Category Archives: Interviews

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
rules?

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
concerned.

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:

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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: www.nitinsawhney.com

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Who Is this Sheila?

Sheila Chandra

 

Seth Jordan talks to Indian singer Sheila Chandra about Voice, Zen, Rhinitis & the English Countryside

That voice is back again. After a five year absence, the result of vocal health problems, Indian fusion pioneer Sheila Chandra has returned with an uncharacteristically edgy new album, This Sentence Is True (The Previous Sentence is False).

Born in South London to immigrant Indian parents, Chandra’s initial success came early, scoring a mainstream Top 10 hit, ‘Ever So Lonely’, in ’82, fronting the group Monsoon. Along with her husband/producer Steve Coe, she immediately embarked on a series of adventurous solo albums, charting new directions in vocal experimentation. Her trio of ground-breaking albums for Peter Gabriels’ Real World label in the early ‘90s, Weaving My Ancestor’s Voices, Zen Kiss, and AboneCroneDrone, solidified her growing legion of fans worldwide.

An integral forerunner for both the Anglo-Indian Bhangra dance scene and the current success of England’s ‘Asian Underground’ movement, Chandra absence from the World music stage for the last few years has been noticeable.

From her secluded rural home in Somerset, she spoke to SETH JORDAN for “RHYTHMS”.

Sheila, having gained popularity with a Top 10 single at the age of 16, your career has already spanned two decades, yet you’re still only in your mid-thirties.

Yes I started very young. I think people assume I’m much older than I am. That first single was fairly radical at the time, part of a genre that hadn’t even been invented yet, Asian fusion, and even the term World music wasn’t around then. I don’t think anyone used that term until 1987, and we recorded Monsoon back in ’82.

Your early solo recordings were also heard as part of that early wave of ‘80s Ambient music. Was that the mood you were trying to invoke, the ethereal soundscape?

What fascinated me was what could be done combining Asian structures and the Western pop culture that I’d grown up with. How the voice could be used in that arena, how they could be married. The thing that was so apparent to me early on was that there were no teachers, no rulebook, no one to guide me through that
process. That’s why my first four solo albums between ’83 and ’85 were done so quickly. Four albums in two years is a very short succession, but I needed all that time in the studio, mapping out what could be done in this genre. That’s why they’re so experimental and why none of my solo work was ever singles-oriented.

Those four albums have all recently just been re-released. How does it feel to have people listening to your early experiments in retrospect?

It’s very nice. It’s lovely that people have now have the full story, the full chronology of what I’ve explored as an artist, because many have only heard my later work.

I started off with as little knowledge about Indian music as anyone else. Steve Coe wrote for Monsoon and introduced me to a lot of those structures; the way a drone supports the solo instrument, and the way fixed note structures can be used over the drone. From there on in we were learning together and it was a very steep learning curve. So when people hear my current work, it might sound very complex, but if they’ve followed my earlier work, then I don’t think it’s so daunting.

With “This Sentence Is True” and going back to “Zen Kiss”, there seems to be an undercurrent of Zen references in your titles. Are you a closet Zen practitioner or do you just enjoy the mental wordplay?

I’m not a practitioner, but I probably should be! I don’t have any formal spiritual practice, but yes I do like the playfulness. It’s a religion with a sense of humour, which most others haven’t. It very well expresses that playful state that you get into as a creator. Creating can be god-like, especially in the studio, mucking about, making your musical world as you would have it, and even the definition we use of God as the Creator. But I don’t think we should take things too seriously, and Zen doesn’t take words too seriously.

On your new website (www.sheilachandra.com), you have a list of “Sentences Which Are False”, including “That you are a deeply spiritual person” – false; “That you meditate for an hour before breakfast” – false; “That you were classically trained in Indian music” – false. Have you continually had to battle that view from others, with people wanting you to be some exotic, deeply spiritual, Indian woman?

Twenty years ago it certainly was. All of those false sentences on the website are ones that I’ve actually been asked over and over. There were a lot of stereotypical expectations. Then the early 90s people were accusing me of being cold and calculating, because I was very articulate about how I’d constructed my vision for solo voice. So people do suspect you when you’re not what they expect you to be. But it’s less now, as the second generation of Indians here in England grows up, people are more PC, much more aware, with less stereotyping.

In that trilogy of Real World albums, you explored a full range of vocal possibilities and techniques that really pushed your voice. Did the intensity of those vocal practices lead to the voice problems that you started to experience a few years ago?

