to wide critical acclaim throughout the world. The album was recorded with the help of filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White throughout the film’s production from August 2002 – October 2005.

Living Like a Refugee was produced by the film’s musical director, Chris Velan and each song is an original composition written during their years in exile. Featuring field recordings from the refugee camps in Guinea as well as studio efforts at Sam Jones’ Island Studios in Freetown (as seen in the film), these 17 tracks tell the story of life in the camps (“Living Like A Refugee”).

Enduring the horrors of war (“Kele Mani,” “Weapon Conflict”), facing hunger (“Bull To The Weak”), remembering lost family members (“Ya N’Digba” was written for bandleader Reuben’s mother) and yet still managing to give thanks (“Compliments For The Peace”). While each of the stories in these songs is told from the band’s personal experience, it is the special gift of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars that the messages they deliver are truly universal. Taken as a whole the album serves as a musical document of the band’s incredible journey.

The title track, ‘Living Like A Refugee’ was recorded by the light of an oil lamp in Sembakounya Refugee Camp in Guinea, West Africa. Playing on impossibly worn instruments, the band sang and laughed into the night – healing and being healed through their music.

Other songs were recorded in a Freetown studio during the band’s first trip back home. These are joyous full band realizations of songs that Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars had been practicing throughout their time in exile and were brought to life with the help of their pre-war friends and band mates from The Emperors Dance Band who they reunited with during the course of filming the documentary and have now become permanent members of the band.

Living Like a Refugee was first sold independently on the film’s website and at film festival screenings. Niles and White would send 100% of sales back to the band in Sierra Leone. They also produced cassettes for the band to sell in Sierra Leone where they quickly became a sensation. As the film continued to grow so did the album’s popularity.

In 2005 Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were nominated in the category of ‘Best New Artist’ at The Sierra Leone music awards and played their hit Soda Soap for a crowd of 15,000 at the National Stadium in Freetown. But that was only the beginning. When both the film and the band were invited to the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music and Film Festival in Austin, Texas in March ’06 it was an opportunity the filmmakers couldn’t refuse. So once again pushing their credit cards to the max Niles and White brought the entire band to the US.

At SXSW the band was a huge hit winning over fans and the music industry execs alike. Around this time, Niles and White realized that to build on this success they needed help. Calling in music industry veteran, Mike Kappus and his Rosebud Agency to help book more shows and eventually to manage the band’s budding career. A summer 2006 tour took shape and Kappus contacted Anti Records who after seeing the film and hearing the music agreed to release the album.

Now Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars tour the world spreading their message of peace and love in a “can’t help but dance” show that fans from all musical backgrounds can enjoy. For a group that started in a remote Guinean refugee camp and only started touring outside of West Africa less than a year ago, they have come a long way. In the past year the band has appeared at some of the most prestigious music festivals worldwide including Bonnaroo, The Montreal Jazz Fest, The Ottawa Jazz Festival, The Folk and Roots Festival in Chicago, The Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, as well as headlining at Central Park Summerstage.

In November, 2006 the band opened for Aerosmith at the Mohegan Sun Arena and most recently performed for an international audience at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

They have also been featured on CNN and CNN International, PBS and CBS Sunday Morning, as well as having performed live on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Their sound is also finding new avenues of exposure including a song in the film Blood Diamond and two humanitarian relief compilations, which they recorded in the studio with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler.

The second album from Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars came out in 2010. Rise & Shine features an uplifting blend of reggae and African grooves with a touch of New Orleans spice.

Produced by Steve Berlin (Los Lobos, Angélique Kidjo, Michelle Shocked, Rickie Lee Jones and Ozomatli), Rise & Shine was recorded in Freetown, Sierra Leone and New Orleans, Louisiana. Much like the band, the residents of New Orleans know both the bitterness of exile and the redemptive power of music, and the spirit of the Crescent City permeates this uplifting album.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars also recorded a special version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” exclusively for the Putumayo collection Tribute to the Reggae Legend, released in July 2010.

