Innovative Cuban musician and composer Roberto Fonseca has a new album titled Yesun. It is a project where he brings together a wide range of musical influences, such as Cuban traditions, jazz, classical music, funk, reggaeton and electronic music. Fonseca also used various keyboards aside from piano, including synthesizers. Roberto Fonseca talked to World Music Central about Yesun and his career.
How and when did you start working professionally in the music world?
I started at age 15 at jazz festivals and jazz clubs in Havana.
What do you think are the fundamental elements of your musical style?
Spirituality, melody, rhythm and feeling.
How has your musical expression evolved over the years?
Thanks to the diverse influences, I have followed the philosophy of “Express more with less notes” and this has made me enter into very special sound dimensions.
Yesun is an album that reflects my influences, my way of thinking. There are many real stories inside and it has a great emotional charge. They have a great strength of hope and sensitivity and is the result of a hard work of several years that has been simmering and I have surrounded myself with great professionals, both musicians, singers, technical team and production.
It is a very broad project that not only stays in music since we have also worked in the visual parts, and I do not only refer to video clips (shortly we will release the second single / video clip of the song Cadenas (featuring Danay Suarez) but also the production of live videos. Each song has a visual that expresses the feeling of the song, this can be seen in my concerts; similarly, we have created a poster designed exclusively for each venue (something totally unique) and the Tour apparel has been designed for us by a great designer from Barcelona called Josep Abril.
Returning to the album, it is a work in which I combine different genres and incorporate more types of keyboards. I try to show that most modern Cuba through jazz.
Yesun’s songs have been recorded in several different countries: France, Spain, Brazil, the United States. Why did you use several recording studios and is there a difference between the material according to the studio and country?
Most of the album was recorded in Paris, in Meudon’s studio (with Julien Besséres) the material they have is magnificent and there is a very familiar atmosphere that allows creativity to have incredible freedom and spontaneity.
The guests have recorded in their countries of residence. Today, thanks to technology, it is easier to make this type of collaboration without having to make a complicated trip and I also consider it very important that each person who brings their color and sound feel comfortable where they are, I think you can give a very positive sense to the contribution of your culture on the disc.
In your album Yesun you play several types of keyboards. How do you decide which instrument you will use in each theme? Which one do you like the most?
Indeed, it is just what I said earlier about the incorporation of new keyboards, it really depends on the sound of each instrument and according to the spirit of the track I choose one or the other. For example I love the sound diversity of the Moogs.
In addition to playing keyboards, you also sing without lyrics, a style similar to what Pedro Aznar did with Pat Metheny. What are your influences on the vocal side and do you plan to record your voice more?
Actually, my biggest influence in this vocal aspect is my mother Meredes Cortes, although I also have a lot of influence from Abbey Lincon and to name other great ones that I admire would say Camarón de la Isla, Freddy Mercury, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo…
Do you give classes or workshops?
There was a time that I taught jazz and traditional Cuban music, but for a few years now I am 100% dedicated to my career.
Where do you live now?
In Havana, Cuba.
If you could bring together the musicians or groups that fascinate you most to record a record or collaborate live, who would you call?
Ibrahim Ferrer, Miles Davis, Cachaíto Lopez, Dexter Gordon, Regina Carter, Jimi Hendrix, Jack Jack DeJohnette, etc. The list can be endless.
What other projects are working on?
One with symphony orchestra, soundsystem, with Joe Claussell.
American composer and multi-instrumentalist Dawn Drake and her band ZapOte have a new album titled Nightshade. She discusses her background and the new recording with World Music Central.
What are your fondest musical memories?
My fondest musical memories are of playing for crowds of dancers whether they are school children, sambistas, late night dance party-goers at Bembe in Brooklyn, for salsa dancers at Brooklyn Academy of Music Cafe or the Kimmel Center’s “La Noche” Latin Music Series.
What was the first tune you learned?
I learned the “Boogie Woogie” also known as “In the Mood” by Glen Miller on piano when I was five.
What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?
Essential elements are polyrhythmic percussion and heavy bass.
How did your musical ideas evolve throughout the years from your debut album to your latest recordings?
My musical ideas have become more composition and arrangement-oriented and less “singer-songwriter” based, though I still intend to put out more music with electronic production that may return to even simpler formats.
Your band ZapOte is named after a fruit found in Mexico and the Caribbean. I know this fruit as mamey. What led you to name your band ZapOte?
I see ZapOte as a very feminine fruit. It’s also delicious. The first song I ever wrote as an adult is the chorus of my song “Zapote” which was recorded on my previous album “Everythinglessness”. The song came to me after my first or second visit to Santiago de Cuba, a place that has inspired me greatly with its music, dance and culture over the years. Santiago de Cuba is the first place that I encountered the zapote fruit and I liked it instantly as well as the word itself.
Tell us about your new album, Nightshade.
The album is a culmination of various sessions played by a lot of New York’s finest musicians and audio wizards. Please refer to this description for more… It goes into detail about the overall darker mood of the album, the use of the iconography of the Yoruba orisha Oya as it coincides with the seasons and this particular season of darkness and the Day of the Dead, the homage to the ancestors who came before us and the hardships they went through, and how through making art and music come alive; when we make something out of nothing, we can heal the pains of the past and in the process bring people together and create community that may not have existed otherwise.
Who plays on Nightshade? Who are the musicians you are currently working with?
I am currently working with Mara Rosenbloom on keys, Eliane Amherd on guitar and vocals, Alicyn Yaffee on guitar, Jackie Coleman on trumpet (for over a decade now), Paula Winter (also for a decade!), Lynn Ligammari on tenor sax, and Beza Gebre on drums. For the album release, Patrick Hall has joined us on trombone and Karen Joseph on flute as well as my long time colleagues Buffy Drysdale and Elizabeth Sayre on batá drums.
Although I liked Nightshade overall, the electronics on the futuristic “Oya de Zarija” track really caught my attention. Will you be making more music in this direction?
Yes, that is my intention, to produce more tracks in that style in the future. Glad you like it!
In the press release you mentioned the bass chose you. What do you mean by that?
I meant that one day I went to a guitar store intending to buy a guitar and impulsively bought a bass instead which the store owner kindly told me came with a “gig bag”. I had never played the bass before and I certainly didn’t intend to get any “gigs” with it but after playing in my living room for a year, I ended up in the bass chair with Geoff Mann (Herbie Mann’s son) on drums, Viva Deconcini and Matt Moon (all from the New School of Jazz) in a band called Buttershack. From there, I have played hundreds of gigs on the bass.
Mainstream media does not provide an outlet for world music. In what ways are you promoting your music?
I promote through Youtube, Spotify, Apple, my email list and my live shows. It is not easy and I am looking for new avenues to promote my music. I would love to land a licensing deal and/or find other ways to get more listenership.
What advice would you give to beginners, especially young women, who want to make music out of the pop and hip hop mainstream?
I would say, study and practice very hard to be the best you can be at your craft whether that is playing your instrument, singing and/or writing. It seems also that it pays off to get very good at learning how to promote yourself on Instagram. This is something I am really trying to improve at. I would also say that tenacity and risk taking are key. I personally have gained a lot from reading and doing the exercises in The Artist Way by Julia Cameron.
If you could gather any additional musicians, or bands, to collaborate with, whom would that be?
I would love to collaborate with Captain Planet, Antibalas and/or perhaps a producer who I don’t know yet who is interested in my work! One of my dream is to record a tune with musicians from Alexander Abreu and Havana d’ Primera in Cuba and possibly another upcoming artist in Cuba “Cimafunk”.
I recently went to Senegal this year to further my understanding of sabar drumming and mbalax music and I would love to collaborate with Thiat Seck and other Senegalese mbalax singers and musicians. I want to continue collaborating with international artists and it remains one of my main goals to continue to expand outward and do more projects with musicians abroad.
Aside from the release of Nightshade, do you have any additional upcoming projects to share with us?
We have several shows coming up in New York City, namely Bembe in Brooklyn (81 South 6th st.) November 17th at 11 pm and Shrine World Music (Adam Clayton Powell jr. Blvd between 133rd and 134th streets) in Harlem on December 21st at 10 pm.
I have also been selected to participate and present my music in a seminar sponsored by the US State Department called “Art, Culture and Transforming Conflict” in Santa Fe, New Mexico December 10-14. We hope to do more State Department sponsored tours abroad in the coming years.
In the meantime we also have a regular Tuesday night show called “Mardi Gras Fat Tuesdays” at Club 33 Lafayette in Brooklyn on 33 Lafayette Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11217, every Tuesday 8-11 pm starting November 12.
Otava Yo is one of the rising acts in contemporary Russian folk music. The Saint Petersburg Russian-based band has an excellent new album available internationally titled “Do You Love”
The lineup includes Alexey Belkin on vocals, bagpipes, gusli, zhaleika; Alexey Skosyrev on vocals, acoustic guitar; Dmitry Shikhardin on vocals, fiddle; Yulia Usova on vocals, violin; Petr Sergeev on bass drum and darbuka; and Timur Sigidin on bass.
Otava Yo’s leader Alexey Belkin talked to World Music Central about the band’s background and the new recording.
Q: How and when was Otava Yo formed?
On the streets of St. Petersburg in 2003, where we decided to busk for fun. The feedback from audience was so great, so we started to busk in St. Pete on regular basis. That time we were playing instrumental Celtic music. Only after 3 years of occasional street performing we made a first record and perceived our selves as a band.
Q: What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?
We try to keep music live, in terms that we do not like to copy somebody’s ideas, we prefer to invent our own bicycle. If we see some great idea created by somebody else – it inspires us to make something too. Also we try to keep the main idea of folk songs and do not complicate them. If it is funny cheerful dance song we would not make from it jazzy lounge R&B.
Q: Who can you cite as your main musical influences?
I can talk only for myself. I used to listen to lots of Celtic artists – Chieftains, Carlos Nuñez, Silly Wizard, etc. and also Scandinavian bands like Hedningarna, Garmarna. I love Latvian band Iļģi. Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Michael Nyman. All of them could make influence on my musical taste.
Q: Tell us about your first recordings and your musical evolution.
The first recording with Otava Yo we made in 2006. After all those sessions on the streets we decide to make live album with everything we played for that time. So, it was instrumental album with just 1 song. Raw and live. No bass guitar and no even bass drum. Exactly how we played on the streets.
Three years later we made a new album full of Russian traditional songs, the most popular ones. And it was recorded with using all studio possibilities. We made nice arrangements and used more instruments then we can play live, invited some friends. So, it was fun to make that record and to see how good this music could be recorded.
The new album “Do you love” in 2018 took us a 6 months of work in studio. And I believe it is our most matured work for now.
Q: Even though you live in a city, your music contains elements of Russian village music. How do you find traditional rural folk songs?
Well, we live in cities, but some of us used to stay in country side. I myself till 15 years old stayed in very small town in private house in suburb of St. Petersburg. I was able to go for a walk without seeing a single car, if I wanted I could make a campfire with my friends in my yard, so it was a happy childhood of small town boy. But there was no folklore in my life. It was USSR and communists did everything they could to steal folklore from Russian population and to replace it with fake academic folklore. But in spite of this the folk songs are all over, all you need just to wish to listen to them. The most of the song we sing we just know. Some of them we found in ethnographic recordings or books. But we never went to ethnographic expeditions.
Q: Otava Yo uses various traditional Russian instruments. Tell us about them and how common are they now?
The most common – electric guitar and bass, the rest are quite rare. Well, to be serious, it is a problem now with getting Russian traditional instruments. You are not able to buy them in store, the only way to get such instrument is only to order it directly from the maker and then wait for a few months. I ordered my new Russian village bagpipe in May and it is ready only now. But it is worth to wait. How common?… Well, not really.
Q: Who makes your traditional musical instruments?
Different makers. Some of them are from St. Petersburg, some from other cities. My zhaleikas mostly made by Anton Platonov and Dmitry Dyomin. Gusli by Alexander Teplov. The new Russian bagpipe by Vasiliy Ivanov. Also I am waiting for the new gaita chanter with keys from Moscow’s maker Alexander Anistratov. All of them you may find in Facebook.
Q: Otava Yo is also known for making captivating music videos. Tell us about the process of making videos and who is involved.
We make them in picaresque way. I have directed all the videos we made. As far as I didn’t study how to shoot video so I was not afraid to start to make them and just started to do it without understanding the details of the whole video production process. First two videos we even shot by ourselves, only starting from “Street cleaner” we have invited professional camera man.
The process – usually I start to think about the song for which I would like to shoot video. I listen to it more than hundred times. Then I come up with the main idea and start to work on script. Then with my partner Vsevolod together we write final script and plan all the shootings details including what kind of equipment we will use and where will rent it. Then we shoot 🙂
After shooting we edit it and make post-production.
Nothing special or unusual. The only important thing – I suppose if we would invite the professional director from the side the result would not be like what we have now, just because it is impossible to find so folklore involved and oriented director in Russia or outside of it. So, I had to invent everything especially for Otava Yo. I suppose it is a unique product we made in a single copy, it is very difficult to duplicate. So that’s the whole secret.
Q: How’s the current traditional and contemporary folk and world music scene in Saint Petersburg and other parts of Russia?
To be honest quite bad. The amount of folk groups which on regular basis can play the concerts is very little. The ones which could attract more than 100 listeners even less. We do not have infrastructure for world music. The quantity of world music festivals also is quite low. But I think it is changing a little bit and also with our help too.
Q: If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?
Well, I like Hedningarna and Penguin cafe, I think we could make something interesting together. And Rammstein of course 🙂
Q: Do you have any upcoming projects to share with us?
We are getting ready for Christmas tour, which will happen in January 2020. Now we are in the middle of “Once upon a time” tour which is dedicated to 10 year anniversary of our second album “Once upon a time”. Ten more concerts to go.
We need to finish the new video clip, which we shot in August. I wanted to create an adventurous comedy video and I hope it will work out as I planned. We have some ideas for our youtube show “Zelyonka”, where we invite other musicians and play together. The last month we had a great guests from Sweden – Garmarna. We plan several other interesting acts within this show. And of course we are planning to work on new songs, and this is the most important thing for us now. The recent live video with new song “Zalivochka” which we just uploaded gathered more than 100K views just for 2 days; that means people look forward for new songs from us.
Solana is a world music fusion band originally founded in Valencia, Spain in 2012. Solana combines rhythmically complex and harmonically rich music inspired by folk traditions from around the world.
Solana’s sound is guided by flutes, violin, accordion and Spanish guitar, and takes influence from diverse celebrated artists like Tigran Hamasyan, Kíla, Paco de Lucía and Dhafer Youssef.
Band members include Tamsin Elliott on flute, whistles, accordion; Rowen Elliott on violin, effects; Elio Arauz de Marcos on drums, percussion, vocals; Henry Edmonds on electric and acoustic bass; and JP Wolfgang on Spanish guitar.
Solana has a new video titled “Odd Elegy / Allegedly Odd.” Flute player Tamsin Elliott provides details about the video: “It includes a cover of Dhafer Youssef’s Odd Elegy and a string of my own tunes collectively called “Allegedly Odd”, which I composed in response to Youssef’s piece. The arrangement is by the collective brain of Solana. It feels like quite an achievement to finish this video after a year of quite serious health issues which turned my world upside down.”
Q – The band is currently based in the UK but it was started in Valencia, Spain. How did you guys come into contact with each other?
Siblings Tamsin and Rowan Elliott have played music together from a young age. In 2012 they both coincidentally moved to Valencia and reconnected musically, playing in small bars and social centers. They were joined by original guitarist Alex Dickinson and Valencian percussionist Elio Arauz de Marcos.
Solana rapidly gained a following in the city due to the appetite for Celtic and Eastern European folk music there. In the intervening years the band’s sound and line-up have evolved to the present five-piece.
Q – What’s the background of the musicians in Solana?
Tamsin (flutes/accordion) and Rowan (violin) Elliott were brought up on a diet of world, folk and reggae and spent family holidays at festivals such as WOMAD. This exposure to a large variety of music from around the world, as well as the Celtic sessions in the local pub, has influenced their music-making to this day.
Elio Arauz de Marcos learned percussion from the age of eleven and played various styles from reggae and ska to Latin and traditional Valencian bands. After a few years of mainly playing guitar he rediscovered his passion for drums through the music of Solana. He also fronts rumba, Latin, afrobeat project The Globo Collective on guitar and vocals.
After years of playing guitar, JP Wolfgang discovered and fell in love with the Flamenco tradition and moved to Madrid to study with El Entri in the famous Caño Roto Madrid.
Henry Edmonds’ background in jazz and post rock has brought a gnarly edge to Solana’s sound. He enjoys the challenge of fusing different world grooves with more progressive arrangements, and the opportunity to play both upright and electric bass.
Q – You released an album in 2017. How was that experience and what exposure did you get?
Camino (2017) was recorded over four days -and four sleepless nights- at Henwood studios near London. This is our first album of wholly original compositions and it was with this recording that we began to find our own unique sound. We were lucky to count on the expertise and patience of our childhood friend and all-round musical genius Tom Excell who engineered and co-produced the album.
We received great reviews, with the album being described as “thoroughly invigorating” by Songlines, “A fervent and fertile form of world fusion” by Shire Folk, and our favorite from Folk Radio UK saying that “They make my spice shelf look boring… an accomplished and colorful album”.
Q – Are you working on a new album?
Yes, we have lots of new material and are really exited to get it on record. Tamsin is currently waiting for a major operation to sort out ongoing health problems, so touring is on hold until we have a date, but in the mean time lots of work is happening on new compositions and arrangements! Expect the next album to demonstrate a rich sonic tapestry, sometimes playful and often poignant, anchored by a deep respect for traditions. We’re looking forward to sharing something new and bold that goes beyond classic folk conventions.
Spanish multi-instrumentalist Juan José Robles has a superb new album titled In-Quietud (Restlessness). Robles uses a wide range of stringed instruments from Spain and beyond. He discusses his career and new album with World Music Central.
How and when did you start working professionally in the music world?
I decided to make my own music after several years playing for others or being part of groups. Once I recorded my first album and saw that it had very good acceptance and reviews, that is when I decided to bet on this, even if it is a “spike and shovel” and the road is not easy.
What do you think are the fundamental elements of your musical style?
Throughout my musical career, I have gone through traditional, classical, folk, blues, flamenco music … and all this has stayed with me. Perhaps that is why, those who listen to my music, think that I have generated my own language from that hodgepodge; and that is recognizable to hear it.
How has your musical expression evolved over the years?
Well, over the years my level of self-demand has grown, all my songs pass several listening filters until they definitely arrive at the studio, I carefully and meticulously select what I like and what I don’t, I eliminate it right away.
What does the title of your In-Quietud album mean?
I have lived situations and moments where I have been too restless, altered, uneasy…., And those situations have led me to a hangover that has generated a pleasant stillness; in those two states is where all the songs on this album have appeared.
It is a continuity of my previous album “Tiempo de espera” (2016), where new structures and elements appear that, as I said before, I have carefully selected. It is also a claim of instrumental music as a form of expression, with as much force as that which bears a voice. On the other hand, traditional music is one of the sources from which I drink, hence I wink at two pieces of my land, Murcia, which I really wanted.
In your In-Quietud album you play several types of stringed instruments from the guitar and lute family. Tell us about the following instruments and their differences: octavilla, Valencian guitar, tenor guitar.
The octavilla is a 12-string instrument, with 6 courses, which is located in the area that borders Castilla La Mancha with the Valencian Community; is a mainly melodic instrument and its loudness is of medium-acute timbres. The Valencian guitar has 5 strings, which are usually made of nylon, and is used to rip with chords in traditional music, being its acute sound range. The tenor guitar has 10 strings, with 5 courses, and is widely used to accompany with chords in the traditional formations of the [Spanish] peninsular southeast, such as Murcia and Almeria, and its sound range is medium.
In addition to the instruments mentioned above, you also play guitars, bouzouki, bandurria and lute. How do you decide which instrument you will use in each track? Which one do you like the most?
These four instruments are those with which I usually compose almost everything and the decision is easy, since I usually respect the instrument with which I compose the subject. And regarding tastes for an instrument, let’s say it goes through times, I currently give more attention to the bouzouki and the lute, although I never stop playing the guitar and the mandolin.
Who manufactures your string instruments?
The lute is by Diego Gallego (Murcia), the bouzouki is by Carlos do Viso (Vigo), the mandolin and octave guitar by Tomás Leal (Casasimarro, Albacete), the bandurria by Javier Rojo (Madrid) and the guitar by Juan Azorín (Molina de Segura, Murcia).
Do you keep or collect stringed instruments?
I used to collect them, but then I decided to be pragmatic and I only keep the ones I use, which add up to 12.
Would you like to play some other stringed instrument from some other region of Spain or other cultures?
Yes, my pending subject is the zanfona [hurdy gurdy], which I already had one and played it some time ago; although I got rid of it to buy a flamenco guitar. So it may be my next goal.
Do you give classes or workshops?
Yes, I teach guitar, lute, bandurria and guitar classes permanently in a popular music school; and also music workshops and traditional Murcian song with Carmen María Martínez Salazar.
Which musicians of the new generations in your area deserve the attention of root music lovers in general?
The world of traditional music around the peninsular southeast, lately is closely related to meetings of traditional formations (crews, rounds, pandas, …). These have always been formed by older people, but today there are many young people and children paying close attention to this sociocultural movement and some with great talent, where great vocals and string players stand out.
If you could bring together the musicians or groups that fascinate you most to record a record or collaborate live, who would you call?
Of course I would stay with the band that accompanies me live: Enrique González and Óscar Esteban on percussion, Pablo Orenes on double bass, Tóbal Rentero on the laúd, guitarro and dulzaina, and José Antonio Aarnoutse and Constantino López on guitars; the latter also producer of the album. And I would call singers Carles Dènia and Rocío Márquez; cavaquinho player Luis Peixoto; Diego Galaz and Jorge Arribas (Fetén Fetén) to play violin and accordion and Efrén López on zanfona.
What other projects are you working on?
I am part of Mujeres con Raíz, a group of traditional Murcian music and I am still working on an upcoming job, which we must start from now.
Malian guitarist, vocalist and composer Habib Koité is back with an album titled Kharifa. He talks about his career and the new recording with World Music Central.
What are your fondest musical memories?
If I look back, to see the paths I have been through…First of all, I am passionate about music because I come from a family of griots who belong to an ethnic group that deals with social protocol such as marriage, baptism… Griots have the word, speak in the place of the nobleman, at marriage they know how to make the steps, the same for deaths and they have the right to sing and the right to speak. I, therefore, come from a background like that and that is my basis.
I also found the guitar in my family and music; my mother sang, my father played banjo, accordion, my brothers played banjo, accordion, my brothers continued with the guitar and I was born and I also found the guitar at home and I am passionate about music with this base there, the core of the family who is a musician.
When I was a teenager, I was in Mali, I listened Malian music for sure but also other music from elsewhere like rhythm and blues (James Brown), rock (Pink Floyd), French song because we had a lot of influences from France (Johnny Halliday, Claude François…) but these are the outside influences of my adolescence. I played these artists like Jimmy Hendrix.
And there are the first pieces of music I played in clubs and bars in Bamako. Beside my traditional Malian roots, my learning of classical guitar at high school, all the Western musics I heard and I played, gave me a good experience to discover other ways of playing guitar, other rhythms, other ways to sing. Good experience before to give more richness to my own career So there are small influences that could be felt in the music I played from my music of the Malian “terroir (substance), traditional, local.
Did you have any formal music studies?
Yes, I studied 4 years at the National Institute of Arts in Bamako. My classical guitar teacher was Professor Kalilou Traoré. He studied for 7 years in Cuba. He is Kar Kar’s older brother. Kar Kar is Boubacar Traoré, my elder. We come from the same region of Kayes. So I was his best student of that year’s class and when I finished school, I was then retained to teach classical guitar after him because he stopped teaching at that time. And so I can say that Kalilou was my master of the classical guitar.
What was the first tune you learned?
The first song I learned when I started playing guitar?…. it’s so far away that I have some difficulties remembering this because the moment of my learning. It wasn’t a decision at a specific time to come and learn and to know what I’m going to learn today or ask someone to “teach me this song”. This was not my approach because I was born into a family where there was always a guitar or two. My father played the banjo, the accordion and the guitar. My older brothers play the guitar, and I was born and found a guitar in a family of musicians, but not professional musicians. In addition, we are griots, a caste that is given the right to make music in traditional Manding society and we have the right to speak for the nobles.
So, I don’t remember that I personally decided to go and learn the guitar because it was there all the time and so I passed by, and I could play it. And little by little, I became aware of this instrument. The bigger I got, the more I became aware of it. I became interested in it little by little but I don’t remember a song I would have learned to play on the guitar.
What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?
I have always thought of traveling through the music of Mali’s terroir. After having performed American, French and Cuban music for several years, in clubs or restaurants in which I played for more than ten years, after having been in school, after having acquired all these experiences, I decided to put all this knowledge, my ear and my listening skills into making music, to try to make music based on the different ethnic musics of the region.
I played a variety of Malian local music. Because there is an enormous diversity in melodies, rhythms, between North, South, West, East and each music has very distinct colors. So it was in this adventure that I started. I think that my passion, music, has put me on this path to listen in depth to the specific rhythms of one ethnic group, then another from Mali. To understand it, because each ethnic group can have several rhythms, but we know that it belongs to that ethnic group.
When you are Malian, you know that when you hear Bobo or Peuhl music, in all its rhythmic or melodic diversity, you know where it comes from. So, being Malian, I go towards these different musics, to listen to them in depth. That is to say to understand the rhythmic and melodic keys, of the voice and I come towards my guitar to try to make a piece in a Fulani rhythm for example sung with words of the Fulani language and I also write respectful words of this ethnic group. And these are the experiments I’m doing.
And all these experiences have had a great impact on the Malian population. Habib Koité is Khassonke and the Fulani who hears what I have written, hears a Fulani music but a little different. I also made Songhai music by entering into all the identities of this music like Takamba and then I composed a piece. And this song, written 20 years ago, is still there, played; people have started to understand me, to target me as a Malian artist who plays on all the fields of Malian local music.
It took me 15 years to get all the eyes of the people of the different groups to cross paths with me. It took 15 years. Today, many different ethnic groups can talk with me, are interested in me visiting them in their village so that I can listen to other music of their own and they think that I can manage to give a color to their music as something more modern. Since it happened, I’ve been thinking, “Mission accomplished”.
I had the satisfaction of having had the impact I wanted. Because I wanted to link the micro-cultures of Mali through me as if I were a nucleus and from me many rays leave.
How did your musical ideas evolve throughout the years from your debut album to your latest recordings?
From the beginning until now, as I said earlier, I have come into music slowly, caught in the grip of the passion for music.
Musicality, the technique I learned along different paths on the fingering on the guitar to have different sounds and to make it come out with sounds that resemble traditional instruments like the kamale n’goni, the kora. All this is the result of research I have done over several years and which has gradually evolved, I have come to some details of these fingering, these sounds.
When I started making albums, I played a lot first with a band in the clubs, where I played variety. I played rock, rhythm & blues music, African music. I was with a group that animated these places with many expatriates, Europeans and also some Malians. I had all these experiences with other people’s music and little by little, when I decided to make an album, to create music for myself, I drew them from the music of the Malian terroir, in all its diversity.
In my approach, I managed to create my own music with the experience of many musics around the world, that I was able to mix this, there were influences of all this on the pieces that I composed on the basis of the Malian soil. That’s what gave this result / every time I do a song close to an ethnic group, it doesn’t look like a tip top. There is a difference between what I have created and ethnically specific music. There will always be a slightly different sound, a different sensitivity. Malians who are listening are amused when they listen to my music because they wonder, who is playing our music.
This situation has changed considerably. For my first album, I recorded a bit on the spot because there were a lot of songs that we played every night with the musicians. This was done quickly, in 3 days of studio time. However, I had a previous job because we played long songs on stage and for the studio, I had to shorten these songs to around 3 minutes.
We are African live musicians, for parties, parties, and we can play a song for 10 to 15 minutes. And so, playing these same songs according to European standards and bringing them from 10 – 15 minutes to 3 to 4 minutes, that was the problem. But the repertoire was there. The sound engineer suggested that we play live as you do in clubs and I’ll edit the songs by cutting some parts. That’s how we were able to make the first album with this sound engineer Daniel Boivin, After the 2 days of studio, there were 3 days of mixing and immediately afterwards, we left with this album at MASA (African Arts and Entertainment Market in Abidjan – Ivory Coast – 1995 edition)
The other albums followed. At the same time, I had more and more studio experiences. For my second album, the role of the sound engineer no longer had the same role in listening to the songs because I made shorter songs. It was already an evolution that there was from the beginning of this album to make the songs directly short, in the European imitations.
Later, again, because it has been 25 years since I started in the studio, I have had more and more studio experiences, for the sound, the guitar playing that I have continued to experience, many things have improved and of course, many new ideas have been born. Because when you are a musician looking for something (I look for sounds, fingering, etc.) I try to play other music from Mali that is not from my region. I am obliged over time to gain a lot of experience, and I will certainly improve. Every time I have to make a new piece of such an ethnic group, I will look for a lot, I will find out because I listen to the details of their music, their rhythmic, harmonic, melodic identity, I try to transpose this into my creations and on modern instruments.
I am still in a situation of evolution in the experience of the instrument, in the experimentation of the music that I imagine on the basis of the Malian terroir. It has evolved but it hasn’t changed much.
Concerning my new album, Kharifa, which means “what you are entrusted with”, it can be a human being, it can be an object and you have to take care of it.
As it is something that has been entrusted to you and you are asked for it, you should return it in good condition as you received it. We say in our country: even for someone who dies, God has taken back what he had entrusted to this person. God came to take back the life he had entrusted to another person.
The thing you are entrusted with or the thing you believe you have the responsibility to protect is the mission that God has given you to accomplish and when God gives you a mission, you must do it because God wants you to do this mission to protect. It can be your offspring, your parents, your land, your country, your environment, your homeland that is entrusted to you and that you must take care of it and return to future generations in good condition. And they too, in turn, will take care of it and so on.
On this album, I sing in Kassonkhé for the song Kharifa, in Malinké, in Manding, in French “if you knew how much I love you”, there are also a few words in English in the middle of a song sung in Bambara. Besides, in this album, I had a lot of guests. I wanted to bring other sensibilities, other sounds. For example, the young Diallo who plays the Peul flute on several songs. There are also young girls who have participated in the “Ministar” TV competition and I invited them to sing several songs. There is Toumani Diabaté with his kora. There is Sekou Bembeya, who is from Conakry also called Diamond fingers, came to the studio and generously offered me the guitars of one song and the lyrics of a part of a song. He plays the normal and Hawaiian guitar on another song.
I made the album quietly because I couldn’t go into the studio to record all the songs in one go because, frankly, you have to know that, depending on what you want to give, to play, you need time because it’s difficult for me. Thanks to my passion, I can handle it, but frankly, it’s always a puzzle for me to find the instruments, the arrangements, the lyrics… I think of everything and it makes it heavy for me because some ideas, I want it to be transcribed on the music at all costs. When a song idea comes out, I start writing, composing, practicing on my instrument and then another idea comes along and I have to add that too.
In rehearsals with the musicians, I first ask to play these ideas that I want to hear about my music and then everyone can add other sensitivities. Which means that this album was made over 1.5 to 2 years. When a song is more or less ready, we play it together, rehearse and then record it. That’s how I managed to make this album. It was a real challenge. Not to know if it’s good or bad but for me, to have made an album that I like and that I was able to put most of my musical intentions on this album.
Who plays on Kharifa? Tell us a little about the musicians you are currently working with.
I have been with this group for around 8 years, with 3 musicians who came to the group Bamada. There are 2 of them who are brothers (same father, same mother).
Issa is the eldest and plays the guitar, the banjo and does a little choir because I insisted a little bit.
Mama is on percussion, calabash, jembe and he has a pad that he plays with an electronic kick; he has shakers attached to the wrists and choirs on some songs.
The third is Charles August Coulibaly, who plays the keyboard and plays on stage with his computer with which he controls sounds on his master keyboard. When I brought him here, it was to replace the illustrious balafonist Kélétigui Diabaté who left us at the age of 82. I was supposed to replace him but it was difficult to find a balafonist with Kélétigui’s talent. I found a keyboard with a sound box of many traditional instruments.
It was Germans who did this work, who travelled a lot in Africa and recorded many traditional wind, percussion and string instruments. They recorded everything and reworked the sound, scanned it and put it in a box called contact 8. This work has greatly helped the work of keyboard players interested in African instrument sounds. So they sold it at the time for about €1,000 and it was sold like hotcakes and it really helped soundmakers whether they were African or European, it allowed many people to have other sound possibilities.
Apart from these 3 musicians (there are 6 of us), there is, on the bass guitar, Abdoul Wahab Berthe who also plays the traditional instrument called the kamale n’goni.
There is also Mahamadou Kone, known as Djelimadou. He plays all percussion in general. In this group, he plays the tamani (talking dream) the big talking drum, he also plays the bara (small drum round like a ball), the yabara. He is the one who accompanies my other percussionist. They play side by side, form the rhythm section.
And the third musician is me. I still play on a classic electro classical nylon string guitar. I have always been seen with a Godin guitar glued to my chest,a Canadian guitar. My first Godin, I bought it in Montreal in 1994 or 1995 from Steve Music on St Laurent Street and since then, I only play on this guitar. This guitar has had some success. On my side, I was able to give other guitarists the idea to buy this guitar and play with it. Because I had a special game on this guitar with a particular sound. Many people curious about the guitar were also interested in having this guitar, to try it. And that’s why the brand of these guitars made by Robert Godin have already offered me 2 or 3 guitars. I thank them on occasion but it has stopped. For a few years I haven’t had any news while I’m still with a Godin in my hands. I never stopped playing it.
Currently, we are 6 musicians on stage with a few moments of dancing, there are moments of improvisation, and then there are moments with things that are well organized musically that we play, like with scores.
Malian music has become one of the most popular in the West. Why do you think there is such interest in Malian music?
The impact of Malian music in the USA happened long before I arrived. My elder, Ali Farka Touré, conquered the United States long before I arrived.
Ali Farka, with his blues, with the bond of the blues, won Grammy Awards and when he made the album with Ry Cooder, he really made it possible to put the name of Mali on the cards in the USA. That said, he brought the name of Mali to the world but in the USA it was even stronger.
This link between certain music from Mali and the blues, many questions have been asked about it. Many specialists believe that the roots of the US blues come from Mali. Then Tamasheq [Tuareg] musicians who play in pentatonic blues registers also like Tinariwen… and they too come from Mali. Toumani Diabaté also toured the USA a long time ago with his kora, he comes from Mali. More recently, Bassekou Kouyaté also toured the USA with his band, his n’goni and you have to see his virtuosity… he comes from Mali.
So there are some Malian musicians recognized in the USA and I’m only talking about instrumentalists. There are also our most beautiful voices, such as Salif Keita, followed by the youngest women such as Rokia Traoré, Fatoumata Diawara… and all these artists come from Mali and all these artists have been welcomed by the USA and all these artists have this special register of Mali, which expresses this feeling in voices, registers, in musical modes.
And it has always remained specific, special and particularly appreciated in the USA.
Aside from the jelis or griots, are there any other efforts to promote and increase music education in Mali?
Music education in Mali… at first it comes from the family. In Mali, there are families who belong to groups, castes.
In the Mandinka culture, there are blacksmiths, weavers, and protocol men called griots, also called “gnamakala”. These castes form a layer in Manding society that cared for others. For example, the blacksmith has always made equipment, instruments for cultures, instruments for war; weavers have always made shoes, fabrics that are worn on the backs of war horses. The griots played (and still do today) for social events (marriage, burial, baptism…)
The learning of music comes from this griot ethnic group. But since the colonization and the arrival of modern instruments such as the guitar, there has been a reorganization of the army, and the military band has been built.
A hymn was created, the band was to play this hymn. It was therefore necessary to train musicians in modern European instruments: trumpet, trombone but also guitar arrived. And so it was necessary to teach these instruments at a certain level. And that’s how the music academy was created, where you learn music.
But also other materials such as Plastic Arts, Dramatic Art, socio-cultural animation.
The music section is proof that things have changed because there are classes of guitar, piano, flute, congas brought to Mali by Cubans and other modern instruments. Music learning has left the family to come to official institutions in which Western music can be studied academically with modern instruments.
After the INA, another higher-level art school was created, the Balla Fasséké Kouyaté Institute.
Mainstream media does not provide an outlet for world music. In what ways are you promoting your music?
My way of promoting? I am with a group, personally I play guitar, I sing, I play the flute, I am a composer, I reflect on my compositions, on my texts. With my Bamada group, we have traveled the world for the past 25 years and I have had the opportunity to do many different projects for example from my African Bamada group.
I have participated in other African projects; for example the project that comes from the USA. With IMN, there was an acoustic folk project (Acoustica Africa) with different African musicians on stage; the South African Vusi Mahalasela, an Ivorian Dobet Gnahoré, the Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi, the Malian Afel Bocoum and his group Alkibar. The principle of these projects was to bring together 3 group leaders from Africa, and each one came with a part of his repertoire and musicians and some parts were played together others in solo or duo. For example, Oliver came with his percussionist and kalimba player, and I was accompanied by my bass player and drummer. These projects have toured extensively in the USA and Europe.
Then I made a project with the American bluesman Eric Bibb whom I had met on the tour for the release of Putumayo’s album “From Mali to Memphis”. In 2012, we produced an album together in Bamako “Brothers in Bamako” and this album was very appreciated and gave a good return on investment. Because this project was done quickly, without much investment from the producer for recording and promotion quickly generated a lot of public interest. This has given rise to many concerts in Europe, in jazz festivals in France, Germany, and also in the USA, in many small and large places.
I also did a project with the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris (Musée des cultures du Monde created at the initiative of President Jacques Chirac). We did a Malian project with my group, the Tamasheqs (Tartit) of northern Mali and the Peuhl Afel Bocoum, 22 people on stage! It was the first time that these 3 ethnic groups were presented on stage together. It was a beautiful show with images of Mali in the background, there was a staging.
Then there was the opera Kirina that I did in the South of France (Cannes, Nice, Ramatuelle), in 2007, with 2000 students between 12 and 15 years old who learned some songs from my repertoire and a show was created with each time a choir of 500 children, with costumes, staging. The children worked for a year to present this show to their families at the end of the year in prestigious places like Akropolis in Cannes in front of more than 10,000 people. The project was represented with other children in 2008.
I am currently working on a project with Americans called APJ, Art for Peace & Justice. This project is led by Jackson Brown, a Californian folk singer from the 80s and 90s who brought together Haitians, Spaniards, Malians and Americans. Together, we are a group that has made trips to Jacmel, Haiti (300 km from Port-au-Prince by road)
We worked in the studio that faces the sea. It was very pleasant, very friendly and this big project is coming to fruition.
All this to tell you that the way I promoted myself is through projects that are not always under the Habib Koité and Bamada label. I think it’s a chance for me to have this kind of relationship with other musicians and people who organize it for me. This means that, on several levels, I remain visible
What guitars are using at this time? Do you still have your old guitars?
I still use my Godin guitar and I couldn’t get rid of it. I received several of them because with my presence on stage with this guitar on my chest for 26 years. There was a producer in the USA who made requests and Godin gave me 3 times, a guitar. Jackson Brown asked me to send him my first Godin, which I bought in 1995 in Montreal, which is damaged.
Jackson is very friendly with the person who manages electronics at Godin, he lives in Sacramento, California. They revised my guitar, sent it back to me and it is it that I take back on the road with me, it is very light.
The most recent one I have is a “great class” Godin like the great pianos. It has another sound. It’s new but for this upcoming tour, I’m going to go with my first Godin, lighter.
I still have old guitars, I don’t keep them all.
I had a Godin stolen from me. Another one was given to one of my brothers.
I have other guitars with me that I wouldn’t let go. There are guitars that I also leave to my musicians. I have a banjo, a Taylor guitar from the USA electro acoustic that are played by one of my musicians,
I don’t know how many guitars I have. I must have 7 of them.
How many guitars do you bring to a recording session, and how do you know which guitar or effect you are going to use before you get there?
When I am in a recording phase, I work piece by piece and then I think about the sound. As far as guitars are concerned, I play with a 12-string guitar as the main guitar or, for additions, we use the metallic Taylor or we have fun with the Nylons strings for arpeggios. Because there are arpeggios of our traditional Malian music that I play with nylon strings. But, I sometimes double with high notes of a metallic guitar to give brilliance in the mix.
But, for the most part, it is the Godin I use with Nylon strings. But I have other beautiful acoustic guitars. There is an English Fylde guitar that Eric Bibb and I received during a tour. It is on the occasion of the release of our album “Brothers in Bamako”. This title is printed on the inside of the guitars.
It’s beautiful; it has a very good sound. I had a pickup put on in Paris which cost me a lot of money and in the studio I bring it to do some arpeggios.
I bought a Seagull in Chicago at the Old Town School. It has a beautiful sound. You can hear it on my album Kharifa.
What is the best way to set up microphones for acoustic guitar recording?
The best way to record the sound of an acoustic guitar is first to be in an acoustic, silent room. If you have to take sounds with external microphones, it would be nice if there were as little noise as possible.
And there are acoustic guitars that can be connected via their jack and you can sometimes take 4 tracks on a guitar.
On this Kharifa album, my main guitar was taken by 4 microphones. That is, by the cable connected to the microphones inside the guitar… The Godin is a multiac guitar with 1 microphone on each string and it looks good in terms of volume, there is the general volume, treble, medium, bass. And each cursor is precise enough to give you what you need.
The Godin guitar is not hollow. The sound engineer first put the jack, then Neumann microphones, one towards the neck (Sure SM81), one near the rosette area (U87-100) and one behind the rosette area (AKG 414). He mixed all these sounds and it gave the result you hear.
I also have a guitar that has 2 mics with its junction box and on this box, you can take the 2 microphones together or connect them separately plus 3 external microphones. So that makes 5 tracks.
What advice would you give to beginners who are anxious?
The advice I would give to a young Malian guitarist is to diversify his playing, to go towards other sounds, other styles of music, to learn classical guitar and then to return to his local music because we are a colonized country and the guitar is an instrument of the colonizer.
In Mali there are many string instruments and many virtuosos of the n’goni, the cora, the kamale n’goni and other traditional instruments, some of which you know well, such as Toumani Diabaté on cora, Bassekou Diabate on n’goni, there is also the balafon… with the guitar, there are young people I watch playing and it seems as if they were born with the guitar in their hands, with dexterity for the repertoire of Mali’s soil. They only have to learn, in parallel with other things, chords, to know the names of the note on the neck.
You also have to have intimacy with your instrument by playing, by trying another music that is not from your culture and this allows you to enter into other sensibilities and at least change the fingering. All this to enrich your own repertoire. So my advice is to be curious, to enrich your own music on your instrument, in privacy and then you can go out with it and people will appreciate it.
If you could gather any additional musicians, or bands, to collaborate with, whom would that be?
During my career of the last 25 years, I have already had projects of meetings with different artists, concert projects. As explained before, I played concerts with the South African Vusi Mahalasela and the Ivorian Dobet Gnahoré, another with Oliver Mtukudzi who unfortunately left us a short while ago and Afel Bocoum.
I did a project with Bonnie Raitt, an American artist from California. She invited me to play on 2 songs from an album.
After that, it was quite an album with Eric Bibb, US bluesman from New York. He is part of the young generation of bluesmen who play the guitar and sing with a very beautiful voice.
Beyond that, I met Jackson Brown more recently. We knew him in Africa with his album Hold Out. Jackson was very surprised to learn that in Mali, the younger generation of 18-20 year olds listened to his album in the 1980s while drinking tea. He couldn’t have suspected that… The years went by and I had the chance to meet him during a tour in California. He came to one of my concerts and asked to meet me in my dressing room afterwards. I said no, “I’m the one who’s going to see him” and we all ran from the dressing room to meet him. We talked, we spent a moment in the dressing rooms. It was a magical moment. And since then, I have kept in touch with him. And recently, this APJ (Art for Peace & Justice) project was launched in which it brings together Haitian, American, Spanish musicians from Andalusia and Mali.
We made an album together and this album is being released. It’s a mixture of a lot of music.
Currently, for my album Kharifa, I have not invited only one artist. I wanted voices from young girls between 16 and 18 years old. I invited 3 girls, I discovered them in a TV show of young talents. I had also met them in a UNICEF project with a performance of John Lennon’s song “Imagine” with this 3 girls. I recorded a very beautiful African version.
All this gave me the opportunity to approach different artists, different worlds. On this album, I brought these girls for the 3 or 4 song choirs and it really rejuvenated the songs. They have brilliant girl voices. There are also the voices of my nephew M’bouille Koite (RFI 2018 Award) and Amy Sacko.
I also invited a talented young flutist who plays the Peuhl flute from Guinea. It’s beautiful. You can also hear it on several songs.
There is also the guitarist Sekou Bembeya from Guinea Conakry, from Bembeya Jazz in the 70s and 80s. I invited him to come to Bamako, he played the Hawaiian guitar and also with an acoustic guitar on 2 songs.
There is a song on which Toumani Diabaté plays kora.
I also invited Bassekou, the n’goni player who played on 2 songs and without forgetting, the musicians of Benin, a brass group, trumpeters on the song Djiguya.
There is also my son, Cheick Tidiane Koité, who lives in Brussels. He gave me an Ivazi song, he made all the music and I just added a little bit of choir and a bit of guitar.
It is an album that has really been enriched and diversified with the invitations of artists, instrumentalists
And of course there are the musicians in my band who participated in this album.
Among the musicians of the Bamada, there is Charles Auguste Coulibaly who recorded all the songs with me. He is one of my musicians and he is a sound engineer at the same time and therefore recorded and mixed the whole album. These are the artists I invited to my album.
Aside from the tour, do you have any additional upcoming projects to share with us?
Currently, I’m quite busy preparing the tour for the release of my new album: rehearsals, assimilating the songs made in the studio. But we’re mostly a live band, so I listen to the rehearsals to see if the songs come out right. And then I write too because there are a lot of new songs. I’m not at the top of my memory, the age is there, the water has flowed under the bridges, I still need some texts of some songs before my eyes.
Peeters started out life in Afferden, Limburg, a small town in the Netherlands
of about 2000 people. As a child, she
never imagined becoming a professional musician. She first learnt wooden flute then moved onto
silver flute. She taught herself the
ngoni, an African stringed instrument.
Later, she worked to master the kora, a multi-stringed African instrument.
Dymphi has performed with several groups, including the Ecstatic Dance Band and Mehmet Polat’s Trio. Mehmet describes her as, “a talented and open minded musician.”
On her recent album, “Gaia” she steps out more on her own. This CD is a collaboration with Andre Schoorlemmer. He plays guitar, bass guitar, and also engineers. Dymphi’s songs invent a new world: her powerful voice soars over electronica with the steady pulse of the kora. Dymphi describes her music as, “inner world music with a meditative atmosphere.” She has a hippy spirit and sunny demeanor. Yet do not be misled by her gentleness. Her music mesmerizes.
DJL: Were your parents musical? What was your early musical experience?
parents were somewhat musical. My mother
was a schoolteacher. She played the
flute and later learned the djembe in her fifties. My father played guitar. They always supported my desire to learn to
play music. When I was younger, I
performed flute in a small folk music group.
We toured small villages in the Netherlands and abroad in countries like
Slovenia and, Croatia. As a teenager, I loved rock music, the Cranberries Alannis
Morrisette and the musical Hair.
DJL: What is your musical background?
DP: I spent one year learning classical flute at a
conservatory. I played for several years
with folk bands, learning Balkan and other folk music, and with a flamenco
band. Once, in a music lesson, there was a woman whose African boyfriend had
died. She had his ngoni. I felt drawn to
this instrument. It then took me a year
to find my own ngoni to play.
I always had a deep longing to sing. I met Dobrinka Yankova, who is a Bulgarian
opera singer, and took singing lessons from her. She said I had talent. Later, I learned about
freeing the voice in a creative way through voice healing from Marius
DJL: What is voice healing?
DP: It helps
people sing with the different parts of their body as a way of healing. I now
teach it. They are welcome to sing their
pain and their stories. They may connect
with the core of the earth or with their ancestors.
DJL: Why do you choose to help others through voice healing?
DP: Voice healing has allowed me to heal myself
and to follow my dreams. I used to work
as an educational designer, then became a professional musician. Through work
in voice healing, I want people to connect more to their intuition and to all
the support which surrounds them. I want them to be their free authentic selves
and to stand in their power, in a balance between the divine masculine and
feminine energies. I encourage them to create from their inner qualities.
DJL: You have also described the birth of your daughter as being a part of your musical transformation.
DP: I quit my
job to take care of my daughter. I
always carried her close to me in a baby sling . It was because of her birth that I was guided
back to the heart and to love. As a
result of her birth and my longing for music, I started to host concerts in the
Netherlands, where ten musicians would come together and play intuitively.
These concerts were a true adventure in music. Playing intuitively was freeing
for me. When I was in Amsterdam to give an intuitive concert with a friend, I
first heard Mehmet Polat. Hey played after us.
DJL: What was it like hearing Mehmet play?
DP: When I
heard Mehmet play oud for the first time, I immediately connected with his
music. It felt like home. I even felt a bit sad that I was not playing this
kind of music. It touched something deep in me.
Luckily we connected afterwards. He asked me, “Do
you play the kora?” And I said, “No, I
play the ngoni.” Mehmet said, “There’s an album I want to create. I have a
particular sound in mind. Can you learn
to play the kora in six months? I know
you have inside you what I need for my trio.”
Mehmet saw a musical quality in me that I did not know existed. I’m very grateful for his courage to give me an opportunity to play with him. When I’m on stage, I always feel supported by a bigger field of love. I feel connected to his music. I love the music we create from the heart.
DJL: What was it like to learn the kora?
DP: When Mehmet talked to me about learning the
kora, I had to learn it very fast. It was March and in October we would tour
Mexico, Austria, Germany and The Netherlands. He was planning to do a CD. When he asked me to learn, I had to sleep on
the decision overnight, and then I said “yes.”
I felt it was a life-changing opportunity. And so it was!
At times when
I was learning the kora, I would say to myself, “What am I doing?” At first, I was terrible and nervous. Then I
would continue to practice and say to myself, “You can do this.” It was hard, but I had spent a year studying
opera, and that experience made me realize I could do it. You can learn so fast
if you invest time, and only practice from a place of love for the instrument
and for the music.
I learned to play the kora from Mehmet’s sheet music compositions. I watched some Youtube videos and listened to kora music. I taught myself and also took a couple of lessons with Zoumana Diarra. Zoumana was the former kora player in Mehmet’s trio before I joined. I play on a kora built by him. My kora has 24 strings instead of the normal 21. It also has tuning clips so that I can play in different tonalities.
DJL: The kora plays a central role in your new album. Is “Gaia” the first CD that you have initiated?
DP: Yes, “Gaia” is the first serious CD I have
created with Andre Schoorlemmer. I did
not want to make beautiful music alone. I wanted to create something from a
deep place. The album feels very true to me.
I could not have completed it without Andre’s help.
DJL: Who is Andre Schoorlemmer?
DP: I have known Andre for years. He is a dear friend. I played with him in flamenco concerts and in the intuitive dream concerts I organized. Andre is a brilliant musician. He owns a recording studio. He also creates film music. In 2017, I was asked by DJ Esta Polyesta from the Ecstatic Dance scene to record some kora and vocals so she could create a dance track from them. I recorded these in Andre’s studio. He started playing with the recordings afterwards just for fun, and created a track called Trance Dance that is also on the latest CD. When I listened to this track, it made me so happy. Then we decided to make a CD together. The creative process was fun and easy. I so loved Andre’s input and ideas. He challenged me every time. The result of our creative process is “Gaia!”
DJL: Why “Gaia”?
DP: I chose “Gaia” as the name, because I feel the
feminine power of being rooted in and connected to the earth. The kora has an
earthy quality. It is like a pumpkin. One story goes that the instrument was
invented by a woman.
DJL: Your voice is powerful. On the title track, “Gaia,” there is the regular pulse of the kora, your vocal is percussive at times, sounding as the steady tick-tock of a clock, and at times has a deep, grounded vocal. Can you talk about this song?
DP: In the song, I want us to remember our nature—that we are part of the earth. Gaia is in us all. The song is also about sisterhood, about supporting and loving each other. It is about being natural, authentic, deep, and intuitive.
DJL: Speaking of sisterhood, there are tracks on the album that address different aspects of being a woman: “Woman Goddess,” and “Sirens of the Ocean.” Sirens is a gentle, easy song with a lullaby feel. Your fingers carefully caress the ngoni as you sing alongside it. You create a soft breeze. You call the listener in.
DP: Yes, that’s true. I want women to come out from the shadows and stand in the light. And with “Sirens of the Ocean,” I love water and swimming. It energizes me. We are 85% water. Sound makes the water vibrate. Water has an old wisdom. It is older than we are.
DJL: Your singing is this album’s highlight. Has your voice become stronger over the years?
DP: When I was young, I was scared to use my voice. I talked very
softly. My voice became much stronger once I practiced voice healing and took
classical singing lessons. Voice healing is like a cleansing of energy. I
worked through the energy blockages in my body over the years. That’s how I
could get more conscious of my body, and how my voice got stronger.
DJL: Are there female singers that have inspired you?
DP: I was always drawn to female voices. I’m inspired by Dobet Gnahore from Côte d’Ivoire. Her music has a homecoming feeling in it for me. I enjoy Ane Brun from Norway and Gjallarhorn who are a Finnish folk band. I love Loreena Mckennitt‘s music and Nynke Laverman, who performs Dutch fado.
My main theme
in life is to dare to take my own space, to be my authentic self, and to stand
in my power. The more you are present in your body, the more you can sing from
your body—the freer your voice gets. My
voice is a metaphor for all the aspects of my life. The more I liberate my
voice, the more free and powerful I can become in my life.
a hidden place, she unfurls her long wings, spreads them wide and sings. She
soars as the kora accompanies her. Now
sure of herself, she flies.
One day, I stumbled across Karim Dabo’s music online and I was transfixed. His vocals are soft and sensitive.
Even though you may not understand the lyrics as he sings in Wolof (a West African language), as a listener you are soothed and comforted by their gentleness. The vocals invite you into an atmosphere of peace, even relaxation. Karim is a good percussionist, but it is his singing that holds you in an embrace. In January 2014, his debut album “Sama Yone” came out. The sound is very spare, light, and acoustic with only drums, guitar, bass, kora and percussion accompanying his voice. Yet there is power in the simplicity. It sounds like folk music. Out of curiosity and wanting to learn more, I reached out to Karim for an interview and he responded.
Karim grew up in a household of music. His Senegalese father is a percussionist who loved traditional Senegalese music and the Mande music of West Africa. When asked about his father, he says, “My father’s story is important. When he was young he wanted to play music, but in our culture, it was forbidden to him, because it was not supposed to be part of our family. This was a family that was known for their work in business. Music is a genre reserved for the griots in West Africa. When my dad emigrated to France in his twenties, he played music, but in his head it was forbidden.”
Was music also forbidden to you?
“No, nobody forbid me to play, because I grew up in France, I was not directly confronted with these concerns. When I returned home to Senegal with my music, my family were very open-minded. We started learning percussion as children with the jembe and dundun (Karim has five brothers and one sister). My mother is French; she is a teacher of African dance. Together, we played percussion to accompany her dancing lessons.”
Karim came of age in Annecy, France, a small mountainous town near to Geneva. He said “there is a spirit of peace in the mountains,” but felt it was too quiet to remain there. He was drawn to the possibility of moving to Montreal, Canada. Unexpectedly, he met Mafé, a Haitian-Québécoise singer based in Montreal who was visiting France. They began to make music together, and it was after meeting her that he moved in July 2013 to Montreal.
Yours is an incredible voice, when did you start to sing?
“I always sang when I was young, but only in my room. The kind of singing I am doing on this album, I started three years ago. Before I played a lot of percussion, but then I decided I wanted to try to create my own sound with guitar and singing.”
Why did you want to make your own sound?
“I just wanted to discover the guitar, a new instrument for me. Also, one of my brothers, Sebastian Pintiaux, is a good guitarist and he sings. His music inspired me and he helped me to record and make the arrangements for this album.”
The music on the album is very spare and simple: is that deliberate?
“Yes, I wanted to keep the instrumentals quiet, basic, to give space for the voice.”
Can you tell me about the track Africa? I ask, its cyclical music flows in the back of my head. An upbeat sound, the word Africa is pronounced many times as a chant throughout the song. The gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar, drums and light ripple of percussion accompany the steady vocal.
“I am saying to African people we can make a choice for our development. It is not necessary to take a path in the same direction as Europe and America. We can make our own way. I believe this message is important, because when I go to Dakar, Senegal, I see a paradox in the people. I see a lot of people who want to live the same life as Americans or Europeans, but they are not being authentic to Africa.
This song is about how we can have our own way of life without being influenced by the West. The track was also inspired by the African musician Tiken Jah Fakoly, whose music often communicates directly and strongly with African people. I am saying we can build an authentic Africa, with an African spirit. Africa is beautiful and I think we can do a lot of things in Africa. In this song there is a little bit of revolution because I want to see African people strong and proud.”
Your vocals carry the sound forward, because they are from the heart. Your singing sounds thoughtful. Your voice reminds me a lot of Geoffrey Oryema’s vocals. He has a very calming, steady, almost hypnotic sound. He is from Uganda.
“Yes, I know him. The track Diorme which means give me, is in the same spirit of Geoffrey Oryema. Even if you cannot understand him, you can tell the message is deep. But he is a great singer and I am a bit nervous to be compared to him.”
Yes, his vocals are haunting. They stay with you. But your vocals also have a haunting quality.
“There is a meditative aspect to my music. I want to convey peace. My singing is a reflection of what is going on inside me, a sense of introspection.”
The track Jamm has that spiritual sense in it. Jamm is a gentle, meditative song with a steady rhythm. The same words are repeated, but the repetition is calming, not boring. The sound is restful.
“Yes, Jamm means peace in Wolof. In this song, I am talking about how a sense of peace comes from the sky and inspires me, but how peace may also inspire another person.”
So, is peace important to you?
“I am also a Social Worker, I work with people who are in difficulty. I’ve worked with disabled people and troubled youth. I’ve also learned to understand people by the way they play music. Through this experience I learned peace and self-control.”
Karim has used music in his Social Work practice as a way to connect with others and to enable clients to express emotions or difficulties that they may carry inside.
Because you have to remain calm to do Social Work?
“Yes, and that’s why I decided to create music with a spirit of peace and love for humanity. A lot of people do not understand the vocals because they are in Wolof, but they can feel this calm in the music. And to make a world of peace, we have to do a lot of work inside ourselves. That’s why on this album, I am starting from within. Other people have taught me a lot, I want to offer them peace through music in exchange.”
Scandinavian band Sver will be touring North America this month. The ensemble includes musicians from Norway and Sweden. Sver will be presenting its new album Reverie, a set of musical pieces that combine acoustic Nordic folk, bluegrass influences and powerful beats through the use of a drum set.
Sver’s discography includes Sver (Kvarts, 2007), Fruen (ta:lik, 2010), Snakka San & Sver (Playground Music Scandinavia, 2014), Fryd (Folkhall Records, 2015) and Reverie (Folkhall Records, 2018).
Fiddler Olav Luksengård Mjelva talked to World Music Central about Sver and the upcoming tour.
Sver includes Norwegian and Swedish musicians, how did you all meet?
Leif Ingvar (accordion) and myself grew up in a small mining town in Norway. We started playing together when we were around 15. We had some ideas about getting a guitarist to join us, and that happened around 2005. Then it’s a lot of coincidences, but in short, we met Jens and Anders through the Ole Bull Academy, the music college in Norway, and then Adam, the guitarist, joined us later.
The members of the band live in different cities and countries. How do you coordinate tours, rehearsals and recordings?
We usually decide some dates for rehearsing, say 2-5 days. When it comes to touring, it really doesn’t make a big difference living in different cities. We meet up where we are going to play, anyway.
How has your style evolved throughout the years?
I would say we have gotten a bigger and more “epic” sound throughout the years. In the beginning we were focusing very much on arranging traditional tunes in a folk-rocky way. These past few years we have written more tunes ourselves, which suits the setting better. We also are thinking more about making music for big venues and festivals now.
Your sound combines traditional acoustic instruments with powerful, rock style drums. Do you reach any other audiences beyond the folk music circuit?
I feel that we reach out to all kinds of people. I would describe our music as acoustic folk-rock. There is a lot of energy in the way we play, but many “traditional” folk musicians also seem to find our music entertaining. So I guess — and hope — there is something to like for everyone!
In your recordings you incorporate Scandinavian folk music plus other influences like Celtic music and American bluegrass. Where do you get your inspiration from?
That’s a good question. We all have played so much Scandinavian music, so even if we would try to play an American bluegrass tune, it would probably sound Scandinavian.
This is my favorite of our albums. The arrangements have a big range, from the large, epic tunes to the pounding, bluegrass-y tunes. We also got to work with some great people at Hedgehog Music in Sweden, and I´m very happy with the soundscape of the album.
You will be touring North America in September. What’s the lineup and what material will you be playing?
The lineup is myself on fiddle and hardanger fiddle, Anders Hall on fiddle and viola, Adam Johansson on guitar and Jens Linell on drums. We will mostly play music from our two latest albums, Fryd and Reverie. Hope to see you there!
Sver 2019 Tour Dates:
Sept 5 – Portland, OR – Nordia House Sept 6-8 – Sisters, OR – Sisters Folk Festival Sept 9 – Olympia, WA – Traditions Café Sept 10 – Bellingham, WA – Wild Buffalo Sept 11 – Seattle, WA – Triple Door Sept 13-15 – Montreal, Quebec, Canada – La Grande Rencontre (with Moira Smiley 9/15) Sept 17-18 – Cambridge, MA – Club Passim (SVER and Friends 9/17; with Moira Smiley 9/18) Sept 19 – Glens Falls, NY – The Folklife Center, Crandall Public Library (with Moira Smiley) Sept 20 – New Haven, VT – Epic Little Folk Festival, Tourterelle (with Moira Smiley) Sept 21 – Shelbourne, VT – Shelbourne Farms Harvest Festival (11:00am) Sept 21 – Hamden, CT – Best Video Film and Cultural Center (8:30pm) Sept 22 – Bryn Athyn, PA – (House Concert)
headline photo: Sver live by Anbjørg Myhra Bergwitz
Kaïssa greets me warmly at the door of her New York City apartment. She is a tall, thin, striking beauty with dark penetrating eyes. Born in Cameroon, she left at thirteen for France. As a young woman in Paris, she was first inspired musically by her elder brother. Raymond Doumbè Mouloungo is a bass player and led Miriam Makeba‘s band for several years.
