Category Archives: Interviews

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


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)]


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:

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

Buy the albums:


An Interview with Fado Sensation 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.


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.


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.


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.


Burning Spear: Dread Inna Grammy Babylon

Winston Rodney interviewed by Seth Jordan

Nicknamed after the guerrilla pseudonym used by the African freedom fighter and Kenya’s first head of state, Jomo Kenyatta, Winston Rodney is known better to most of the world as long-time reggae veteran Burning Spear.

He was born in March 1945 in St.Ann’s Bay on Jamaica’s north coast, also the birthplace of both Bob Marley and Jamaica’s national hero Marcus Garvey. Spear has many times told the story of walking along in the hills above St. Ann’s and running into the young Marley. “Bob was going to his farm. The man was moving with a donkey, some buckets, a fork, a cutlass and plants. We just reason man-to-man and I-man say I would like to get involved in the music business. Bob say ‘Alright, just check Studio One.’”. And the rest, as they say is reggae history.Following Spear’s success at the legendary Studio One, his 70’s albums Marcus
Garvey, Man In The Hills, Dry & Heavy, Live! and Garvey’s Ghost confirmed his status on the international reggae scene. Following Marley’s untimely death, many in the reggae community saw Spear as the most legitimate heir to the reggae musical throne.

Always dedicated to the original rastaman themes of spirituality, social consciousness, and the divinity of Jah Rastafari, his 80’s output included more crucial classics such as Farover and Resistance. During the 90’s, while many of the other original Jamaican stars fell by the wayside, Spear continued his
string of non-stop releases, producing the Grammy-nominated Jah Kingdom, Rasta Business, Appointment With His Majesty, and his ongoing series of Living Dub remixes.

Having just picked up this year’s Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album for ‘99’s Calling Rastafari, featuring his revitalised Burning Band, and celebrating his 30th anniversary of recording, Winston Rodney spoke with SETH JORDAN for RHYTHMS.

Winston, there was a rumour at one stage that you had once said that you wouldn’t play down here in Australia until indigenous rights were recognized in this country. Is that true and is that one of the reasons why we’ve had to wait so long to see you live?

That’s the first I’ve heard about that! (Laughs) I know for sure that we’ve had a lot of calls over the years from people who’ve wanted to bring us to Australia. We didn’t know if the time was right, and if those were the right people, so we preferred to lay back, and now we’re working with the right sort
of people to do it for, so the time must be right too, and here we come!

There’s so many permutations of reggae these days; hip-hop reggae, electro-reggae, rapping reggae, all the dancehall tracks. Are you liking what you hear in the new sounds or do you prefer to stick with the more traditional conscious rasta roots?

There are so many different aspects of reggae these days, all of us trying to do our thing. It’s left up to some of us to do the right thing. If the music is preaching violence, I don’t approve of that. If the music presents as outrageousness, I don’t approve of that. Music should present consciousness, upliftment, unity, love, equality. Speak about the roots, the culture, speak about the history, speak about the development amongst people. Those are the things I approve of.

How about the reggae that’s coming out of Africa these days? You going to be sharing some shows done here in Australia with South Africa’s Lucky Dube, and other performers such as Alpha Blondy up in West Africa seem to have found a strong fusion between Jamaican and African styles.

Today reggae is coming from so many different places. This music carries such a strength and power and potential, it mobilises people from many different countries and Africa is an obvious place for reggae to take root and be heard by the people. I don’t mind other people playing the music as long as the music
they play has some substance and some good understanding within it.
Lucky Dube’s been doing it now for a good while and has a really good following, especially in Europe. I think he’s a really good singer.

Your own music has been an integral part of Jamaica’s musical history, and yet it’s almost always mentioned second to that of Bob Marley. Have you ever minded being in that position, maybe just a little in the shadow of Marley’s music?

I don’t really mind the position I’m in. Whatever I’m seen as today I think I put myself in this position and the people also put I in this position. I’m here for the people. Reggae is the people’s music. So there’s no problem. I’m here to do what I do best, making music for the people.

Central to your music both then and now has been the teachings of the Jamaican educator Marcus Garvey. Are you feeling that his work is still relevant for the 21st century?