Discography

Living Like a Refugee (Anti, 2006)

Rise & Shine (Cumbancha, 2010)

Radio Salone (Cumbancha, 2012)

Libation (Cumbancha, 2014)

Videos

DVD: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (Docurama, 2007)

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Artist Profiles: Omar Pene

Omar Pene
Omar Pene

Omar Pene (born 1956 in Dakar) is the iconic lead singer of the Super Diamono. He was born in the working class neighborhood of Derkle, in 1956. Joining his first band, Cad, in 1975, he remained with the group for a few months. In the mid seventies (1975-1976), he joined the Super Diamono, one of the longest running Senegalese popular bands, similar to Orchestra Baobab and the Super Etoile of Dakar.

Recruited by Bailo Diagne, the first bass-player and a founding member of the group, Omar Pene stood out as the most natural fixture in the band. Along with his band members, Bassirou Diagne, Bob Sene, Aziz Seck, Lapa Diagne, Adama Faye, Abdou Mbacke and, later, Ismael Lo, already known as “l’homme orchestre” (one man band) due to his solo performances, they helped shape Senegalese contemporary music.

During the 1980s, in Dakar, there were two dominant types of music fans, the ones attracted by the frenetic and highly syncopative Mbalax of the Super Etoile, who frequented Djender and later on Thiossane night club; and those who loved the progressive bluesy-funky- soulful brand of local fusion of Super Diamono- who filled the Balafon Club located on the other side of town, near the Port Autonome de Dakar.

Although Omar Pene and Youssou N’dour, always maintained an healthy and lively artistic competition, their supporters pledged a loyalty only seen among opposing football fans (soccer). In many ways, both used the Mbalax, which is almost unavoidable, once the Sabar is involved, but they did it differently.

Over the years many of the group’s original members went on to other things, Omar Pene stayed; and to this day- even as he is now enjoying his solo journey he uses the Super Diamono, as a backup band.

In 2009 he released the all acoustic album Ndam.

Omar Pene established himself as a “conscious singer,” instead of indulging in praise songs- as many of his contemporaries did in honor of the riches and famous, he maintained a repertoire of socially engaged and sensitive songs. To this date, he has released dozens of hits in more than thirty albums and cassettes.

Discography:

Greedy Dayaan (Disques Griot GR 7604, 1984)

Ndaxami (MCA 303, 1984)

Mam (Celluloid CEL 8011, 1984)

Cheick Anta Diop (Celluloid 08530-1, 1989)

Nila (Celluloid 66909-2, 1992)

Fari (Stern’s STCD 1051, 1993)

20 Ans Deja (Africando Sylaf 9602, 1996)

Tiki Tiki (Africando Sylaf 96017, 1997)

Direct from Dakar (WOMAD Select WSCD102, 1997)

Nanga Def (Africando Sylaf 96030, 1998)

Diamono Groove (Africando Sylaf 96101, 2000)

Integration Africaine (Sonodisc CDS 7062, 2000)

25 Ans (Night & Day NDCD 083, 2001)

Myamba (2005)

Ndam (Aztec Musique, 2009)

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Artist Profiles: Juldeh Camara

Juldeh Camara
Juldeh Camara

Juldeh Camara is a master musician from Gambia. He was born in 1966 in Basse, Gambia. Camara is a virtuoso of the ritti, a one-stringed fiddle, and renowned griot (a West African poet and praise singer) in traditional Fula society. Juldeh has the drive and effortless flow of a great bluesman. While his instrument brings to mind Mississippi Delta players like Big Joe Williams, as well as Ali Farka Toure – one minute it’s Blues harp, the next a Celtic fiddle, then a Saharan herdsman’s flute.

Juldeh and British musician Justin Adams have been playing together since 2007, following the release of the critically acclaimed “Soul Science” in 2007 (winner of the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award in the Crossing Continents category), touring at festivals in Siberia, Mexico City, Morocco and WOMAD. The touring experience has clearly brought them closer together as musicians and added to the unique nature of their musical style.

“Tell No Lies” (2009) is another collaboration between Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara.

Discography:

Soul Science (World Village Records, 2007)
Tell No Lies (Real World Records, 2009)
The Trance Sessions (Real World Records, 2010)
In Trance – JuJu (Real World Records, 2011)[13]
Traders (Waulk Records, 2011)[14]

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Artist Profiles: Femi Kuti

Femi Kuti
Femi Kuti

One of the heirs of the genius of Nigerian Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti is his son, Femi. Femi’s version of Afrobeat is the exciting new sound to emerge from Nigeria for years, borrowing the best elements from his father’s powerfully polyrhythmic prototype – the funky, jazzy, heavily percussive sound that took James Brown’s beat back to Africa. Femi adds to the winning formula with a freshness and exuberance of young Lagos and its taste for the new R&B and dance music of the United States of America and Europe.

