Posts Tagged ‘mali’
Listen to an exclusive stream of the original soundtrack for the film They Will Have to Kill Us, which will be released this Friday
Johanna Schwartz’s mesmerising documentary, They Will Have to Kill Us First, follows the plight of musicians caught up in Mali’s socio-political tragedy. The documentary has won plaudits worldwide, and has been credited with catapulting young Malian quartet Songhoy Blues onto the international stage.
Music is at the heart of Malian culture. The soundtrack features unreleased material from some of the country’s icons including Toumani Diabaté, Bombino and Ali Farka Touré, as well as original compositions from Yeah Yeah Yeah’s frontman, Nick Zinner, who produced Songhoy Blues’ acclaimed debut record.
Enjoy the album in full below.
The album is released Friday, September 16 on Transgressive Records. Pre-order your copy.
Seckou Keita won the Africa & Middle East category in the Songlines Music Awards 2016. Over the past decade Seckou Keita’s various projects have been written about within our pages. His latest album and tour features just him and the 22 strings of his kora. Jane Cornwell talks to him about his journey so far.
Seckou Keita isn’t an easy man to get hold of. The Nottingham-based drum and kora maestro is in constant demand, and perpetual motion: touring, collaborating, recording. Performing and hosting workshops in schools, art centres and international festivals such as WOMAD, or producing and starring in Do You Speak Djembé?, the interactive percussion spectacle that has taken France by storm. Consulting and participating in Sewa Beats, a company that offers corporate learning through rhythm and music. Working in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the humanitarian organisation Seckou first encountered as a child growing up in civil war-torn Casamance, the area of Senegal south of The Gambia. Doing continuous press interviews for Clychau Dibon, his 2013 album with the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, and for his similarly Top of the World, solo album, 22 Strings (reviewed in #109) – which he’ll be touring live throughout the UK in the autumn.
“I haven’t really stopped moving since I left Senegal in 1996,” says Seckou, 37, when, after much trial and error we eventually meet on a Sunday morning in a café at Kings Cross St Pancras, from where he’ll be catching a train to Paris. “This is what I do to maintain the success I have. It can be disorienting, but playing music grounds me. As soon as I grab my instrument I’m there, in the moment.”
The instrument he’s most associated with is the kora, the harp-lute of West Africa, as traditionally played by the griot bards of the Mande culture and brought to Western attention by the Grammy-winning likes of Mali’s Toumani Diabaté. But as his album title attests, Seckou’s kora is different. Where most koras have 21 strings, the southern Senegalese version of the instrument has an extra string that invests its sound with added rhythm and groove. You can hear it in the polyphonic explorations of his latest recording, especially in the elegantly funky closing track, ‘Future Strings in E’, a reworking of his acoustic duet with Finch – she of the ascending chords and 47-string-long glissandi – on Clychau Dibon.
Seckou will later outline the sonic differences between the 21-string and 22-string kora in terms of missing notes and odd and even octaves, in the same patient yet animated way he delivers his workshops, and teaches the students who come to his Nottingham home, with its basement studio (in which he recorded 22 Strings in one take) for kora lessons. Upbeat and chatty in jeans, T-shirt and pork pie hat, his instrument resting in a black case next to him, Seckou is as charismatic offstage as he is when performing – legacy, perhaps, of the precocious child who was nicknamed Seckou Jalin’ding or ‘Seckou the little griot.’
Griots aren’t traditionally called Keita, of course. They have names like Cissokho, Kouyaté and indeed, Diabaté. Keita – à la Salif – is the kingly appellation given to those descended from the emperor Sunjata Keita, who founded the Malian empire in the 13th century; Seckou’s father, a wandering holy man who disappeared from his life soon after he was born, was one such descendent. Those griot surnames – bestowed on those born to sing the praises of kings – are there on his mother’s side; his maternal grandfather, Jali Kemo Cissokho, was one of the most respected griots in all of southern Senegal. His grandmother Bintou ‘Ando’ Konté and extended maternal family are all griots.
“Some of my earliest memories are of music,” says Seckou, who grew up in Lindiane, a suburb of Ziguinchor, the capital of the Casamance region. “Musicians from all over Ziguinchor would come to my grandfather’s compound to play; the female griots would assemble there to meet with my grandmother, who was one of the best singers in the area.” He adds with a grin, “if she was late getting ready, they would sit there and wait for her. Sometimes we’d end up sharing our breakfasts with these ladies before they went off to sing at naming ceremonies or weddings.”
