Issa Bagayogo was known as “Techno Issa” in his homeland of Mali. He topped the charts in 2002 with Timbuktu, an album that spawned a host of imitators hoping to match his blend of Malian roots music and Western dance technology. But no one’s been able to pull it off as convincingly and as elegantly as Issa did.
Blurring the line between old and new is something that Bagayogo did since his first album, Sya, in 1998. He used the classic combination of a lone male voice and a small female chorus, in a call-and-response pattern; and in the tradition of Malian singers, who have always addressed social concerns, he often broke into a kind of speech-song that sounded like a distant ancestor of rap. His lyrics, too, bridged old and new. Traditional concerns like ethnic and cultural pride were side by side with songs about AIDS and drug use.
Bagayogo himself kicked a nearly decade-long drug habit before recording his album Sya. He used the ngoni. The 3-string n’goni is considered a spiritual instrument so Bagayogo used the 6-string version, which is more suitable for secular music.
Tassoumakan (meaning “Voice of Fire”) was Issa’s third full-length CD for Six Degrees, and representrd the maturing of an artist who had found a way to honor his country’s great musical traditions while creating a truly global, modern sound. His recordings were made in Bamako, Mali’s capital city, rather than one of the Afropop hit factories in Paris or London. Yves Wernert’s studio was set up in Mali in the early 1990s with the goal of allowing the musicians there to create their own brand of new music, and Bagayogo did that. His band included some of Mali’s top guitarists, like Karamokou Diabate and Mama Sissoko, and the result was an organic mix of West African and Western pop.
Mali’s musical landscape is a fair bit dimmer with the death of Issa Bagayogo. The singer and musician passed away after a long illness on October 10, 2016. Mr. Bagayogo was 55.
Born in to a poor family in the small village of Korin in a section of the Bougouni Cercle, a part of the Sikasso region of Mali, Mr. Bagayogo found his way to music as a young boy by way of the daro, an iron bell struck to set the rhythm of field workers in Mali, before picking up and learning to play the kamele n’goni, a six-stringed instrument similar to an oud or guitar found in West Africa. He garnered local attention with his playing and singing local songs before heading off to Bamako in 1991 to record his first cassette that didn’t seem to catch on with music fans. Soon, another cassette followed in 1993, again without much success.
Dispirited and working as a bus driver, Mr. Bagayogo sunk into depression and addiction, losing his wife and the bus driving job as a result. This low point would take him back to his home village and essentially disappear from the music scene. By the late 1990s, Mr. Bagayogo would finally put his life back on track by quitting the drugs, travel back to Bamako and fashion his own sound out of the musical traditions of his home region with those of rock, funk, electronica and dub styles.
Earning the nickname “Techno Issa” by way of his mix of Mali’s musical roots and western dance, Mr. Bagayogo earned a name not only through his singing and playing, but also by way of his music that tacked such issues as cultural pride, drug use, AIDS and other social issues. Throughout his career, Mr. Bagayogo worked with keyboardist and producer Yves Wernert and bandmates and guitarists Karamoukou Diabate and Mama Sissoko. Mr. Bagayogo would go on to record Sya, Timbuktu, Tassoumakan and Mali Koura, all on the Six Degrees Records label.
In a statement, Six Degrees Records said, “All of us at Six Degrees Records are greatly saddened to learn that our friend and artist, Issa Bagayogo has passed away after a lengthy illness. He was a kind and gentle soul, whose music touched many people around the world & moved many a dance-floor.”
Mr. Bagayogo will be returned to his home village in Korin Bougouni for burial.
The July and August free Sunset Concerts scheduled at Skirball Cultural Center include Issa Bagayogo; Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, and Väsen; Gadji-Gadjo; The Wild Magnolias; and Omar Faruk Tekbilek Ensemble.
On Thursdays in July and August at 8 pm, the series presents global masters of musical enchantment and cultural fusion at the Los Angeles museum and performing arts venue, often in their United States or Los Angeles debuts, all in a uniquely inspiring, intimate atmosphere.
But the Skirball does more than put on a fine show. It opens its galleries, currently featuring two exhibitions on the enduring art of comic books, for special evening hours. It offers a buffet dinner at the Skirball’s Zeidler’s Café, often serving cuisine from the region of that night’s performers. It even provides inexpensive and ample parking in the facility’s newly expanded parking lots.
