Régis Gizavo (1959 -2017)

Posted on July 21st, 2017 in News, Recent posts by .

Régis Gizavo

Régis Gizavo © C. Paes / Laterite productions, photo extradite de “Songs for Madagascar”

Words by Ulrike Hanna Meinhof

One of the most important and best-loved musicians from Madagascar, the brilliant accordionist, songwriter and singer Régis Gizavo died of a heart attack on July 16. It happened during a concert in Corsica where he was performing with the Corsican group Alba. He was due to play with Toko Telo at WOMAD Charlton Park next week.

Gizavo was born in Tulear in the South-West of Madagascar, from where he made his way to the capital Antananarivo. There he recorded his first songs for which in 1990 he received the coveted ‘Prix Decouvertes’ of the French radio station RFI. Regis talked amusingly about how he suddenly saw himself on a clip shown on public tv, not having realised till that moment that he had won the prize and that his adventure to Europe was about to begin. He recorded five albums, one of which, with Louis Mhlanga and David Mirandon, was a Top of the World in 2006 (Songlines #40).

Since 1990 he lived in France, performing worldwide as a solo artist, but also with other musicians such as the Corsican group I Muvrini, the Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, and the Brazilian singer Lenine, to name but a few. Since 2006 he was a member of the illustrious Madagascar All Stars, comprising musicians from diverse regions of the country who memorably performed at Songlines Encounters in 2012. Losing Gizavo, with his extraordinary music, his unbounding energy, his infectious laugh, his great pleasure in life and his deep and lasting friendship, will leave a terrible gap.

This is evident in the feature documentary Songs for Madagascar, directed by Cesar Paes from Laterit productions in Paris, which has only just opened in French cinemas after its first screenings at international film festivals. It shows Gizavo talking about his life, rehearsing with his musician friends, performing songs such as ‘Malaso’, an indictment of the local bandits who steal zebu cattle from poor peasants, and a song about the drongo bird whose black colour the song celebrates alongside all the other colours in the world – a typically subtle reminder of how mixed we all are. He will be missed in Madagascar, in France and around the world.

Gizavo was only 58 years old and leaves a wife and a young son at their home in Paris.

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Live review | Montréal Jazz Festival

Posted on July 19th, 2017 in Recent posts by .

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Photo by Michael Jackson

Martin Longley explores the abundance of global music on offer at the Montréal Jazz Festival

Like many jazz festivals, Montréal has ample room to present other musical forms, so it’s easy to experience a complete global music orientated schedule, if so desired. Most of these choices are available freely on the Canadian city’s multiple open-air stages, with abundant alternatives made possible via the sheer overload of what is famed as the world’s biggest jazz festival. The entire arts complex part of the city is completely overrun with indoor, ticketed gigs and freebie outdoor shows, creating a temporary community of thousands.

Feisty female singers were to the fore. Even in this three-day slice of the 11-day feast (July 2-4), it was possible to catch Betty Bonifassi, Buika (pictured above), A-WA and Flavia Coelho, all delivering tasty sets. The latter Rio singer/guitarist doesn’t sound massively Brazilian, spending most of her set spouting tongue-twisting ragga, dancehall and heavy dub numbers, with the occasional frothy French chanson dribbled into the cocktail. Coelho’s keyboardist and drummer helped to create a full and heavy reggae weight, the latter stepping forward during the encore to voice rugged and deep in the Prince Far I fashion. Coelho is a dynamo – singing, dancing, spouting Afro-Brazilian semi-acoustic guitar licks and transforming into a ragga gyrator, sometimes all in the space of a single number.

Buika played a ticketed show in the Place des Arts, subtly bathed in a deep crimson lightshow glow, which was presumably a deliberate aid to enhance the sultry atmosphere. Unfortunately, her audience were more inclined than most to bathe themselves in a cellphone glow, shooting and snapping incessantly, and working directly against the mood-flow. Regardless, this Spanish singer’s deep-toned power was sufficient to grasp and hold our attention, as she skirted away from her flamenco roots into more generalised song-forms. It was actually the more flamenco soaked
parts of Buika’s set which held the most power, where her band appeared to be most natural in their negotiations.

A-WA are a trio of Tel Aviv sisters with Yemenite roots, melding traditional vocal harmonies with quirky electro-pop, and progressing towards a psychedelic rock climax. Their open air set magnetised a varied crowd, many of whom appeared to be discovering these sounds for the first time. All were most emphatically converted.

