Vodoo Rhythms and Angelic Harmonies: Beninese Brothers Jomion and the Uklos

Posted June 3rd, 2013 at 2:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Dedication of a vodoun temple in Agbagnizoun, Benin. The costumed figure is an Egun. Photo by David Ludman.

The group’s latest album “Yokpole” (2007).

Compared to other African countries, Benin has a small land mass. But the West African nation is a giant in music traditions and innovation. Jomion and the Uklos are a fabulous example of Beninese music with this live performance for Music Time in Africa. Jomion and his brothers come from Cotonou, the nation’s largest city. They formed as a musical group (the Uklos) after singing and playing for years in church, under the pastorship of their father.

In church, traditional vodoo rhythms and music practices blend with catholic hymns and harmonies to make a beautiful, distinctly Beninese sound. Jomion, whose primary instrument is trumpet, has a long history of playing across world stages for African music greats such as Angelique Kidjo, Lionel Loueke, Black Santiagoand others.

Jomion and the Uklos in Studio 4 for Music Time in Africa with Heather Maxwell. May 24th 2013 at the Voice of America, Washington D.C.

From the fusion of Jomion’s experiences and remarkable  talent with his family affair in church, a stunning music has evolved that sounds like no other. Some call it Afro-Cuban-influenced jazz,others call it traditional Beninese.

The group recently performed and conducted master classes at Harvard University and continued with a tour in the northeastern U.S. Here they are with me at the Voice of America studios in Washington.

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. 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.

Interview with D.C. Diaspora’s Finest Duo: Mongezi Ntaka and Kuku

Posted May 15th, 2013 at 5:24 pm (UTC-4)
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I got a call from a friend recently who said she had a couple of musicians she wanted me to meet. Their names are Mongezi Ntaka and Kuku. I hear boisterous background chatter and laughter. She tells me she’s with them rightnow and do I want to talk to them?

Kuku in Istanbul 2012. Photo by Alexei Tsybine Jendayi.

My mind is making the connection of these names with two artists who came to VOA just last week  for a quick television spot on the show Studio 54. Then Kuku gets on the line. The sound of his voice alone

Mongezi (left), Kuku (center), and Maxwell (right) in Studio 4. April 22nd, 2013.

convinces me to bring them back for a Studio 4 session before he even completes his sentence. A warm, wide, velvety smile. That’s what his voice projected, if one can imagine visually. We made the date for an interview session the following Monday.

That Monday’s session is featured below. The smile in Kuku’s voice is contagious as you will see by the happy mood of our interview. Kuku’s singing voice is simply beautiful and Kuku’s guitar provides the perfect accompaniment, along with Kuku’s subtle but fundamental ankle percussion that keeps time (seen in the photo below).

Kuku’s Foot Percussion

The group performed three songs; two features from the new album they’re working on (tentatively titled Ballads and Blasphemy), and one from Kuku’s 2012 CD Soldier of Peace — also arranged and produced by Mongezi. In between the music, they give us a quick language lesson on local greetings in IsiZulu and Pidgin English. They talk about the very first songs they learned as kids (think Blues Ntaka, South African jazz, Yoruba folksong) and give  shining insight into Kuku’s new songs.

Before closing the session with their final song, each give a thoughtful shout out to Africa.  “Play the music of the ancestors,” says Mongezi, while Kuku urges, “Tolerate each other…if you don’t like what you see, look away and just cut the fighting.”

Shortly after this interview, I was preparing a Mother’s Day special for my radio show and called Mongezi to see if he had any South African selections. He did — a song by Miriam Makeba called “Umama Uyajabula” from the Sangoma album. He also mentioned that Kuku had a song “Yeye” from Soldier of Peace that he had dedicated to his mother.

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    Yeye Sample. At the risk of playing too much of a good thing, I included Kuku and Mongezi’s song “Yeye” into the Mother’s Day lineup just one week after I’d featured the radio version of this interview in the show.

Stay on the alert for the release of  Kuku and Mongezi’s newest album Ballads and Blasphemy. Though Kuku is currently back in Paris, he frequently returns to Washington to work in Mongezi’s studio.

