Staff Benda Bilili Shakes Our World

Posted December 13th, 2012 at 7:55 pm (UTC-4)

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.

Afropean Women Raise the Bar in Contemporary African Music

Posted November 26th, 2012 at 9:02 pm (UTC-4)

One of the things I learned quickly when I started doing my Music Time in Africa radio show last April was that there always seems to be a shortage of good female artists. “How can this be?” I asked myself and colleagues in our English to Africa Division. I know from experience living on the continent that women sing everywhere, and with beautiful voices, too. One Ghanaian co-worker explained to me that of course there are so many great female singers around, but they prefer to keep their talents in the church. That brought me an ah-hah moment! Sacred music is a safe zone for female artists that consequently creates a vacuum of female talent in the secular music domains. To perform in anything outside of that religious arena is risky business for women in Africa. Popular performing artists such as singers, dancers, and actresses are often in danger of losing their credibility as faithful and obedient mothers, sisters, wives and co-wives. They often travel, which puts the burden of their domestic duties on others in the family. The majority of the members of their bands or troops are also usually men, too, which causes suspicion. Furthermore, women who put themselves on public display, regardless of how gifted and talented they may be, rub many families, communities, and sometimes even larger social entities like regions, states, or nations the wrong way.

But there are always exceptions to the rule, and we were blessed recently in Washington, DC, with three female artists all at once–here comes a trio of multi-talented outspoken women on tour in the US under the moniker “Afropean Women.” Two of them, Dobet Ghnahore and Manou Gallou, reside in Europe (hence the term Afropean), while the third, Kareyce Fotso, lives in Cameroon, her native country. The women are accompanied by three additional (male) musicians who also reside in Europe: Wendlavim Zabsonre on drums, Aly Keita on balafon, and Zoumana Diarra on guitar. The day before their concert, they came to our headquarters and gave a wonderful interview. It turned out that I knew most of the them either personally or by only one degree of separation. Aly and I, for example, played together in Abidjan at a jazz club called the Tropicana. Wendlavim recognized me from my tours in Burkina, and the others know so and so, whom I also knew from Abidjan, Divo, Bamako, Paris and so forth. Having these three exceptional women with me all in the same room and reconnecting with long-lost musician friends was already exhilarating, but their musical talent raises the bar of contemporary African music (or as we sometimes say, it is off the chain!)

Watch the full interview here and get to know each of them, and hear them play live in this small, intimate setting.

The night after this interview, I went to the GW Lisner Auditorium to see these Afropean women and men do their thing on stage. Roger Muntu, music presenter of the RM Show, came with me to film the show.  The two things that struck me most about their performance are the ladies’ musical competence and their dynamic stage presence (l’occupation scènique). All of them sing and harmonize to perfection. In addition, they each play musical instruments and, in the case of Kareyce and especially Dobet, dance with amazing skill. Their stage show was loosely choreographed, but held together by a spirit of collaboration and joy. Kareyce and Dobet performed well together, and ensured that each artist got their time in the spotlight more than once.

Thanks to these three extraordinary Afropean Women of Acoustic Africa 3, my radio show this week was powered primarily by female artistry.


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.

Face to Face with Angelique Kidjo

Posted November 14th, 2012 at 7:29 pm (UTC-4)
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Angelique Kidjo  entered my musical world in 1991 when I was living in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. A singer myself, and thriving with my own Afro-jazz group of Ivoirians and Burkinabe, I was always listening to and even working with female vocalists from West Africa.  At Studio JBZ, which was the ultimate recording studio during those times, I met many talented singers from Mali, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso. It seemed that everybody came to JBA in Abidjan to try and make their start. The apartment I shared with my husband in Williamsville was a home studio where artists from everywhere came to make their demo tapes, or maquettes as they call them there.  My husband arranged their pieces, and we often “threw in” my talents as a background singer to reel in more customers. I’d also come from two years in Mali, where Oumou Sangare bedazzled me with her mega hits “Moussoulou” and “Diaraby Nene.” But when Angelique’s album Logozo came out and I heard the song “Batonga” on the radio, I was addicted. Her voice was amazingly rich and strong and energized. The music was so exciting and danceable, it felt like Oumou Sangare times 10. Several of the musicians I worked with knew her from Paris, and spoke more highly of her ambition than anything else. I remember thinking, “well, if she made it this big with more ambition than talent, then I can too!”  In short, Angelique Kidjo was a source of inspiration for me in terms of her voice and music and her character. The slideshow below features some  photos taken by my VOA colleague Jackson Mvunganyi (co-host of Up Front) during our interview.