I think so. There’s a lot of people who have never been told of these sort of good things that we present through the music. Self-determination, self-reliance. People still need to be taught about it, to hear what is possible, to give them hope and let them know that it’s worked for some people and that it can work for them also.

Also central to your music and rasta culture in general has been your dedication to the life of Haile Selassie, the former King of Ethiopia. In retrospect of history has your personal attitude toward him and his legacy changed at all?

It’s both ways now to be honest. I and I grow up on His Majesty, his teachings, the world philosophy around the teachings. We see His Majesty as King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. We see His Majesty as our saviour. Other people see other things. There’s one Creator, but the Creator comes with so many names, so many labels. Some call him Christ, some call him Jesus, some call him Lord. I and I say Jah Rastafari! You know what I’m saying? It continues.

Your own output over the last few years has been pretty prolific. A new album almost every year plus a dub version as well. You enjoy changing the new mixes around and altering the sound?

Oh yeah I love the dubbin’! I’ve done Volume 1,2 3, and 4 now, and I’ve already done Volume 5 but I’m not ready to release it yet. It’s just another experience of the music. Less vocal, listening to more instrument, mixing them down, adding a few things, playing with effects. I find it very exciting.

The studios now must be a fair bit different from the old Studio One days?

It’s a lot of advancement! So many machines! You can get a completely different sound, 24 tracks, 36 tracks, 48 tracks, whatever you want. It’s so different from the old days when we just play and it was recorded altogether. Now you can go back, clean up any mistakes, add what you want. Make it sound really good!

Winston you’ve just won your first Grammy Award after being nominated what, six times?

It ‘s been eight times!

Sorry, eight I lost count. Is it important to you to have that sort of commercial success and recognition for your music?

To be truthful I already felt recognised before winning the Grammy. I’ve been recognised ever since I began in the music business. I’ve always been popular and known to the world. Winning the Grammy is just another step. But I give thanks, knowing that I finally won this year. So many good musicians never get
nominated or if they do they don’t win, so I am grateful.

Do you think reggae will ever experience a major resurgence to the prominence that it enjoyed a couple of decades ago when it was seen as the cutting edge, a revolutionary force for musical and social change?

Well I think we need advise for this music to reach deeply into the commercial scene. We have the talent of the artists, the musicians. We do what we do, but it takes more to reach a wider audience. It’s really up to the record companies and the music industry to take that next step. We’ve got a dedicated audience
already, but I don’t know if the record companies are that interested to give us that major sort of exposure. We’re a big international music and yet we don’t get the big exposure. If they gave it that sort of push then it could be one of the biggest types of music in the world.

On the latest album you ask if anyone still remembers Burning Spear. I don’t think that’s really ever going to be much of a problem and your place in music history is secure, but how would you yourself like to be remembered?

I’d just like to be remembered as a hard working man who was involved in the music business for many years. I’d just like people to remember my work, my music, my philosophy, my doctrine, and my religion.


Rum and Rumba: Interview with Juan de Marcos González

Juan de Marcos bla bla
Juan de Marcos González – Photo by Sarkis Boyadjian
The man who put together the Buena Vista Social Club talks to Seth Jordan about
“the old guys”, his current Afro-Cuban All Stars, and saving the Cuban economy with music.

Juan de Marcos González is a quiet achiever. The man who actually went out and found the veteran Cuban musicians, many of whom were already in retirement, and assembled them into the now-famous
Buena Vista Social Club, is justifiably proud of his achievement, but more than willing to fully acknowledge the massive talents of the players involved. Even before the Buena Vista success story unfolded though, González had already become one of the most important figures in Cuban music today. Born in Havana in 1954, González grew up surrounded by music, as his father was a singer who performed in Arsenio Rodriguez’s famed band. Studying hydraulic
engineering and Russian at university, González co-founded the traditional septeto group Sierra Maestra in ’78 while still at school. Already an accomplished tres player (the small Cuban guitar with three sets of double strings), González’s aim for the young group was to encourage an appreciation for the rural son style amongst Cuban youth. Sierra Maestra went on to record fourteen albums in Cuba, and their best-selling international releases (‘94’s “Dundunbanza” and ‘97’s “Tibiri Tabara”) brought them to the world’s attention. Those albums, both on the UK-based World Circuit label, also firmly established González’s friendship with English producer Nick Gold, who was to become another crucial figure in the Buena Vista project.