Femi first rose to international prominence in 1985, when he appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, fronting Fela’s forty piece band, Egypt 80. Fela failed to make it onto the plane, having been arrested at Lagos airport and jailed on a trumped-up fraud charge. Femi, already a member of his father’s band, came to the rescue that night, giving a show that brought the audience at the packed Bowl to its feet. Even though the fans had paid to see and hear the charismatic Fela, Femi was able to fully satisfy them with the same rude, muscular saxophone style (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) and lean self-confidence bordering on arrogance.

Two years later, Femi had formed his own young band, The Positive Force, and released their debut album for Polygram Nigeria. Titled No Cause for Alarm, the album was a raw but impressive mixture of funky soul-jazz, driving percussion and horns, with sharp social comment.

Strong interest in this album prompted a dramatic debut appearance in Paris, where Femi’s no-hold-barred show devastated a huge audience. He has since carried out numerous, extensive European tours with critics favorably comparing the big band sound of the sixteen member group with Fela Kuti’s legendary Egypt 80.

The performance of The Positive Force’s lithe and sensual dancers/singers is described as a visual feast which has to be seen to be believed. In 1994, Femi was signed by the legendary Motown label. An album, Wonder Wonder, was released in 1995, and was followed by a successful tour of the United States. Unfortunately, soon after the record’s release, a change in the presidency of Motown resulted in the scrapping of Tabu, the African music boutique label which the company’s former president, Jeryhl Busby, had championed. An undaunted Femi pressed on, carrying out extensive tours within Africa, with further acclaimed visits to Europe in 1996 and 1997.

Femi Kuti
Femi Kuti

Sadly, in August of 1997, Fela Kuti died. Another tragedy was to shake the Kuti family to their roots shortly afterwards with the untimely death from cancer of Femi’s younger sister, Sola. Together with his other sister, Yeni, Sola had been a founding member of The Positive Force and her presence sorely missed. Her place in the group was taken by Femi’s wife, Funke, who has proved to be a gifted singer and dancer. In December 1997, Femi signed a recording contract with Barclay/Polygram. His Shoki Shoki album was first released in Europe to tremendous critical acclaim.

Femi performs regularly in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. He has also toured extensively in Europe and the United States, including a 50-date European tour and US club tours. Femi and The Positive Force will continue to return to the US on tours and festival dates.

In July of 2000, UNICEF published Femi’s AIDS in Africa essay in its Progress Of Nations 2000 report. On September 4, Femi received top honors at the Kora All Africa Music Awards, including Best Male Artist in Africa and Best Song for his sexually charged single, “Beng Beng Beng.” At the globally-televised World Music Awards in May, 2000, Femi received the Best-Selling African Artist award and performed “Beng Beng Beng” to a captivated audience.

In 2001 Fight to Win continued to evolve this development of a democratization and an openness in afrobeat instigated by Femi Kuti since his first album. Containing Nigerian jazz funk rhythms with a touch of hip hop, Femi collaborated with American rappers such as Mos Def and Common, and soul singer Jaguar Wright, creating an album of universal critical acclaim.

After three years spent between studio work and touring, Femi Kuti returned to the roots of a musical and political movement of which he is, as of now, the unique symbol and only representative. He decided to invest his success in the reconstruction of a new Shrine, a musical temple, erected, displaced and rebuilt by Fela Kuti following repeated attacks against the old ones by a corrupt military power.

Just as his father before him, Femi Kuti and his Positive Force continue to make of this place a space in which music is the weapon of the future. For this heir to afrobeat it’s a turning point. Having achieved recognition on the international scene since the 1990s, Femi Kuti could have chosen to live in a western city such as Paris, London or New York City, all cities which have taken him to their hearts. But it’s in Femi Kuti’s hometown of Lagos, one of the most explosive cities in the world, he has decided to pursue the fight.