Now, 21 years later, I’m sitting face to face with this world-class star, and she is even more inspiring than ever. I had dreamed about such an encounter differently – where we would be sharing a world stage somewhere, singing a duet – but right now neither of us is holding a microphone. We’re just sitting side by side in some chairs in the upstairs room of the Embassy of Benin in Washington D.C. I have a mere ten minutes to interview her before she goes on stage, where she will be holding a microphone–but she’ll be holding it longer advocating girls’ education in Africa than she will singing.  During our precious ten minutes, we talked about her foundation, the Batonga Foundation, named after that old hit song “Batonga” from the early ’90s, and why it is so important to her. Pan-African in scope, Batonga currently operates in Benin, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Mali. It was raining outside, and she did get sidetracked for a moment with a nostalgic story about her grandmother always knowing when it was going to rain back in Benin by the degree of pain she felt in her arthritic knees.   Listen here for our interview:

After the interview, Angelique went downstairs and gave a compelling speech about the Foundation, followed by comments from the Benin Ambassador to the U.S. and other Foundation members and volunteers. Here is an excerpt of her speech:

When everyone had finished speaking, Angelique took up the microphone again, but this time the talking was definitely over! Right there in that small visitor’s room of the embassy, everything lit up as soon as she opened her mouth and delivered her first note. She sang strong and true, just as in her recordings, and all of the talking heads were instantly transformed to smiling faces. Angelique sang the melancholy ballad “Malaika” that made her so famous, and then her old hit “Batonga” that has now taken on the added weight of being the theme song to her Foundation, and then another hit whose title I can’t remember now – but the whole while dancing like she was 32 rather than 52. Here she’s singing “Africa”…

  • [audio:] Angelique live

Angelique gave us all of her voice that night, as a singer and as an advocate for a cause that gives thousands of African girls their own voice.


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.

Fatoumata Diawara: Carrying on the Wassoulou Tradition in under 3 Minutes

Posted November 1st, 2012 at 3:13 pm (UTC-4)

Fatoumata Diawara (pronounced JA-WA-RA) came through Washington D.C. recently on her first US tour. I’ve been playing selections from her 2011 album entitled Fatou on my radio show for the past couple of months. Her lyrics are deep and well-written, exploring social issues that matter to Malians especially, but also to people in many other societies. The music is an excellent World Circuit production. Fatou’s sound is totally current, presenting  impeccable musicianship, exciting combinations of traditional and modern instruments, and sophisticated  arrangements that showcase the integrity of traditional melodies, timbres and rhythms. I was looking forward to meeting Fatoumata in person and see her live stage performance.

Only minutes before the concert kicked off downstairs  in the dressing room of The Atlas, Fatoumata spoke with me and cameraman Jackson Mvunganyi (who is the co-host of Voice of America’s radio program Up Front) while putting on her makeup. Her French back-up singer and percussionist sat beside us quietly warming up her vocal chords and fixing her hair. I’d heard contrasting stories about her nationality, so we started with that topic, then moved on to discussion about her transition from actress to singer, and her personal experience with Mali’s tradition of arranged marriage and breaking free from it through theater and music.

Since I am deeply familiar with the region in Mali where Fatoumata comes from, and with it’s older female singers, I wanted to find out how much they influenced her growing up. But first, she continues her thoughts on the problems women face in marriage and the need for a balance of power, citing her song “Bissa” which she composed about the subject.

Here is a sample of her  song “Bissa”

Fatoumata’s remarks on the importance of being one’s own source of inspiration were especially significant once she got on The Atlas stage because otherwise,  if you didn’t see her live, her overall sound and lyrics don’t fall too far from the tree of Wassoulou tradition. Her voice is remarkably similar to her female predecessors locally known as konow, Bambara for songbirds. The pentatonic melodies and strong yet raspy tone and timbre of Wassolou singers are characteristic of this forested zone in the southwest. The fist major international Wassoulou superstar was Oumou Sangare (also a World Circuit artist) whom Fatoumata refers to as her ‘mom’ in the interview, but Nahawa Doumbia from the same town of Bougouni where Fatoumata is from, and the late Coumba Sidibe were trailblazers in Mali long before. These  singers are known for promoting women’s rights in their music. Oumou and Nahawa have been singing about women’s rights for decades. The refrain in “Diya Nyeba” (The One Who I Adore), a cut from Oumou’s cassette Moussoulou originally released in the late 1980s, sings “The boys who love the girls, the girls who love the boys, one should marry them. Their love will last”.

  • [audio:] Diya Nyeba by Oumou Sangare

This song was actually created by another singer, Tata Bambo Kouyate, sometime in the 1960’s when Malian women fist started publicly rebelling and speaking out against their traditional system of forced marriage.