With Gold’s urging, and having long harboured a desire to put together a band that combined the younger generation of Cuban players alongside some of the old veterans of the genre, González set out to locate some of the forgotten “old masters” and assemble them all into one working band. The resulting and now
legendary ’97 sessions at Havana’s famous Egrem studios were originally set up to produce two albums, the first Afro-Cuban All Stars release, “A Toda Cuba le Gusto” and the original “Buena Vista Social Club”. Everyone at the sessions was so impressed with the playing of pianist Ruben González (no relation) during the recordings that a third album featuring the 78 year old, (who Ry Cooder called “a cross between Thelonius Monk and Felix the Cat”), was also released. All
three albums sold exceptionally well all around the world and received huge critical acclaim.

González then led the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Ruben González on their debut U.S. and European tours and directed the Buena Vista Social Club concerts in Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Hall. The shows were filmed as part of Wim Wender’s award-winning documentary on the band and the rest, as they say, is
Buena Vista history.

With the release late in ’99 of the second Afro-Cuban All Stars album “Distinto, Diferente” and on the eve of their first Australian tour, Juan de Marcos González spoke with Seth Jordan for “Rhythms”.

Marcos, did you have any idea, say five years ago, that Cuban music would today be having such an enormous impact on the international music scene?

Well I had the idea, and in fact I always believed in the music of my country, but I never imagined this sort of success. What’s happening is something well beyond my expectations and we’ve started to reclaim the place Cuban music had before, during the first half of the 20th century, when our music was a best-seller in the tropical dance market. I’m particularly proud because my original idea to try and recreate the spirit of that golden period of Cuban culture has been a success. All these old guys who I went to look for a few
years ago, right now they’re really on the top. It’s something special for me and something special for my country and my culture.

Back in ’96 when World Circuit producer Nick Gold approached you to seek out some of these older players and singers, I believe the original idea was to bring over some African musicians to play alongside the Cubans. Is that right?

Yeah, but the original idea was actually mine. I wanted to make an album that featured some of the most important Cuban musicians, most of them already retired, and to recreate that sound from the ‘50s. At the same time Nick wanted to record an album mixing the eastern Cuban son, a simple music with acoustic
guitar and tres, this special string sound, and bring in a guitar player and a kora player from West Africa, as well as Ry Cooder, to make a sort of fusion album. Unfortunately the African musicians never came to Havana because of visa problems. In the end I put together a team, my Afro-Cuban All Stars, and we also
specifically went looking for Compay Segundo who’s a specialist of eastern Cuban music, along with Eliades Ochoa, Barbarito Torres and all the others. The first album we made was the first All Stars album, “A Toda Cuba le Gusto” and the second one was the one that has gotten most of the publicity all around the
world, “The Buena Vista Social Club”. The film gave it an even bigger push.

When Nick brought Ry into the project, that brought a certain credibility to it as a commercial venture, but do you feel his involvement was necessary from a purely musical standpoint? Could it have been successful without him?

God knows! I think it was a good idea to bring Ry in. I mean he’s not really a top star in Western music, but he’s an important musician and very intelligent and he’s done fusion music before. His album with Ali Farka Toure (“Talking Timbuktu”) that he had already done with Nick Gold had been a big success.
That’s why Nick called Ry. I think it was an excellent idea because as a producer I would never have tried to create the sound going all the way back to the ‘40s. That was a Ry idea. It was something really special for the audiences in the Western world to hear. So would it have been successful without him? I don’t know, but at the moment I think the old guys have become bigger stars than Ry! Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben González are certainly both bigger right now.

When you originally went looking for the older players and singers did you already have an inkling that some of these fellows wouldn’t actually mind being coaxed out of retirement?

I knew that some of them would enjoy joining the band and to start working again. A few of them were quite disappointed with what had happened to their music environment. They felt that they had been completely forgotten. Ibrahim for example was just doing things at home and shining shoes on the street. He never thought about coming back to the music because he was completely disappointed. He had never had the success that he deserved. He was an excellent singer, but he had never really been lucky, he was always in the background of the top stars. He sang in Beny More’s band and Beny was the most important Cuban
singer of the ‘50s. He wanted to sing boleros but he had never had the opportunity to with those bands because he wasn’t the star. I can tell you though that’s what’s happening with Ibrahim today is completely incredible. Right now I think he’s more famous than Ricky Martin! He has a wider audience, not just teenagers, but old people and middle-aged people. It’s incredible and he’s on the top.