Discography:

No Cause for Alarm (Polygram Nigeria, 1987)

M.Y.O.B. (Melodie, 1991)

Wonder Wonder (Motown, 1994)

Shoki Shoki (Barclay, 1997)

Fight to Win (Barclay, 2001)

Africa Shrine (P Vine, 2004)

The Best of Femi Kuti (Wrasse, 2005)

The Definitive Collection (Wrasse, 2007)

Day by Day (Wrasse Records, 2008)

Africa for Africa (Wrasse Records, 2010)

No Place for My Dream (Knitting Factory Records, 2013)

Videos

Femi Kuti – Live at the Shrine (Palm Pictures, 2005)

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Artist Profiles: Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti - Photo by Bernard Matussiere
Fela Kuti – Photo by Bernard Matussiere

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, previously Ransome-Kuti, was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1938. His family belonged to the Egba branch of the Yoruba tribe. His father, like his grandfather, was a minister of the Protestant church, and director of the local grammar school. His mother was a teacher, but later became a politician of considerable influence.

As a teenager, Fela would run for miles to attend traditional celebrations in the area, already feeling that the authentic African culture of his ancestors ought to be preserved. His parents sent him to London in 1958, but rather than study medicine like his two brothers and his sister, Fela chose to register in the Trinity School of Music, where he was to spend the next five years.

While still a student, he married a Nigerian girl called Remi and had three children. In his spare time, Fela played in a highlife band called Koola Lobitos with other Nigerian musicians living in London. Among these was J.K. Bremah, who had previously influenced Fela by introducing him to African music circles in Lagos at a time when Western music predominated there.

Fela returned to the Nigerian capital in 1963, three years after independence. Soon after, he was playing highlife and jazz, fronting the band with those of the musicians who had come back from England. Over the next few years, they performed regularly in Lagos and then in 1969, in the midst of the Biafra war, Fela decided to take Koola Lobitos to the United States.

In Los Angeles, he changed the name of the group to Fela Ransome-Kuti and Nigeria 70. At the club where they were playing, he met an African-American girl, Sandra Isodore, who was a close friend to the Black Panthers. She introduced Fela to the philosophy and writings of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and other Black activists and thinkers, through which he was to become aware of the link existing between Black peoples all over the world. Through this insight, Fela also gained a clearer understanding of his mother’s fight for the rights of Africans under colonial rule in Nigeria, together with her support of the Pan Africanist doctrine expounded by Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian Head of State, who had negotiated independence for his country with the British.

While in Los Angeles, Fela also found the inspiration he was seeking to create his own unique style of music, which he named AfroBeat. Before leaving America, the band recorded some of these new songs.

Back home, Fela once again changed the name of the group, this time to Fela Ransome-Kuti & Africa 70. The Los Angeles recordings were released as a series of singles. This new African music was a great success in Lagos, and Fela was to open a club in the Empire Hotel, called the Afro-Shrine. At that time, he was still playing the trumpet, having not yet changed to the saxophone and piano. He started singing mostly in Pidgin English rather than Yoruban, so as to be understood all over Nigeria and in neighboring countries. In his songs, he depicted everyday social situations with which a large part of the African population was able to identify.

Young people from all over Nigeria flocked to hear his songs, which developed themes relating to Blackism and Africanism, encouraging a return to traditional African religions. Later he was to become satirical and sarcastic toward those in power, condemning both military and civilian regimes for their crimes of mismanagement, incompetence, theft, corruption and marginalization of the underprivileged.

In 1974, pursuing his dream of an alternative society, he built a fence around his house and declared it to be an independent state: The Kalakuta Republic. To the chagrin of the bourgeois section of Nigerian society, this act of defiance was soon to spread throughout the entire neighborhood as more and more people were inspired by Fela’s stance. The authorities remained vigilant, fearing their potential power of his ‘state within a state.’

Fela Kuti - Photo by Bernard Matussiere
Fela Kuti – Photo by Bernard Matussiere

On countless occasions, Fela was to suffer the consequences of his scathing denunciations with arrests, imprisonment and beatings at the hands of authorities. With each incarceration and violent confrontation with the powers that be, Fela became more outspoken, changing his family name from ‘Ransome’ to ‘Anikulapo’ (‘he who carries death in his pouch’). His notoriety spread and his records began to sell in the millions. The population of the Kalakuta Republic grew amidst mounting criticism, particularly of the young people, many of whom were still in their teens, who left their families to live there.