“Playing music grounds me. As soon as I grab my instrument, I’m in the moment”
Seckou was just five years old when war broke out, a battle for the independence of the Casamance region that continues to this day. This, too, is an early memory. “The sound of the first gun was shocking,” he says. “Then it started repeating, very, very loudly, and my grandfather came running inside the house and after a while asked all my uncles and the big boys to dig a hole so they had a safe place for me and the ladies to hide in. As the day went by, the shooting slowed down but we kept lying on the floor until my grandmother got fed up and decided she wanted to go and smoke her pipe.”
Jali Kemo was a hard taskmaster, determined to shield his male dependents from the temptations associated with being a professional musician. Nonetheless, Seckou was left to teach himself the kora. He watched and learned, soaking up the waterfall of rhythm before picking up the instrument aged seven and then, as a teenager, becoming a fixture of the Ziguinchor music scene. Naturally curious, Seckou also explored the kora repertoire of the neighbouring Wolof, Fulani and Djola traditions, as well as his own Mande songbook. He experimented with tunings.
The drumming came later, this time with lessons from masters. He learned seourouba, djembé, sabar, and the griot form of percussion known as jali dundun. For a long while, even when living in the UK and touring Europe with the likes of Sierra Leonean musician Francis Fuster, and the Afro-Celtic dance band Baka Beyond (whose founders Martin Craddock and Su Hart helped Keita produce his first solo kora album, 2003’s Mali), Seckou didn’t know how to answer questions about his profession. Drummer or kora player? He wasn’t sure. “Now I just say I’m a musician.” He pauses, smiles. “I mean, they both use very different techniques; it’s unusual to find someone who can master the two. If I play the drum I really have to look after my hands,” he says, spreading fingers with shortish nails manicured especially for kora playing. “Drumming for me is about the heartbeat, about connecting with the earth, with joy, with dance. Whereas the kora can make you cry, for all the right reasons.”
And especially when Seckou plays it. Having dazzled crowds as part of his uncle Jali Solo Cissokho’s band at competitions in Dakar, in a collaboration with Cuban and Indian musicians in Oslo, Norway, aged just 17, or during a tour of India with respected violinist Dr L Subramaniam, his horizons opened. By the time he settled in England in 1999 he was on his way to repositioning the kora as an instrument rooted in tradition but progressive and edgy enough for the now.
He taught at WOMAD and at SOAS, founded the family band Jali Junda (Griot Family) and a jazz-influenced quintet and quartet featuring his sister, the singer Binta Susso. He toured the world, and then toured it again and again. In March 2012 he was giving a concert to a UN delegation in Rome when he was asked to travel to Wales, to fill in on rehearsals for a collaborative project with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch; sudden political strife in Mali had prevented Toumani Diabaté, the project’s kora player, from attending.
“My initial impression of the harp wasn’t positive,” he admits. “I thought it was stuffy and conservative. So I was so surprised at the level we reached. Of course the harp is chromatic and has more strings than the kora, and the rhythms are different. The harp is more straight, say, while the kora has more wiggle.”
The phenomenal success of Clychau Dibon – recorded with Toumani’s blessing, and winner of a Songlines Music Award in 2014 – piqued Seckou’s decision to record a quiet, unadorned kora album featuring, well, just kora.
“Mali was called a solo album but it had drums, violin, guitars, even banjo,” says Seckou, whose six-album discography spans collaborations with everyone from flamenco singers to Juldeh Camara, the one-string ritti (fiddle) player from The Gambia. A project with the inspirational Cuban jazz pianist Omar Sosa is currently in the works.
“Over the years I felt that I’d developed my playing and composition to the point where I could do a kora album that would remind people of the tradition,” Seckou continues. “All this kora playing with wah-wah pedals and stuff has got too much for me nowadays. I might play in a different way if I wasn’t traditionally trained.”
He nods at the case on the ground next to him. “You could probably pick up my kora and play two or three things on that straightaway. But then you would need a bass line, a pattern. I mean, it’s like there’s the motorway,” he says with a smile, “and then there’s the A-road, or the B-road. Good training takes patience.”