Maybe Ibrahim and Ricky should do a duet together? That would have to be a hit!

Yeah of course! Why not? It would be a good idea, lots of action, but I don’t think Ricky knows how to sing real Cuban music though. He’s from Puerto Rico and he only does the pop songs

And what about Rubén González? He’s such a master on the piano, but he claimed that before Buena Vista he hadn’t touched a piano in years.

No, it’s a lie. He didn’t have a piano, but he used to go to the houses of other old musicians like him and play a bit. He just pretended he hadn’t been playing at all. But he was pretty old and nobody was taking care of him when I went looking for him. The piano he has now at home is one that I bought him in ’98.

Marcos you’ve uncovered so many of the great old players, but lately in the wake of Buena Vista we keep having new “old” players being rediscovered. Surely there isn’t a never-ending supply of them?

Well I’m using a lot more of the younger players now from the third generation, but there are still lots of the older performers out there too. For example on that first group of albums we didn’t have the voice of Celina González. She was working somewhere in Europe and it was impossible to find her then. There are so
many important musicians of that generation. Right now we have Ibrahim and Omara (Portuondo) and there are maybe 20 or 25 important older guys still in Cuba who deserve to be heard. I’ll try and give them all the space they deserve.

As the project leader of all this activity Marcos you must be a busy man these days. Before all this started you were leading Sierra Maestra around the world. Are they continuing to tour?

Oh yes. They made a film a couple of months ago called “La Salsa”, so they’re actors now too. I’m not working with them now because it was impossible to do everything at once. I was leading the All Stars and the Buena Vista tours, as well as Sierra Maestra up until the beginning of ’98, but then we split. Sierra
Maestra are still very successful in Europe. Their last album is the soundtrack of the film, but their film isn’t like the Buena Vista documentary though, it’s more commercial and it’s fiction. It was directed by the grand-daughter of Luis Bunuel.

With the All Stars you’re starting to change around a number of players. Ruben, Barbarito, bassist Cachaito Lopez and others have moved on and you’re replacing them with generally younger players. What’s the current mix?

Yes that’s the plan. The Afro-Cuban All Stars isn’t a band, it’s a project. I try to bring in the most important players who are interested in developing the roots of Cuban music along with the more contemporary side. At the moment the group is getting younger. I still have Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, one of the singers from the Buena Vista Social Club, he’s an old guy, and I have Teresita Garcia Caturia and Felix Valoy who started the project with me. But the lead
trumpet player now is only 24 years old. I want to show the world the diversity available and that it’s possible to have a multi-generational band.

I assume that some of the older players might not really want to endlessly continue the sometimes gruelling pace of international touring and might prefer a quieter time at home these days?

Yeah sure, although some of them are still going strong. Ibrahim and Ruben aren’t tired yet and Compay is still doing it at 92, really strong! But some of them do get tired. In the beginning I was using Raul Planas who’s one of the classic singers from the ‘50s, but he’s too old now for touring now and he has health problems. And Celina (González) is very ill now too. But with Ibrahim’s band at the moment you can see a lot of old guys with terrific spirit, and with my All Stars there are about three or four really strong old guys.

What were you trying to do on the latest All Stars album “Distinto, Diferente” which was distinct and different from the first album?

After the success of the first group of albums, some people started thinking that the only music we have in our country is the old music with old musicians. So with this one I wanted to show that we have contemporary music, still mixing the spirit of the old times, but with a more contemporary sound. I wanted to
show that over the past 40 or 45 years Cuban music has continued to develop, with lots of styles and a modern language for the regional music.

In the liner notes you wrote about the possibilities of this being considered a controversial album because it isn’t purist. Has that proved to be true? Has there been criticism?

Yes, from some people. You know when you have a success with a certain style of music, people expect you to repeat the same thing again and again. But I wanted to break the rules. For some people the album is too contemporary, too strong, not as pure as before. For me though it’s okay since I intended for it to sound

The All Stars were scheduled to play here in Australia a couple of years ago, but I believe there was a dispute between the sponsor, Bacardi Rum, and your president, Mr. Castro, which stopped you from being able to come?

