An interview with “The White Zulu”

Posted April 14th, 2014 at 6:28 pm (UTC+0)
Leave a comment

“Is Johnny Clegg still active?” That was the question I asked myself when I first heard he was coming to give a concert in Washington. A quick look at johnnyclegg.com answered that question. Johnny and son Jesse, who is his opening act, are touring North America for three months of non-stop shows from New York to California.

My next question was, “What can I ask this icon that the world over doesn’t know already?” When I told a West African friend of mine that Clegg was coming to concert, he immediately launched into “Asimbonanga” and sang it the whole way through in Zulu. I asked how he knew Zulu and he said “I don’t! I just memorized the song phonetically.” I laughed in surprise and he added, “…all of us Malians know this song!” When I posted on Facebook that I was going to interview Johnny, a Canadian friend of mine responded “The White Zulu!” After my interview, I posted this picture of us without any words…

…and a Congolese music promoter posted “Is that Johnny?!”

Choosing my interview questions for Johnny Clegg seemed as hard as choosing a gift for the man that has everything. We arrived at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium during sound check to find a younger looking Johnny on stage, singing and playing acoustic guitar. Turns out this was Johnny’s son, Jesse. His voice was beautiful and not that different than many American singer/songwriters today. When Jesse left the stage for the dressing rooms, we followed him with our cameras and gear to set up for the interview. While waiting for Johnny to appear, Jesse talked excitedly about  his first American tour and about rock and alternative music in South Africa. He wanted to see Washington’s monuments and the White House but was frustrated because they had to leave immediately on the bus to make their next gig in Philly. After Johnny arrived, we proceeded to a room with a piano. I asked him if he plays and he smiled, shaking his head. “I don’t play a bit,” he said.

As you’ll see in the interview below, I finally figured out what to ask Johnny. It came to me after meeting Jesse, hanging out with Johnny’s long-time bandmates and his tour manager, Patrick. Sometimes it’s better not to plan. I asked Johnny questions that I wanted to know — about Nelson Mandela for example, the origins behind his international stage name “The White Zulu”, what it’s like to tour with his son, and his impressions of South African music today. I hope you’ll find our conversation as interesting and entertaining as I did. In between our chat, you’ll see several clips of the live performance Johnny and Jesse gave that beautiful night.

 

 

 

 

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master's degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Mali’s Trail Blazers of Traditional Music

Posted March 19th, 2014 at 5:37 pm (UTC+0)
Leave a comment

Today’s post takes an exciting departure from my typical in-studio interview sessions at Voice of America headquarters. This time, I brought Voice of America with me to the University of Maryland to record an African music event entitled “Music, Mali, and Citiflyerzen Diplomacy“.

I also sat on the panel of this unique performance and discussion program as a Malian music expert. What made this event exceptional was the representation at once of Malian griot music (or jeliya) by Trio Da Kali and Malian rap by Amkoullel. Together, they represented the two sides of Malian music culture. One was the hereditary caste of wordsmiths who carry the torch of collective memory in their ancient music, stories, and speech. The other was the free-wheeling rappers who, though wordsmiths in their own right, come to music as a profession through their own means and ways and are known as artistes.

The event was part of a larger U.S. tour series that featured a brilliant collaborative performance between Mali’s Trio Da Kali and America’s own Kronos Quartet.

This first video includes the songs “Kalimba” and “Ladilikan” (:36-5:48), performed by the amazing Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté on vocals, Fodé Lassana Diabaté on balafon, and Mamadou Kouyaté on bass ngoni. Ethnomusicologist, radio host, and music producer Lucy Duran explains (in English) the fascinating background and meaning of “Ladilikan” as an interpretation of American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson‘s song “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song”. This song is one of the collaborative  works of Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet.

At 5:50, the panel talks about Malian music and rapper Amkoullel joins Trio Da Kali from 9:56-16:02 in an impromptu performance. The last segment features another impromptu collaboration with Amkoullel and myself!

]

Two nights later, I attended the concert with Kronos Quartet. This was their debut performance together and with the permission of Lucy Duran, the Aga Khan Music Initiavie and the Clarice Center for the Performing Arts, I offer this delicious musical excerpt. The song is “Diaraby” — one of the foundational classics in griot (jeli) repertoire.

The concert was breathtaking. Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté’s rich, round, powerful voice never missed its mark. Her theatrics were equally on point, charming us all through gestures and expressions that transcended the language barrier. Fodé Lassana Diabaté’s virtuosic playing and jaw dropping execution of rapid fire riffs up and down the balafon was flawless. At times he and David Harrington, the first violinist (and founder) of Kronos, traded off musical phrases and ideas in playful spirit that drew giggles from the audience. Other moments of note featured unexpected string quartet passages from Kronos that opened up new dimensions of Trio Da Kali’s classics, experimental balafon melodic passages that evoked hints of jazz and blues, and a thrilling rendition of another gospel song by Mahalia Jackson “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away.”