The tracks on 22 Strings are mostly originals, nonetheless. But they are originals that have been composed in the traditional way, and are invested with a history and wisdom that stretches back centuries, with stories and emotions. ‘Mikhi Nathan Mu-Toma’ (The Invisible Man) tells of his father, who passed away just after the adult Seckou had discovered his whereabouts (in Bamako, Mali) and was on his way to see him. Instrumental tracks with storytelling titles such as ‘The Path from Gabou’, and three tracks featuring Seckou’s rich, emotive Mandinka vocals.
“In composition, two things are very important: the melody and the voice. If I’m doing an instrumental that’s really hypnotic, sometimes adding a voice is just too much. Other times you feel like a groove can be enhanced with lyrics sung over the top.” Another smile. “I started singing young,” he says. “But there were so many amazing singers in my family that I didn’t want to open my mouth. Like all things, my confidence developed with time.”
We talk of the forthcoming 22 Strings tour, with its accompanying visuals and explanations of the meanings behind the names of the strings: dibon, the second string on the kora’s left-hand side, is named after a bird species that live together all day but at night sleep on separate branches, finding each other the following morning by calling and responding. Téma-julo is the middle string, the magical 22nd string that is missing on all 21-string koras. The kumare-kang string is named after a bird with a loud, clear voice.
“I’ll be bringing the spirit of the album on tour with me,” he says. “I believe that anything made from the heart will go to another heart. I wanted to bring the kora back to its own land, where it belongs. I want everyone who listens to it to think they’ve got more time than they realise in life.” Mindful that he has to catch a train, I set about winding the interview up. Seckou flashes a grin. “No rush, I’m not in any hurry.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #111. Seckou’s album 22 Strings is out now on Arc Music.
Words and photos by Andy Morgan
Let’s talk about education. I don’t mean French homework or triple geometry. I mean education as a blessing, a privilege and a source of pride. I want to talk about education in West Africa and about four young guys from northern Mali. The first, Garba Touré, has a degree in molecular biology. The second, Oumar Touré, has a degree in town planning. The third, Aliou Touré, studied law and the fourth, Nathanael ‘Nat’ Dembélé, is studying drumming and percussion at his local music conservatory.
That all four are in a band called Songhoy Blues and that they’re the bookie’s favourite to become Mali music’s ‘Next Big Thing’ is, you might think, a fact entirely unconnected to their educational accomplishments. But you would be wrong because in Mali, and most of West Africa, music and education are two sides of the same coin.
Most Malians are under 30 years old and only a third can read and write. That doesn’t mean they’re dumb; it just means that the educational system is in a severe mess. So artists involved in the two most popular and grass-roots forms of entertainment – music and theatre – are expected to fill the gap by talking about things that really matter. To be a widely appreciated musician is to talk in an intelligent way about what’s going on in the lives of ordinary people, not to talk about twerking on the dance floor.
“Here in Mali, everybody knows that music is really one of the best ways to raise awareness amongst the civilian population,” says guitarist Garba, “about moving forward, about sending children to school, about polluting the environment.”
“Our fortune is that we’ve all been to school and university,” says bassist Oumar. “There are plenty of bands that don’t have a conscience. We have to exploit our intellectual know-how.”
How many musicians from the UK or the US would readily say that their fortune was the time they spent at school and university? But in Mali, for any young musician, education is an asset. In the old days, it was the griots who were the musical educators. Learning and verbal dexterity were their inheritance and their stock-in-trade. But with the decline in the griot’s influence, others have assumed this role, most recently the ‘conscious’ rappers, people like Mylmo or Master Soumy, who are also the products of higher education and whose popularity is huge. Even the pied-pipers of Touareg assouf or guitar music – like Ibrahim ‘Abaraybone’ and Mohammed ‘Japonais’ from Tinariwen – saw themselves as educators of sorts, not because they had university degrees, but because the whole experience of exile and forced migration gave them insights into the world that they felt duty-bound to pass on. Those ishumar poets formed a kind of revolutionary cultural vanguard and, in their own way, so do Songhoy Blues.
When their new album Music in Exile drops in the UK this month, seasoned ears might wonder what’s so revolutionary about Songhoy Blues’ beefed-up northern Malian riffs, or their blatant debt to the late great Ali Farka Touré. But there’s something vital and fresh about these four young rockers. I sensed it within hours of meeting them back in November 2013, at the launch of the Africa Express album Maison des Jeunes in East London, and my impression deepened over the following months when I spent hours chatting to them over cups of piping hot, bitter-sweet tea up on the roof of the late Ali Farka Touré’s family compound in the Lafiabougou district of Bamako, where Garba has been living for the past few years.