I had a medical problem, but it wasn’t as a result from singing in that way. The problem was I developed chronic rhinitis (inflammation of the nasal membrane). It can happen to anyone. There was no official cause in my case, although perhaps all the flying I did for my first season of live concerts, including coming down to Australia, didn’t have a very good effect on my sinuses. But I had food allergies before that and that’s another thing that probably set it off. So it wasn’t the singing, it was other things happening in my body. My body obviously wasn’t very happy.

My voice eventually needed remedial exercises to build back up the muscle tone that I had lost. Apart from the sinuses though, I was in very good shape. By the time I got to Australia the problems had really started to show. I did a couple of shows afterwards, but that was my last tour, because I was having to fight too hard to keep the sound quality up.

In the work that you were performing then, you concentrated on vocal sound rather than lyrics, and the drone came to the fore. Cities certainly have a drone; even the countryside where you’re living has a background ambient drone. Is the drone central to your understanding of sound?

Yeah, we surround ourselves with drones, probably because we drone. The stapes bone in the middle ear emits a drone all the time, which apparently is an average of all the frequencies that you are. Also the blood sings in our ears, so even if we put ourselves in an isolation booth, we can’t be away from drones. They’re the background to our life, and maybe even one could say, to life itself.
I do think that silence is an important backdrop to what I do, but with that trilogy of albums, making them so overtly about drone, it was going back to a commonality of musical heritage.

Even Western music until 500 years ago was all based around drone. Anything else, all this modern upstart pop music, modern classical stuff, it’s really an aberration. It’s not what the musical cultures of the world in the last 2,000 years, for the majority of time, have been doing. So yes, drone is a concept that’s very important to me.

Those Real World albums were very emotional pieces. What I was trying to do was to bring a number of techniques from vocal cultures around the world together, so that people could hear the commonality of the emotion, and how human beings in different places use the voice to express emotion.

Have you finished that vocal concept now? The new album sounds like it’s going in a quite different direction.

Yeah absolutely. I felt like I’d taken it to its ‘nth’ degree. The only exception is ‘AboneCroneDrone 7’ on the new album, because I felt that I could take it just one stage further and make the voice really almost invisible. I thought the listeners were ready for that. It’s a gorgeous, sonorous drone.

Your partner Steve comes to the fore more obviously than he has in the past, colouring your voice with a variety of sounds, even a bit of noise.

I wanted to get out of my voice-and-drone box. Steve’s been my producer and writer for the last 20 years. The perfect way to break out of my familiar territory was to let him also be an artist, and not to take everything so seriously. It’s a collaborative album with the Ganges Orchestra, which is the name for his projects.

So we were conscious that we were tapping into new sources, different working methods. We wanted to be a lot more playful. I exercised my right of veto much less, and at a later stage. I think that’s why this album is different. Steve has a mistrust of words, which gets fully explored on this album.

Why doesn’t he trust words?

Because he over-uses them! He’s aware of how easy they are to manipulate. As a producer he’s aware of how you can put a simple sound into various contexts to completely change your perception of it.

An example is the Gregorian chant on the track ‘True’. You’d normally hear that in a cathedral-like ambience, pretty much isolated, and with all the associated religious ideas that come as part of it. Juxtaposing it next to white noise, it takes on something completely different. So he knows very well how to manipulate sound, but he’s wary of words, it’s a dilemma for him, and he doesn’t know whether to trust them or not.

Even with Steve’s noises, your music doesn’t sound much like the other Indian-based stuff that’s coming out of urban London these days. How much does your rural lifestyle, the English countryside, affect your music?

It’s very divorced from the Asian Underground in that sense. It comes from a different essence, a different focus. It has silence as the backdrop, and you can’t do that in an urban environment, where you’re always dealing with other people’s noise.

Here silence makes any choice possible and my thought process isn’t interrupted.

And do you feel fully English yourself?

It’s so difficult to answer. As I don’t speak any Indian languages, how I express myself is very English indeed. The English like the  underdog, they like eccentrics. They foster and encourage eccentric forms of creativity. And I have been influenced by the English landscape. It’s home.

I don’t go back to India. Certainly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and until quite recently really, India regarded what was happening in the Asian Diaspora here in a very patronizing light. They felt that we were a cultural outpost, when in fact I think that what we’ve done here is much more musically adventurous, and it’s now going back and influencing them. But it meant that in physical terms I cut off from India, and certainly didn’t feel that I needed to get any authority or validation from there.

Are you paying attention to the Asian Underground scene these days? Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney?