IMG_0465

Fodé Lassana Diabaté on balafon

After a robust standing ovation, a discussion with the artists followed. The audience was curious and unquestionably moved by this stunning concert. Hands kept popping up with more questions about both groups’ processes of collaboration, their repertoires, and the way they communicated musically during the performance, among other things. One woman who prefaced her question with the disclaimer that she didn’t know anything about music “I’m an architect”, she said, criticized the groups for not collaborating enough. It was her feeling that the griots of Trio Da Kali stayed too traditional while Kronos adapted their music too much; that the give and take from one tradition to the other was not equal. Fortunately one Malian in the audience quickly rebuked by saying that for Malian ears Trio Da Kali was making dramatic, if not  historic, departures from jeli music. Many others in the audience confirmed and another round of applause ensued. Not that we don’t love classic jeliya but this new sound of Trio Da Kali is irresistible.The Trio Da Kali – Kronos Quartet US Tour blazed an exciting path, and I for one, can’t wait to hear more from them soon.

IMG_0424

Mamadou Kouyaté – bass ngoni.

Trio Da Kali

Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté

IMG_0459

Trio Da Kali and Amkoullel. Seated: Heather Maxwell, David Crocker, and Lucy Duran (not visible).

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master's degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Mali’s Mamadou Kelly Sticks to Classic Sahelian Sound

Posted February 14th, 2014 at 8:40 pm (UTC+0)
2 comments

Mamadou Kelly was a name I hadn’t heard of before, but his new CD was compelling. The music in Adibar, released in 2013 by Clermont Music, made me stop everything I was doing at the time and just listen. There are no bells and whistles to this music; no novelty, no modern twist. Kelly’s sound is classic Malian Sahel. He sings in Songhai (his native tongue), Bambara, and Fulfulde. His calabash player is one of Ali Farka Touré‘s original band members.

In this interview from September 29th 2013, Kelly and his band Bancaina perform three songs “Adibar,” “Sehenon Men,” and “Nansongo.” The interview is in Bambara with English subtitles. In  between songs, they introduce each instrument: the bara, jurukelenin, juru belebeleba, and guitar. Mamadou also talks about the meaning of each tune, the situation in northern Mali as it was during the time of the interview, and his hopes to record songs in every Malian language one day.

 

I translated the interview from Bambara to English. Thanks also go to Kadiatou Traoré from the Bambara Service of the Voice of America.

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master's degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Two Big Cissoko Releases

Posted January 7th, 2014 at 6:47 pm (UTC+0)
3 comments

Sousou Cissoko and her husband Maher Cissoko are a musical couple who definitely drum, or more appropriately strum to their own beat. In 2011 I saw them perform in Mali and admired the way they captured their audiences. Their music was tight and original too, but we didn’t meet back then so I was excited to learn that they were going to be my guests on Music Time in Africa. It’s not every day one hears a Swedish/Senegalese duo making beautiful, original music.

After performing at the House of Sweden on October 20th Sousou and Maher Cissoko joined me the following day on Music Time in Africa where they gave a live performance of three songs.

Sousou is pregnant and they talk about their two big new releases – one being their baby and the other being their forthcoming CD. They also tell us the fascinating story of the making of their 2011 album Stockholm-Dakar. But words can only say so much, so watch the video and get to know this fabulous couple.

Listen again to the song “Janfata” and other live music selections from Music Time in Africa interviews in my new “Latest Selection” column. You’ll find that on the right hand side of the page.

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master's degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

A Soulful Session with Tosin

Posted December 16th, 2013 at 5:51 pm (UTC+0)
12 comments

Washington D.C. is an exciting city in many ways. It experiences a steady flow of high-stake dramas — the 2013 government shutdown, the bumpy roll-out of the Affordable Care Act; the world’s first exhibition of yogic art, the naming of baby panda Bao Bao; fierce  lunchtime food trucks, local hip-hop music known as go-go, and of course, the hapless Washington Redskins.

Tosin and Me

But my favorite aspect of the city’s offerings is  its robust roster of African artists that roll through the town on international tours. And with less fanfare but equal appeal, the abundance of local African talent.

Tosin Aribisala is a Nigerian drummer, singer/songwriter who lives in the area. He is versatile, focused, and innovative. I invited Tosin into our studios on the occasion of his just released CD — Life Begins.

Watch my Music Time in Africa exclusive with Tosin.

 

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master's degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Noura Mint Seymali Makes Mauritanian Music International

Posted November 19th, 2013 at 4:24 pm (UTC+0)
10 comments

Noura Azawan IIOn September 29th 2013, Noura Mint Seymali — a leading female vocalist and ardine player from Mauritania — came to VOA to record a session with me on Music Time in Africa.  Noura was on tour in the U.S. promoting her latest CD Azawan II, a cutting edge, traditional electro-fusion style of Mauritanian music.