 

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. 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.

Habib Koite and Eric Bibb Show Brotherly Love

Posted April 9th, 2013 at 6:59 pm (UTC-4)
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A new album is out called “Brothers in Bamako”. The brothers are Malian music veteran Habib Koite and African-American folk musician Eric Bibb. The album cover speaks volumes about the music and their relationship:  sharing a bench outside of Habib’s home in Bamako, Habib picks a banjo guitar and Eric strums a big acoustic guitar.

Their promotional tour of the new acoustic album brought them to Artisphere Performing Arts Center just outside of Washington D.C. only one week after the promotional tour of the acoustic string duo, Vincent Segal and Ballake  Sissoko — the subject of my last blog post. I was in fact a little concerned that the two shows back to back would get boring for me and my readers and radio listeners. To my happy surprise, and yours too I’m sure, as you watch and listen in the clips of the concert, the interview and concert were thrilling.

We met during sound check and Habib and I had a few nice moments to catch up on our kids and families. We have known each other since 1989 when I used to come and sing in the local nightclubs and bars in Bamako on occasional weekend getaways  from village life as a Peace Corps volunteer. Habib was one of the main Bamako bands that was popular in those days but he’d not quite made it yet. He had such a presence on stage, all of the volunteers loved him and today the world does too. Eric Bibb was an unknown to me until this evening. His quiet reserve during dress rehearsal made we wonder what my interview would bring. As the clip below reveals, his articulate and thought provoking responses reveals a deep, deep guy who believes in the spiritual nature of the world. When the lights go up on that stage, Eric ignites with an organic energy that is profound and exciting.

In the dressing room, we had a conversation about how they met, how they feel they are connected as brothers, and what pieces they think their audiences like the most. Habib gave me his thoughts on the situation in Mali today as well.

The clip includes one musical excerpt from the concert “Mami Wata.”

At 2:00 into the interview, Habib mentions that Malian hunter’s harp music has been a big influence on his playing style. At this point in the interview, he moves his fingers around in a vertical position and you may have wondered what he was talking about. To help explain this, I dug up some old footage I took back in 2003 of hunters playing their harps and dancing during the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in Washington D.C. Hunters in Mali are a highly revered, voluntary association of men across ethnicity.

They used to hunt big game in older times, but today that aspect of their association is more symbolic. They are keepers of tradition and arcane knowledge in things related to the forest and the spiritual life believed to thrive there. They also enforce law and order in the ways of traditional life, and music is a big part of their identity. They play the harp (called Donson N’goni in Bambara), the metal scraper, and they dance… boy do they dance…

Here is my edit of Eric and Habib’s closing number to which they received an enthusiastic standing ovation. Near the end of this song, you’ll notice a random hand to the right side of the shot tossing dollar bills on the stage. For those of you familiar with West African music practice, no explanation is needed. For those unfamiliar, audience members who are touched by the music routinely take to the stage and shower bills, jewelry, even car keys I’m told, on to the musicians and singers to show their appreciation. With this last piece one could say that Eric and Habib brought out the brotherly love in Washington — Malian style.

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. 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.

At Peace – Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal

Posted March 19th, 2013 at 3:11 pm (UTC-4)
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On March 1st, 2013, Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal came to Washington D.C. on tour to promote their new album, At Peace. Ballake is a celebrated kora player from Mali. Segal is an accomplished cellist from France. Kora and cello and are both string instruments — 21 and 4 respectively. The kora’s strings are plucked by both hands while the cello’s strings are bowed and sometimes plucked.

Both instruments are associated with a classical repertoire and playing style that demand musicians years of discipline and formal education.  Professional cellists generally train in music conservatories while professional kora masters get their training through a traditional system of oral transmission from generation to generation. Ballake and Vincent are the first masters of strings from such different, yet similar worlds — to tune up together and play. At Peace is their second duo album, following their 2009 freshman release, Chamber Music.

As noted in several articles and reviews since, the impact of this unique duo’s partnership is astounding to hear and witness live. Without losing the slightest degree of musical integrity of their respective traditions, they have created something totally new and exciting, yet timeless.

I caught up with them during sound check for an interview and captured a bit of their tuning-in time plus some close-ups of their instruments and playing techniques. Let’s take a look.

The mutual entente and sensitivity in those moments we were able to capture during sound check extended to their performance with even more power and grace. We’ll see that in the third clip below, but just after sound check, we had a warm conversation about how they met, about Ballake’s kora, the music of course, and how they felt things were generally going in Mali today.

Ballake speaks French and Bambara so Vincent had the task of translating for Ballake and speaking for himself as well. By the time we started recording the interview, we’d established that I could speak and sing in Bambara, so that added a certain chaleur to the moment. I’m singing “Denko,” a folksong I learned from a well-known singer, Bintu Sidie, in Mali many years ago.

I found Vincent’s observations about how war often cuts the oral transmission process particularly insightful and perhaps useful for those preparing to help Mali rebuild. The country’s northern regions in particular may be at high risk of losing their musical traditions. Vincent’s analogy of their music as branching out from the “big tree” of Mandingo traditions [and others he mentioned — such as Songrai and Fulani (Pheul) traditions] but not “cutting the tree” is marvelous. Its beautiful as a musical concept and model for sure, but also as it could apply to other areas of our cultural lives today.

My third clip features one song they performed during their concert. It’s called “Ma-Ma HC” and comes from their first album Chamber Music. It catches Vincent at the tail end of a funny story he told us about how he and Ballake’s sons (teenagers about the same age) play soccer together but won’t come to hear their fathers play. Ballake’s son Mohamed plays Fist Team for PSG (Paris St. Germain) and whose feet are said to move “as fast as his fathers’ fingers”. Though the boys are too cool for their fathers’ music, their daughters come to hear them from time to time.

Vincent Segal lives in France and Ballake Sissoko lives in Bamako. We three said goodbye with the hopeful promise of meeting in Bamako some day soon where everything, including the evening jam sessions under the moon and stars we hope to make, is at peace.

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. 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.

African Diasporan Musicians in Washington D.C.

Posted February 27th, 2013 at 7:51 pm (UTC-4)
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African music performance in Washington D.C. has been been relatively quiet this past month. With the exception of Lira’s appearance for the Presidential Inauguration in January, all’s quiet on the tour circuit front since November 2012. This lull in activity gave me the opportunity to dig deeper into our local diaspora music scene. On February 4th, I discovered an enclave of diaspora musicians and entertainers who rallied the local international community for peace in Mali with a benefit concert. Rapper Supernova King, the headliner and visionary of the event, is an aspiring young artist who moved to the United States with his diplomatic family in 2012. He performed solo to pre-recorded tracks of original, unreleased pieces in French and Bambara. “Gogo Danseuse” is his only published work to date. The video doesn’t reveal much originality by way of message, however, he did perform an original called “Peace in Mali” at the concert that spoke to the situation in his homeland. The two female artists also sang solo to pre-recorded tracks of pop and zouk that ultimately added more quantity than quality to the lineup. The final artist, Malian Cheick Hamala Diabate, was the crowd favorite without a doubt. And for good reason. Cheick is a D.C. staple when it comes to local-area authentic African musicians. He has lived in Maryland for at least 15 years (that’s when I first met him at a conference in Indianapolis) and is routinely called on to perform for the international community and with African artists on tour in the U.S. He carries one of the Mande family names “Diabate” that belong to the hereditary caste of musicians, wordsmiths, and oral historians known as griot (French) or jeli (Bambara). Not all griots are musicians nor are they equally talented, but those who play and sing, learn a deeply complex, classical Mande repertoire through the ancient, oral (and aural) tradition of family apprenticeship. Cheick comes from this tradition, as he was raised in Mali, and he plays excellent n’goni (the 6 stringed lute). He also plays a mean banjo and guitar and has recorded and toured extensively with American folk musicians. In 2007, Diabate’s collaboration with banjo player Bob Carlin, “From Mali to America” (5-String Productions), led to a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional World Music Album.

Cheick’s band literally made the benefit concert worthy of its title  because, well first of all, it was a band and they played a true set of live music. They are called Cheick Hamala’s Griot Street and play at Bossa Bistro & Lounge every Tuesday night. The American electric guitarist (and owner of Bossa) kills it when it comes to solos and rhythm that stick right in the Mande groove. The bassist and calabash player are both African and excellent musicians, jembe player Anthony Holmes is an African-American native of the D.C. area who grew up studying jembe and West African percussion and dance, and the dynamic female dancer/shekere player adds an important visual and sonic element to the fabric of this diaspora group. Though Supernova King was the headliner on paper, Cheick Hamala’s Griot Street carried the even from beginning to end. They played two sets; one  in the middle that appeared to wake everyone up, and the one that closed out the night with people of all ages, sizes, and nationalities. At one point during the crazed dancing, an elderly man fell smack down on his behind from dancing so fast and then to our surprise leaped right back onto his feet without skipping a beat. Jackson Mvunganyi from VOA’s radio program Up Front filmed the event and my interviews with the artists. Check out this tv package of the event for our VOA tv program In Focus and see for yourself.

Heather Maxwell with Reshan Gebre and Peter Hartsock in the back alleys of VOA’s English to Africa Division.

Another diaspora musician I got to know during the world-tour off season of African artists is Ethiopian singer, kirar player Reshan Gebre. Though her English is not as good as she’d like it to be, she came into our studios in January for an interview and short performance. Reshan is from the Tigray region of Ethiopia and her music is largely drawn from the traditional repertoire of the region. She came to the United States about eight years ago but remains one of Ethiopia’s top stars which any simple search on YouTube will prove. During our interview, we talk about how she views life in America, her background as a child soldier in Ethiopia, the history of the kirar, and her plans to build schools in the Tigray region with the support of  Dr. Peter Hartsock, research scientist with the National Institutes of Health and Drug Abuse (NIH/NIDA).

Due to her English, Reshan was hesitant about doing the interview but she prevailed! After reviewing the video, she did catch one English mistake that she insist I clarify for our audiences. Please note that Ms. Gebre means to say “3,000” instead of “300 years” when referring to the kirar’s approximate age. Enjoy the interview.

 

The world touring season of African artists seems to be picking up again now that we’ve entered the month of March. This Friday, March 1st Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal perform in D.C. to promote their new album At Peace. Habib Koite and Eric Bibb roll through next Friday, March 8th to promote their new album Brothers in Bamako, and South African group Freshly Ground perform in Vienna, Virginia to promote their new album Take Me to The Dance on March 21st. Rest assured I’ll be at all of these events front and center with cameraman Jackson beside me to bring you the latest in African music news in my next blog posts. Despite all the excitement, though, I am glad for the lull we’ve had these past few months. Diaspora musicians make Washington D.C. an interesting place to be even when there are no tours and I have just begun to scratch the surface. In fact tomorrow night I have a rehearsal of my own with a new band that includes a Nigerian drummer and Ivorian bassist, among others. Stay blessed and stay tuned to my next post featuring Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal.

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. 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.

Interview with Lira

Posted February 11th, 2013 at 5:28 pm (UTC-4)
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Heather Maxwell and colleague Carol Van Dam on the rooftop of the Voice of America building on Inauguration Day, January 21st, 2013, Washington D.C.

On Monday January 21st, our nation’s capital celebrated the inauguration of our President, Barack Obama, for a second term. Our Voice of America headquarters is located just a few blocks away from the Capitol Building where the swearing in ceremonies and ensuing parades took place.

American celebrity singers, 2013 Grammy Award winners Kelly Clarkson, Beyoncé, and James Taylor performed live at the swearing in ceremony. That evening, many other American superstars performed at the two official parties in the Washington Convention Center — The Commander In Chief’s Ball and the Inaugural Ball. The line-up included Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, FUN., John Legend, Katy Perry, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Usher and many others. There were also several unofficial balls sponsored by local and national organizations, and it is at one such soiree, the Ambassadors Inaugural Ball, where South Africa’s own celebrity Lira headlined a lineup of mostly international artists — Mi Casa Music, Biz Markie and Anane Vega.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to see Lira’s performance at the Ball but my VOA colleagues Abdushakur Aboud and Ndimyake Mwakalyelye covered the event

The following day, Lira came into the studio to chat with me. In the following interview, she  reveals news and ideas about her music choices for the Ball and what it meant to sing in honor of President Obama’s inauguration. She talks about Miriam Makeba and the opportunities she and other exiled artists have given her through their sacrifices. We talk about her Makeba-inspired leopard print dress, her music video “Phakade”, future music projects, and her dedication to education back home in South Africa. Lira’s enthusiasm and self confidence is infectious and makes one want to adopt her mantra, as stated at the end of our interview, “Do what you can with what you have where you are right now!” – Lira.

 

 

Lira and Heather in Studio 4 at VOA, January 22, 2013  [include "Video 1"]

Lira performing at the Ambassadors Ball, January 21st, 2013. Photo by Abduhshakur Aboud.

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. 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.

Malian Music Cancelled for 2013 Festival sur le Niger

Posted January 23rd, 2013 at 3:59 pm (UTC-4)
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As an update to my previous post on the projected fate of Mali’s 2013 music festivals, this quick news post is to let you all know that the Festival sur le Niger has officially cancelled all music programs. See here for the press release in English.

 

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. 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 Music Festivals on the Brink

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 8:51 pm (UTC-4)
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Me (left) with Marisa Segala and Gaoussou Diarra

I know a graphic artist/music promoter who works for one of Mali’s premier international music festivals, the Festival sur le Niger (or Niger River Festival). We were Facebook messaging the other day about the upcoming festival (February, 2013 .) Marisa Segala and I first met last year at the festival’s 8th edition located in the city of Segou in Central Mali. Segou is a beautiful and deeply historical Bambara town that stretches along the southern banks of the Niger River. I was there to sing with my Bamako-based band, and Marisa was working for the festival designing the website, press releases, and producing other promotional graphic media. Our Facebook conversation made me laugh when I reviewed it again because it read with a familiar sense of confusion that permeated our experience at the 2012 festival — but for one big difference: The 2012 festival was riddled with logistic inadequacies that affected musicians and organizers back stage. Today we’re confused about the upcoming festivals because they are in exile and on the brink of existence. They are searching for safety in a constantly shifting landscape of terrorist occupied zones. I use festivals in the plural because Mali is home to two of Africa’s best music festivals; the Niger River Festival and the other even more popular one,  Festival au Desert (or Desert Festival.) The latter normally takes place in Northern Mali, just a few kilometers outside of Timbuktu. Last year at the Niger River Festival, the large majority of us festival artists and staffers suffered from being thrown into a state of confusion with high expectations to perform.

Me performing with my band

As for the musicians, we did our best to shake off the mess while onstage. But  offstage, our lodging shortages, dilapidated facilities, spotty transportation to and from the site, inconsistent meals, and a stark absence of communication made for low artistic moral.  I had previously performed at this same festival in 2006. The logistics and accommodations were much better then. But despite internal problems of late, the Niger River Festival’s international reputation has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years — making it one of Africa’s top go-to music festivals today. It is consistently rated as the #3rd Best African Music Festival on about.com, Busaramusic.org, and OKA’s Guide to Music Festivals. Zanzibar’s Sauti Za Busara places second, while Mali’s Festival au Desert takes the first place. Below is Malian vocalist and 2010 Winner of Victoires de la Musique, Salif Keita — the “Golden Voice of Africa”

My Facebook exchange with Marisa revealed uncertainty as to the location of the Niger River Festival. She is still planning to take the trip (she is based in Denmark) to Segou in 2 weeks. But on-ground realities in Mali are changing every day and it seems unlikely that a festival of such kind can really take place. We also wrangled the topic of the Festival au Desert’s fluctuating locations and artist rosters. After last year’s low turnout at the Desert Festival in Timbuktu, it reinvented itself for 2013 in order to stay alive. Already because of growing unrest in Northern Mali in January 2012, attendance took a serious nosedive. Foreigners were not willing to risk attending a music festival in Timbuktu and the Sahara Desert where white tourists were popular targets for kidnappings. It had top rate music stars performing for a fraction of the audience from previous years. The excerpt below features the band and 2012 Grammy Award winner Tinariwen, N’goni maestro Bassekou Kouyate, and Bono – the Irish musician and humanitarian best known for being the main vocalist of the rock band U2.

The festival announced that it would manifest as a caravan for the 2013 edition, appropriately titled Le Festival au Desert in Exile. “Despite our present ‘exiled’ status from Timbuktu,” the website mission statement reads, “in proud nomadic tradition, we will embark on a 2013 caravan of artists, fans and festivals uniting for Peace, Tolerance and Human Dignity. The tour will begin in the Sahel region of Africa, and then travel internationally until we are able to return to our homeland in peace and freedom of expression.” The problem here is that the caravan’s projected tour is so complicated and splintered it hardly resembles a festival. Festivals are generally events staged by a local community where people come together to celebrate some aspect of culture — music in this case. But the caravan appears to be a series of concerts by various assemblages of local and international musicians, many of whom are not yet identified, in shifting locations across the world.  The original peace caravan was scheduled to tour from February to September 2013, beginning with its “Africa Caravan” in Kobenni, Mauritania and ending with a “United Nations Caravan” (no location specified). In between, it would tour the Middle East, US, Europe, and Southeast Asia. For security reasons, however, it changed one location of its African tour from the Oursi desert in northeastern Burkina Faso to a site in the African “brousse” at roughly 40 Km east of Ouagadougou. The Africa caravan is divided into an “East Caravan” and a “West Caravan”. The East and West carry separate artist rosters obviously, and they split up and regroup to perform in different locations. For example, the East is scheduled to perform in Tamaransset, Algerie and Niamey, Niger; The West Caravan has a separate show in Bamako (sponsored by the famous Malian artist Oumou Sangaré, who was appointed FAO ambassador of peace in 2003.) It also travels to other places without the East Caravan, including one day at the Niger River Festival in Segou. Details of what artists will belong to what Caravan and when and where they will perform are available on the Festival au Desert website. But the artist roster of other African and international artists for both Caravans are yet to be announced. If this isn’t confusing enough, here’s yet another twist: tourists can only join the West Caravan.

Returning to the confusion surrounding the Niger River Festival — its location, as I mentioned earlier, remains in question. That’s due to recent terrorist gains in southern Mali. Marisa and I are waiting to hear the updated official report from Festival spokesman, Attaher Maiga, but we fear the event might be canceled altogether. Back on August 30th, 2012, I posted an extensive blog post on the reaction to the shocking “ban on music” declared by the Islamists militants in the north. In my interview with the director of the Niger River Festival, Mr. Daffe, he expressed confidence that the 2013 9th edition would be one of the “best ever” such events — despite problems brewing in the region. He was also excited about the possibilities of his festival helping negotiate peace in Mali, hosting the Desert Festival’s  Caravan of northern artists as its “Guest Festival” and honoring Timbuktu as its “Guest City.”

Both Festivals are scheduled to take place in February. The Desert Festival’s African Caravan is due to hit Segou, Mali on February 14th and the Niger River Festival is scheduled for February 12 – 17th. But with the ongoing political crisis in the country, nothing seems certain. Really, doesn’t it make sense to cancel these festivals, given the worsening of Mali’s political crisis right now? French and ECOWAS troops are currently storming Northern Mali to take it back from the Islamic groups that now occupy it– Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM.) For the sake of Marisa’s safety, and all other tourists and musicians considering attending these festivals, staying home may be the safe and prudent thing to do. The unfortunate prospect is if one Festival folds, the other will likely follow suit. And if the Niger River Festival cancels, Southern Mali will (oddly) reinforce the silencing of Malian music northern Islamists are forcing on the north. Can the dream of a music festival negotiating peace in a war zone still come true in Mali? Will the Niger River Festival take place despite the threats and the danger? We shall see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. 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.

Nigerian Diaspora: Abiodun Koya Sings “Edelweiss”

Posted January 15th, 2013 at 3:58 pm (UTC-4)
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I got a tip last week that a Nigerian “opera” singer was going to be in town and was interested in appearing on Music Time in Africa. Opera? Really? Abiodun Koya came into the studio a few days later and gives us the real deal on her career in this video clip. Turns out she is not really an “opera” singer but rather an eclectic vocalist with a background in gospel and classical training from Ogun State, Nigeria. Check her out here for the full story and an impromptu performance of Edelweiss, that American classic show tune  from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music.

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. 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.

Staff Benda Bilili Shakes Our World

Posted December 13th, 2012 at 7:55 pm (UTC-4)
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I’d never heard of the Congolese group by the name of  Staff Benda Bilili until an envelope containing their new CD landed on my desk. I always get a little shiver of excitement when I get one of these padded envelopes, because I know there’s new music inside from somewhere in Africa. So many places, traditions, new creations.  I open the package and see a colorful, glossy, tri-fold CD that shows eight guys striking bold poses and sporting flashy guitars, wheelchairs, crutches, and canes. Behind the group is a big earth-shaped image with the band’s name and album title, Bouger le Monde (French for “Shake the World”).

I rip off the plastic wrap with my teeth, stick the CD in the player, and ceremoniously place my headphones on. Then I push play on “Track 1”, a song called “Osali Ma Be” that translates from Lingala as “You’ve Done the Wrong Thing.” Instantly, I am pulled deeper into my headphones by the magnetic soukous beat made by drums and guitar that the Congolese are so famous for, and then followed by the supplication in local French of the singer to his lover: “Why are you leaving?  Why are you running away? Come back, come back, my love.” A descending rhythmic arpeggio responds with what sounds like an electric guitar on steroids, and then the full band and chorus launch in with the chorus, “You’ve Done the Wrong Thing.” I can’t remember for sure, but I think I actually jumped out of my chair and danced through that whole first piece.

I receive a promotional CD often enough, and though I start out with the same great excitement to hear it–as I did when I got Benda Bilili’s–its not a guarantee that I’m going to love it.  But there is something special about the sound of this music that I couldn’t quite place my finger on . . . until they came to DC and showed me.  On October 21st, the band came through D.C. and played at the Howard Theater.  My VOA colleague Jackson Mvunganyi and I grabbed our gear, and got to the site before the show for an interview in the green room. The band speaks French and Lingala, so I had to conduct the interview in French – fun for me, but perhaps not for some of you non-French speaking fans, so if you’d like the English transcription, send me a message in my comment section and I’ll make it available to you. As you’ll see in this interview, the reason the Benda Bilili sound is so distinctive is because all of their instruments are handmade from local materials like powdered milk cans, umbrella spindles, local wood, etc. Furthermore, these musicians have been playing together since they were youngsters and in very special circumstances.

Check out our slideshow of the night:

 

Most of the group have severe physical disabilities and grew up in the streets of Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (D.R.C.) national capital, where les handicappes or les invalides, as they describe themselves, usually do. More times than not, the physically impaired in the D.R.C. and in many other parts of Africa have little chance of making a living beyond begging in the streets. But as Ricky, the leader of the band, tells us, he had a vision from an early age that he and his long-time friends were going to make really good music and tour the world. At first, he explains, everyone mocked him and he was excluded from the mainstream music scene. But Ricky’s perseverance and talent proved to win out against all odds. Watch the video and enjoy the concert footage with me right here:

 

By the way, it is common for Congolese musicians to use locally-made instruments for rehearsal purposes, then to rent professional versions just for their concerts.  But Staff Benda Bilili prefers the sound and feel of their own local instruments all the time.  Here is the music video of “Osali Ma Be”, the opening track of Bouger le Monde:

 

By measure of both excellent music and indefatigable human spirit, Staff Benda Bilili has quickly risen to the top of my list of contemporary African music treasures and definitely shaken our world here in D.C.

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. 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.

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About

Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor 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.

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