Not very much. They are mostly collaborators. They’re more DJs, writer/arrangers. Arranging other people. It’s an event and it requires a lot more people. They bounce off other musicians. I don’t think we really work in the same manner.

Are you planning on touring with the new music? Is it performable?

No, I’ve written it free from the constraints of wondering how it could be replicated onstage. It’s far too layered and complicated and not very practical in that way. I think of the studio as the leading edge of what I do. It has effects, like in the theatre, which you can’t get anywhere else. It’s the dimensions and form of that place.

Also there’s my voice problem. It’s back to about 90% now, but what’s missing is stamina, and until that’s back and I feel confident that I’m not over-pushing it, I’ll restrict myself to the studio. So no live work for the moment, but I’m happy that I finally have my voice back again.

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Youssou N’dour – Griot For The 21st Century

Youssou N'Dour
The unmistakable voice of Youssou N’dour, Senegal’s most successful export, comes down the line from Paris, patiently explaining the details of his unusual life and the release of his first album in over five years, “Joko”. With his command of the English language greatly improved since his last visit to Australia in ’92 for the inaugural Womadelaide Festival, N’dour is relaxed and expansive, carefully choosing his words, and remarkably free of the self-obsession that one often expects from major international stars. But then Youssou N’dour has always stood apart from the crowd.

Born in Dakar in 1959 N’dour, unlike many West African artists, does comes from a griot family on his mother’s side, the traditional keepers of the country’s oral history. Steeped in music from an early age, he gave his first public performance at the age of 12 and later studied music theory at Dakar’s Ecole des Arts. It was natural for him to gravitate to the city’s thriving club scene in the mid-70s, where he quickly gained the country’s attention as the new precocious young singer with the Star Band, already a Senegalese institution for over 15 years. By the early 80s, N’dour was West Africa’s biggest name musician and he took advantage of his popularity by forming his own band, Super Etoile, taking with him his longtime talking drum (tama) player Assane Thiam. Singing predominately in his native language, Wolof, with a smattering of French and English lyrics, he addressed topical issues familiar to his listeners, as well as emotive love songs and the more traditional historical stories. He also championed a new rhythmic style known as mbalax, which set the dance floors of Dakar alight.

He began touring Europe in ’83, penning his first international hit “Immigres” concerning the thousands of African migrants living in Paris and elsewhere, and coming to the attention of Peter Gabriel. “The thing that amazed me was his voice, like liquid silver”, said Gabriel at the time. “I felt the hairs rising on the back of my neck”. His involvement with Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and others on Amnesty International’s “Human Rights Now!” tour in ’88 gave him further international credibility, and his duet single with Gabriel, “Shakin’ The Tree”, received worldwide airplay. A short contract with Virgin Records produced the lacklustre “The Lion” in ’89, and the far better “Set” in ’90. He moved over to American film director Spike Lee’s fledgling “40 Acres And A Mule” label (through Columbia/Sony) in ‘92 for the gorgeous “Eyes Open”, and achieved his biggest chart success with ‘94’s “The Guide (Wommat)”, which spawned the massive hit duet single alongside Neneh Cherry, “Seven Seconds”.

In ’93 N’dour was appointed a special UNICEF ambassador, giving benefit concerts to raise awareness of the growing AIDS epidemic in Africa, especially among children. He also opened his own state-of-the-art Xippi Studio in Dakar, where he’s produced two fine albums for fellow Senegalese singer, Cheikh Lo, amongst others. He’s continued to tour regularly with Super Etoile, still one of the very best African bands in the business, featuring Jimmy Mbaye on guitar, Habib Faye on bass, and Thiam on tama.

Relatively quiet on the international scene for the last few years, N’dour has now returned with “Joko”. The new album reunites him with both Gabriel and Sting, and features shared production duties between England’s Johnny Dollar, Frenchmen Jean-Phillipe Rykiel and George Acogny and the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean from New York, who also contributes a couple of righteous raps.

Youssou, in the early 90s you released three albums, but until this new album, there’s been nothing
since “The Guide (Wommat)”. Was it time to take a break for a while over the last few years?

No, firstly I toured everywhere to support that last album and then I went back to Africa to do lots of things. I’ve been doing soundtracks and playing at clubs in Dakar, Abidjan, all over Africa, it’s been a busy time. I’ve also been doing a lot of production at my studio, exposing other African talent to the world. When you make an album it’s something that you have to wait for until you’re really ready.

The name “Joko”, that translates as “Hope”, is that correct?