Yeah, they had a problem, there was a trial because Bacardi started in Cuba, but moved away, and unfortunately sometimes in Cuba everything is inside of politics, so it was impossible for us to play in Australia for that event, but now we’re happy that we’re able to come and work.

Cuba’s had a rough go financially since the Soviet Union stop subsidising it a while back, and some people have suggested that the current popularity in the country’s music could actually save the economy. Do you feel a personal responsibility on that level and has Fidel sent you a good box of cigars yet in thanks?

It’s true that Cuban music is a very important wing of the Cuban economy right now and it can in fact really help to solve some of our economic problems. Maybe he will send some cigars if it keeps happening.

Are you concerned at all that the current popularity of Cuban music internationally might fade once it stops getting a big commercial push?

Because we’re re-establishing ourselves internationally we have to push it a bit right now. It’ll probably still be in fashion for another couple of years. At the end the boom is going to finish, but the music will remain as an option for people who want to follow tropical dance music. So it’s important for us all to work really hard right now, because we are in our own time. I know the boom will finish but after being isolated for so long it’s our big chance to work seriously.

Can you explain how the American boycott of all things Cuban, that’s been in place since the ‘60s, affected the opportunities for Cuban musicians to tour and be heard?

There were no real possibilities to develop a career. It’s very easy to study in Cuba because we have a very good educational system, but it was hard to develop a career just in Cuba because there’s no market. People don’t have money to buy CD’s and touring is very limited. So for many of the musicians, especially the
jazz musicians they wanted to go to New York and Europe. But with the American boycott of Cuba and without an income it was impossible to travel or to get good contracts with an important label that could distribute your music worldwide. But in a certain sense it was positive in that we kept alive our roots. Without the boycott Cuban music could have become just an artificial pop sound.

Does it ever surprise you that Cuban music translates so well to audiences as diverse as Japan, Scandinavia, and even down here in Australia?

It has a very special strength. I think it’s a strength that comes from the mix of different cultures that make up Cuba. It’s got that special hook. Even if an unknown Cuban band plays somewhere, it will get to the people because it’s not the people playing it, it’s the music itself. It’s like honey. Everybody enjoys


Natacha Atlas: Lifting The Veil

Interview by Seth Jordan

The last time I spoke with Natacha Atlas by phone, on the release of her last solo album “Gedida” in ’99, there was a raging party going on in the background, with people screaming at each other in Arabic throughout. The belly dancing English/Egyptian diva had to stop our conversation several times in order to quiet down the domestic situation, alternating between her usual rapid-fire English accent and a blistering verbal Arabic assault on those making all the racket.Such cultural schizophrenia is nothing new however for the feisty pint-sized
chanteuse, who is also fluent in French and Spanish. Born of mixed Arab and
Sephardic Jewish parentage, Atlas grew up in the Moroccan suburbs of Brussels in
Belgium, moved to England when she was eight, travelled back and forth to
Belgium as a teenager and has the dubious distinction of being Northampton’s
first Arabic female rock star.

Her international career began in the early 90’s with UK beat crew Loca! and was
further enhanced when dub bassist Jah Wobble used her in an early incarnation of
his band The Invaders Of The Heart. Her long involvement as guest vocalist with
those ever-mutating, multicultural English dance mixmasters, Transglobal
Underground, has brought her sensuous blend of tradition and technology to the
ears of global groove listeners worldwide. These days she’s a World music icon,
a veteran of international WOMAD festivals, Galstonbury and Montreux. Her solo
albums, produced by the Transglobal team, have all received justifiably high
praise and include her ‘95 Beggars Banquet/Nation debut “Diaspora” and ‘97’s “Halim”.

Back in London after seven months in Egypt, putting the finishing touches on her
next album and preparing for her first tour of Australia in September, Natacha
is revved up and ready to rave. Her trademark stream-of-consciousness answers
are short on pauses, contain virtually no punctuation, and break only for the
occasional sharp intake of much-needed breath.

Brave beyond my own expectations I attempt to get a word in…….

Natacha, having spent the best part of the last year living in Cairo, is
Egypt becoming your preferred home these days?