 

This is my favorite track on the new CD.

 

When Noura came into the studio in September, she presented as a duo with husband guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly. The duo arrangement was the ideal environment for Noura and Jeiche to play their core traditional sound.

Noura with the ardine and me

Noura with the ardine and me

IMG_0189

Jeiche Ould Chighaly and Noura Mint Seymali

Matthew Tinari (left), Noura Mint Seymali, Heather Maxwell, Jeiche Ould Chighaly (right)

Matthew Tinari (left), Noura Mint Seymali, Heather Maxwell, Jeiche Ould Chighaly (right)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enjoy this Music Time in Africa session with Noura as they perform three songs, chat about their instruments, love, and musical heritage, and take one more step in the direction of their mission to make Mauritanian music international.

Special thanks to Matthew Tinari for interpreting this interview.

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master's degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Tartit’s Tuareg Women: Strong and Independent

Posted October 31st, 2013 at 2:28 pm (UTC+0)
18 comments

As part of the 2013 Caravan for Peace Tour, Tartit was the second Malian group to come through Washington D.C. on July 29th. This post features my interview with them in French — with English subtitles. It was a thrill to see Disco again (Fadimata Walet Omar) after ten years. If you haven’t learned about Tuareg music or women yet, I guarantee you will be enlightened.  Tartit with Heather Maxwell. Voice of America July 29, 2013.

For two, hot summer weeks in June and July of 2003, I shared the stage every day with the musical group called Tartit. The venue was the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival sprawled out in tents,  food trucks and open-aired performance spaces along the length of Washington D.C.’s national mall. That year, the Republic of Mali was one of the three featured regions and I was invited to be one of its music presenters. Every day from morning to night, I presented many of Mali’s  superstars such as Oumou Sangare, Neba Solo, Mariam Bagayogo, as well as lesser known regional stars like Tabital Pulaku from the northern region of Mopti, and Tartit from the northern region of Timbuktu.

Fadimata Walet Omar, the leader and spokesperson of the group, spoke only broken French and no English at all.o I was her English interpreter on stage. I remember being struck by the things she said in regards to the fierce independence and power of Tuareg women in Mali. Her ensemble also surprised me: women playing one-string fiddles (that sound like four-strings), mortar drums, singing in Tamashek and producing ululations of many colors.

They pounded out rhythms based on variations of  the Sahelian camel’s gait. I also had the job of interpreting this music to assist the thousands of eager tourists who, standing before us day in and day out, wanted to dance and clap to it but didn’t know how. Fortunately, I learned how to clap and move to the rhythms efficiently because Tartit (and all of the other musical acts) gave three to four repeat performances every day. By the end of the two weeks, I was an honorary member and friend of Fadimata, the group, as well as Tuareg music and culture.

Ten years later in 2013, we meet again in the video featured here. We are again in Washington D.C. but this time we’re in the studio of the Voice of America. Tartit is with me again. But this time, as refugees living in Burkina Faso and Mauritania as a consequence of the 2012 civil war in Mali. They come with strong messages of women’s rights, democracy, literacy, and most of all, the hope for peace and unity in Mali.

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master's degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Bassekou Kouyaté & N’goni Ba Wows Washington with Wah-wah…Among Other Great Things

Posted October 15th, 2013 at 4:47 pm (UTC+0)
3 comments

Amadou Bagayoko with Amadou & Mariam before their show at 9:30 Club, Washington D.C. June 18th, 2013. Photo by Heather Maxwell

A tidal wave of Malian music surged upon the eastern coastal cities of the United States last month and, lucky for us, it hit Washington D.C. with beautiful, overwhelming force. Amadou and Miriam performed a killer, June 18th concert at the 9:30 Club followed by the female-led Tuareg group called Tartit on July 29th. Then the real surge in September crested with performances by Bassekou Kouyaté, Sidi Touré, Mamadou Kelly, Leila Gobi, with Vieux Farka Touré.

Tartit warming up in Studio 4 for Music Time in Africa Session. VOA, Washington D.C. July 29th, 2013. Photo by Heather Maxwell

Leila Gobi performing at Tropicalia in Washington D.C. September 29th, 2013. Photo by Heather Maxwell

All of these musicians are part of the “Caravan for Peace Tour,” a global concert series sponsored by the Timbuktu-based music festival, Festival au Désert. This tour “in exile” has been underway since the 2012 coup d’état in Mali that forced many musicians to flee for fear of persecution. The coup also forced the country’s two, high-profile international music festivals to cancel; the Festival sûr le Niger and the Festival au Désert. The latter cancelled in Timbuktu but then re-invented itself as an international tour or “caravan” of prominent Malian musicians who would play for peace to return to their homeland.

