Before I left for Central Africa in May and June, I had the opportunity to invite a local, Washington- area Kenyan band for a music interview here at VOA headquarters. They are called Jabali Africa or The Rock of Africa. Check out this great interview and music, including an amazing instrumental piece aptly titled “Percussion Discussion” led by Joseck Asikoye.
When I first arrived in Rwanda it was already dark. Ben and Mugabo from the U.S. embassy met me at the gate and swiftly checked me into a hotel. After the 16-hour flight from Washington, D.C. it didn’t take long before I was fast asleep. The next morning at dawn’s first light, I re-packed my suitcases and checked right back out to drive to Gisenyi in the Western Province. My first and only full day in Rwanda would take place in that region before returning to Kigali for the rest of the tour.
Ben and Mugabo already waiting for me in the lobby at 7:15 a.m., plus two of the musicians that would be my band for the next 4 days: a local, five-piece, jazz outfit.
The trip to Gisenyi took about three hours. We traveled northwest and round and round up steep, green hills. I understood immediately how Rwanda got it’s name “land of thousand hills.” The countryside was breathtakingly beautiful and the towns and farms appeared well-organized. By the time we arrived at those high altitudes, though, I had a whopping headache.
Destination #1 was the School of Arts and Music (SAM), formerly known as Rwanda’s premier art school, Nyundo School of Art. It was established in 1952. When we arrived classes were in session. I met the three music teachers Ben Ngabo (drums/voice), Honore Iyakaremye (keys), and the Music Head, Jacques Murigande (guitar/voice), popularly known as Mighty Popo. These guys were also the other remaining members of my Rwandan band. They quickly introduced me to their students and welcomed me with two well-rehearsed choral pieces.
After the introductions Popo and went to a rendez- vous with the station manager of Rubavu Community Radio, Steven Kalisa, at the station in Rubavu. We met Steven, took a tour of the station, and talked about African music on the radio.
After a quick lunch, it was time for the band’s rehearsal and sound check. We had a performance that night at the Catholic preparatory seminary school, le Petit Seminaire, in Nyundo. Thousands of young men and some women attended, including the music students from SAM. I performed my classic repertory of jazz (Autumn Leaves, All of Me, Girl From Ipanema, etc.). They were an attentive and receptive audience. The audience really came alive when I called some of the SAM singers and dancers up on stage to join me in two classic African songs. Here’s a clip of the event.
Not bad for Day 1 in Rwanda. The band and I just clicked and this debut performance was one of many more great concerts, workshops, and musical exchanges to come over the next few days. Stay tuned for the next post in this series for more Music Time in Rwanda.
I recently returned from an exciting music tour in Rwanda and Cameroon. I brought back fantastic music cds and audiovisual field recordings of time spent performing and work-shopping with local artists, students, and broadcast journalists.
This short clip features a traditional poet musician from the Eton-speaking region of Cameroon. His name is Pantaleon and he plays a multi-gourded string instrument known as the mvet. He sings in Eton. We met poolside at the Hotel Mt. Febe which overlooks the sprawling city of Yaounde.
Pantaleon said he uses the first song to say goodbye to a rude host, particularly one who invites he and other musicians to play but refuses to offer them good food or drink. He sings to the host as he leaves, “This wounded heart will never heal.”
In addition to my new music and field recordings from Central Africa, I also brought back that mvet with the hopes of composing (and tuning) my own songs. Thanks, Pantaleon. Special thanks also to musical artist Manuel Wandji (aka Wambo) and to Jonathon Koehler and Olivia Mukam from the U.S. Embassy – Yaounde.
On Tuesday April 29th, the sounds of live jazz rang out in the Voice of America auditorium. A concert was held to celebrate a studio dedication in honor of our own legendary Jazz producer and broadcaster Willis Conover.
Two groups were featured, the U.S. Navy Band Commodores and yours truly, Heather Maxwell and my trio. The video clip below features our performance and is introduced by VOA Music Director Eric Felton, an accomplished jazz musician himself.
Russian bassist, Victor Dvoskin opens our set with a powerful personal narrative about his special relationship to Willis followed by the instrumental “Just Squeeze Me.” Robert Jospé is on drums and Bob Hallahan on keys. I then join the guys to sing “Autumn Leaves”, “Cry Me A River”, “Girl From Ipanema”, and “Body and Soul”.
It felt fabulous singing on this occasion for my fellow VOA colleagues and with my cats. I regularly gigged and toured with them in Virginia from 2006-2010. As a true American art form, jazz is a historic and living treasure.
After our performance, we heard from our esteemed Director David Ensor and then watched this VOA documentary produced especially for the occasion. It tells the story of how Willis Conover’s daily VOA broadcast “Jazz Hour” was the driving force behind the explosion of jazz worldwide. For many, Conover’s American jazz was the only exposure to music from the West. It was especially meaningful for those like Victor Dvoskin who tuned in from from his basement behind the Iron Curtain.
The U.S. Navy Band Commodores played the afternoon out with a swinging set of big band favorites including the Duke Ellington tune “A Train”. The day of the concert April 29th also celebrated the Duke’s birthday.
As a final note, although this concert for Willis sounded little to nothing like African music, it’s no secret that the deepest ancestral roots of jazz are originally West African. Syncopated beats, cross rhythms, call and response, and improvisation are musical proof of this kinship. “Jazz Hour” surely helped repatriate jazz back to it’s West African homelands which, in turn, spurred new innovative forms of mid-twentieth century music like Afrocuban, Congolese Rumba, Hi-life, and Afrobeat. Today, these styles are African classics and fodder for today’s artists to continue jazz’s evolution.
Johnny Clegg 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.
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 Citizen 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On 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.
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.