During the Festival for Black Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in Lagos in 1977, Fela sang ‘Zombie,’ a satire against the military, which was to become enormously popular throughout Africa, bringing down the fury of the Nigerian army upon him and his followers. As Fela relates in ‘Unknown Soldier,’ a thousand soldiers attacked the “Kalakuta Republic,” burning down his house and beating all of its occupants. The song tells that, during the course of this attack, his mother was thrown from a first floor window and later died from her injuries. Homeless and without his Shrine, which had also been destroyed along with the entire neighborhood, Fela and his group moved to the Crossroads Hotel.

A year later, Fela went to Accra (Ghana)to arrange a tour. Upon his return, to mark the first anniversary of the destruction of the Kalakuta Republic, Fela married twenty seven women in a collective ceremony, many of whom were his dancers and singers, giving them all the name Anikulapo-Kuti. After the wedding, the whole group set off for Accra where concerts had been planned. In a packed Accra stadium, as Fela played ‘Zombie,’ riots broke out. The entire group was arrested and held for two days before being put on a plane bound for Lagos, banned from returning to Ghana.

Upon his return to Lagos, still with nowhere to live, Fela and his entire entourage squatted at the offices of Decca, where they remained for almost two months. Soon after, Fela was invited with the seventy member-strong Africa 70 to play at the Berlin Festival. After the show, almost all of the musicians ran away. Despite this catalog of set-backs, Fela returned to Lagos determined to continue.

The King of Afro-beat and his Queens went to live in Ikeja, in J. K. Bremah’s house, a new Kalakuta. There, Fela, more political than ever, went on to form his own part, “Movement of the People” (M.O.P.). He presented himself as a Presidential candidate in the 1979 elections that would return the country to civilian rule. His candidature was refused. Four years later, at the next elections, Fela once more stood for President, but was prevented from campaigning by the police, who again rampaged through his house, imprisoning and beating Fela and many of his followers.

Any further presidential aspirations were crushed, however, when a coup brought Nigeria back to military rule. In 1984, with General Buhari in power, Fela served twenty months of a five year prison sentence on trumped-up currency charges. He was only released when, under General Babangida, the judge confessed to having sentenced him with such severity because of pressure from the previous regime. The judge was dismissed from office and Fela was given his liberty.

Over the next decade, with an entourage of up to eighty people, now called Egypt 80, Fela made several visits to Europe and the United States. These tours were to receive tremendous public and critical acclaim, and made an important contribution to the worldwide popular acceptance of African rhythms and culture. Considering himself to be the spiritual son of Kwame Nkrumah, the renowned Pan Africanist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a virulent critic of colonialism and neo-colonialism.

Fela Kuti - Photo by Bernard Matussiere
Fela Kuti – Photo by Bernard Matussiere

For over twenty years, he became famous as a spokesman for the great mass of people, in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa and the African diaspora, disenchanted with the period of post-independence.

Fela’s sad death in August 1997 was mourned by the nation. Even those who did not agree with him were among the million people or more who attended his funeral. Even the many governmental letters of condolence sent to his family were eloquent testimonials to a great man. His death was attributed to an AIDS-related heart failure, though a more popular diagnosis was that, as a result of the countless beatings at the hands of the authorities, his system was sufficiently weakened to allow disease to enter.

Throughout his life, Fela was sustained by the unconditional love and respect offered to him by the millions of people whose lives he touched. In death, he retains the legendary status to which he was elevated by the throngs of people who came to pay their last respects at his laying in state in Tafa Balewa Square: ‘Adami Eda’ – (Chief Priest). “He will live forever!”

In 2009, Fela Kuti’s legacy gained new significance and popularity. Knitting Factory Records, a new label, licensed the 45-album Fela Kuti catalog. Over the next 18 months, the label will release remasters of all the Fela Kuti CDs in unique digi-packs with the original artwork, as well as certain releases on vinyl for the first time in North America. Knitting Factory Records will also be giving the first official release to the entire Koola Lobitos catalog- this was Fela’s highlife band which he fronted through the 1960’s.

The first release in the series was a compilation set titled The Best Of The Black President. The Deluxe Version includes two CDs and a DVD. The DVD includes segments from “Music is the Weapon”, the Berlin Jazz Festival, “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense,” and interviews with Bill T. Jones and Carlos Moore.

A Broadway musical titled Fela! opened in November at Eugene O’Neil Theatre, a follow-up to the highly acclaimed off-Broadway show. The musical is directed and choreographed by Tony Award-winner Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening), with a book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones. Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo play the title character on alternate performances, while Afrobeat band Antibalas and other members of the New York City Afrobeat community, under the direction of Aaron Johnson, perform Kuti’s rousing music live onstage. Winner of 2009’s Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical, Fela! was conceived by Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel. Fela! had its world premiere at Off-Broadway’s 37 Arts in September 2008, where it enjoyed a sold-out limited run.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti Obituary

“Fela was sweet, perhaps not an adjective that would normally be used to describe this tornado of a man, but Fela was sweet to me. This sweetness that I perceived in him emanated from his love for humanity, particularly for those who had drawn life’s short straw.

Hundreds of people depended upon Fela for a living. Many more than he needed to run his Lagos club, The Shrine, or to play in his band. I saw him as a social engineer, concerned with issues of injustice, corruption, the abuses of power. He was ready to lay his life on the line in defense of such causes, which he did on countless occasions.

For his trouble he was beaten with rifle butts, endlessly harassed, imprisoned, vilified by the authorities, despised by bourgeois society (whose sons and daughters were captivated by him). His house was once burned to the ground by a thousand soldiers after they had raped and beaten his followers, thrown his mother and brother from a window, both of whom suffered fractures (his mother was ultimately to die from her injuries).

Each time they were to beat him, though, he always bounced back with a vengeance, stronger than ever. It is my view that the only thing that kept him alive, and the ultimate source of his strength, was the love the people had for him.

And his music – the rumble of thunder and the crack of lightning – layer upon layer of sublimely interwoven rhythm and melody, tangled in a delicious knot of divine inspiration. Deliberate conspiracies of hot brass woven around the intricately hypnotic consistency of bass and guitar lines, all driven by the dual forces of lavish percussion and Fela’s own passion for the precision of his musical vision.

Heaven help any musician who might stray from his given task. Fury would descend upon him until, in mortal terror, he would struggle his way back into the groove. The icing on the cake of a Fela performance was his singers and dancers, fabulous glittering unreal creatures from another world who would exude waves of sensuality and downright sexiness that you could cut with a knife.

All in all, thirty-something people on stage, each playing their part in what Fela called “the underground spiritual game.” In the center of the audio-visual feast for the senses, Fela reigned supreme. He was everywhere at once, playing keyboards, soprano or alto sax, the occasional drum solo, a sinuous dance from one side of the stage to the other and then it was time to sing, the ever-present spliff held in his elegant fingers. No moon and toon and joon for this articulate firebrand. Only eloquent, biting poetic social observation, expressed with a breathtaking clarity and natural authority which placed him firmly in an unsurpassed realm in which he had no equal.

Perhaps Pavarotti can break a wine glass at sixty paces, maybe Bono can make girls wet their pants with a flick of his sweat laden hair, but for sheer master, panache, style and guts nobody could or can beat this guy. To get a bead on who he was, once he had recorded a song, he would never perform it again on stage, no matter how record company execs may plead.

Recently, however, he had ceased his endless harangue of politicians, big business, organized religion, the military, police, etc. (Once, when running for President of Nigeria, he proclaimed that his first act upon being elected would be to enroll the entire population in the police force. Then, he said, “Before a policeman could slap you, he would have to think twice because you’re a policeman, too.” The authorities ultimately refused to allow him to enter the race. Too bad.) He now saw politics as “a distraction,” saying that our only task was to enter into contact with our own spirit, without which “we would not survive.”

His last years were spent in spiritual contemplation. He never left the house, except twice a week to go to the Shrine to play. He wouldn’t arrive until two in the morning. There would be fifteen hundred people waiting for him and he would finish at dawn. And now he has gone. AIDS they said. As far as I’m concerned it was one beating too many which had weakened his body sufficiently to allow disease to enter. He was a giant of a man, but a man nevertheless. The system can only take so much. I went to his funeral.

A hundred and fifty thousand people or so gathered in Tafawa Balewa Square to pay their last respects. Bands played, people queued endlessly to file past his glass coffin. We then ran with the coffin to a hearse (there were still thirty thousand people queuing up) to make the 20 mile journey to the Shrine, where Fela’s children were to carry out a private ceremony for family and friends.

In a cavalcade of vehicles we rode through Lagos City behind a band in the back of a pick-up truck playing Fela tunes. The road was thronged with tens of thousands of people, until we came to the brow of a hill. I looked down across the valley to the distant horizon. The road was filled with people from one side to the other and as far as the eye could see.

A million people or more, and even more came as we passed through each neighborhood. Seven hours to cover 20 miles and the band never dropped a note. As we came nearer to Ikeja, we began to worry. What would happen when we reached Pepple Street, a small side street in which The Shrine was situated. How, in fact would we reach The Shrine with a million people in front of us? Night fell as we drew near. We turned in to Pepple Street. There was hardly anyone there. One million or more people had decided that it was not appropriate for them to be there.

Fela was my friend for the past fifteen years. Our fourteen year working relationship had grown from that friendship. I regret his passing but celebrate his life. He will live forever through the incredible legacy of more than 50 albums of music which he has left up and through the love and respect of the millions of people who knew him, from near or far. He was finally laid to rest in front of his house, Kalakuta, in Ikeja on the morning of Tuesday, August 12, 1997. His son, Femi, played a plaintive sax solo. A gentle rain fell like perfume.

By Rikki Stein. Courtesy of MCA Records.

Discography:

Aigana (1960)
Onifere (1966)
Yeshe Yeshe (1966)
Mr. Who Are You (1967)
The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions (1969, Stern’s, released 1993)
Blackman’s Cry (1970)
Viva Africa (1970)
Fela’s London Scene (1970)
Lady (1970)
White Man to Suffer (1970)
Wayo (1970)
Who Are You (1971)
Nai Poi (1971)
Shenshema (1971)
Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1971)
Open and Close (1971)
Live! (1971)
Stratavarious (1971)
Alijon-Jon-Ki-Jon (1972)
Egbe Mi O (1972)
Shakara (1972)
Na Poi (1972)
Afrodisiac (1973)
Gentleman (1973)
Alagbon Close (1974)
He Miss Road (1975)
Fela’s Budget Special (1975)
Expensive Shit (1975)
Noise for Vendor Mouth (1975)
Everything Scatter (1975)
Confusion (1975)
Jealousy (1975)
Kalakuta Show (1976)
Ikoyi Blindness (1976)
Yellow Fever (1976)
Upside Down (1976)
No Bread (1976)
Before I Jump like Monkey Give Me Banana (1976)
Again, Excuse O (1976)
Zombie (1976)
J.J.D. (1977)
Sorrow, Tears and Blood (1977)
Opposite People (1977)
Stalemate (1977)
Fear Not for Man (1977)
Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1977)
Observation No Crime (1977)
I Go Shout Plenty (1977)
No Agreement (1977)
Shuffering and Shimiling (1977)
Unknown Soldier (1979)
Authority Stealing (1980)
Music of Many Colors (1980)
Coffin for Head of State (1981)
Original Sufferhead (1981)
Parambulator (1983)
Live in Amsterdam – Music Is the Weapon (1984)
Army Arrangement (1985)
Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (1985)
Beasts of No Nation (1989)
Overtake Don Overtake Overtake (1989)
Confusion Break Bones (1990)
Just Like That (1990)
Underground System (1992)
The Underground Spiritual Game (Quannum Projects, 2004)
The Best Of The Black President (Knitting Factory Records, 2009)

Bibliography:

Fela, the Life and Times of an African Musical Icon by Michael E. Veal. Temple University Press, 2000. ISBN: 1-56639-765-0.

Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent by Sola Olorunyomi. Africa World Press, 2002.

Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway by Trevor Schoonmaker. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Arrest the Music!: Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics (African Expressive Cultures) by Tejumola Olaniyan. Indiana University Press, 2004. ISBN: 0253344611.

Fela: This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore. Lawrence Hill Books, 2009. ISBN: 1556528353

Fela: Kalakuta Notes by John Collins. KIT Publishers, May 2009.

Videos

Fela Kuti Live (Yazoo, 1995)
Fela In Concert (V.I.E.W. Video, 2001)
Fela Kuti – Music Is the Weapon (Universal, 2003)

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Artist Profiles: Abdoulaye Alhassane Toure

Abdoulaye Alhassane
Abdoulaye Alhassane

Abdoulaye Alhassane was born in 1963 in Niamey (Niger) to a Sonrai family from Gao (Mali). He is a superb multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, and producer. His principle instrument is guitar and he sings and plays molo, gurmi and a number of other Central Saharan string instruments.

Toure was musical director, composer and lead guitarist for the popular roots band Mamar Kassey. The band released two CDs, Denke Denke (1999) and Alatoumi (2000) that introduced Toure’s guitar skills.

Toure also launched the careers of Moussa Poussy and many other singers from Niger, for whom he composed and arranged all of the music.

Abdoulaye Alhassane Toure is a master of the music of many Saharan cultures and languages: Songhai, Sonrai, Tamashek, Peul, Zerma, Hausa, and others. His original music is rich in complex rhythms, beautiful blue modes, and full of jubilant enthusiasm.

Discography:

Denke Denke, with Mamar Kassey (1999)
Alatoumi, with Mamar Kassey (D’Aqui, 2000)
City of Askia (Flying Note Records, 2007)
Sahara Spirit

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Artist Profiles: Malouma

Malouma
Malouma

Malouma Mint Moktar Ould Meidah was born in the 1960s in Mederdra (Traiza), into a family of griots (singers who work as oral historians). Her life seemed all mapped out. The daughter of Moktar Ould Meidah, a prominent traditional musician as well as a highly skilled poet, she is also the granddaughter of Mohamed Yahya Ould Boubane, another virtuoso of words and the tidinit (a small traditional guitar used by griots).

She grew up in Charatt (a small town near Mederdra), where her parents taught her the basics of traditional harp (ardin) playing. She started to sing at a very young age, and performed for the first time at the age of 12, an age when tradition requires that the daughters of important families be already prepared for a ‘responsible’ life (marriage and self-sufficiency).

Malouma started to draw from the traditional repertoire that her parents, especially her father, had enriched. At the age of fifteen, she was already an accomplished griot, not only accompanying her parents but performing whole concerts on her own. At the same period, along with her father, she started to listen to songs by Um Kulthum, Adbel Hlim Hafez, Fairouz, Nasri Cherns, Dine, Sabah etc. And as she grew up she also discovered another musical style that was not far from the music she mastered: blues.

She wrote short songs that were quite popular with young girls. But the weight of tradition pushed her into the fetters of marriage and conformism.

It took until the late eighties for her to appear on stage again in Mauritania. With a new repertoire, she brought about a true musical revolution among singers. Such pieces as “Habibi habeytou”, “cyam ezzaman tijri”, “awdhu billah”… disrupted the established order. Malouma was aiming to impose a style that drew from the purest tradition and modernized it.

The research she undertook was centered on a successful blending of traditional and modern music, the latter providing its instruments and its approach, the first its rich repertoire. Malouma thus became a singer-songwriter, introducing a unity of theme in her songs (oughniya) and not refraining from addressing subjects that were more or less taboo-such as love, conjugal life or inequalities.

In her commitment to encourage justice and equality in Mauritania, she involved herself in activist songs to stir people into action, singing for the AIDS campaigns, for the vaccination of children, for the elimination of illiteracy and for the promotion of women, among other issues.

While her music soon became popular among the youth (girls and boys), it was rejected at first by the dominating class (a few intellectual groups, griots opinion- and decision-makers. She was introducing too many things at once: the evolution of both customs and culture, even questioning the traditional social order and giving artists an importance they had not had before.

In all these years denouncing inequalities, oppression and injustice, she has become ‘the singer of the people’ (mutribatou echa’b). For all her commitment, she has not forgotten her prime goal, her musical research, to open Mauritanians to the outside world and to make foreigners discover the treasures of her country’s national heritage. “Rasm”, “jraad”, “tchaa’i”, “gnoni”, “nouka”… and many more “achwaar” (traditional pieces) are reinterpreted and reinvented.

Malouma has gone even further, trying to harmonize traditional pentatonic Mauritanian music with other folk music forms, notably blues. She has met a group of young Mauritanian musicians, the Sahel Hawl Blues, and they have soon tied bonds. Driven by the same concern-to be both rooted in traditional music and open to modern western music-the band, made up of ten young musicians, has integrated all the components of modern-day Mauritania: rich inspirational sources and multiple cultures (Moorish, Fulani, Toucouleur, Soninke, Wolof, Haratin).

Malouma is a national pride and role model, and she has many followers.

Discography:

Desert of Eden (1998)
Dunya (Marabi, 2006)
Nour (2007)
Knou (2014)

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