And one more generation back, listen to Coumba Sidibe’s message on marriage with “Fouru” (Marriage). The refrain states “marriage is obligatory, but a marriage of love is good.”

  • [audio:] Fouru by Coumba Sidibe

Once you see Fatoumata on stage though, she is like no other before her — and I have personally seen all of the aforementioned singers perform so I speak from experience.  First of all, she possesses a superb artfulness in playing with the subtle nuances of her tone,  vocalizations, trills and expressions. Then, as the following excerpt shows, she allows herself to get completely taken by the spirit of the music with gestures and expressions that seem to embody her commitment to freedom.

Her stage performance and rapport with the audience outdoes her elders as well. At The Atlas, she began the concert standing alone on stage with her acoustic guitar. She sang in a simple manner and barely moved a bone. I wondered if this was actually going to be an exciting show. By the end of the night, by contrast and to the delight of us all, she had completely bewitched the audience with amazing dancing, singing, and flirting with us all. She held the crowd in the palm of her hand, and we gladly followed her every whim and command,  singing in Bamabara and dancing Wassoulou steps unashamed (or at least it seemed that way from where I was sitting).


One interesting note is that Fatoumata’s touring band does not include Wassoulou’s iconic kamalen n’goni. The kamalen n’goni (young man’s harp), is the acoustic-electric, six-stringed, plucked harp-lute that gives Wassoulou music of earlier generations its characteristic twangy, funky, pentatonic sound. The instrument is a musical icon in Mali of  youth rebellion dating back from the 1960s with its original inventor/player Alata Broulaye and singer, Coumba Sidibe.The duo represented Wassoulou youth and women’s ‘outrageous’ ideas about freedom in love and marriage. Only one song on Fatou (“Kanou”) features the kalamen n’goni. What Fatoumata looses by way of that traditional guitar, however, she gains in that she plays the acoustic. None of her predecessors played any musical instrument beyond the beaded calabashes (filen). Furthermore, Fatoumata adds the incredible element of theatrical performance and full-blown dance. I say “full-blown” because others before her danced here and there during a solo, but the bulk of the dancing was left to the backup singers. Fatoumata doesn’t use backup dancers and she certainly doesn’t need to, as this clip of her performing at the Atlas attests to.

What’s beautiful about Fatoumata, above and beyond the voice, the woman, and the dancing, is that she carries on the torch of tradition from her Wassoulou songbird mothers and aunties. As Fatoumata mentions in her interview, the only real difference in the message is that she gets to it faster, in under 3:00 minutes to be precise. The evolution of women’s freedom in Mali might still be a slow process, but if Fatoumata is a symbol of today’s modern Malian woman, the idea is can be heard loud and clear.






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.

1Beat Brings New African Music to Washington

Posted October 22nd, 2012 at 2:56 pm (UTC-4)
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A trio of musicians from different regions of Africa joined me in VOA’s Studio 4 here in Washington for some good conversation and music. The artists (from left to right) are Nigerian Kayode Kuti on bass and vocals, Kenyan Kato Change (pronounced CHAN-GAY) on guitar, and Mozambican Helio Vanimal on vocals and body percussion. They are 3 of 32 fellows from around the world who won their spots in the competitive 1Beat program.

Heather and 1Beat artists after Studio 4 interview, Washington D.C.

I was able to snatch them up for an interview just hours before their dress rehearsal.  Watch the full interview to meet each artist, hear their original music,  and discover what the sponsoring program 1Beat is all about.

The following night, I went to their concert at a local venue called Busboys and Poets. It was crowded and bustling with excitement. Only Kayode and Helio performed that night, and they played with other 1Beat fellows from different countries in musical styles ranging from Afrojazz to hip hop. For more music by these artists, check out Koyade Kuti’s original Afrobeat tune Na Me Sabi (Olodorabata) on SoundCloud, or check him out on his Myspace page. You can find out what Helio Vanimal is up to in Mozambique by visiting his website, Positivo Mocambique and SoundCloud. Kato Change’s music can be found on YouTube.

Kayode Kuti playing with Afrojazz collection of fellows.

Helio in the back is providing body percussion accompaniment for rapper/MC trio Jessica Srin from Cambodia, Paul Pissety Sagna from Senegal, and Alesh from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kato relaxing in the audience with fellow 1Beat artist.

Below are the music audio files of Kato, Helio, and Kayode’s live performance from Studio 4.

  •  [audio:] Kato Change

[audio:] Helio Vanimal

  • [audio:] Kayode Kuti
  • After a few days in Washington, 1Beat continued on with their tour up the East Coast with New York City as their final destination.
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.

Sierra Leone’s Sorie Kondi comes to D.C.