The band were focused in a way that I’d rarely seen in Mali before. They’d built up a following with their own sweat and self-belief in the small clubs and shebeens of Bamako (maquis in the local argot). They’d written at least two or three album’s worth of songs, with lyrics on a wide range of subjects, all relevant and intelligent, ranging from the environment (‘Irganda’), to the need for northern exiles to have patience (‘Soubour’), to patriotism (‘Mali’) and the clash of music and war in their northern desert home (‘Desert Melodie’).
All this graft led to an invitation to perform and record with Africa Express during its exploratory foray to Bamako in October 2013; it was undoubtedly a huge break, the kind you don’t get more than once or twice in a lifetime. Songhoy Blues recorded the song ‘Soubour’ with Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and it subsequently became the ‘hit’ tune on Maison des Jeunes. The band were invited to the launch in London and they landed a management deal with Marc Antoine Moreau, the man who put Amadou & Mariam on the international map.
It could be the script for a West African remake of A Star is Born but none of it would have happened if the main protagonists hadn’t found the courage to beat the blues of exile and start playing music together, rehearsing until their fingers bled, rinsing riffs for four hours non-stop in spit and sawdust bars, cadging studio time to record a song or two, ‘buying the lottery ticket’ in other words.
None of it would have happened but for the recent civil war in northern Mali either; that’s the irony. Aliou Touré and Oumar Touré grew up in the old Gadeye district of central Gao, the historic trading town on the Niger River in the far east of Mali. They weren’t related in any way, but were close friends. Touré is a common but significant name among the Songhai, a sedentary people who live close to the Niger River in eastern Mali and southern Niger – the name Songhai is variously spelt Songhoy, Songhay and Sonrai. One of Aliou’s grandfathers was the imam at the famous pyramidal mausoleum of ‘Askia’ Mohammed Touré, the general who usurped the throne of the Songhai emperor in late the 15th century. His other grandfather was Hafiz Touré, the founder of Takamba Super Onze, one of Gao’s premier musical institutions and chief purveyors of the supremely sensuous takamba dance beat.
Under the reign of Askia Mohammed, the Songhai empire became one of the biggest polities in the history of pre-colonial Africa, stretching all the way from the shores of Lake Chad to the Atlantic Ocean. Since those glory days, the Songhai have become a marginal people, secondary in linguistic, cultural and political terms to the dominant Bamana and Mande people of southern Mali. This decline is the source of a certain amount of grievance and regret but equally of a proud desire to fight the Songhai corner and promote Songhai language, music and society in general. It’s a desire that certainly motivates Songhoy Blues, though not in a caustic or belligerent way.
Aliou and Oumar grew up with one ear tuned in to the traditional holley trance music of the Songhai, with its scritching scratching njarka (one-string fiddle) and raw ‘bluesy’ kurbu (the Songhai word for the Bamana ngoni or lute), and another to the modern electrified Songhai pop of Ali Farka Touré, Khaira Arby, Baba Salah et al. On top of that came hip-hop (Tupac), R’n’B (Craig David), pop (The Beatles) and rock (Jimi Hendrix) – in other words, the standard global playlist of most Malian youth in the late 90s.
For a while Oumar and Aliou played together in a band called Lassaliz who achieved modest success. In 2010 they played at the Festival de la Concorde in Diré, a small town situated on the Niger about 70km south of Timbuktu, and met a young local guitarist by the name of Garba Touré, son of Ali Farka’s long-time percussionist Oumar Touré, and leader of hot local combo the Diré Stars. A friendship was minted down on the river beach where the local youth would hang out, jam and sip their tea. But nothing more than friendship for the time being.
When the latest in a long line of Touareg rebellions hit northern Mali in January 2012, Oumar and Aliou were already dividing their lives between home in Gao and studies in Bamako. So when Gao was subsequently seized by the Touareg nationalist fighters in the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) at the end of April, moving to Bamako seemed like the obvious thing to do. But worry about the families left behind remained constant. Oumar’s brother was a truck driver and trucks were being hijacked by militiamen and bandits. His sister lived in Kidal, the Touareg dominated town to the north of Gao that has been the epicentre of Touareg revolts since in the early 60s. A mortar shell fired from an MNLA canon narrowly missed his family home in Gao.