The main outdoor TD stage is right next to the Place des Arts, and every night it features a pair of crowd-magnet sets, with the same act appearing at 9pm and 11pm. Brazilian combo Bixiga 70 have a samba funk core, but are just as likely to rove into Afrobeat or reggae territory, with three horns, two percussionists, drums, bass, keys and a pair of guitarists. They’re squarely directed at the festival circuit, but this makes them prone to an overload of crowd-goading tactics. One of the most appealing sequences was a percussion work-out, with djembe and cowbell, guitar and cheese-grater joining later, and the horns riffing back into the fray. Each band member gets a chance in the spotlight as the set progresses, with a particularly impressive trombone blast-off being a stand-out.

Adding to the Latin presence, Roberto Fonseca played with an added horn section, and the Peruvian ensemble Bareto started out on the smaller Hyundai outdoor stage with a slightly cheesy approach. Their tunes steadily toughened up, and their leading man drew the audience closer with some witty banter, so there was a markedly altered vibration by set’s end.

The Heineken stage (this is the fest’s beery overlord, so craft brews are not much in evidence) is the home for rootsy Americana, whether country, rockabilly, blues or rock’n’roll. The French/Québécois Youngstown trio inhabit most of those styles, but can mainly be described as countrybilly, with a high quavering singer operating on the punky Dolly Parton front. Local blues harmonica man Guy Bélanger also had a repeated midnight slot on this stage, inflating the crowd with bonus energy following their full days of music cramming.

On the actual jazz front, the ‘discovery’ of the festival was trumpeter Hichem Khalfa, residing locally, but born in France. His soloing has a pronounced Middle Eastern attack, with crisp, staccato phrases dodging around the reverberant electro-washes of his keyboardist, creating a highly effective sonic contrast. An Arabic modality scampers above tough fusion precision. The jazz purists could have their own hardcore experience by choosing different shows, and likewise with the frothy pop kids, but one of the pleasures of this Montréal festival is that the attendee
can plot completely alternative pathways through the dense number of potential entertainments.

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Oumou Sangaré: Mali’s muse

Posted on July 18th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .

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Malian diva Oumou Sangaré is making a long-awaited comeback. Pierre Cuny speaks to her about returning to the recording studio and the themes that inspire her songs

Over the years, the reputation of Oumou Sangaré, one of the greatest living Malian singers, has grown from a socially conscious local artist to a leading African public figure. Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation and a prosperous businesswoman, Oumou has continually maintained the flame of rebellion against injustices. It has always been via music that this figure of African women’s emancipation has transmitted her ideals.

Ever since the elegant reissue last year of Oumou’s successful 1990 recording Moussolou on World Circuit, it was common knowledge in Mali that her new album was on the point of coming out. For fans of the African diva, it was going to be a huge event – not only in Mali but also throughout the continent.

Together with Laurent Bizot, head of No Format!, the French label she has chosen to produce her new musical adventure, Mogoya, Oumou decided to completely shake up her soundscape – very much a conscious decision. She explains: “I selected No Format because they have operated with a large number of African musicians. Laurent has worked for several years with Salif Keita, he knows Malian music very well and he loves black music.” The label also works with other Malian virtuosos such as the supreme kora player Ballaké Sissoko and griot singer Kassé Mady Diabaté, a national treasure in Mali. “Happily, relations with World Circuit and Nick Gold remain solid and we are in complete agreement with this change,” smiles Oumou. Four outstanding albums were produced during 1993 to 2009 with World Circuit, as well as a double-CD compilation, which was released in 2003.

Taking the tapes on which she had been working over the past two years with Swedish producer and bass player Andreas Unge, Oumou travelled to the northern suburb of Paris and met with the three studio magicians who make up the collective known as A.L.B.E.R.T. In their studio jam-packed with sound equipment resembling something like Ali Baba’s cave, the young French musician-producers Vincent Taeger, Vincent Taurelle and Ludovic Bruni had recently completed the last Tony Allen album among other luminaries.

On the strength of her melodies, lyrics and voice alone, the team went to work. Maintaining the essential kamalengoni of Benogo Diakité, the electric guitar of Guimba Kouyaté and occasional drums of Tony Allen, they totally remixed and played over the tapes. Oumou was ecstatic and pushed them to continue. “We did not want Mogoya to sound like something which could have been produced in 1998 or 2000,” explains Bizot. The three musicians advanced with feeling and when they saw that Oumou was confident – telling them to “go for it boys” – they knew they had got it. The result is an album sprinkled with judicious sound effects that creative DJs will undoubtedly be playing to heat up dance floors across the world.