Yeah, hope and connection between sound, between village and town, between people.

So often when the rest of the world looks at Africa, especially through the eyes of the nightly news, we see calamity and strife. We see wars, famine, floods and disease. Is there too much attention paid to these stories and not enough to the positive ones? Where do you see the hope that you sing about?

Well the floods in Mozambique, this is something natural. Africa doesn’t really need it, but it’s coming from God. Africa has plenty of positive things that I want to show the world. The Western image of Africa, disasters, war, AIDS, those things definitely exist, but there are always two sides of life and I want to concentrate on the positive things that are happening.

Despite all the production work you’ve been doing, when it came to producing “Joko”, you chose a number of other producers to come in on different tracks. We’re you trying for an album that had a wide variety of different sounds?

Yeah. Over the last ten years, I’ve travelled a lot, met a lot of different people, and I had it in my mind to connect my music with many other kinds. I need to join with other producers with different experience to help me make my message.

Was the travelling you speak of part of your musical touring over the last few years, or just travelling on your own?

Sometimes after I’ve been playing, the other musicians would leave and I’d stay on for a couple of days. Some places I just go by myself to listen to the music, feel the vibe. It’s funny because I travel a lot, I go far and when I’m very far away I think of home, I think of the sound of the village. The more you go far, the more you feel close to home.

I know that when you are home in Senegal because of your notoriety it’s sometimes difficult for you to go out without being recognised. Do you enjoy the anonymous nature of travelling to places where you’re not hassled as much?

Yes definitely! I like Senegal, it’s my place, but sometimes it gets too much for me, too much pressure. When I go to places where no one recognises me I feel free. I walk, I do my things, it’s different. I like the two ways, I like to leave Senegal, but it also always makes me think about home.

I hear quite a bit of acoustic guitar on the new album. You were trying to bring that sound to the fore?

Yes, for this album I used a lot of acoustic guitar, because the sound is closer to the percussion. The rhythms I use are coming from the south of Senegal, Casamance, traditional rhythms, and they blend well with the percussive way that the acoustic guitar can be played.

You’ve used some new and some old friends on the album, including a new vocal duet with Peter Gabriel. You two seemed to have remained close over the years.

Peter has a great respect for my music and music coming from different places, and he’s very involved with that connection. If you listen to his music today you hear elements coming from Asia, from Africa. It’s a pleasure for me to do something new with him. For this album I was trying to recreate my journeys, my travelling, and that always includes Peter Gabriel. I give him something and he gives me something, it’s great.

Gabriel of course is an exception because of his admirable work setting up the WOMAD organization and his Real World label, but do you ever have a problem with Western musicians using African influences, or indeed using African musicians, in order to take commercial advantage of the popularity of World music?

I don’t think so. Some people say, “They’re using our music”, but no one says how African music itself has also been influenced by Western ways. It’s certainly influenced mine. For myself I don’t mind if someone uses our music. They usually just check it in order to have something different for awhile and then on their next album they just leave it out and go on to something else.

The Western influence on your own music is obvious on the new album with your cover version of the old Smokey Robinson hit, “Don’t Look Back”. That was a bit of a surprise.

Yeah, in the past I used to buy a lot of those Temptations sort of things, the Motown vibe. I think that time was really very creative. When I met Wyclef Jean and we were talking about doing a cover, I just said that “Don’t Look Back” was one of my favourites. When I listen to old soul music, black music, I think that sort of music left Africa in the slavery period and I feel part of it. For me even something like Latino music feels very natural.

Wyclef has quite an influence on the album even though he only produces a few tracks. Where did you meet up with him?

I met Wyclef about two years ago in London. I just told him how much I liked his work with the Fugees. I thought their last album was really fantastic. He said that he really liked one of my songs and I thought that he meant “Seven Seconds”, but he said, “No, “Birima”. Now “Birima” had already been released in Senegal three years ago and he had heard it in Paris, and he really wanted us to do something together, so we remixed that song first.

Can you tell us a little about the story of “Birima”? I believe he was a young Senegalese king?

That’s right. In Kaolack in the centre of Senegal this king had the power. He was a little different and used to bring the griots together to sing a certain form of traditional song, and I’m a big fan of this kind of singing. This was when griots played a really big role in the traditional society. Birima brought them all together. I’m not really a singles artist, I think more of the whole album, but the music companies think that way, so we’ve done a new video for “Birima” and I’m proud to have it as a single.