Garba’s flight to safety down south turns that African version of A Star is Born into something closer to Abderrahmane Sissako’s wonderful film Timbuktu. Despite the widespread fears of rape and pillage, his memories of the MNLA’s arrival in his home of Diré are relatively benign. The MNLA commander, a local man, did his best to ensure that basic security and essential services were maintained. But everything changed when the Islamist militia Ansar Dine rolled up several weeks later and took over. The usual strictures of sharia law were swiftly imposed: no alcohol, no cigarettes, no holding hands, no dancing, hijab and neck-to-toe covering for women, beards and rolled up trousers for men, and, most ominously for Garba, no music.
Wandering around the town one day with his beloved ‘mini’ acoustic guitar, Garba was accosted by a belligerent group of Islamic policemen who threatened to smash his instrument and punish him if they saw him with it again. He knew it was time to leave, so he gathered up his affairs and took a bus up to Timbuktu and then down south to Bamako. At every checkpoint he was terrified that the militiamen would discover the electric guitar that he had stashed on board with his belongings.
Within days of Garba’s arrival in Bamako he hooked up with Aliou and Oumar and the trio played their first concert together at the marriage of Aliou’s cousin in the summer of 2012. Regular weekly residencies at bars soon built up a following, which consisted mainly of northerners in exile. Even though the hours were long, the pay was derisory, and the group had to hire in their own instruments every time they played, the service they provided to the emotional well-being of their fans was inestimable. “The spirit of the audience was one based on nostalgia,” Oumar says, “the nostalgia of meeting up with everyone you know. People who had lost touch would meet up [at our shows]. Someone you thought might have died during the crisis, you’d find him at the bar, in front of Songhoy Blues.”
Then, thanks to local studio owner and producer Barou Diallo, who acted as a kind of mentor to the four young men (local Bamako boy Nat Dembélé had been recruited from the conservatoire to play drums), Songhoy Blues were recommended to Africa Express. Last November they supported Damon Albarn at the Royal Albert Hall, debuted in France at Transmusicales de Rennes and signed a record deal with the happening indie label Transgressive. Not quite overnight success, but breathless and at times bewildering no doubt.
One thing that struck me as particularly refreshing about Songhoy Blues, apart from their get-up-and-go, their open-minded attitude to all kinds of music, their hunger to succeed but not at any cost, was their intelligent, non-partisan analysis of their own country’s problems. They don’t share the more militant Touareg desire for northern Mali to secede and become an independent nation. But they do understand some of the Touareg’s grievances and appreciate the need for a complete overhaul in the way Mali is organised as a country.
“The solution is to remove the causes that create rebellion,” Oumar says. “We need a university in the north. We have to build tarmac’d roads. We need to give people in the north a chance to develop. Peace equals investment. The north must catch up.”
That’s a mere crumb of what these four sharp minds have to offer. Even though their new album doesn’t bust open huge swathes of undiscovered territory in musical terms, it still jabs, probes, rocks and rolls in a way that I haven’t felt a Malian band doing for some time. Apart from anything, it feels good to feel excited about a ‘Next Big Thing’ again, and not a moment too soon either. Prepare to be educated.
This feature originally appeared in the March 2015 (#106) edition
Join us for a celebration of Malian music and beyond on May 21, when Songhoy Blues and special guest Fatoumata Diawara will take to the stage at London’s iconic Roundhouse.
It has been a monumental rise for Malian quartet Songhoy Blues – from the raucous, defiant atmosphere of Bamako’s club circuit, to this, their biggest ever UK headline show.
Their appearance on 2013’s Maison des Jeunes album as part of the Africa Express collective was where the group’s ‘beefed-up’ Ali Farka Touré-esque riffs and an anthemic chunky desert-blues groove first caught the Western ear. Yet their documented ascent in Johanna Schwartz’s They Will Have to Kill Us First film and 2015 debut album Mali in Exile also highlighted the band’s intelligent, non-partisan view of Mali’s ongoing problems and the mission they were on – a desire for reconciliation.
We have five pairs of tickets to give away to the concert. Simply fill in the form below, or click here to enter.
Visit www.roundhouse.org.uk to find out more.