The kamalengoni (or ‘young man’s harp’) propels the sound. This eight-stringed instrument, based on the original Wassoulou ritual hunter’s harp, is the soul of Oumou’s music and her melodies are all accompanied by it. In her concerts Oumou constantly has her eye on the kamalengoni. “Village youngsters who love the rough sound can do anything with it: reggae, funk, rap or blues,” she explains, adding, “good thing that the A.L.B.E.R.T. collective decided to place this instrument in prime position on most of the tracks.”

Clearly in great form, Oumou is holding court at the intimate offices of No Format. With her natural majestic allure, this great lady breathes serenity and goodwill. Actively engaged in international citizen movements and at the head of several successful businesses around Bamako, she still maintains a mischievous, childlike spirit. Her laugh resounds frequently and as she evokes each of her songs you can hear her humming the melodies. Time passes in a most delicious manner.

Eight years have passed since her last studio album, Seya. As Oumou herself explains: “I prepare each song quietly to avoid the stress and take time to think. When my new albums are under preparation, the pressure is unimaginable; everyone is asking, when will it be ready? What will be the theme? My words are extremely important for my fans and so I take time so as not to disappoint them. I create by crafting and caring for my lyrics and do not rush. They are inside of me. At the same time, I have many business occupations: I built a hotel in Bamako, which I manage once again due to the disorder of the team while I was travelling. I also have a large livestock farm with many employees, rice fields and a fish farm, as well as a car dealership. All this while touring incessantly throughout Africa. So I prepare my material slowly avoiding stress and giving me time to think. That is why it has taken so long.”

So that equates to almost one year of work for each of the nine songs on this ambitious album. Like a sage, Oumou’s words offer advice and motivation. She sees her role as trying to diffuse tensions in her country. “I am a Muslim, but certainly not fundamentalist,” she asserts. “I believe in God and respect all other religions and all human beings. I don’t understand the radicalised Muslims. One must respect each other. The songs I write are taken from events in society, events which disturb.”

Despite recent multiple terrorist attacks, Oumou accepted to be godmother to Wassoulou-Ballé, a music festival situated 240km from Bamako. “Our role as an artist is to be with the population, at their side during the most troubled times. Terrorism is at the forefront of everyone’s minds but we must continue to live. Despite the turbulent current situation in Mali, music remains a standing force.”

Speaking of the lyrics featured on Mogoya, which translates as ‘Human Relations Today,’ Oumou describes what she knows best. She is very affected by the tribulations of daily life and specific problems women in Africa face, urging them to overcome their suffering and enjoy life to the full.

One of the most emotional songs on the album is ‘Yere Faga’, sung in Bamana, the vernacular language in Mali. It means suicide. “Suicide has always existed in my country,” she states, “but it is a phenomenon which is increasing alarmingly. People seem to have more and more difficulties that they find overwhelming. I try to tell them to be stronger than the problems and counteract them full on. I have had to face millions of problems in my life, heard so many lies and rumours about myself. I say to people, take example from me and remain strong. The problems will always go away.”

Oumou herself has clearly not been spared from her share of life’s difficulties. Abandoned by her father at a very young age, she possesses a burning ambition to honour her mother who brought up a family of six with no help whatsoever. “My mother – I owe her everything! The force that is in me comes from this brave woman. When my father walked out and went to live in Ivory Coast, it was a catastrophe for us. My mother said to me: ‘Oumou, I have fought alone without compromise, I never sold myself or dirtied my children. I believe in me and in God. It has been so hard but I fought’.” On another very moving song on the album, ‘Minata Waraba’ (Minata the Lioness), Oumou pays homage to her mother, Aminata Diakité.

It was through her mother that Oumou, as a very young child, came to sing. She would accompany her mother at local weddings and baptisms, where Aminata was invited to sing at the ritual services, called soumous. At the age of five, Oumou’s gifted voice, with its strength and clarity, was already the centrepiece of the ceremony. “I had this energy while singing and people would give me money; it would pour from all sides like rain, like an act of God,” she recalls. “I would run home with my T-shirt stuffed with banknotes for my mother!”

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Oumou was born in Bamako to a Peul family originating from the forested region of Wassoulou in the south-west of Mali bordering Guinea and Ivory Coast. “Everything was Wassoulou in my home: the mentality, the language, the food,” she says. Her music has a strong connection to the traditions of the brotherhood of hunters of Wassoulou and is primordial in its mentality. It was these same hunters who liberated the country from the oppression of tyranny at the beginning of the 13th century. Their philosophy of freedom centred around their declaration that ‘man is an individual, he is free, his soul lives for three elements: to see what he wants to see, to say what he wants to say, to do what he wants to do.’ This was the basis of the Mande Charter, one of the most ancient constitutions, that dates from the same period as the Magna Carta. The singularity of Oumou is to claim that all Malian women should access this freedom of speech and have the liberty to say no to polygamy and yes to school education.

At the age of 21, Oumou hit the country by storm with her first record, Moussolou. Two of the tracks completely shocked the population of Mali. It was the first time that a female singer had spoken out so freely: ‘Diya Gneba’ encourages women to refuse forced marriage and ‘Diaraby Nene’ openly addresses female desire. Where, I wonder, does this desire for freedom of speech come from? “I am not a griot,” she explains. “A griot addresses only noble or wealthy families. I speak to everyone through my songs, rich or poor, man or woman. I have the right to do it!”

“Women in Mali are traumatised by some of the traditions, such as excision [FGM],” she continues. “It is impossible to make rapid changes to this system and I have to go slowly, explaining and talking regularly about the risks and the suffering that is caused. Everything is done softly and in songs. It is in this way that I am gaining the confidence of women. Once completed, they will stop these traditions. I have faced a lot of social pressure because of this, but things are changing. People are following me now and supporting me.”

As we head into a recording room to listen to her new opus, Oumou beams and whispers “for the moment I dream that Mogoya is played simply in local clubs. The African youth need these sounds to move, to dance!”

On an almost-deserted parking lot outside of Paris, Bizot and his No Format team are speaking of Oumou when a local youth overhears and comes over. “Oumou? Are you speaking about Oumou Sangaré?” Bizot replies, “Yes, we are working on her new album.” Holding his hand gently to his heart, the youth exclaims, “but this is fantastic! Oumou Sangaré is the queen!”

This article originally appeared in Songlines #127. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs

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Johnny Kalsi: a beginner’s guide

Posted on July 18th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .

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Jim Hickson reflects on the career of the world’s most famous – and busiest – dhol player

There are few people as synonymous with their instrument as Johnny Kalsi is with the Punjabi double-sided barrel drum, the dhol. The drum lends bhangra music its distinctive sound and Kalsi has probably done more for this amazing instrument’s popularity around the world than anyone. It’s clear that there’s never enough music for Johnny Kalsi: he’s been involved with almost every world fusion group you could mention. If you’ve attended any sort of world or folk music festival in the UK, it’s likely that you’ve seen him do his stuff.

Born in Leeds and raised in London, Kalsi didn’t come from a musical family. But raised Sikh, songs and music were still part of daily life, from hymns and prayers to readings from the holy book. This exposure led him to learn tabla at age seven (“all the lads do at that age”) and music became a passion when he took up the drum kit in high school. The dhol came at 14 when he auditioned for a local bhangra band on tabla – they decided they wanted a dhol instead, so he tried it out and it stuck. By this point, it was obvious that Kalsi was something special, his experiences and skills from tabla and drum kit helping him develop a unique approach to the drum. Within two years he was touring the world as a member of the biggest bhangra group at the time, Alaap.

From that point, Kalsi has blasted his dhol on the albums and stages of so many legends. Starting with Alaap, he was also there for the heydays of Fun-Da-Mental and Transglobal Undergound in the 90s. On the same touring circuit as these groups were the Afro Celt Sound System (ACSS), fresh from the success of their debut album. After many shared bills and becoming friends on- and off-stage, ACSS asked Kalsi to play a few beats on their second album. He ended up contributing more than that – his dhol became an important aspect of the Afro Celt sound almost immediately, and he joined their ranks for good. He even took a step to the fore in 2016; since they reformed, Kalsi’s drum has shaped the band’s whole sound. When ACSS frontman Simon Emmerson embarked on a mission to create folk music to reflect the England of today, with its many international influences, Kalsi was of course natural for the project. That became The Imagined Village and was hailed as one of the sparks of the latest English folk revival. Again, Kalsi’s sound was key.

And, as if being a crucial member and sonic element of many of the most forward-thinking fusion groups of the last 25 years was not enough, he’s also taken part in seemingly endless collaborations with international artists. From classic favourites like Peter Gabriel, Khaled, Dimi Mint Abba and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, to more unexpected artists such as Avril Lavigne, the Kaiser Chiefs and Nelly Furtado, Kalsi’s dhol has enlivened hundreds of recordings and concerts.

But when he gets talking about his work, it’s obvious what Kalsi considers his real baby: The Dhol Foundation (TDF). First and foremost, TDF is a school for kids to learn the instrument, but they’re also an internationally touring and recording band, with four albums under their belt and another coming out this June.

It all started when he was touring with Alaap, being approached every night by people asking for lessons. He always said no, until he was convinced to make a one-off workshop to a couple of people in Slough. They persuaded him to come back and there were six students. “By the time that happened, it was too much for me to look back. And that was The Dhol Foundation.” From that base, the project grew into the first ever institute of dhol, and with it, Kalsi created the first dhol-teaching syllabus, The Dhol Bible. His passion and excitement for the school is obvious. “People are teaching with that bible all over the country, and I’m quite proud of that! That bit was my fault.” At its peak, there were 14 schools and 700 members. As with anything that grows, it makes branches: smaller groups formed and broke off, and from these more groups still. Now there are hundreds of schools around the world.

When they perform in public, TDF are second-to-none. Their live band is the ‘A-team,’ those that have progressed through the ranks of the school to professional standard. This way, they are ever-fluctuating, featuring up to 30 drummers and giving opportunities to promising younger members. It’s a powerful spectacle, as Kalsi says: “It’s a massive wall of drumming noise, it’s wonderful to watch.” That noise has led them to perform on some of the world’s biggest stages; you may have seen them in the 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony, the Royal Variety Performance or the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

It’s on TDF albums that Kalsi really lets loose his creative side. These albums can be called Kalsi’s solo work, but they’re much more than that: “If it was just a dhol drumming album, it would become very monotonous and boring.” Instead, they echo the rest of his career, full of collaborations with international artists – musicians as disparate as Sultan Khan, Etran Finatawa, Michael McGoldrick and Natacha Atlas have graced TDF albums. It’s all mixed up, produced by Kalsi and with a healthy dose of dhol drumming to top it off. TDF’s fifth album is called Basant, which is named after a springtime kite festival in the Punjab region. Kalsi sums it up well, saying “they’re all different flavours, they all sound different, they taste different, they look different when you close your eyes. And I love that!”

With a new album in the works, running The Dhol Foundation schools and now a member of the reformed ACSS, who go on tour this November, Kalsi has, as ever, got his hands full. But you suspect that’s probably just how he likes it.

 

BEST ALBUMS

Afro Celt Sound System Volume 2 Release

Afro Celt Sound System Volume 2: Release

(Real World Records, 1999)

Kalsi’s first recorded outing with the groundbreaking world fusion group came at the height of their fame, and he brought the first Asian flavours to the Afro Celt ensemble.

 

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The Dhol Foundation Big Drum: Small World

(Shakti Records, 2001)

The debut album under the TDF name was a tour de force of bhangra and electronica, and provided the groundwork for their future releases with guests including Natacha Atlas.

 

The Dhol Foundation Drum-Believable

The Dhol Foundation Drum-Believable

(Shakti Records, 2005)

TDF’S second album continues with all the fun of their first, brings in more international influences and contains probably their most banging track to date, the Irish-Indian bouncer ‘After the Rain’, with fiddler Mairead Nesbitt. Reviewed in #32.

 

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The Imagined Village Empire & Love

(ECC Records, 2010)

This is the middle album of The Imagined Village’s trilogy, their first as a cohesive band and a classic of Anglo-Indian folk music. Kalsi’s dhol and tabla are essential to their sound. Reviewed in #66.

 

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Afro Celt Sound System The Source

(ECC Records, 2016)

The new-look ACSS, risen from the ashes and with Johnny Kalsi as a member of the leading triumvirate, returned reinvigorated with this amazing album, their first for 11 years. The album has also won ACSS a nomination in this year’s Songlines Music Awards (see p22).

 

Photo of Johnny Kalsi by Tom Oldham

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