Despite thinking of the songs in an album context, on the last album you had a huge success worldwide singing with Neneh Cherry on “Seven Seconds”. Did its incredible success surprise you, and given your long career does it bother you that such a commercial song is the one that most people know you for now?

“Seven Seconds” success was not something I was expecting. I think of it as a big door for the rest of my music. Neneh and I were really happy to do it. When it was really big everywhere though I was telling everybody, “Hey, hey, wait, I’m not someone just arriving, I’ve already had a career”, but now I just think of it as an opportunity to get people to listen to all my other music.

Do you ever feel that there’s a danger in watering down the traditional sound in favour of having a big commercial success?

Barriers mean that people are trying to go further. Every music has an influence from everywhere else. Some Western people think that African music is something pure and exotic and if we try to do something different, they think it’s worthless. An African is just a person. I travel a lot and I know how to write a universal song, a pop song. Sometimes I feel like writing something modern, other times I feel like staying closer to my traditional. It’s the way to keep the passion for music that I have, the passion that I really want to give. If I have to stay with only one style it’s going to be difficult for me. I try each time to keep it exciting.

You used the same production team from “Seven Seconds” on the new song “Don’t Walk Away”, which is a duet with Sting. That’s another old friendship, isn’t it?

Yeah, we met in ’88 on the Amnesty tour. I was a big fan of the Police, because I thought they were the pop connection to reggae. On the Amnesty tour we use to try and sing higher than each other on some parts, and it was a really funny time. So when I was writing this new song I heard his voice in my head and I just called him, and he was happy to do it. With the producers, after “Seven Seconds” I spent a lot of time with Johnny Dollar and he’s a great musician and he understands the way I like to work, so I used him again.

The track that caught my ear immediately is the beautifully expansive “Yama”. That’s a song about
traditional African women?

I was thinking about the story of the village and that song celebrates all African women, the role that they play in village life. Think about with the kids, think about the food, everything. “Yama” is just a name to symbolise the woman in Africa, the role they play in a traditional way, and also the way they try today to be emancipated.

Has your great Super Etoile Band changed any members in the last few years?

I’ve kept most of them. I changed only two musicians. We’ve learned a lot of things together. I feel that when we’re travelling it’s like a family travelling. They’re really talented and they still like my music and my direction.

I remember when you were out here in ’92 for Womadelaide there were two African bands that year, yours and Remmy Ongala’s from Tanzania. Two very different bands. Remmy’s band was loose, fun and crazy, but Super Etoile was one of the most impressive, disciplined, unified and experienced groups I’d ever seen.

Yeah, we look like a team. We have a lot of experience. I think music for us is spiritual firstly. We are like ambassadors playing for our continent and the way we do it is important. To show the world a different image from Africa.

Speaking of ambassador work, are you still involved in your role with UNICEF?

Yeah I still work with them. It’s great. I think music is power. It’s a gift from God and we can use it to support justice and looking around to amplify the work of UNICEF or Amnesty International or Jubilee 2000 or something like that. I’m really someone who wants to move forward, more than just playing music or staying at home.

Youssou, last year your countryman and fellow singer Baaba Maal was out in Australia and he told me about the unusual social role that both you and he are accorded in Senegal these days. In the city it seems as though you’ve taken on part of the role that in a traditional village would belong to the Chief. Baaba said that you both have people lining up outside your houses on designated days, in order to petition your help for individual personal projects, to ask advise, to ask for financial assistance and to facilitate connections to the government or other important people. Is that essentially correct?

Yes. When I’m in Senegal we have the time to talk to people. It’s mostly social things, to help them. I think the role of musicians, artists is definitely changed now. The view people have of us is publicly different. The music and work we do now is 50% for us and 50% is for the people. It gives us a lot of background, a lot of culture, and we use it sometimes to help the people.

So the traditional griot’s role from past centuries, as an entertainer and historian, has turned into a wider one with more social responsibilities?

The traditional role is still here, but my generation has changed the role of musicians. Sometimes I think we look like a much more modern griot. Modern griot means people come to talk to you about the modern society, about giving them money, they pray, they believe in you, but you know, they’re wanting something from you. It’s become something we do.

You close the new album with a heartfelt song called “New Africa”, where you sing about a possible future Africa that has no borders. One nation, one continent. Do you see this as a realistic goal or is this concept just a dream that you have?

I think it’s more a beautiful dream. I’m not trying to resolve all the problems, I just propose my way, the way I’d like it to happen. Maybe it’s just a dream but maybe one day the dream will come true.

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