Yeah, well it has been for seven months anyway, from the beginning of last
December. I brought back a colleague from Egypt too, named Rico, who’s been
composing my new album with me and he’s my new percussionist as well. There’s
fresh blood in the group with a few new members. So we’ve now got three English
musicians and three and a half Arabs, with me as the half. You could cut me down
the middle actually, this double identity of mine, half Arab and half European.

Some time ago when talking about your mixed ancestry you referred to yourself
as “A human Gaza Strip”. Do you still feel that way?

What I meant was that there’s a conflict within myself, with my differing
backgrounds happening simultaneously, about where I belong and don’t belong. But
I discovered that in Egypt there are so many sub-cultures existing that you can
walk in and out of several timewarps within five minutes. I’ve never really
known what bracket I fit into, but having seen the way it is in Cairo, I now see
myself as an Egyptian from one of those sub-cultures. There are so many people
there that are half-Egyptian and half-foreign, or three-quarters and one-quarter
or whatever. Quite often each sub-culture will have its own community, it’s own
clique, with it’s own mentality, views and attitudes. Some come and go all the
time, some have been schooled overseas, some haven’t, there are millions of
different weird stories, but they all have Egyptian roots from their parents or
grandparents or from being born there. So I’ve seen that I’m actually not so
abnormal after all and while I still sometimes feel like the Gaza Strip, it’s
probably a bit less than it used to be.

What’s the music scene in Cairo like these days?

There are lots of different scenes and again it’s easy for most people to only
be aware of their own sub-culture. There’s the wedding scene where the
respected, successful artists play, weddings and birthday parties. Those artists
get paid a bloody lot of money and they might do three parties a night, make
about $6,000 a month. I think I could get very bored of doing that scene after
awhile because it’s just incessant. It’s like selling yourself to the devil, but
that’s what a lot of musicians do there all the time.

Then they’re just starting to get these DJs who are a bit more hip to what’s
going on, playing tracks from the ambient mixed World music scene, but it’s
still quite new there. There’s a couple of big places there that hold like 4,000
people and these few DJs are playing my stuff and Transglobal mixes at those
places. But you can only get my music there on a couple of compilations. If I
can’t get my stuff released there in the official manner I guess I’ll have to
just do it unofficially.

Then you get people who are like Rico, who are used to playing with the
classical artists or the Egyptian pop artists, but he’s been getting into what
we’ve been doing the last couple of years and now really understands it, so he’s
writing new music along those lines. The album I’m putting together now is still
my usual mix, and it’s certainly not mainstream Egyptian music, but it’s a
totally Egyptian production other than two members of Transglobal Underground
who are involved. Even the cover photo is being done by an Egyptian photographer
who paints his photos after he prints them.

It must be a bit of culture shock to come back to England after that length
of time away. What do you miss most when you’re in Egypt that you’re used to
having in England?

Organization! Less chaos, less noise, people being on time, things like that.
This is the first time Rico’s ever been out of Egypt and his comment is, “Wow,
everything’s so organized here. Even the dirt is organized!” In Cairo the
pollution is really bad, it’s a filthy city really. It’s vibrant and attractive
at the same time, but it can be a hellhole as well. I knew exactly what he meant
when he said that. He didn’t mean the road, he meant the dirt itself is all in
neat little piles here in England instead of just blowing around chaotically as
it does in Cairo. It made total sense to me that that was his first impression.

You’ve said that Transglobal is about breaking musical shackles but that your
own music is more about working within the rules of Arabic music. What are those

In order to keep the identity of Arabic music you have to respect the Arabic
scale. We put all the proper quartertones or whatever where they’re supposed to
be in order for it to make sense to the Arabic form and to the musicians
themselves. You don’t need to fuck about with the Arabic scales, they’re
beautiful as they are. If you just mix them together with modern European sounds
and dub sounds, you’ve got a great blend. There’s no need to invent any new
scales and you couldn’t if you tried anyway. You’ve got everything you need in
the core and essence of Arabic music as it is.

On the official Transglobal website they’re quoted as saying, “Natacha’s
longstanding association with the band is a continuing source of confusion for
both Transglobal and for her”. What’s the state of your Transglobal involvement
these days given the expansion of your own band?