The Skirball goes to these lengths for a reason that may surprise those who consider the Skirball as dedicated solely to Jewish culture. “It is essential to our mission as a Jewish institution to present global artists,” explains Jordan Peimer, Skirball Director of Programs. “At the heart of all of our programming is the core Jewish value of welcoming the stranger. It’s built into everything that we do.”
Along with openhanded hospitality, this welcoming spirit is reflected in the Skirball’s goal of promoting cross-cultural exchange. “Our mission is about inclusion,” continues Peimer. “World music celebrates people’s cultural heritage, the history and ideas they bring with them when they encounter new communities, the universal values that transcend time and place. The music we present is about the generational gifting of culture. We want people of all backgrounds to have an investment in their ethnic and cultural identities and to celebrate them within a society in which all of us can feel at home.”
To the Skirball, this is a gift that musicians share with each other, as well as with an audience: to create a forum for sharing stories and celebrating ancient legacies. Adds Skirball Music Director Yatrika Shah-Rais, “When artists collaborate with sincerity and true respect, what often emerges is an amazing fusion that stands out as its own unique music. That is what always comes across at our Sunset Concerts.”
In this summer’s 2009 season, Sunset Concerts will showcase innovative fusion, thanks to the electronica-fired Malian grooves of Issa Bagayogo (Thursday, July 16); the trans-Atlantic, bluegrass-meets-Swedish folk encounter of Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, and Väsen (Thursday, July 23; L.A. premiere); the Roma and klezmer-inflected jams of Montreal’s Gadji-Gadjo (Thursday, July 30; Los Angeles premiere); the serious funk of New Orleans beloved Mardi Gras Indian ensemble The Wild Magnolias (Thursday, August 6); and the Sufi-inspired virtuosity of Turkish multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek Ensemble (Thursday, August 13).
The young Issa Bagayogo, now known in his native Mali as “Techno Issa,” seemed destined for a career as a blacksmith, not as a global dance-floor sensation. Despite remarkable talent on the three-stringed n’goni lute, a long-lost relative of the banjo, Bagayogo was down and out in Bamako working as a bus driver when he ran into French electronica producer Yves Wernert. They teamed up to create a sound that showcases Bagayogo’s sixth sense for honoring treasured traditions while grooving to edgy beats.
Bluegrass innovators Mike Marshall on mandolin and Darol Anger on fiddle dreamed of jamming with the guys from Swedish instrumental trio Väsen after learning a few of their tunes from recordings. When they wound up on stage together one night, the five musicians realized how perfectly Appalachia’s fiddle tunes could intertwine with Swedish dances on the nyckelharpa. Transforming the sounds of their musical forefathers in the increasingly global spirit of folk, Marshall , Anger, and Väsen have discovered that for passionate musicians, the Atlantic is a bridge easily crossed. (Los Angeles premiere)
Gadji-Gadjo take their passion for the zesty sounds of Roma and klezmer-along with jazz and other beloved genres-and infuse it into soaring, elegant improvisations and songs with true joie-de-vivre. Based in Montreal and wryly referring to their non-Gypsy status in their name, the sextet moves effortlessly and irrepressibly through lightning-fast dances and playful choruses, paying merry homage to the myriad cultures that forged Eastern European Jewish and Gypsy music. (Los Angeles premiere)
[image2_right]The Wild Magnolias sound like the best down-and-dirty funk band you’ve ever heard. But they carry an entire history in their booty-shaking music and unforgettably flamboyant costumes. As Mardi Gras Indians, the Wild Magnolias represent the defiant demand for pride their African-American ancestors made when faced with the rising tide of racism in 19th-century New Orleans, as well as their gratitude to the Choctaws and other Native Americans who aided escaping slaves, effectively welcoming the stranger.
The night before the Wild Magnolias take the stage, the Skirball will screen Tootie’s Last Suit, an insightful documentary about late legendary Mardi Gras Indian Allison “Tootie” Montana, revered for turning Mardi Gras Indian life away from gang-style violence towards artistic accomplishment
Omar Faruk Tekbilek intuited the connection between prayer and music one afternoon while playing the flute as a child in Turkey. That connection has guided the masterful multi-instrumentalist ever since, as he evolved from sought-after young musician in Istanbul to immigrant blue-collar worker in the U.S. to world-recognized peacemaker and virtuoso. Tekbilek weaves melodies and songs from across the Eastern Mediterranean into stunning compositions reflecting the Sufi belief that all is one.