Today’s post features Bassekou Kouyaté. He performed with his group N’goni Ba at the Atlas in Washington on September 20th.  The following morning Bassekou and most of the group (a few stayed behind to sleep in at the hotel) came to the Voice of America as my special guests on Music Time in Africa.

In the video clip below, N’goni Ba performs three songs:  “Mali Ko” (“Oh, Mali”) and “Ne Me Fatigue Pas” (“Don’t Tire Me”)  are from their latest, 2013 CD entitled Jama Ko, and “Ngoni Fola” (“The N’goni Player”).  Bassekou speaks enthusiastically about his recent induction into the Afropop Hall of Fame in New York on September 19th which coincided with the inauguration of Mali’s new President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK). He’s also excited about his chance at another Grammy nomination this year.  Oh, and make sure you check out his use of the wah-wah and other pedal effects on his n’goni!

 

In addition to this Studio 4 session with Bassekou, my future blog posts will feature others from the Caravan for Peace Tour: Tartit, Mamadou Kelly, and Noura Mint Seymali (from Mauritania). Fortunately the inauguration of Mali’s new president has brought great potential for peace and unity in the country and for the return of its talented musicians. Both major music festivals, the Festival au Désert and the Festival sûr le Niger are back on the books for 2014. The Caravan for Peace tour will hopefully and forever be a one-hit-wonder.

Special thanks to Matt Greenhill from FLi Artists FolkLore International for serving as interpreter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master's degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Thirty Minutes with Oliver Mtukudzi

Posted August 13th, 2013 at 2:14 pm (UTC+0)
4 comments

On July 23rd, the legendary Oliver Mtukudzi and his group The Black Spirits were my invited guests on Music Time in Africa. They’re on tour promoting Sarawoga, Oliver’s 61st album to date.

I met the whole band as it rolled into the VOA headquarters parking lot. But Oliver entered the building alone, just he and his guitar and a simple backpack.  When I asked about the rest of the group, he laughed and said, “Oh, they’re out having fun somewhere!”  I was looking forward to hearing the Black Spirits and getting to know them all, and I was not disappointed. On the contrary, as Oliver was settling into the studio, I realized with the thrill and excitement of a school girl meeting face to face with her first crush, that I was going to have him all to myself.

 

 

 

The next thirty minutes with Oliver opened my heart to Zimbabwe and opened my mind to the power of music to soothe the human soul. Tuku’s velvet raspy voice and mbira inspired guitar style are entrancing. In song and conversation, he speaks about things that matter to him as a father, as an artist, and as a living legend and doyen of Zimbabwean musical culture. Enjoy Oliver Mtukudzi as I did in this unplugged interview from Studio 4.

 

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master's degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Grooving with the Garifuna Collective

Posted July 30th, 2013 at 4:40 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

The promo copy of the new CD Ayo. Produced by Ivan Duran. Produced by Stonetree Records 2013 in partnership with Cumbancha.

My sound technicians at Studio 4 weren’t thrilled that I was obliging them to squeeze 7 musicians into the space that accommodates a maximum of 4. “We won’t be able to get everybody in the shot” they kept saying, shaking their heads. But this band from Belize, Central America  insisted they needed everybody to sound complete.  On July 8th a van-full of 7 musicians known as The Garifuna Collective rolled up and unloaded into our tiny VOA studio.

 

 

I’m getting a quick lesson in here on the primero drum while Carl and Ted (the sound guys) are scrambling to set up sound and lighting.

 

 

 

The Garifuna Collective are on tour in the US promoting their second CD Ayo, a dedication to the original leader of the group and icon of Belizean music, Andy Palacio. He died on January 19, 2008. The group’s music is unique to the world for its beautiful blend of West African and Arawak Indian traditions that is also infused with additional Spanish and English influences. The link to Andy Palacio (above) provides a nice background to The Garifuna Collective.

My featured interview from July 8th gets us right up to speed on The Garifuna Collective since it regrouped following Andy’s death. The first half of the interview is a mini concert, including band members’ self introductions and explanations of the 3 songs, “Weyu Larigi Weyu,” “Mangulu” and “Ayo.” Listen out for the turtle shell percussion, segundo (bass,) and primero (tenor) drums.

The segundo (left) and primero drums.

Turtle Shell percussion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second half of the interview is a conversation between Desiree Dego (vocals, shaker,) Lloyd Agustine (guitar, vocals,) Joshua Arana (Garifuna segundo drum,vocals) and myself. They talk about their music, of course, their hopes for this tour and beyond, and close out with thoughts on their West Africa connection.

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master's degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

About

About

Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987

About the Leo Sarkisian music archive >>

Latest Selection

Sidebar Playlist

Listen to Archived Music from 2007-2013