It’s a matter of organizing our lives around each other. We’re still involved of
course as Tim (Whelan) and Hamid (Man Tu) have done part of the writing on the
new album and will be mixing it as soon as I finish the vocals. We might not
play live together much anymore though as we just can’t these days. They’re
doing their tours and I’m doing mine. We can’t be in two places at once and it’s
too tiring as they’re getting too old and maybe I am too. Whenever it’s time to
make an album though we always manage to find each other again. They’re always
involved in my albums, it’s a necessity for me. They understand the structures
and if you’re doing the arranging for this sort of music you need to know much
more about those things than just the average musician. It’s been a long
learning process for us all over the last ten years and we’re able to do things
now that not many people can, as far as mixing the scales and the technology is

Both your own band and Transglobal will be appearing at the big pre-Olympic
“Hemispheres” festival in Sydney in September. Can we expect some crossover
there between the two bands?

I was hoping that we’d be able to get up onstage together, but my understanding
from my manager, who manages both bands, is that apparently they’re flying out
as we’re flying in. We’re playing on different nights there, so it doesn’t look
like it can happen. That’s how it always is these days. But since I’m touring
around Australia a bit and they are too, maybe we’ll cross paths somewhere else.

Will your sets here be from the forthcoming album or mostly older material?

We’ll still be doing material from the last two albums, “Gedida” and “Halim” as
well as two songs that I’ve just been working on. You’d never guess what one of
them is though. It’s a really extraordinary Egyptian version of Screamin’ Jay
Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You”. It’s quite intense and you wouldn’t even know
that’s what it is until the piano chords come in with the melody. If he could
hear it from wherever he is I think Screamin’ Jay would have liked it though.

Your live show is known almost as much for your belly dancing as for your
singing. Do you have any cultural problem with the continuing popularity amongst
non-Arabic Western women to learn belly dancing or is it fine with you for the
art to be passed on in this way?

I think it’s fine. I’ve seen a lot of good European dancers and I’ve seen some
bad ones too. It’s interesting how some of this art form is developing outside
of the Middle East. It does give it a different character. I’ve seen troupes of
European dancers and it has a different nature about it because it doesn’t have
the soul of a Middle Eastern person, it’s got a European soul instead. Maybe
there’s a little bit of ballet in their background or another Western form that
they’ve learned, but it brings something different to it, and as long as you
know the difference between the two it’s an interesting variation.

As this is your first time in Australia is there anything in particular that
you want to see or do while you’re out here?

My manager, who’s Australian, has also told me that I should try and get up to
your Great Barrier Reef while I’m out there too. I’ve done a bit of snorkelling
in the Red Sea near the Suez Canal, although it’s usually really hot there, 35
or 40 degrees (Celsius) and I’m used to that kind of heat. If it’s that hot down
in Australia I can get in the sea, but if it isn’t then I’m not sure I’ll be
able to even get in the water at all.

Buy Natacha Atlas’ albums:


Fulfilling The Prophecy – Nitin Sawhney

Nitin Sawhney

Producer/keyboardist/guitarist Nitin Sawhney may not be a household name quite yet, but all you have to do is put one of his albums on the stereo, give it some volume, and people are inevitably drawn into his luxurious, intoxicating, Anglo-Indian sound creations.

With five albums to his credit (93’s Spirit Dance, Migration in ’95, Displacing The Priest in ’96, the award-winning Beyond Skin in ’99, and the just-released Prophesy (V2/Zomba, 2001), he is currently being seen as one of England’s most creative producer/musicians. He has remixed for Paul McCartney and Sting, written for Sinead O’Connor, and just produced part of the latest album from Algerian rai star Cheb Mami. Suddenly, Nitin Sawhney is hot property. It’s important to have an empathic connection with what’s around you. If I was listening to the sounds of insects up in Arnhem Land, or waves on the beach in Mumbai, I’d try to tune into what was in my immediate environment and incorporate the sounds into the song. I know it sounds a bit hippie-ish, but it was something I thought was necessary to do.

Were you travelling on your own?

No, I was fortunate enough to have some people with me taking photographs and filming the journey. They were very sensitive to the process, as we were trying to be as un-intrusive as possible. We wanted to incorporate the filming of where we were into the live performance of the music later, but not to have the focus on us. It felt good with that particular group of people who came along.