Posted October 11th, 2012 at 6:19 pm (UTC-4)
On Thursday, October 4th, vocalist and music innovator Sorie Koroma, a.k.a. Sorie Kondi, gave his debut US performance in Washington DC. Kondi, who has been blind since birth, gave an exciting performance of what his sideman and percussion player, Ibrahama, described as “cultural music.”  I spoke with them before the show and learned that their music is original in two ways. First, their songs are all Sorie’s “own creations,” as Ibrahama noted. Most likely, the core musical material in Sorie’s repertoire comes from folk and traditional music from Sierra Leone that he adapts and rearranges in his own, new way.  Some of his lyrics are expressions of his own unique ideas on current affairs, such as track 1 of his new CD, Thogolobea, entitled “Bumbuna.”
  • [audio://]Bumbuna by Sorie Kondi
Bumbuna is the name of a town in the northern part of the country, and home to one of the world’s largest hydropower dams. Sorie sings “What is happening with Bumbuna?” in a way that praises the current president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma. Sorie sings “They [the APC (All People’s Congress) political party] have all the power. Just look at what they can achieve.”
Second, I learned that Sorie was the first to modify the traditional instrument, the kondi, that he plays. He modified it by adding a pickup to the body so that it can be played as an electric instrument. I have seen this done with the kamalen n’goni in Mali by Allata Brulaye in the early 1970s and, of course,  other acoustic instruments around the world have been modified in similar fashion. The electronic kondi sound, however, is unique. Unmodified, the kondi (also known as mbira, kalimbe, ikembe, gyilgo, and many other local names across sub-Saharan Africa) is a meditative, quiet instrument.  It is simply entrancing in its electric environment. Sorie’s voice adds Sierra Leonian spice to the mix with its raspy, hard edged timbre and traditional straight tone that almost sounds like he sings with a sock in his mouth. He sings in Krio and Mende and, on the new CD, is supported by a beautiful female chorus of young voices that sound as if they were straight from the village. What puts this music on my favorites list is that all of this neotraditional music is mixed to up-tempo techno beats and modern production aesthetics of voice mods and other techno sound effects.
The live show at Tropicalia sounded more “cultural,” as Ibrahama kept calling it, because there were just the two musicians, unplugged. Sorie, however, was impressive to watch. While Ibrahama cracked jokes of questionable humor and played the jembe and shebrue (a netted gourd percussion instrument), Sorie commanded the stage. This slight, elderly blind man, while sitting behind big dark glasses and on top of  his small box drum, beat out a steady bass drum rhythm with his right heel, played his kondi with furious fingers of both hands, and sang with power song after song. The young audience sat and stood mesmorized before him, swaying and bobbing to the earthy grooves.
Sorie and Ibrahama are from the town of Lungi, in the Port Loko District of Sierra Leone. The Tropicalia was their first stop of a tour up the Eastern states of the U.S. We were lucky to have him.
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.

VOA’s Veteran Music Man Leo Sarkisian Says Goodbye

Posted October 2nd, 2012 at 6:32 pm (UTC-4)

Last Friday was a bittersweet day, particularly for me, as well as for my colleagues in the English to Africa Service and other departments at the Voice of America:  At age 91, Leo Sarkisian, founder of the radio program Music Time in Africa and pioneering African music collector, officially retired from the agency after what he called “a pretty good run.” His retirement send-off began in our offices at 8:30 in the morning – actually a very late start for Leo since he usually arrives to work by 4:00 a.m. – where an excited crowd from all corners of the VOA waited to pay their respects to Elder Leo and his wife, Mary.  Our own Bill Workinger of the English to Africa Service captured some of the morning’s sentiment on film.

VOA Director David Ensor bidding Leo a final farewell in the English to Africa Service

Chief of English to Africa, Sonya Lawrence-Green shares a moment with Leo and Mary

Leo Sarkisian with wife Mary

Tara Bahrampour of the Washington Post was among the guests to honor Sarkisian, and wrote a beautiful article on his life’s work that includes photographs, video and sound files of Leo’s broadcasts. Check it out.







Leo and Mary are congratulated by Aliyu Mustapha from VOA’s Hausa Service.


As most of you know, I am Leo’s successor as the new MTIA host, music collector and curator of the Sarkisian Music Library, so the events of this special day brought home the realization: Boy, I have big shoes to fill! Watch the last five minutes of our TV interview on the VOA’s In Focus program that we did together on the afternoon of his retirement party.

Sonny Side of Sports host, Sonny Young and me, holding the new Music Time in Africa calendar Leo designed for 2012-2013


Over the past several months since I came on board in April with VOA, Leo has vigilantly trained me in matters related to listener correspondence, program content, and curating his collection. He has led me around the enormous Voice of America Headquarters, personally introducing me to all of the people that I will need to know in order to carry on his work. “You’ve got to respond to the listeners,” he would say. On Sunday mornings Leo and Mary would walk me through their production-line technique of mailing out listener packets to Africa:  MTIA calendars, newsletters, self-addressed return envelopes, program guides, and VOA stationery that Leo designs himself by hand.

Leo and I look over a new piece of mail written by a fan of our popular music show that Leo started 47 years earlier.

Leo searches for a special recording that is part of the collection of African music he assembled during his long career.

On several other occasions while orienting me to the library, Leo would stop what he was doing, open his arms out to all corners of the library and say, “Look around at all this beautiful music! This is all YOURS now!”

Leo in his element: the Leo Sarkisian Library (with Washington Post reporter Tara Bahrampour and me)

Leo, with his small stature but giant presence, gleams with pride and wonder when he talks about Africa, music, radio, and the Voice of America.  I have great plans for the future to build on his legacy, and keep our radio show and music library relevant for today’s audiences in Africa. We are currently digitizing the Sarkisian collection and building a comprehensive database. Leo started this project a few years ago with partners at the University of Michigan, Associate Professor and founding Director of the African Studies Center Dr. Kelly Askew, and Converging Technologies Consultant Tom Bray. I’m planning an upcoming music mission to Zanzibar and other East African countries in early 2013, and will continue to provide new and exciting editions of Music Time in Africa every week.

Leo started MTIA in 1965, making it – at 47 years – the longest-running English language program in VOA history  In addition to his work in music, Mr. Sarkisian is also an accomplished artist. Below is an oil painting – not by Leo – but by a fellow African artist inspired by one of his visits to the continent in 1990.

A painting of Leo among African friends by Anjolangs Art, 2000.

Leo and Mary both look forward to getting back to work in his art studio now that he’s going to have more time on his hands.  The main reason Leo has finally retired, though, is “to take care of my wife. ” I’ve  heard him say that often in recent days and always with a smile.
Above, Leo gives his wife a kiss on the cheek as he marks the end of an amazing career at VOA that began when he was hired by Edward R. Murrow in the early 1960s.  Although they say goodbye to VOA, Music Time in Africa is not saying goodbye to them. The radio show that I now host continues its pan-African, multi-genre and cross-generational programming just as Leo had envisioned and shaped it in 1965.  Original music and interviews from the Sarkisian library are also integral elements of the weekly shows, and as our digitization work expands to include Leo’s own shows, we will all continue to enjoy hearing from the VOA Music Man of Africa.
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.

Emmanuel Jal Upbeat About Peace Despite Police Beating

Posted September 18th, 2012 at 5:10 pm (UTC-4)
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Last Friday I had a phone conversation with Emmanuel Jal in Juba, South Sudan. Mr. Jal is a rising world music star, activist, and former child soldier whose personal story is as compelling as is his music. This Thursday and Friday, September 20-21, Jal and his entourage of American hip hop and rap artists will be performing in Juba at Independence (Freedom) Hall for International Peace Day.  He talks about the upcoming concert and the “We Want Peace” Business Gala on Thursday: “We’re trying to enjoy the peace we have right now, despite how the situation is right now, and to join the rest of the world on International Peace Day. . . and to attract responsible investment.” He tells us about his new album, See Me Mama, that is coming out this month and features D.M.C., who is also coming to South Sudan to perform with him this week, having never set foot on African soil before. Click here to hear this part of the interview:


Ironically, only one week before the concert, while Jal was coming home from a meeting with a peace organization which is also involved in this coming Friday’s Peace Day activities, when he stopped to ask some policemen for directions, they brutally beat him until he was unconscious.  I called him to get a personal account of the incident and to find out if it has changed his attitude toward the big concert, and to get a little more information about the concert itself. Jal says that, despite the beating, “democracy is working in South Sudan”, because a spokesperson for the police at the ministry of the interior called him after the incident to participate in a live debate on the radio. He had just come from that debate when I talked to him, and felt uplifted because a lot of people who had similar experiences of police brutality were also there, and they all told their stories. “That’s great”, he says, “and the good thing is that I think South Sudan is moving forward because I’m talking about my freedom, how I’ve been beaten, and nobody harassed me after that. Usually, in other countries, you’ll even get beaten more if you talk about that.” Click here for this part of the interview:

Jal’s  unique African hip hop sound makes a powerful contribution to global hip hop. Not only does his sound make him one of a kind, but so does his message of peace and forgiveness.  Jal’s most recent single and music video, a remake of a 2011 release called “We Want Peace”, clamours for peace in no uncertain terms. It features American hip hop legend, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels from one of the America’s pioneer hip hop groups, Run-DMC. The new video also contains cameos of endorsements by Alicia Keys, George Clooney, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Peter Gabriel, Ringo Star and others, all saying three simple words: “We want peace.” Check out the video here: We Want Peace Reloaded

One of the most remarkable aspects of this hugely talented artist is his background. Jal was born in South Sudan during the time of the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983 to 2005) that was marked by intense racial and religious conflict between Arabs and Muslims in the central government of the North vs. Africans  and Christians and animist religions in the South. He lost his mother to the war when he was seven and witnessed the rape of his aunt among many other atrocities. After that he joined thousands of other children who fled to Ethiopia with the dream of escaping war and getting an education.  But once in Ethiopia, Jal and many of the other children were tricked into joining an SPLA military training camp instead of school, and were trained to fight. He was a child soldier by age eight. He fought for five years doing what he was taught to do and what he says he felt in his heart out of revenge for his family and his village–“kill as many Muslims and Arabs as possible”–until war broke out in Ethiopia as well.  SPLA then forced him back into Sudan to resume fighting there for the government in Juba.  Jal and some of the other child soldiers finally ran away from Juba and eventually joined the headquarters of a small group, that had also defected from SPLA, in Waat, a small town in the northeastern part of what is today South Sudan. He left with hundreds of children and only sixteen survived the journey. It is there in Waat, when Emmanuel was only eleven or twelve, that he met his adoptive British mother, Emma McCune.  She was an aid worker and an educator, and recognized that little Emmanuel didn’t want to be a soldier, so she smuggled him to Nairobi and enrolled him in school. He was one of about 150 children that Emma rescued. Only a few months later, she died in a road accident but Jal continued to study and complete his education despite more hardships. In a 2009 performance, Jal tells this story partly in monologue, poetry and end concluding with the song, “Emma.”  Music is his therapy, heexplains, and where he “actually sees” heaven.  “Where I can be a child again and be happy and dance again is through music.” Today Jal’s mission in music, aside for promoting peace,  is to raise money for schools in South Sudan through his charity Gua Africa.

Jal started studying music in Kenya and was increasingly drawn to its power to overcome personal pain and anxiety, and to unite people from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Though he had no formal music training, hip hop naturally appealed to him because it emphasizes speaking or chanting and rhythm, the two elements he needed to tell his story and share his vision for peace and political change. He has produced two albums: Ceasefire (2005), a mix of rap in Arabic, English, Swahili, Dinka and Nuer, and Warchild (2008); he has also issued a handful of singles, and his new album–the one that features D.M.C. and some other hip hop groups such as Das Racist, Dispatch, and OAR–is scheduled for release this month (September). I’ve already noted Jal’s unique hip hop sound and message of peace, but his dynamic stage presence in live shows is also extraordinary. Among other places, he performed at the Live 8 Concert in Cornwall, England, in the summer of 2005. He was awarded a 2005 American Gospel Music Award for Best International Artist, and performed songs at Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday concert at London’s Hyde Park on June 27, 2008.

I find it amazing that Jal has emerged from his traumatic and violent childhood as a gentle, articulate, and thoughtful man.In a deeply moving video shot in Kenya in 2006, he speaks about why he support arms control, and I am struck by how, even today–as I found in our conversation–he sticks to his beliefs. In the second part of my interview with him featured above, I asked him whether or not he wanted to see justice served.   He explained that when the police who beat him were finally taken in for questioning by national security officials –“when I saw them put in the car and their guns were removed, I thought ‘That was it. Justice has been served.’ ” That would have been enough, but as he explains in our interview, the national security officials requested that he identify the soldiers for further investigation, a request that Jal happily honored. Especially with the future in the hands of an active citizen like Emmanuel Jal and his infectious enthusiasm, peace and democracy in South Sudan have a fighting chance.


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.

Hip Hop/Rap Reigns in Africa

Posted September 10th, 2012 at 5:58 pm (UTC-4)

Something about hip hop/rap music is proving to be the most popular tool for African youths to organize and express collective resistance. Just last week, I wrote about the role of rap and hip hop music in Mali as a rising force of youth empowerment against perceived political injustice.  This week, news reports from Angola are showing a similar trend. Rap star Luaty Beirao, aka Ikonoklasta, is helping galvanize opposition to the newly re-elected Angolan President of 33 years, Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Dissatisfaction with President Santos has been on the rise in Angola for the past several years. The majority of Angolans still live in extreme poverty (most reports estimate between 50-60%) despite Angola’s standing as the second largest oil producer and the third biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa. The 30-year-old rapper uses his music to openly express his views and awaken young people to the power of protest.  In 2011, while protests were heating up in North Africa, Ikonoklasta was busy heating up his own stage  of some 3,000 fans with an exciting show where he sang out explicit language, waved anti-dos Santos flags, and rallied his audience for an anti-government protest to be held the following week. The show was also filmed and then re-posted to YouTube and spread like wildfire through the social media. Not too many of his fans showed up at the protest, but subsequent rallies and protests cropped up in the same place, and later, in other parts of the country.

Angolan Rap artist Luaty Beirao aka Ikonoklasta

Mr. Beirao keeps paying for his bold stand against the ruling party. He and a few other musicians were detained by the police from that concert in 2011. Again on June 11, 2012 Beirao was arrested by Portuguese authorities at Lisbon airport when coming from Luanda. Apparently a package of cocaine was found stashed in one of his bicycle wheels but he was soon released from custody based on strong indications that Angolan police agents had placed the drugs in his baggage to incriminate him. Another time, during a protest in March, Ikonoklasta was hit on the side of the head by police which left a scar he displays by wearing a mohawk haircut.

Ikonoklast describes his music as conscious hip hop and was drawn to music as a young adult because of the political content he heard in their lyrics. The music is not officially banned in Angola, but has been “purposely neglected” as Mr. Beirao puts it, for over 15 years.  Conscious hip hop is not played on local radio or TV but its underground artists are household names and their music circulates throughout the country on pirate compilations. One of the genre’s biggest distributors are taxi drivers. Some claim that conscious hip hop/rap is far more popular than music that is promoted officially in public and private media. Social media like Facebook and YouTube also spread politicized Angolan hip hop across the continent and the world.

Some Angolan artists are also very productive outside of Angola.  For example, the artist DJ Mpula, also known as Pedro Coquenão, is a kuduro artist who raps socially-conscious messages about Angola in much of his music. Kuduro, which has been around since the 1980s, is a music style that combines samples of traditional carnival music like zoucand soca from the Caribbean and semba from Angola. It weaves it into an up-tempo 4/4 electronica dance beat. Pedro’s sound is making its mark as a new kind of Angola-centric style for his inclusion of traditional Angolan rhythms, lyrics, and dances. His new album Batida, released by Soundway Records in March 2012, is a wonderful work. On this particular track, Tirei O Chapeau, the featured rapper, is none other than Ikonoklasta.

Pedro began to make his own tracks in his loft and drop them into a radio show he hosted in Portugal. The very encouraging reaction he got to his tracks gave him the idea to make a record. He sent out instrumentals to rappers in Angola and Lisbon, gave them a rough lyric theme that he thought matched the mood of the track. Before long, recordings of vocals started coming back. He took the album to producer and mixing engineer, Beat Laden, in Lisbon and finished it in 2009. Pedro told Soundcloud in a recent interview that “being half Angolan, half Portuguese gives me the chance to try to translate the countries to each other, on a small scale of course. It’s impossible now a days to live in Lisbon and not to talk about crisis. Likewise, it’s impossible to have friends and family in Luanda and not include the political and social problems that the city has.” One of my favorite tracks on this album is “Yumbala Mixtape.” I like it for the excellent blend of dance groove and serious lyric message. He denounces the general poor living conditions and corruption in Angola. But the serious topic doesn’t deter its overall objective – get up and move.

“Yumbala” Sample

Back to the recent news articles on Angola– following its recent presidential elections, one observation by journalist Peter Wonacott jumped out at me. In his August 30th piece about youth protests, Wonacott says the moneyed elite in Angola live in swank apartment complexes such  as the one called “Nova Vida” (The New Life,) while directly opposite lies a slum complex that residents call “Vida Esquecida”  (The Forgotten Life.)  It reminded me of something I’d heard before, but it wasn’t called “Nova Vida.” It was called “Waga 2000” and it refers to a development project of luxurious homes and apartments where the moneyed elite and businessmen congregate from all over West Africa. It too is only steps away from one of the poorest slum  neighborhoods of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The same shocking divide between rich and poor is decried by hip hop/rap musicians in Burkina Faso today as well.

The trio includes the Burkina MCs, Art Melody and Joey Le Soldat, and Frenchman DJ Form — two rappers and a beatmaker.  They claim to have become the spokesmen for the entire Burkinabe youth, students, shopkeepers, farmers and artists. They deliver the conscious hip hop with their own unique blend of electronic music, hip hop, and warba – a traditional dance of the Mossi, the largest ethnic group in the country. The two rappers protest the condition of Ouaga’s hoods, and the injustice of living day to day without any future, entrenched in poverty, corruption and violence. This track “Sak Sin Paode” (Accept What is Small) is off their brand new album, Waga 3000, named after the Ouaga 2000 development project. The vocals were recorded in Ouagadougou in just two days and their music video was reportedly shot on the fly in Ouagadougou.