Kaïssa began her musical apprenticeship in Paris, singing backing vocals for some of the greatest musicians to emerge from Africa: including Salif Keita and Manu Dibango. In 1996 she emigrated to New York. Here, she began to sing, songwrite and record independently. I Am So Happy, her second solo CD, was released in July 2011. We met in New York to discuss her life, her music, and this CD.
When you left for France as a young teenager, did you still feel a connection to Cameroon?
“Yes a very strong connection! I have to acknowledge this was quite a trauma. It was quite a change. I moved from a very warm place, filled with people, a huge family. I am the youngest of ten, so you know when you get the love from your mum, it’s not the only woman’s love you get, you will see that when you go to Africa.”
The sense of community in your country, is that what you’re talking about?
“Absolutely, that was what was terribly missing in France.” (Her voice is decisive.) “It was a culture shock. Something I first observed was an older woman, my neighbor’s children did not visit her. This happened in the French, modern, so called ‘civilized society. So, no, Cameroon never left me, because it was in me. Why the move at such a young age? Because my parents were told by a doctor that there was something wrong with my eyes, and they wanted me to get the best treatment available.”
You moved alone?
“I traveled alone, but my three brothers and one sister lived here and were attending Parisian Universities. As a teenager, I used to break my brother’s ears, I want to sing, I want to sing,” (she chuckles), “One day he said, ‘you want to sing, don’t you want to sing? He was a member of ALAFIA band and Angelique Kidjo was one of the singers. She was unable to make the gig that night, that was the beginning.”
Tell me about that time in Paris, your musical life?
“When I moved to France, Africa was very present culturally; it was a rich platform being in Paris in the late seventies and eighties. I sang in Bambara, Arabic, Wolof, Zulu, Duala, and French. You had so many African musicians,” She says enthusiastically.
So living in Paris exposed you to music that you would not have heard had you grown up in Cameroon?
“Exactly, Paris was a very, very rich platform. So that’s when my brother said ‘viens, apprendre’ come, learn, and I had one week to learn the songs in Mina, one of the languages from Benin.” She laughs.
“So the experience in France, it prepared you for the musician you are now, doing backing vocals for all these great artists?
“Absolutely, yes, my experiences in Paris, the diverse tours I did with Salif, Papa were the greatest schools, music and all of that, show business.”
But, before Paris, you said that your father was musical?
“Oh yes, it was how we would occupy ourselves on Saturdays, long meals, ten kids at the table, plus Uncles, Aunts, friends visiting, so, yes, we could all hear him. He could sing, and of course being born in Cameroon, that is one wonderful artistic tapestry. You have music, art, culture every day, every hour.
The particularity of Cameroon is that there are so many different people. It is a country in Africa with over two hundred and fifty languages; so many different languages mean many different rhythms. You go, for example, from the pop Soul Makossa of Manu Dibango with its strong bass to the music of the Bamilike, which is a 6/8 rhythm. We grew up listening to that diversity every day and I am really feeling blessed I was born there.”
I am So Happy captures just the musical diversity that Kaïssa describes. It ranges effortlessly from soul to jazz to slow ballads. Each track is unique, yet the tracks work easily together. Kaïssa’s vocals strengths are twofold: she sings from the heart and has great vocal versatility. The first track on the CD, “Baka”, successfully highlights her technique. Here her voice becomes fun, playful, percussive, mimicking a drum. The rhythms interweave with repetitive breathing on this song, reflecting the traditional sounds of the Baka forest people.
Talk to me about the song “Baka.
“Growing up I saw some kids making fun of the Baka and them being disregarded. Why should that continue today in a world where they should be protected, where the natural habitat should be restored? They are known as pygmies, but I don’t like that word because it is condescending. Growing up, kids would call them monkeys, and yet these are the original people of Africa. How can we go forward if we ignore everything from the past and treat them as if they are animals? And let me tell you their music is beautiful and they have a profound understanding of herbs, life and more.”
Indeed, a concern for humanitarian issues weaves its way throughout this CD. Kaïssa speaks to justice in her music, “One lady said ‘you should not sing about female genital mutilation on “Fanta.” You’re going to alienate a lot of people, and you’re not going to be understood. They might not play the CD.’ But I had to do it. This song “Fanta” is very personal to me even though I was not a victim of genital mutilation, this problem concerns us all. I first heard about this practice as many people did in France in the early eighties. This Malian child was about three and she died as a result of mutilation. It was all over the news, and I think legislators in France were forced to take action to try to prevent it from happening again. I remember crying, and asking my brothers. I was fourteen, and I could not believe it! I said, ‘Her own parents took her, explain to me why do they do that?’ I swore that one day I would write and maybe sing about it. I wrote the lyrics about four years later, exactly as they are.”
“Fanta,” is an earnest and introspective song. It is simple, yet full of feeling with the spare, gentle accompaniment of guitar and kora. Kaïssa sings, “Babo ba nongui oa owone, the lyrics say:
They took you away, thinking they knew only the best that is good for you. They never looked into your eyes, because they would have seen you are such a precious, little being.
Kaïssa said, “I wrote it and then I met Idan Raichel about five years ago and he said, “Oh I have a melody,’ so we worked on it and then I re-recorded it a couple of months ago for the album. So you know this CD has really been a long work in the making.”
Tell me about the inspiration of your father – the fact that he got arrested in Cameroon. You have said this was a pivotal moment in your life. Did he influence you in terms of your commitment to justice?
“My Dad was Secretary of Culture in the first Cameroonian government in the early 1960’s. He was arrested in 1973 for writing “subversive” literature.
To me he was a visionary, more than a politician, I don’t think he should have touched politics, because he had to speak his mind and criticized the government. They used the pretext of the book he’d written to say he said bad things about the government. His thoughts about life, justice, liberty, left a serious imprint on me. After he got arrested, we went as a family to visit him in prison. They had taken his shoelaces away.
I remember asking my mother why they did that. Then closing, locking the door and it was so dark in that prison cell. After that, they never took me back. I came to realize he was jailed on no grounds, no court, no trial, nothing! You see one of the most important people in your life being taken away, and it’s an image that will never leave me until my last breath. So, yes, I sing about things that matter to me, that I believe are important.”
Tell me about working with Salif Keita, one of the best known singers from West Africa? What was that like? (Keita’s inspiration can be felt on her version of “Mandjou,” a song previously recorded by him)
“I love Salif, I love Mandinka music, it moves me, I always liked it. Working with Salif was an honor, an unbelievable great school.”
You don’t like to be in one box, in one genre of, for example, rhythm and blues, Salif symbolizes West Africa. You like your music to be diverse.
“No I don’t! It is too restrictive. My music is diverse firstly because of the great diversity we have in Cameroon. Between my first solo CD and this one, the woman who inspired me the most musically, Miriam Makeba, who I called Mazi passed away. I recorded “Ntylo Ntylo” as tribute to her. She came to one of my first gigs with my mum and my brother.” (Kaïssa smiles fondly), “And when my brother confirmed that she would be there my throat went bloop, (gasp) because I had never sung in front of her before, and she gave me a standing ovation. That was a wonderful gift. That is something I will never forget.”
And finally, tell me about the title track, “I am So Happy.” This is truly an upbeat song.” (The sound is light, fast, somewhat funky, pop in feel).
“When our oldest brother Eyoum passed in 2001, my sister Mamadé sent me a beautiful poem saying: ‘I’m not dead, I just went to the other side, keep on talking to me as you used to.’ I don’t remember who wrote those words, but they strongly helped me go through the process of grief. When Mamadé passed 5 years ago that poem she had handwritten helped me to go through the terrible pain of losing a loved one.”
It gave you comfort.
“Yes, it gave me a lot of comfort, because those words are so true. You lose someone, but at the end of the day, they are still somehow in you. And then you realize that love does not end. And that’s why I sing, “I am So Happy” because love never ends.”
What would you want a listener to take away from this CD?
“It’s really for people to get what they want; I’m not here to educate or to indoctrinate. When people come to Zinc bar, for example, and tell me: ‘Oh, I walked in and I was so sad and disappointed by life and now I’m leaving and I am uplifted‘. (She laughs.) “Oh boy, that feels good, I know that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. Music can be a powerful tool. It has helped me deal with my own demons. And when people tell me they feel better, I feel great, because that’s what I want my music to do, to relax, for people to have fun, to think, for listeners to take whatever they want to take from it. I am putting out there things that are important to me, that make me smile, that shock me, and that I think should get more attention. Finally, I want to stay true to myself, to my music and what I want to present. I want to put people in a place of joy.”