The opening single ‘Sunset’ has such a simple melody line, but it’s one of those tunes that really auto-loops itself into the memory. What’s its story?

I like to create songs that are very accessible to bring people into the beginning of an album. That one’s really about when you’re feeling down, when things aren’t going all that well. You can sometimes end up coming back stronger because of it. One of my favourite phrases is “From oppression comes expression”, because I think that’s true. Like in Soweto township in South Africa, you see kids who are so much brighter and stronger than you could imagine, given their situation. They had the Bantu Education Act there,
specifically to teach black people to be menial workers for white people. And yet they’ve come back stronger. You can see that sort of thing all around the world. Even in Australia with the Reconciliation movement. People who have been pushed back, who have their rights and lives taken away from them, come back stronger, with more determination. That’s what ‘Sunset’ is about, it’s an analogy and a symbol of that process.

Talking about Soweto, you had the opportunity to spend a little time with Nelson Mandela while you were in South Africa. I take that it you were as impressed by him as most people are?

He’s incredible. To me he’s one of the true visionaries of our time. He could always see ahead of what was going on. Even before he was put in prison he had a very focused vision of multiculturalism. He wasn’t really into pushing himself as a leader, he was more interested in people being able to live together in an egalitarian way. Even now when you meet him, he’s a very humble person. His personality suits his public reputation. It was a humbling experience for me to meet him.

Did he know your music previously?

He didn’t really. In a way that made it even better. He kind of agreed to meet me without really knowing anything about me, just simply because I was interested in talking to him. He was that open. He invited into his house and spent time with me just because I’d asked to. At one point while we were talking we were even interrupted by one of his administrators who said, “We’ve got the President on the phone to speak with you, and he says it’s urgent”. And Mandela turned to me and said “Do you have any more questions?”, and when I indicated that I had a few more, he had them tell the President to call back in a few minutes. I thought that was pretty phenomenal!

I take it that was the South African president, not George Dubya?

Yeah, it was Mbeki, but I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if it had been Bush!

You also had one of the best introductions to Australia that you can get, linking up with Mandawuy Yunupingu from Yothu Yindi, and getting to see some of his traditional land. How did that come about?

It was set up by my manager. I felt very fortunate to be invited up to Arnhem Land, as I’ve been taking an interest in what’s going on with Aboriginal Australians for a long time; the human rights issues with the U.N.; the Pauline Hanson situation a few years ago. Australia really doesn’t have a very good record on indigenous rights. Also the whole thing around mandatory sentencing and the detention of asylum seekers. So when Mandawuy invited me up, I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to get a more real flavour of what that part of Australia is all about. It was wonderful.

You’ve been very busy lately. Besides your own new album, you’ve been producing for others, you’re doing TV documentaries, teaching workshops in schools… How do you keep from spreading yourself too thin?

I don’t sleep or eat! Honestly I’m always busy and I love it. Just as an example of my last four days… I was on “Newsnight” with Jeremy Paxman here on TV the other night talking about multiculturalism, which was a weird experience. Then the following night I was at the Royal Albert Hall with Jools Holland and Julian Joseph, who’s one of my favourite pianists, which was really cool. Then the next night I was DJ-ing at a club called “Ocean” which was fantastic fun. Today I’m going to be mixing the new single which we’re going to be putting out later in the year from the album, and then I meeting up with some people to talk about writing the music for a West End musical. Then I‘m jumping on a plane for Japan tomorrow! So it’s kind of crazy, but I feel very privileged to be doing all the things I dreamt of doing when I was younger. I have a lot of energy for things that I believe in.

Your website at the moment is very clever place for people to check out. A little slow in loading perhaps, but well worth the wait. Did you have a hand in that too?

Yeah I did, especially with the visual and artwork. Everything reflects back on the whole project. I’m into the idea of it all having the same central focus, for the website to reflect the album and the DVD.

This has been a very quick visit to Australia, with just one gig each in Sydney and Melbourne. Any plans for a more extensive tour down here?

I’d love to! Maybe not this year, but we do want to return soon. This was just a chance to have a quick introduction to Australia with the new album, because I’ve wanted to play here for years. There may even be some way of starting a club down here in the future. We’ve been talking about that and we’ll definitely
see if it can happen.

Nitin’s website is: