Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with Paco de Lucía

Paco de Lucía
Paco de Lucía

1. After several years living in Mexico, why have you decided to come back to Spain and settle in Toledo?

I decided to come to Toledo for several reasons. One of them is that it is close to Madrid, without the traffic jams of the capital. There is no stress here. Toledo is a town that takes you back in time. You go out for a walk through the streets and you come back home with a beautiful feeling of peacefulness, of living in a different time.

You remember about the Jews, the Arabs, the Visigoths, the Carthaginians, the Romans. All the people that once lived there…you can feel them everywhere in town. Thank God the construction companies [developers] didn’t pull down these places. Here I find the quietness that I need for working, composing, and getting inspired. I have always liked everything related to the Arab and Jewish worlds. I think that many of the people who lived here made a significant contribution to our culture- to the music of our country, for instance.

Paco de Lucia - Cositas Buenas
Paco de Lucia – Cositas Buenas

I found some Sephardic scores and there I noticed the great influence that this music has in Flamenco. I used to think that Flamenco was more influenced by the Arab culture, but I am pretty sure now that it is more linked to the Sephardic music made at Toledo at that time.

2. After five years of silence, what can you tell us about this new album called “Cositas Buenas” [Good things] and about your re-encounter with Camarón de la Isla and the cante [Flamenco song]?

Apparently this is just another album, but I always try and I have made my best this time to make it thealbum, as well as the album that finally satisfies me. I always search my personal satisfaction and not only try to satisfy those who buy my music. I have been isolated. I shut myself away for two years, trying to fix some gaps. I think that you evolve when you refill your gaps, when you overcome all those things that you consider as failures, things that you should not repeat. I have tried to be, as always, more and more flamenco and, at the same time, to go forward in terms of harmony and rhythmic composition. I have introduced voices, choruses, cantes… because I somehow miss the music that I used to make in the company of Camarón.

I have always thought that the guitar, playing as a soloist, was a little boring. What I would have really loved to do, and I have said this many times, would have been to sing. I would give everything I know as a guitar player for having been half of what Camarón was, who, by the way, is in this album. I have rescued some of the master copies of our old recordings.

There were takes that were not useful at the time and that’s when you couldn’t do what you do today with digital copies, with ProTools! I have rescued some lyrics that were not useful and we had discarded. So it was a delicate and complicated job, but I have been able to rescue a Camarón that seems so alive in this album.

3. Collaborators:

There are several people singing in the album, such as a girl from Seville called La Tana, Montse Cortés, Diego El Cigala, Guadiana, El Potito, la Angela… There are very good professionals in this album. I think that it is worth buying. Come, come! Go to the stores and buy it!

4. One of the jewels in this album is the buleria called “Que venga el alba”, where you rescue Camarón de la Isla and you play together with Tomatito. How did you feel while recording this song?

The fact of having Camarón in the album is a blessing to me both at an artistic level and at an emotional one. To have him in the album is to go back to that past that I miss so much and that I long for. And El Tomate [Tomatito] could not be left out. He was a part of that past. We had a good time and we cried when listening to Camarón. It was like going back in time. After finishing the song, we listened to it and tears started to fall from our eyes. It was as if Camarón was
there, as if he had just gone to the bar for a cup of coffee.

Tomatito is a great guitar player, a great flamenco and a good aficionado of the guitar, which is a basic quality to any musician.

Musicians and cantaores [Flamenco singers] came to the studio to listen to what I was working on and one day came Dieguito El Cigala and asked me: “Paco! What am I going to sing in the album?” And I said: “I don’t know, Diego, let’s see what we have here”. And I found some tientos, some lyrics that I had made and that I had sung as a reference. He sang them beautifully. Diego was fantastic… beautiful lyrics.

Potito also stepped by, but he only had time to make a chorus. I would have loved to have him singing some lyrics solo but he was in a rush to get to Seville and we didn’t have time…but he won’t escape next time!

El Piraña plays very well. He is 20-21 years old and he has such rhythm and tempo, and such a balance when he plays that it seems as though he was an old veteran player. I am taking him to the USA as well as the bass-player called Alain Perez, who is Cuban and plays really well. These two boys are very young.

EI Negri, from La Barbería, is also coming, as well as La Tana, who is a cantaora from Seville who sings very well. She also performs in the album; so does her mother, Herminia, who also sings beautifully. And I am now looking for an Indian violinist. I came up with this idea at the last minute and I don’t know if I am going to be able to find one in time! That’s what I am working on right now.

5. Let’s talk about your collaboration with your friend Alejandro Sanz in the rumba called “Casa Bernardo”.

Yes, Alejandro is also in the album, but he couldn’t sing. The day he came to the studio he was hoarse because he had such a cold he couldn’t even talk. There was a Cuban “tres” in the studio, which is like a little guitar and he started playing it over a theme, a rumba, and he came up with some very pretty sounds. I would have liked him to have improvised as we went along because it would have been an original and new idea and he is able to improvise because as a musician, he has enough knowledge to do that. He is not a singer that learns his songs by heart and then repeats them parrot-fashion. Alejandro has the ability to improvise. He came and played his part in the album. It is like a little souvenir. What I wanted was for him to be there. So I have a souvenir of him.

6. Where have you composed this album?

I went to a very quiet place in the Yucatan, in Mexico where I have spent the last four years of my life. The house is in the middle of the rainforest where the weather is perfect. There is nobody there. You see a tourist every two days or so on the beach. The place is packed with flowers, birds… All the noise that you can hear is that made by the birds. Holy noise! I am allergic to big cities, cars, telephones, engagements and I thought that this was the perfect place to get into the well and search for something I hadn’t said before, musically speaking, I mean. So I spent two years there, working for eight or ten hours every day, trying to find something that you don’t find anymore in places where you are stressed out. Basically, it was about being in a quiet place. “Puja”, that’s the name of the little village. There I was with my guitar and the computer. It’s the first time I compose with the help of a computer. It is convenient when it comes to editing and changing parts without having to touch and repeat them, as I was used to do because I always worked with one of those little tape recorders or cassette players.

7. What is your relationship like with Universal Music, your record company?

The record company treats me well since I was a kid. They already know how it goes with me and they respect my time. They know that I cannot publish an album every year, as a singer might do, who is presented with twenty songs, picks up ten, so you can make a record every month. They know that I need the time to go by, that things have to happen to me, that I have to experience new feelings, so that the next time I get into a studio to record an album I have something to say, so that there is something new to say. And they have never really rushed me. They have always allowed me enough freedom in this respect. I have never felt pressured by record companies. They have always respected me in that sense. Not only now that I am consecrated as an artist and I enjoy certain prestige; this happens since I was a kid. I always imposed that condition. I told them that I couldn’t work with deadlines in order to make an album. In that respect, I have always felt very calm and completely free.

8. Who are your albums for?

When I start recording an album I never think about the commercial aspect of it, about an album that everyone is going to like because that is when you fall. When I start composing, what I want is to like myself. I try to be loyal to what I feel, and what I feel, since it is very specialized and very detailed, well, I imagine that it only touches the specialized people. I am very clear on that. I am who I am thanks to the four or ten persons that have done their best to tell everyone that I am a good player and maybe the rest of the people don’t specially dislike my music but maybe they do not get to understand what I do, as opposed to those ten persons, to say a number, who are the ones who really understand what I do. Suddenly, we might come up with something that touches more people, but I never do it with a business-like mentality. I am always loyal to what I feel and what I am.

9. Has flamenco music gone from marginal music to worldwide music?

Flamenco music was always very mistreated, always…Specially in our country [Spain].
Because, as it happens in many other places, indigenous music is not respected, it is not given enough consideration. Flamenco music was always said to be the music of the gypsies, of drunken people, of the Andalusian people, of people that for the mentality of the rich, the Grandes Señores [Lords], not of the Señores[gentlemen], was not fancy or distinguished.

Whatever comes from abroad always tends to be more appealing. I don’t think that Flamenco music is better understood right now than it was before. Maybe it is true that the minority who understands it has increased and, of course, the flamenco artist is given a better treatment. I remember my father who earned his life playing at nights for the señoritos [term to designate the rich stratum in Andalusian society], for the drunkards that suddenly felt like having a party and they went to a joint that was in my town, in Algeciras [Cadiz province], to a cabaret where there was a backroom where the four or ten flamencos [flamenco performers] that there were in town played and when some drunkard came and wanted to have fun, he would call the flamencos. That was the highest thing any flamenco musician could aspire to: to be hired by one of these people, that he got drunk with his whores and felt like having a party. My father would come back home with the 100 or 500 Spanish Pesetas [less than 1 / 3 euros, respectively] that the señorito had tipped him and we would have breakfast with that. It is not like that anymore, although there are still people who keep on earning a living playing at that kind of parties. But Flamenco music is now played in theaters, we make international tours, we give concerts in important theaters all around the world, it is much better seen socially as well as musically.

Music is being spread through the TV, the radio, the records, all the media, so it has reached the whole world and there has been a general acknowledgement all around the world, in all the countries where there are sensitive people and people who like music, people who are savvy in this matters, that recognize the values of Flamenco music.

10. Tell us about the growing interest in you and flamenco music in Japan.

I have been going to Japan since I was 16 or 17 years old, where theaters are always packed and very important ones… classical music theaters. For many years, Japan has considered Flamenco as a music that is of universal interest, as it actually is. I also consider that it is one of the most important types of music there are in the world. There are five o six kinds of music in the world that I consider interesting. Those are jazz music, classical music, Brazilian music, Cuban music, African music and Flamenco. Flamenco is one of these kinds of music and I don’t say it because it is the one that I live on, but because it is true.

That’s it. And yes, it has been highly considered in Japan for many years now, as it was in the United States and now, thank God, is also regarded as such throughout Europe and I would say that in the rest of the world, too. For instance, I play in countries and cities where no Flamenco musician had ever been before, not even I, and I find myself in theaters filled with people who are crazy about the music and then, when you finish your performance, there are hundreds of people at the doors with Flamenco albums in their hands… with my albums also, asking me to sign them. And I am talking about places like Taiwan or Singapore… places you would have never imagined.

Interview courtesy of Verve/Universal Music. The interview was made in Toledo (Spain) December 14, 2003 by Manolo Nieto. English translation edited by World Music Central.

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Talking to Mpambara

He keeps on his black winter jacket, zipped chin-high, throughout the interview.
Even after 24 years of living in Minnesota, he still likes to wrap himself up in
the remembered heat of his native Uganda, where he lived in Mbarara, bordering
Tanzania and Rwanda. Mpambara, a jazzman, also likes to wrap his American based
music with the flavor of African rhythms and instruments, and the engaging
melodies and rich variety of languages of his homeland.

Arriving in Platteville, Wisconsin in 1978, MP attended the University of
Wisconsin, pursuing a degree in mineral engineering. “[The move was]
challenging in that I had to make adjustments that I had not anticipated. Of
course there was the initial and unavoidable culture shock. Things were done
differently, from driving on the right, people actually did not drink tea,
weddings without dowry–I could go on forever. In all though, the freedom that
prevails here made all those differences not so important. Because, after all,
freedom means you can adopt or ignore anything
.”About this time, MP decided to pursue his dream of being a musician and played with the band, Sweet Taste Of Africa. After performing for a couple of years, he joined Shangoya, also as a bass player. MP contributed to the recording of their album, Red Pants Jam.

He met and married his wife, Dr. Blanche Mpambara, in 1982. “After having
a new baby, I really determined I could not travel as much anymore, with the
added responsibilities of fatherhood, I decided instead to study music at the
University of Minnesota
.” Twenty years later, their son, Kaita, sits in on
my interview with MP, inserting praise and accolades whenever MP falls silent
about his many accomplishments.

MP dips his fingers into a variety of concoctions, turning out an eclectic
mishmash of musical products. In addition to playing with a variety of bands,
Mpambara composed the music for two aerobic videos produced by Maria Nhambu Bergh, an aerobics guru, originally from Tanzania. He also composed the tunes used in an advertisement jingle for a major local grocery chain.

For six years, MP was involved as a bass player for Sounds of Hope. This last venture
brings children from developing countries together to form a single choir and
perform throughout Minnesota. “We sometimes had to learn and perform music
from all over the world, depending on how many countries were represented

says MP. Though creative differences compelled MP to move on, “I will always
maintain it was a great experience,
” he says.

MP also had the opportunity to work and tour with Kanda Bongo Man, an
international music icon. Bongo Man is originally from Congo, now living in
England.

MP’s sole CD, Hail To The Chief, (BINA, 1996), features ten songs
either written or co-written by MP. With titles such as Ngali, and Nawuliranga
and Elongi Ya Fifi, the essence of the album is rooted in traditional folk music
indigenous to Uganda and surrounding countries. Songs are sung in Kinyankole,
MP’s first language, as well as Lingala and Swahili. Some of the instruments
used are native to Africa, others are more universal, such as guitar, flute,
keyboard, and MP’s instrument of choice, his Fender bass. The title song, Hail
To The Chief, includes a spoken word refrain in English, with a definite hip hop
influence reflected in the call and response and pounding drive throughout.

This coming summer, MP will travel to Zanzibar to once again participate in a
music festival. Usually held the first week in July, this recently launched
event includes traditional music such as taraab and ngoma. The music of the
countries Africa, Arabia, and Asia are also included. “Zanzibar has an annual
cultural festival that celebrates music from the Island and also other types of
music. I am hoping it will happen this summer, but again, until I actually sign
a contract, it is in the making,
” MP told me. At this festival, MP plans to
release his next CD, Errade.

By Susan Budig, originally written for Mshale,
the African Community Newspaper

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Dialogue with Ibrahim Ferrer

Ibrahim Ferrer
Ibrahim Ferrer
(Prensa Latina – Cumbancha – Musicalísima) – “I was born in Santiago de Cuba (1927). I liked the tango very much. I was a kid when Alberto Gómez came once to Havana. He performed on a radio program
and sang ‘En un beso la vida’ I remember that. I like to sing the tango because I watched a lot of films by Libertad Lamarque, Jorge Negrete, they were very popular in Santiago. When I started as a professional it was the “son.” I have always sung the “son”, because I was born in a ball, in the first place, and later there were balls in my house. My grandfather was the president of two
societies in Santiago, one was called Club Aponte, where I was almost born, and the other one was El Cocuyé, which still exists. I was raised in music.

We played the rumba at the corner of my street when I was a child, which is why I was devoted to the “son”. I used to sing tangos and boleros, but when I started, when I performed with three or four groups, I sang the “son”. The first (group) was Los Jóvenes del Son. A cousin of mine told me: I am going to make you a musician. He signed a contract to play on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1941. We earned 1.50 (pesos) and got drunk, because we believed we had won the world.

In late 1952, I began performing with Pacho Alonso. With Chepín in 1956 I recorded ‘El platanal de
Bartolo’, which sort of made me famous. Always singing dance music, they never let me sing boleros. I loved to sing boleros. In 1957 I came to Havana and in 1958 I worked with Benny Moré at the Ali Bar. I began working with them through an agreement, because there was not much work and I had a family. Chepín was the orchestra that worked most, he needed me and I was transferred.

When I came to Havana I lived in dire straits until I began working with Benny. When the Revolution triumphed in 1959, Pacho regrouped his orchestra again and I began singing with him until late 1967. I did the falsetto. I did the first or the second voice or the falsetto. Carlos Kerol did most second voices with Pacho, and I sang a lot with him, we were a duet. Pacho’s was the first group with
which I traveled abroad, in 1962. We participated in the L’Humanité Festival, in Paris; afterwards we went to Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Then Pacho left the group, we were so heartbroken. I stayed with Los Bocucos as the main vocalist, but they never let me sing boleros. I recorded only one bolero with them, and we had so many records. They did not give me credit either, but my numbers were hits. I got tired and retired in 1991.

In 1993, I was at home shining a pair of white shoes and Juan de Marcos came by with Roberto Correa, who had been my director. They asked me if I wanted to make a recording and I told them that I was tired. And he tells me, ‘Don’t do that to me. I came here looking for you because you are the only person that can get me out of trouble. His project consisted of a recording with several singers. He
had already recorded with Pío Leyva, Puntillita, Tito Gómez, Planas and he needed another one, and he was told, ‘Get Ibrahim, he used to sing with Los Bocucos’. We went straight to the studio and there I found Rubén González, Eliades Ochoa, and Compay Segundo, who I met for the first time, because
although we both were from Santiago, I did not know him.

Puntillita was there. He began humming a song entitled ‘Candela’, composed by Faustino Oramas, and I began singing and playing. Ry Cooder and Nick Gold were in the cabin. I had neither met them or knew who they were. Ry Cooder clicked; it seems the cabin was open. He listened to me and liked what he heard. He called me and told me that if I wanted to record that song, and I said yes. I had gone there with Juan de Marcos to record a song entitled ‘María Caracoles’ with Afrocuba. Well, I said yes to Ry Cooder and I recorded the song. From then on I was enthusiastic.

Rubén, who was very restless at the piano, began playing and I did the same. I get emotional when I saw the piano. I sang Dos Gardenias para ti… and go on. I began singing ‘Dos gardenias’ (by Isolina Carrillo) and Ry Cooder recorded it. It was that way that I joined, without being in the project, because I was not part of the Buenavista (Social Club) project. I recorded four songs. Afterwards,
came the tours, the Grammy. I did not know what the Grammy was, and I was told it is an award. I liked it a lot. I am still here, singing, and I will continue to sing as long as I have strength
.”

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Skyhigh Family connection to Somalia

Many consider youth a time spent forging new paths and in the process,
rejecting old ways, frequently turning a deaf ear to one’s elders. The rappers
of hip hop band Skyhigh Family,  have fashioned lives distinctly different from their parents. The three rappers and their manager all came over with their families, traversing the ocean in an effort to escape war-torn Somalia. But rather than dismissing the stories of their ancestors, Skyhigh Family has taken the very contemporary culture of hip hop and fused it with the Somali tales of old, producing music unlike that of many of today’s rappers.

Medman casually says the band is “bigger than us three rappers. We’re a bunch of friends who always get together for special occasions. It’s not only about music.” But more than just a bunch of friends, Medman, along with his brother, Alian and their third band mate, Kashulty, under the management of Jamal Hashi, have toured parts of the United States as well as produced an intriguing CD that does not espouse typical gangsta rapping, but instead seeks to enlighten others about the Somali culture. “We use music as a way to communicate to other people in the world, not only Somalis, though, because we are trying to share our background and our views and our thoughts with everybody who is willing to listen to us” says Medman. “When they listen to us, they are going to get a feeling or idea of how Somali people are.”

While all of the Somali women I know wear traditional clothing, including a headpiece, these Somali men look as American as any other. But when they speak, the pride and love of their homeland comes through, leaving no doubt that they continue to identify with their own ethnic heritage. Hip hop culture is a lifestyle which evolved in the early 1970s, nearly a decade before the members of Skyhigh Family were born. From its start in New York City, hip hop migrated to other parts of the United States as well as abroad. It’s the music that Skyhigh Family band members grew up hearing. Alian explains to me, “Hip hop is considered more of a culture nowadays. They’ve got turntables, fashion—out of everything, we do the music. Rap is hip hop.” He continues, “Hip hop music has played a major role in Africa. A lot of young kids in Africa all listen to hip hop music. We grew up on it.”

 Medman elaborates on Skyhigh Family’s approach to rap, “we took African music, basically we rap, but at the same time we have that African influence.” Finishing one another’s thoughts, Medman and Jamal explain, “Somali music is different. We use drums and guitar. We have a different kind of melody, sort of like Arabic with some jazz.” Somalia, known as the land of the poet, seems a likely place for hip hop musicians of the Y-generation to originate, as rappers frequently list into vocalizing the lyrics as a rhyming, spoken word rather than singing them. “Our country is known for poetry…and it felt that the best way to get in touch with others is to use poetry. Each one of us writes poetry,” says Alian. Jamal finishes the thought, “…we turn that into music.”

Their debut CD, The Arrival, includes the Somali Anthem Remix, Dheela,
meaning groove, and Dhaqaaji. Alian says, “the title for this (last) song is
Somali and it means ‘move.’ It was taken from an old Somali record and is
connected to our old people. We were influenced by old records and we always
wanted to do a remix of this song
.”

The other thing about the album,” says Jamal, “is we are trying to
tell our stories. The stories of each one of us, how we experience the war-torn
country that’s still going on today, fourteen years…we’re trying to tell them
all the trials we went through
.”

Medman describes how the title of the album is based on their arrival from a
long journey. Somalis everywhere had to endure hardship in order to get to where
they are today. “We’ve been through a lot of stuff to get here.” Jamal
adds, “whether you go to England or to Sweden or wherever you are, you’ll
always find Somali
.”

As further illustration of their unique sound and image, Alian describes the
band’s name. “The limit is the sky for us. High is the level of pride we have
for our culture. We are all one family–not that we’re all brothers, we’re
friends– but we are one family
.”

I find the band members to be soft spoken and intense individuals, however
their gentle, courteous manner isn’t always reflected in their music. The CD has
several expected subjects of rap such as Hustlaz, and Playaz Worst Nightmare.
With corresponding lyrics “…we beat your ass ‘til you’re senseless.” I
like that last song. I don’t want my three year old singing it, but I like the
rhythm and drive of the track. Speaking over one another, the band explains the
process of making their album. “We’ve worked with a lot of producers and
different studios. We’ll tell them what kind of song we’re trying to make and
they’ll have us do the vocals. We tell them exactly how we want it to sound and
they take it all from there. We pay them to mix and master the song. They use a
computer system, like Pro tools, to make their instrument tracks. They use drum
machines and guitar machines, keyboards
.

At a gig, we give our instrument tracks to the DJ. We usually work with
DJ Grand, sometimes Alian DJs for the band. When we perform and the crowd is
into it, we can not change the song, so what we do is make it longer. The DJ can
loop it; he can do all sorts of things. That’s up to the DJ
.” Medman adds, “We’d
love to try a live band. That’d be a good step for us.” “We used to do that,
live drums, at cultural events. Every first of July, we celebrate Independence
Day of Somalia (from the UK in 1960)
,” recalls Jamal. Each of Skyhigh Family’s
musicians is also pursuing secondary education. Medman is working on a degree in
electrical engineering at a state college, Alian attends Dunwoody Institute,
pursuing a degree in computers and Kashulty is a Dunwoody student, too. Jamal
has two years left at Metro State. For now, music is their avocation.

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Interview with Saharawi Singer Mariem Hassan

Mariem Hassan
Mariem Hassan expresses herself naturally in Hassania, the language of the Saharawis, but has serious difficulties with Spanish. That’s why she has rarely agreed to be interviewed. This is why this interview, reproduced from a long encounter with Carmelo Lattassa, has double value.

“We have our language (Hassania, closely related to the Berbers of Mauritania). The Mauritanians have the same music that we do but ours is more modern. They have the haul (aboriginal rhythm and form) as we do. Our songs are different because we talk of our problems since we fled from the Sahara, songs of the
children crying because their fathers went to war and never came back. They talk about the women whose husbands and fathers went to war, never to return, they talk about the deaths, of life, of politics, of god, of our land to which we hope to return. 

I have a song about my brothers. It’s called “Tus Ojos Lloran” (Your Eyes Cry) and talks about my brothers and my father. One afternoon, in a rehearsal, a friend of mine came. She called me away to tell me that my brothers were dead. So, I cried and after that I started to sing. When I wrote the song, I thought of my brothers, in the time we lived in the Sahara, climbing the mountain with them, entering our jaima with them, talking with them, living with them, and I ask myself “where are they?After the Spaniards abandoned the Saharawi colony, the Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco and Mauritania. The Saharawi people fled to Algerian lands and founded the S.D.A.R. (Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic, recognized by 76 countries). 

The Mauritanian perseverance ceased, but even today, we are waiting for a referendum on the land, occupied by the Moroccan government. The Saharawis confronted the military occupation, but the Moroccan army superiority brought many deaths to the Saharawis.

When I have problems, I say: “Mulana (God), help me.” Life is like that. If someone has problems, if someone is ill, someone is dead, someone lives well, someone lives badly, someone has problems with his family, his government, his work, life goes on. For example, if my husband died, did I die too? No, I have
to think about how I should live and how my children are going to live in the future. That’s how it is.

You, the Westerners, have walls to hang your portraits. We, instead, live in cloth tents. When it rains, the water gets in the tent and wets the mats and everything. When it is cold, it’s really cold. (In the desert, temperatures can reach below freezing point.) Most of the people have nothing to heat the tents with. When it’s hot, it can reach over 43 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) and that makes life really hard.

We cook all the dry foods: lentils, beans, and things like that because they last longer. Then we go to the wells to look for the water to cook it. The water is really salty, but that’s what there is. We make the bread, the food and everything with the hands and we all live inside the jaimas, the mother, the father, the children and the one who comes to visit.

When I started to compose, I didn’t have an instrument with me, only a drum. Before, we sat in circles and sang for ourselves but each year we do more things. We go out and do it differently. Now we gather Shueta, Mudleila (Saharawi singers) and me, together with two guitar players and compose. But when I’m alone, I compose only with a drum. I do the lyrics and then the music, like this, until the song comes out. Sometimes it works well, sometimes badly, like this. I only write the lyrics. The music is by heart.

A poet sees a woman, and describes her and makes a poem, but I don’t, I do things singing. Before the war, we did songs of love and beautiful things but the war and the lack of our land made us talk of more important things about the kids, the martyrs, the war.

The haul has really strict rules of memory and interpretation. The contemporary singers usually write the lyrics but the rest of it is still being done in the old way. The accompaniment is with the tebal, a drum of about 60 centimeters in diameter, made of a dug out wooden bowl and leather from the skin of a camel or goat. It is played with the hands, almost exclusively by women, producing a dry and deep sound at the same time.

From its origin, they used the tidinit, an instrument of dug out wood and a leather lid, similar to a four-stringed guitar. Since some time ago, the guitar is used in the songs because of its harmonic richness. It’s interpreted from the forms of the tidinitthat’s why it sounds so different and is especially difficult for the Westerner, accustomed to the classical guitar.

When I sing for someone different than my people, I feel happy, always happy. And when the audience applauds, I do it better, with more joy. I was married two times. My first husband didn’t want me to sing or to do these cultural things. When I got married, it was in the old way he talks with my family, my brothers, but
not with me. I gave him three sons but I didn’t like his attitude. He didn’t like me to do anything, neither singing, nor working in the wilaya, so I told him that I couldn’t continue this way. Then, he signed a letter saying that he released me because the woman cannot separate from the men by Islamic law (Sharia).

But I chose my present husband first ,you have to build the love and then the rest. We participate in everything the men do because our Islam is easy, it’s not an imposed Islam. I travel many time out of the wilaya, to different countries and my husband sees it as normal. When I return I go back to my other work, as a nurse. I always think of returning to the occupied Sahara. I only think of return.

The interview with Carmelo Lattassa ends with this illustration:

Mariem’s Spanish is simple and limited. She had great difficulties to answer the questions. When she was asked for the first time if she found poetry in everyday life, she answered, “When I’m in the camps, I get up at seven and get the children ready for school. Sometimes I leave the lentils in the kitchen and ask
my neighbor to take care of them. Then I go to work, and when I return, I find the kitchen burnt.  Then, I do couscous, I do rice, preserves with milk…”

Courtesy of Nubenegra. Translated by José Ocaña and Tess Mangum-Ocaña. Edited by Angel Romero

jaima is a large desert tent. Pronounced ha-ee-mah

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Sister Act – Les Nubians Take One Step Foward

Les Nubians
Celia and Helene Faussart are genuine multicultural amalgams. Daughters of a Cameroonian mother and a French father, they were raised both in France and in the central African country of Chad.

With so many diverse cultural influences in their lives, the sisters credit their own mixed musical style to a number of factors. “We’re Afro-peans ”, says Celia, “so our music comes from everywhere. From our father we heard classical music and French singers like Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour. Our mother introduced us to Celia Cruz, Harry Belafonte and traditional African music. Our aunties exposed us to Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, and through our cousins we heard Herbie Hancock, Public Enemy, the beginnings of hip-hop, and AC/DC!

”Originally performing as an a cappella duo, Les Nubians began their own careers in local French clubs. “We were presenting Black music as a tree, going from the roots to the leaves”, says Faussart. “We were
doing traditional African music, then gospel, jazz covers, soul, reggae, calypso, hip-hop, a bit of everything
.”  

Les Nubians were spotted early by Virgin Records, who released the sisters’ debut album Princesses Nubiennes in ’98. A sophisticated, yet funky blend of soulful, jazzy grooves combined with a streetwise attitude, their hip Sade-meets-Zap Mama sound found an audience not only in France, but also somewhat surprisingly in America, where it was picked up by the college radio stations and sold over 400,000 copies.  

We were surprised”, says Celia. “At first we thought it was just the French-speaking people in the United States who were buying it. But then we were told that the stations there kept getting requests
for the single ‘Makeda’. It was comforting response for us, an affirmation of human nature. Music is its own language, and it showed that people are sometimes more open than you think they are
.” 

So with such a successful debut, why has it taken the Faussart sisters five years to record One Step Forward, their just-released second album? “Oh, we’ve been busy” explains Celia. “It took us a while to promote and perform the first album around the world. In between albums we also had kids and organised our own music company. We produced a spoken word poetry project as well, which hasn’t been released yet. Also we wanted to go back to real life, because living in hotel rooms doesn’t give you the true flavour of life. We needed to go back to our own lives and get inspiration from real people and places.”

One Step Foward features contributions from reggae group Morgan Heritage, African veterans Manu Dibango, Ray Lema and Richard Bona, with Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli and UK hip-hop producer I G Culture. There are also considerably more tracks sung in English on the new album. 

It came really naturally for us to use more English this time because with our tours to America and the recording work that we’ve done in London, we’ve gotten used to speaking a lot more English in the past few years”, says Faussart. “And we tried to mix generations too, bringing in some of the older players, along with some of the best new poet/rappers who are pushing away some of the musical barriers. That’s what we were searching to do on this album.” 

Sharing a United States tour earlier this year with their Afropean vocal heroines Zap Mama, one might have expected some nationalistic Americans to take these French-speaking women to task over recent US/French disagreements on the Iraqi war. Les Nubians’ new song ‘La Guerre (The War)’
could also have been seen as fanning the controversial flames. But Faussart indicates that that wasn’t the case. 

We didn’t really experience any negativity. We were touring there when the war started, but the people who came to our shows weren’t in that state of mind. But the subject was definitely in the air and we had to talk about it. We’re just saying in the song that we’re the creators of our own reality. If we as humans want to create war, then we’re very good at doing that, but if we want instead to create a peaceful world, it’s also possible to give it a try for a change. My sister and I experienced war ourselves when we were growing up in Chad, and we don’t wish that on anybody. We were just trying to
make people think about it and that can’t be a bad thing
.” 

[This article originally appeared in “Rhythms” magazine (Australia)]

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A Balanced Wobble

Jah Wobble
Adventurous audio explorer Jah Wobble keeps creating fresh sonic landscapes, with a little help from his friends. He discusses his latest projects with Seth Jordan…

For an originally wild East End lad, first propelled at listeners as the somewhat menacing, bass-wielding counterpoint to John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) in the post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. (P.I.L), these days producer/bassist Jah Wobble, at 44, projects a much more reflective and settled demeanour.

Born John Wardle in 1958, his Jah Wobble moniker was famously bestowed on him by a drunken Sid Vicious, who slurringly introduced him as such. Given Wardle’s love of dub reggae the name seemed appropriate and stuck. Leaving P.I.L. in 1980, Wobble began to experiment, working on the classic ’83 album Snakecharmer, alongside such art rockers Holger Czukay and Jaki Leibezeit from the German group Can, and U2 guitarist The Edge.

Opting out of the music industry for a time, Wobble disappeared completely for several years, working anonymously as a driver on the London Underground, before returning to the scene with a new band, The Invaders Of The Heart. Their ‘91 album Rising Above Bedlam spawned the surprise hit ‘Visions Of You’, which featured vocalist Sinead O’Connor. Wobble also created World music fusions, working with Najma, Natacha Atlas and Baaba Maal on ‘94’s Take Me To God.

Fronted by his own trademark rumbling basslines and studio production skills, Wobble’s collaborations have since included work with such diverse artists as Brian Eno, Bjork, Pharoah Sanders, Massive Attack, Primal Scream, Afro-Celt Sound System, and recent remixes for Tori Amos and Holly Valance.

Founding his own independent label 30 Hertz in ’97, Wobble has continued to release a prolific output of creative projects. His most recent work includes Molam Dub (2000) with Laotian group Molam Lao; RadioAxiom: A Dub Transmission (2001) with like-minded bassist/producer Bill Laswell; Shout At The Devil (2002) with ex-Transglobal duo Temple Of Sound; Solaris: Live In Concert (2002) with Laswell, Harold Budd, Graham Haynes and Jaki Leibezeit; and Fly (2003). He will shortly be releasing Five Beat with his current group Deep Space, as well as a soundtrack for the French film Fureur (Fury).

Jah Wobble lives with his wife Zi Lan, a traditional Chinese musician, in the northern English town of Stockport.

Jah, in your teenage years you enjoyed listening to late night radio oscillations, tuning into an array of far-off music and noise. Is that where you first learned the art of mixing diverse sounds?

I guess so. I was drawn to the sound of short-wave oscillations and I still love those low-end sounds. I continue to generate them myself in the studio with mutating systems that my engineer has invented to gain control over those frequencies. The radio ones are great ‘cause they feel like they’re coming from the sun. Very cosmic and infinite. As stations fade in and out it’s a natural collage, and you never know where it’s going to drift to. I used it to fall asleep to.

Is that also where you first heard more exotic forms of music, such as Arabic singing?

That’s right. I think I first heard Radio Cairo. It was the Egyptian singer Oum Khalsoum, although I didn’t know her at the time. I can still remember all this phased clapping as the signal bounced around through the stratosphere, just like in the studio when you mirror a signal, which I absolutely adore. It’s like the music’s coming from heaven.

These days you always seem to have so many projects going at once, from esoteric jazz experiments to pop remixes for the likes of Holly Valance. A pretty wide musical palette isn’t it?

Yeah I’m always working, it’s always flowing, and keeping it diverse keeps it interesting. At the moment I’m buzzing on a mix I did the other night that I can’t get out of my head, with the trumpeter Harry Beckett. It’s a very slow New Orleans kind of thing.

Harry was involved with your latest album ‘Fly’, where he occasionally sounds very much like Miles Davis with that muted far-away sound. Miles’ music is still very important to you isn’t it?

Yeah he’s been quite an influence. I was 18 or 19 when I first heard Miles’ during his electric period, all those multi-layered textures. He was like an architect. I actually tried to bring some of that attitude to P.I.L., building up the sound. Miles was fantastic.

The ‘Fly’ album sounds quite different to many of your past projects. How did it come about?

I was just trying to have some fun. I was actually working on the soundtrack for the French film Fureur, and I was having a few barneys with the director. They kept changing their minds as to what they wanted. They were very much into me doing the music as we went, which actually can be quite exciting, rather than afterwards. But they kept changing even how the film would go. So after I’d written a number of things, they wanted it different. Since I’d already had the big studio booked, I just said, “Okay you go make your mind up about what you want, and meanwhile I’ll just have some fun here for myself. So some of the tracks on Fly came from that, and when I got home I added to it and properly mixed it. Even though it started off in a rather ad hoc fashion, it’s actually quite a disciplined album, with a strong uniformity of sound, a specific approach. It’s pretty electronic really with a lot of juicy synths in there, with phasing and mutations. It’s quite a hip kind of sound I think. Apparently it’s appealing to some of the club people in London, the ones with ironic haircuts and glasses.

In setting up your own 30 Hertz label in ’97, were you just fed up with the corporate attitude to music as a product that could easily be identified into marketable genres?

I realised a long time ago that that approach was insane and illogical and wasteful. I came to that depressing conclusion more than 17 years ago. When I came back into the scene in the late 80’s I just saw the big companies as venture capitalists, people that you hustled money from to make records. It was a dubious business and I could see that it wasn’t the way to go if you wanted to make really interesting music. In order to have some power and momentum I felt I needed to eventually form my own company. A lot of people said “You’re making a big mistake, you won’t have enough money to keep it happening”, but I just kept at it and so far it’s going okay. We’ve actually been in profit for the last few years, and my music is still readily available for people who want it. Some people tell me that I put out too much music and it just makes me laugh. I always think of the analogy between musicians and painters. Would we ever think of saying, “Oh I quite like Monet’s Water Lilies, but I think he did too much stuff”? The development is just as important as the results. Should he have set fire to the rest of them and just kept the best ones?

In the end it’s about an artist’s total body of work?

Yes, but I’m not doing what I do for posterity, I’m doing it ‘cause it’s fun, and I’ll let other people either make sense of it when I’m dead or ignore it. The important thing is to get it out there now. This stupid, outmoded system where you think tactically, you plan your career like a fox, carefully planning each album, trying to get the image just right, trying to get a Levi’s ad for maximum marketing exposure. I’d rather face life and music head-on like a lion, brave and taking some chances, not like a careful tactical fox.

Speaking of brave music, the recent live Solaris album is a pretty full-on set isn’t it?

That was a dream proposition. I was approached by a promoter here who said, “Put together your dream band”, and I just said right, that would be Bill Laswell and Harold Budd and Jaki, and then we got Graham Haynes in too. And it actually happened, we toured, recorded it, and it was intense.

Your collaborations with Laswell over the years have always been very inventive. Your approaches to both bass-playing and production seem totally compatible.

Well of all the people I’ve gotten to work with, the easiest and most inspiring has been Bill. He just really gets it, and with just a few words. He’s the Quiet American in a heroic mode. We’ve got pretty similar musical tastes, there’s the bass link, and we share a similar sense of humour too. He’s a joy to work with and you come away inspired for your next project. The same’s true with Holger Czukay and Jaki, they’re very deep. I’m not prone to hyperbole, but with these sorts of people you’re in genius areas. They’re teachers, and I don’t use that term lightly. They reinforce good habits and good practice in making music.

As a Dub fan and connoisseur, what do you see as the next trend there, now that we’ve heard it used most recently within drum n’ bass and jungle contexts?

It always shifting. I heard some interesting things recently, almost hinting at Nigerian juju rhythmic patterns. Lots of people know how to use those heavy dub tones now, and the continuing development of software technology makes it horribly convenient to make music using computers. That’s been good news for people with taste and skill, but worse for those who haven’t. It makes for a lot of interchangeable music.

But the dub thing will continue to mutate. Sometimes it will lean towards a more naturalistic jazz thing, with people actually playing their instruments, but with a good solid sonic treatment. But because of the availability of technology we’ll also probably hear more digital dub too, which in some hands can be rather one-dimensional, or it can be a wonderful freedom if it’s based on real skill and imagination.

For more information: www.30hertzrecords.com

[This article originally appeared in “Rhythms” magazine (Australia)]

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An Interview with Fado Sensation Mariza

Mariza
Mariza

Mariza is one of the rising stars of fado. She has one of the finest voices in the fado scene. Mariza brings together tradition and innovation, with her new arrangements of traditional fados and her charismatic image.

This interview was made exclusively for World Music Central at WOMEX, Essen (Germany), in October 2002.

You grew up in a part of Lisbon called Moreria. How did that affect the kind of music that you were introduced to? 

A lot. I suppose that if I hadn’t grown up there today I would not be a fadista. I would be a singer, but not a fadista. 

Is that because of your family background or the area where you grew up? 

Because of the area. We are talking about one of the oldest and traditional neighborhoods in Lisbon where musicologists say that in the 19th century fado was born there. So when you walk the streets of Moreria, every corner, every street, every house, even the way of living of the people, is a fadista life. You can always listen to someone singing when they are cleaning,
singing fado. Even the woman who sells fish is singing. It’s more than a tradition; it’s a way of life. 

Are your parents fado fans? 

Yes, they are fado fans, not performers. They sing very badly. But they had a little restaurant in Moreria and we used to have fado afternoons on Sundays. I was accustomed to listening to fado and listening to the best traditional fadistas. It was a really small place, a very traditional place, but with very nice ambience. In the 1980s you could find  people from the theater, culture, journalists, the traditional fadistas, everybody. And I started singing fado there at the age of 5. At the time I didn’t know how to read so my father started making cartoons. He listened to the poems and started making cartoons for me to learn. And I started learning the poems and singing
fados. In fado we don’t have lyrics, we have poems.

Growing up in Moreria was one of the best things to me because I know since I was a child I wanted to be a singer, but being a fadista is completely different.  And growing up there made me a fadista. Normally, at my parents’ home, we used to have lunch and dinner, listening to fado and Portuguese music. So it’s a kind of traditional thing.

Why do you think there is so much interest in fado, not just in Portugal, but also outside Portugal?

I feel that although I really don’t have an explanation for that.  I suppose it has to do with a kind of curiosity in the world to learn about all kinds of cultures.

Mariza
Mariza

Why do you think most of the best-known fadistas now are women?

I’m not sure if I’m correct telling you this, but it’s a feeling I have. When you look at men singing, sometimes for them it’s hard to have a connection with feelings. Socially speaking, it’s not normal for people to see men trying to show their feelings.  With a woman it’s easier, you feel more connected. You have a connection. You have a relationship. I have seen a
woman crying, talking about the feelings, talking about what she’s feeling inside, why she has that grief, why she has that sorrow, why she lost that love, but for men it’s not normal to talk about those things. 

Considering that you grew up listening to traditional fado, what are you trying to do with fado? Are you trying to create something new? 

I show what I feel and what steps I think fado could give to have an evolution. I think everything has an evolution. And when we talk about a culture that is 240 or 270 years old, to get here that culture had to grow along the centuries so we can’t stop now. Because we talk now about the old generations of fado, every generation makes something new with fado that takes it one step ahead. What I’m trying to do is the same. I’m trying to respect the traditional poems, the basis, but at the same time showing what I feel for the new steps in this culture. 

And because of this are you having any problems with the purists? 

No, actually they respect me a lot in Portugal. The first thing was, “who is this crazy woman?” Because I have a very different kind of look. It’s not traditional. When you are talking about a traditional fadista you are expecting a person completely dressed in black, with black hair and a pony tail and I don’t have anything like that. So at my first appearance people asked “who is this crazy woman?” Then the second time they listened to my voice and my singing, so they understood I’m singing fado and I’m very traditional when I sing it, so now I have the respect of the most purists, the most traditional, the oldest fadistas and, one thing that makes me very
happy, I have the respect of young people too, so I’m very happy with that. 

Is your image something very conscious? Do you look the way you look because you like it or are you trying to shock the public? 

It’s because I like it. Dying the hair blond was something I did for fun. I appeared on TV with it in Portugal and they started associating the hair with me, so it was nothing meant to shock. It’s not something I did to have a certain image or to have a new look. It’s me. And when we talk about my dresses and the colors I use it’s because I like it. I don’t mind when they say
she has too many colors, and the hair”. Sometimes some old people in Portugal, in the street, come and say “I love your voice, but your hair,” and I ask “when you close your eyes do you like it?” “I love it,” they say, so I tell them “close your eyes because I love to be like this.” 

You recorded your first album when you were 26. Why do you think it took so long for people to discover your talent? 

I stopped singing fado when I was 15 or 16 years old. Because I used to sing in social clubs in the neighborhood, but I stopped doing it because my friends at school started telling me “it’s that old thing and for old people”, so I stopped. 

So it was not cool. 

No, it was not cool. “Are you not ashamed of singing fado?” and they started to show me other kinds of music. When I was 15 or 16, if you asked me about some famous rock bands, I had no idea what they were talking about because my universe was only fado, because at my home we listened to fado, and my friends started showing me other kinds of music. Other styles.
And I started doing research about blues, jazz, Gospel. I knew about Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand, but fado was really my universe. And I stopped singing fado when I had bands. I used to play in casinos and clubs, but never thought about making records. I just sang because I liked it and loved to do it, but I never thought about making a record. I never thought about having an
international career.

I used to sing fado for my family and friends and, later, at shows in clubs for friends, just for fun. One of those evenings, I was at a club and at the end of the evening there was a man that had a fado house in Lisbon. He enjoyed my show and gave me an invitation to go to his house to sing one day a week. And I said why not, I have nothing to do. OK. But really for fun. And then I started singing there and I felt like I didn’t want to sing any more blues, jazz or soul, I wanted to sing this so I started singing every day and then Jorge Fernando, the producer of this record, asked me “why don’t make a record?” And I was thinking, this man is crazy, he wants to make a record with me? Why? Who’s going to buy this? The family? And I said to him: ““OK, let’s do it. It’s something for us.” And he said, “yes it’s something for us.” We started working on the record. I started doing research about the poems I wanted to sing and then everything got started.  

How did the recording happen? Did you use musicians you knew or did the producer bring his own musicians? 

Jorge is well connected with fado so we brought the musicians.  

Were these professional musicians that had been around for a long time? 

Yes. At that time I was a professional too because I was living from making music. Not from fado, but singing other kinds of music. I knew some of the musicians because I worked with them in some clubs, because some of them are not only fado musicians, they are musicians. And actually I know 50% of the musicians in Lisbon, because music in Lisbon is not a big market if we are talking about clubs. It’s not very big so I know them and they know me very well. So we started working and it was really good to work with those people and to work with Custodio Castelo, the Portuguese guitar player. It was really good because I learned a lot and they are very nice musicians, good people.  

How did it feel recording in Portugal and having a Dutch label release the album? 

It’s very strange because at that time my feeling was very patriotic, like fado is from Portugal. I remember that they told me it’s a very good label. It’s small and it’s going to be good for you. But I was like, it’s not Portuguese. I want a Portuguese company. If I want to release something I want it to be Portuguese, but I was not thinking about having a big label. And they wanted to release the album so for me it was something crazy because the thing I wanted to do was to have an album and to sell it at the fado houses and give copies to some friends. I hadn’t planned to do this and they started talking to me and they said they are small label, with few artists. The problem
was that I didn’t want anything big. I don’t need that, but everything changed.
 

How do you normally connect with audiences that are not fado audiences? For example, a European audience that is not in a cozy, fado house.  Do you think they understand what you are singing to them? Do you explain things or is the music enough? 

I try to explain it of course. I know I’m singing in a different language, but there are some words people know like saudade, like morte, you know. I have some words that can make a connection with them. One thing I really enjoy is to feel you are making a trip with me when I’m singing. It’s like I give you something and you give something to me. It’s like give and receive. And when I do my shows I try to explain the meaning of the poems and I try to give that energy to everybody that is sitting there because when I perform it’s not like I’m in a big theater, or I’m singing for 10,000 people. My audience, they are my friends because they come to see me. It’s like you being in my sitting room and we are in a very intimate place and I’m singing for you. It’s a kind of feeling I have.  

Do you have a regular band that you tour with? 

Yes. I have the musicians who work with me. We have been working together for about 2 years, but they’ve been my friends for a long time.  One of them is a classical guitar player, my friend for 20 years, from the same neighborhood. I used to sing and he was learning how to play the
acoustic guitar. When all this started to happen, he was the person to call so we are more like a family. I like to think like that because I need them, like they need me.  

How’s the song writing process? Do you like to take poems that you are already familiar with and do you also write your own lyrics? 

No, I don’t feel like I could compose. It’s difficult. 

But is it something you might consider?  

Yes, why not? But I need to have experience with life to reveal more true feelings. That’s why I always choose poems that are not talking about deep lost loves. My poems talk about the city. Of course we talk about love, but not in a big way. We talk very softly and that’s how I normally choose. I fall in love with the music and then choose a poem.  

So the music comes first? 

For me, yes.  

How has Amalia Rodrigues affected your music? 

A lot. It’s impossible and irresistible not to sing Amalia when you are a fadista because she had a wonderful voice. She sang the best poems. She had people who wrote poems just for her. She had the best composers making fados for her so it’s irresistible not to sing and of course we have about 230-300 traditional fados. When we talk about Amalia fados we are talking about fados musicados. And it’s the most modern way to sing fado because she brought modernity to fado. So what I like to do is to mix traditional fado with fados musicados, and original fados and that’s why the record is like that.  

When are you planning to record a new album? 

We’re going to record the new album, in January of 2003. I can’t tell you exactly what we are going to do. We have some ideas, but not something fixed yet. 

Are there going to be any big changes from the previous one? 

I think it’s going to be a step forward. Of course with every record we try to take a step forward. We’re going to try to make it. The producer is going to be a different person, Carlos Maria Trindade, from Madredeus, and we have a lot of poems from the biggest poet in Portugal. We have poems and music from the most important composers in Portugal so I think we’re going to have a very good record.

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Abdullah Ibrahim – A Well-Known Brand Name

Interviewed by Seth Jordan

Some still know him as Dollar Brand, others by his adopted moniker of Abdullah Ibrahim, which he began using in the late 60’s after his conversion to Islam. Either way, the piano styling of this remarkable South African musician have made their indelible mark in both the jazz and world genres for over half a century.Now 66, Ibrahim was born Adolphe Johannes Brand in Capetown in 1934, and quickly nicknamed “Dollar”. Learning the piano from the age of 7, he honed his early talent in the church. By the late 40’s he was already playing with local jazz big bands.

In the early 60’s alongside trumpeter Hugh Masekela, saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, he was a central figure in South Africa’s own “progressive jazz” movement which took its lead from the New York-based sounds being articulated at the time by John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk amongst others. His “Jazz Epistles” group, which included Masekela and Gwangwa, broke new musical ground, with a distinctive African influence added to the jazz improvisation.

He left South Africa in 1962 due to the worsening political situation and, in a now-legendary meeting, his new Dollar Brand Trio was “discovered” by Duke Ellington while playing in Zurich, Switzerland club. Ellington quickly arranged a recording session with Reprise Records, and the Trio began playing the major
American and European jazz festivals to enthusiastic acclaim. Brand/Ibrahim’s powerful tonal clusters, repeating African melodies, and creative improvisations were to become his trademarks.

He returned briefly to South Africa in the mid-70’s, but found the conditions so oppressive that he went back into exile in New York. He finally returned to live in Capetown in 1990.

His discography as both a leader and sideman lists well over a hundred album credits, including “African Space Program””, “Ekaya”, “Tintinyana” and “Black Lightning”. He composed the award-winning soundtrack for the ’88 French/African film “Chocolat”. His most recent releases include “Cape Town Revisited” and
“Township One More Time”.

His last performances in Australia occurred on a solo tour in the early ‘80s. He recently returned for an exclusive one-off Melbourne performance with his
current trio.

SETH JORDAN spoke to him for “Rhythms”.

Abdullah, as a child you played piano in the family church. What drew you to play there, and how closely related to African-American gospel were the songs that you learned?

Both my mother and my grandmother were pianists in the church, so I was exposed to it at an early age. It was part of a family tradition, Sunday church and Wednesday night prayer meetings. My grandmother was a founding member of the AME church in Capetown, that’s the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was
founded in Philadelphia USA, by and African American pastor, Richard Allen, who had come up from the Southern states. He was refused entry into an all-white church, so he began his own. Since our church was linked to theirs, I learned many American spirituals and hymns at a young age. And of course many of those
songs had originally come from Africa.

So how did you make the leap from the holy songs of God to the jazz tunes that some people back then thought were the devil’s own music?

Yeah (laughs) that old story! Actually my family was very supportive. They sent me to the local school teacher to learn how to read music. Jazz music by then was already part of the South African tradition. American jazz music was very popular and we had our own local jazz bands. During that period, the swing era, you could hardly distinguish whether a riff was a Basie riff from America, or whether it came out of the townships.

So the music you played in the 50’s with big bands like the Streamland Brothers and the Tuxedo Slickers was really a mix of American swing and traditional African tunes?

Exactly. At that time the South African music was called marabi, with its roots in the Maraba township in Pretoria. It was a basic three-chord progression with a repeated melody, and a bit of room to play solos on top. But we mixed it with things like “Tuxedo Junction” written by Erskine Hawkins, tunes by Joe Liggins, Basie, yeah, all of that old stuff.

I’ve read that there was also a link between South African songs and some of the early New Orleans jazz tradition too. Is that correct?

Yeah, there was a strong connection. We had a Confederate ship called the “Alabama” that came to Capetown, and that brought the minstrel influence to us. There’s a close link, almost like a socio-economic-cultural connection, specifically between New Orleans and Capetown. Street parades, carnival time, even the population mix. In New Orleans you have Basin Street, the red light district, musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, who was Creole, and then in Storyville you had the African descendents, the blacks like Louis Armstrong and all the others. Well in Capetown you have the so-called “colored” community and their musical influences, right up alongside the black community and their music. So there’s always been a very similar dynamic.

When you were recording in the early 60’s alongside Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa as The Jazz Epistles, your first album was hailed at the time as being the first modern jazz recording out of South Africa. Was there a sufficient audience there for this new, more contemporary sound?

There was always a large audience for what we were doing then. People were hungry for any new sounds. We were being denied so much; there was a really massive response to new and different musical ideas. People just wanted to listen to everything.

Unfortunately, so many black South African musicians felt it necessary to actually leave the country right at that musically fertile time. Was that a difficult decision for you to make personally or a very clear-cut one?

It was both. It was very difficult, but we knew we had to leave after the Sharpeville massacre. It became quite evident that we were coming under closer scrutiny from the government regime. We started to be identified as part of the resistance movement. When we decided to leave it was partly that we wanted to
pursue, to strive for our own excellence as artists, but it was also quite clear that we were subject to harassment and arrest just like everybody else. It was terrible to have to go, but our concern was more for the condition of our people, our families, rather than for the music.

Once you were in Europe, and then later in New York, you were able to mix with a very wide circle of other musicians. You’ve often cited both Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington as major influences. I believe there was a time when you actually got to lead the Ellington Orchestra for a few dates. Was he ill?

No, he was writing music for the film “Anatomy of a Murder” on the American West coast, and his band was on the East coast. So I was asked to play piano for about five of their concerts. Playing with Ellington on record was one thing, playing with him in concert was another, but being asked to take his place
inside there was absolutely terrifying. The scope and depth of Ellington was never really been fully appreciated. Those of us who access the music and who actually met those masters, Ellington and also Billy Strayhorn, are in absolute awe of their achievement and how far they were able to penetrate that realm of
musical understanding.

With retrospective tributes and more academic examination of his music occurring around the world, do you think it’s being better understood today?

I hope so! Whatever type of music you’re involved with, jazz or whatever, you’re touched by Ellington one way or another. His influence has been tremendous. There are big problems though. I’ll give you an example of how he is misrepresented or misinterpreted. We’ve checked with a number of students coming out of these jazz schools, and if you ask any one of them to play something like “Take The ‘A’ Train”, one of his most popular songs, and none of them are actually even able to play the melody line correctly. It’s because it’s been passed on from one transcriber to another, and then onto the students in this totally incorrect mode. With Ellington, as with Monk, you have to listen very, very carefully and understand the depth and the nuances with which they wrote.

I don’t think I’ve heard or read of anyone ever saying anything unkind about Ellington. What’s your own personal memory of the man?

I sat with Duke talking for many hours after concerts. His vision was far beyond just the music. It led us to feel, even at that time, that we don’t need missionaries, what we need are visionaries. And he was one of those rare people. A truly unique man.

Once you were living in New York, did it feed your own creativity to be working amongst that imaginative collection of musicians who were there at that time?

Sure! It was a marvelous rare moment, a time when people of like mind we’re all getting together at the same point. In New York there was John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins. We were all like a close-knit unit. Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey, we were all friends, but more
importantly we were striving for excellence. We practiced for many hours a day with a vengeance.

Do you still spend much time in New York?

Not so much these days. I’m more involved with my projects in South Africa.

You’ve been quoted in the past as saying that South Africa is a political model for the rest of the world. Are you still feeling that way?

Of course. We have to commend our leadership that was begun by President Nelson Mandela. And also all of those unsung heroes whose names never appear in the media, but who we know have been very important, and still are, in the development of our community and our nation, and of us as individuals.

I also saw a wonderful quote of yours where you said, “South Africa is the only place in the world where a revolution has been made to the accompaniment of four-part harmonies”. Music really did play a major role in the people of South Africa gaining their freedom, didn’t it?

That’s right. Our experience has always been communication between individuals and family. Whatever we do is in the context of the extended family, which is the basis of harmony.

There has been some criticism of the ANC-led government since Mandela’s departure. Are you still feeling supportive of what is happening now?

Many years ago my martial arts teacher said to me, “To make a revolution is very easy, but afterwards it becomes very difficult”. So we understand what it is that we hope to achieve. We do have immense problems, but we’re facing them. We were left with a legacy of a society in disrepair. We have to recreate a new and
viable nation now. It’s not easy.

You’ve set up your own Conservatory in South Africa in the last few years for
teaching young students. What’s the plan?

The original idea was that it would just be a music academy. But as we started teaching we realized that especially in the disadvantaged communities, we had to deal with issues beyond just giving people performance skills. For example we had to deal with giving them a sense of focus, increasing their attention span. Health care is still an issue for our students. So we created a project called
M7. Music, movement, meditation, martial arts, medicine, menu, masters. Music of course covers all of the expected areas of musical learning; movement, basically we dance; meditation and martial arts addresses focus and discipline; medicine looks at the health care needs; menu pays attention to aspects of nutrition; and masters deals with all of the available teachers in these different disciplines.

We’ve started a project in Capetown, sending out several of our lecturers into the primary schools. We’re looking now at securing a new, more adequate building of our own, because our enrollment has grown tremendously. We’re also getting requests from international students to come and study. In Johannesburg we have a new Sounds and Images company “Masangeta ”, which means “miracle”, which has pooled its resources with an old friend of mine from my record company, along with a CEO from a diamond jewelry company. We’re using the business expertise and marketing skills of these associates to market a couple of new CDs, and we’ve just bought a building in Johannesburg, and one whole floor there will house M7.
So we’re working so far in Johannesburg and Capetown.

Has it become easier for young musicians in South Africa to find venues to play at, to tour, and to record?

We don’t take that attitude anymore. It’s not our dispensation to be waiting for others to offer us these things. We now have a free market economy, so we have to create our own opportunities. Create places to play, create record companies, create an entirely new infrastructure, both educational and commercial, to offer to these young players.

Is there better interaction between white and black musicians these days?

I think so. I’ve just created a 15-piece big band that is all black, but I’m also working with a 60-piece chamber orchestra from the classical field and they’re mostly white. Our M7 lecturers come from all ethnic groups. It’s precisely what the entire struggle was all about, you know? There are regional separations of
course, but in the end there’s only one culture, and that’s the culture of truth. It’s one’s heart’s deepest wish.

What’s your take on the increasing infiltration of rap and hip-hop styles into South African music in recent years?

Infiltration? We outfiltrated it! We rapped a long ago, we just didn’t call it that. We exported it to the world! My daughter is one of the rising stars of rap music at the moment in New York. She calls herself “What What”.

So you think the homeboys in Brooklyn would admit to rap originally coming from South Africa?

Well you’d have to ask them. The thing is that in the Diaspora there’s really no difference, whether it’s the Dreamtime from Mornington Island, or songs of the people from the Kalahari, or a rapper in Brooklyn, or haiku from Hokkaido. It all comes from the same place.

Abdullah, you’ve still out there, playing WOMAD festivals, performing around the globe. Are you still enjoying going out on tour, and life on the road at his point in your career?

“Enjoying” may not be the right word (laughs). But really this travel thing is getting too strenuous. Because of all of my activities in South Africa, from next year they’ll be less traveling time available. We’re also creating a new festival in Capetown, so perhaps it’s an opportune time to start touring a
little less now. But, God willing, I’ll still be staying very busy.
 

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Anuradha Pal – Rhythm Queen

Anuradha Pal
Anuradha Pal

Interviewed by Seth Jordan

There’s something subtle going on in India these days. After centuries of subservience to their male counterparts, there’s a new generation of young Indian women making their mark in the Arts, not only at home, but internationally as well. Articulate, well educated, independently minded and extremely talented, the two most notable examples thus far have been writer Arundhati Roy (“The God of Small Things”) and film director Deepa Mehta (“Fire” & “Earth”).

In the world of classical Indian music there’s also been a quiet gender revolution occurring. As the old masters such as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan slow down, there’s an exciting generation of young players moving up, and for the first time some of the very best are women. Shankar’s own daughter Anoushka has already firmly established her own career as a talented sitarist, while his long-time tabla partner, the late Ustad Alla Rakha, who died in February, has bequeathed the world not only his acclaimed tabla playing son Zakir Hussain, but another favoured student, (and the first woman to play tabla professionally), Anuradha Pal.

Although not from a traditionally music-oriented family background, Anuradha has been performing publicly since the age of eleven. With a devoted dedication to long hours of practice and a strong determination to succeed, she received favourable critical attention at an early age and became a student disciple of both Alla Rakha and Zakir.

She now regularly appears at India’s most important classical festivals and is an A-Grade Artist with All India Radio. She has appeared with some of the country’s most distinguished musicians, including Hariprasad Chaurasia and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. She has won numerous awards, is now touring internationally, and in ’96 founded India’s first all-female Percussion Ensemble, “Stree Shakti”.

Last year Anuradha toured Australia for the first time, alongside the Melbourne-based Afghani sitarist, Khalil Gudaz. Her solo tabla demonstrations were a highlight at the ’99 Bellingen Global Carnival with audiences enraptured by her irrepressible creativity, spontaneity, good humour and overwhelming rhythmic prowess. She recently returned to Australia for well-received performances in Melbourne and Sydney, accompanying India’s reigning sitar star, Shahid Parvez.

She spoke to SETH JORDAN for “DIASPORA”.

Anu, not coming from a musical family, how did you choose the tabla, which is usually considered a male instrument, as your means of expression, or did it choose you?

Well I come from an academic professional family. It was almost mandatory to learn some form of the Arts in my family, so I originally was learning vocal classical music. As an adjunct I started to learn tabla when I was seven or eight, basically just to get a sense of rhythm. Then it took over my life. When I was about eleven I really began to enjoy it, the act of performing, the act of communicating to audiences. I hadn’t actually decided that this is what I wanted to do up until that point, but then I performed at a prestigious music festival in Bombay and I was the only teenager involved. The response of the audience was very encouraging and I realised that this is what I really wanted to do.

You must have realised even at that time though that this was not an accepted role socially for a young woman to take on?

When I first made my decision it was not to break through any barrier, it was simply because I was enjoying playing so much, so attracted to the complexity of sounds that can be produced on the instrument, the technique, the communication. My parents were always very supportive, but yes I met with a lot of opposition. First people would say, “But you are only a girl, you’re not supposed to play tabla. Your fingers are too small, not enough power, no stamina. The thing about me though is if you try and stop me from doing something, I want to do it all the more. So when people tried to dissuade me, that’s when I got more determined to improve. I was breaking a mould, breaking the shackles of whatis traditionally supposed to be a male preserve. So there was that prejudice which is an unfair thing to go through, especially so young. But I continued to work at it and sometimes I still have to.

What sort of practice schedule were you expected to maintain?

I would normally put in seven to eight hours per day. When I was on summer vacation from school I would undertake a forty day rigorous practice schedule where you play for ten hours continuously, with maybe a break after four or five hours. If you do stop you have to start all over again. I did that every year.

It was very demanding, a big struggle, because I was also expected to be do well with my school studies too, so it was a balancing act between tabla and my other studies.

In India there are often people in the audience who have enormous knowledge of the music, very critical listeners. Did this ever worry you?

When I was young, playing was just about having fun. As I got older I realised that there is a responsibility that I carried onto the stage. It can be intimidating to know that there are so many in the audience that know so much. But I think that’s where the main challenge really lies in India, it’s the acid test. If a musician can perform successfully in India he can perform anywhere in the world. His acceptability may vary, his popularity may vary, but he has been raised on firm ground. If he can get critical acclaim there, he can get in anywhere. It’s a great learning experience.

How did you go about finding the best teachers for your tabla education?

Initially I was learning from Benares teachers, and at about the age of thirteen I started attending concerts, which is where I first heard my gurus, Ustad Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain. They had also seen me perform and knew that I was very interested. It started very informally with Zakir inviting me over to their house. I went to Ustad Alla Rakha and said, “Please treat me as one of your sons, be as strict with me as you would with them. Slap me, hit me if you must, but teach me.” He agreed and sure enough he was uncompromising in what he expected and I am really grateful to him for that.

Alla Rakha died just recently. In the West he was known primarily as Ravi Shankar’s musical partner, but can you summarise the impact and influence that he had within India itself?

I think not only within India. Today wherever Indian music is played in the world it is because of the contribution of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha. They opened the doors of Indian classical music forever. They made people realise and appreciate the value of this music. As far as the rhythmic aspect
goes, Ustad Alla Rakha created a new language of tabla. He fine-tuned it as an accompanying instrument, creating new possibilities, a variety of sounds. He could blend it with any other instrument. He created his own individual unique stamp. Also he was a pioneer as a tabla soloist, making people accept the instrument as a solo voice, not necessarily just as an accompanying sound. His style was rhythmical complicated, technically beautiful and yet universally appealing. That is his greatest contribution and I believe tabla players, other musicians and music lovers will value him for centuries.

His son Zakir Hussain has obviously inherited the family brilliance as a player. Are there differences or similarities in learning from the father as well as the son?

It is a very demanding thing to learn from such people, because since they have set such exacting standards for themselves, they expect the same from their students. Zakir has also been very strict with me, he’s a perfectionist. That’s appropriate and has really helped me have the confidence to play in any
situation, with any artist. My training is good, my foundation is good. That confidence, which you inherit from your teachers, is essential.

When you’re playing as a tabla accompanist you often have to defer to the lead melody instrument. Is it difficult to hand over that musical responsibility when you have your own strong direction?

That is actually where my biggest struggle was. As an accompanist it depends very much on the other musician and what he expects of you. He may not be able to articulate what he expects of you very well. It’s really a matter of getting under the musician’s skin, literally. Get into his style, his temperament, into his mind. You have to actually be able to think before he does, to anticipate where he’s going, to know by intuition. It’s a very tough role. Comparatively when I play tabla solo I’m the boss of the stage, it’s just me and the audience. But as an accompanist you have to be simultaneously one step behind and one step ahead. It’s a difficult process, but it comes from your training, your experience. It’s something that you just feel. I listen to other tabla players accompanying individual musicians and try to assimilate what they’re doing well, calculate what needs to be a bit more or less when I’m playing with that person. I have to find the right combination, the right mix so that the performer’s happy, I’m happy, and the audience is happy.

You’re playing now more often to Western audiences, who in most circumstances do not have the same understanding of your classical tradition as the Indian audiences. They may even be hearing live Indian music for the first time. Do you have to adjust your approach depending on the audience you’re playing to?

You can never underestimate an audience. Every audience knows if what they’re hearing is right or wrong, even if they are not as musically educated. To teach an audience is to learn more yourself. They may have more or less preconceived notions, their attention span may be different, and yes it may require more explanation, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s very challenging. The Indian audiences are the most difficult to please, because they’ve heard so much great music, it’s part of their culture and you’re not a novelty for them. You are either good quality or nothing at all. You’re judged on that.

Some Indian musicians seem to find Western audiences, if anything, even more enthusiastic and less inhibited about showing their appreciation than their Indian counterparts. Do you agree?

Oh absolutely! When I played last year with my female ensemble at the WOMAD Festival in England it was an amazing experience. The way the people were swinging and dancing and shouting out for more, they were so enthusiastic! Perhaps in India we have so much music, an overdose of it sometimes, that we might tend to undervalue it. It can take more to get people really involved with the performance.

Tell me about this percussion ensemble of yours, “Stree Shakti”.

I started it off in ’96 and it’s a combination of Hindustani and Carnatic music, bringing together vocal, instrumental and percussion music, which is rather rare. All members are women and all are excellent performers. I change the group’s size depending on the venue and the budget. Sometimes it’s just a percussion ensemble and other times it’s a bigger group with the Hindustani vocals, veena and violin. “Stree” means women and “Shakti” of course means power. This is not a feminist statement though.

It’s not the Indian equivalent of the Spice Girls’ “Girl Power” then?

Definitely not! But it does come from the fact that I have encountered opposition and prejudice when I came into the field, and I feel that while nothing less should be expected of women, we should be able to take our rightful place in the mainstream. Don’t discriminate on the basis of our gender, that’s our only statement. “Stree Shakti” is more of a coming together for the members involved, it’s a celebration of life.

The two most well-known tabla players in the world at the moment, your teacher Zakir Hussain and Trilok Gurtu, both have made a habit of not only playing in the classical mode, but also working on musical projects that bridge across to more contemporary forms, such as jazz, cross-cultural experiments, and the whole Indian/English Bhangra/Techno/Hip-Hop dance scene with all the Indian mixmaster DJs. Do you see yourself getting involved with that type of crossover music in the coming years, or will you be staying more in the traditional camp?

My first love will always be Indian classical music, but there are really no holds barred. I would like to experiment with other musicians, I like jazz and rock and most of the other forms. I played with Japanese drummers when I was performing at a festival in Japan, which was like a big jam session. I’ve also done some work with Flamenco players. So yes I like to experiment too. I think it opens your mind.

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