“Sak Sin Paode” Sample

African youth find hip hop/rap music an effective means of organizing and expressing collective resistance. In one way, this is not surprising at all. After all, rap in the United States and its Jamaican predecessor, toasting, has been an effective and wildly popular mode of communication among youths for decades. Right here in my own neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia, I regularly drive down one particular street that divides the “the projects” on one side (public housing for low- and moderate-income residents) and brand new condos starting at $600,000 on the other. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that young local rappers on that very street have a rhyme or two about that. Furthermore,  the roots of rap are African in a round about way because the art of storytelling and lyric improvising over a beat is quite ancient and found in many West African musical traditions. What is surprising is the significant differences between the ancient music forms that are the primary source material for hip hop/rap and contemporary hip hop/rap practiced by African youth today.  In terms of musical lineage, tradition, instrumentation, and transmission, the two forms hardly seem related. Rappers don’t rhyme to traditional instruments anymore (though they may use them from time to time in their electronic mixes.) They  aren’t born into a family lineage of rappers as many West Africans are, and they don’t learn the art through a process of face to face transmission from father to son, mother to daughter like the griots did and still do. Rap doesn’t have an African traditional repertoire, style, technique, and delivery that takes years of dedicated practice and sacrifice to master. Today’s African hip hop/rap artists are creating their own, new thing learning and styling themselves according to their own rules and aesthetics. They look to the West and to their own past for inspiration and direction. Similar to the back-and-forth, Circum-Atlantic love affair of the clave between West Africa and Latin America that resulted in AfroCuban, AfroBrazilian and Afro Columbian music, the love affair of the spoken word set to rhythm carries on it’s own stories in African hip hop and rap today.



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 Prevails in Troubled Times: Rap/Hip Hop Music and Festivals Rally to Rebuild the Nation

Posted August 30th, 2012 at 5:47 pm (UTC-4)

Mali Without Music?

The African nation of Mali is often described as one of the most culturally diverse, tolerant, and musical places on the continent. Since the coup d’etat on 22 March 2012, however, when a faction of the military seized power from the government, it sent the country into a tailspin of unanticipated consequences. I learned last week that the Islamicists holding the northern part of the country–the regions of Timbuctou, Gao, and Kidal–have banned all secular music and music videos. . . in Mali, of all places on earth! I decided to talk to a few friends about this most recent of events taking place in northern Mali to find out how it happened, and what its implications are for the whole nation. I spoke with three people who each have their own interpretations of the consequences of this ban on secular music–two of whom are Malians currently living in Mali, and one an American anthropologist who just returned in June. You can listen to my interviews with them below, but first I want to give a brief summary of Malian music and why it is so extraordinary, and a basic rundown on the Mali crisis for those who are not up to speed on one or the other (or both) to help contextualize the music ban and why it is such a shock, specifically to this African nation.

                                                             Above is a bare-bones map of Mali divided into its eight regions, plus the capital district of Bamako.  The coup d’etat of March 22nd happened in the capital city, Bamako. The map to the right shows Mali’s major cities, the Niger River, and Mali’s surrounding countries. As you can see, Mali is landlocked, and the southern edge of the Sahara Desert envelops the regions of Mopti up to Gao, Tombouctou, and Kidal. The country is extremely large–478,767 square miles to be exact–and if one superimposed Mali onto the eastern part of the U.S., it would include eight states plus part of Toronto. Alternatively, Mali is a little less than twice the size of Texas.

Why is Malian music so remarkable in relation to other African countries? Mali is famous worldwide for its music because of its tremendous multi-ethnic diversity and the prevalence of music in everyday life. Unlike the people of many other African countries, where people listen to and emulate American hip-hop/rap music and music videos more commonly than local folk and traditional music, Malians listen to and emulate the musics of their past. Hip-hop and rap is popular, especially among the youth in Mali, but even still,  it — and reggae too — typically features traditional instruments and local languages such as Bambara, Songhai or Senufo, in addition to French, Mali’s official language.  In a taxicab ride, on a shopping trip in local shops and restaurants, or on national television, Malian music prevails — old and new, traditional and modern — in a seemingly endless array of regional and ethnic varieties.

From the Kayes, Koulikoro, and Segou regions hails the majestic music of the wordsmith/musician caste known as the jeli [Bambara] or griot [French]). Jeli music (jeliya) includes praise-singing and storytelling accompanied by the 21-stringed harp-lute (kora),  heptatonic (seven-tone) xylophone (balafon), or five-to-seven-stringed spiked lute (ngoni). . . or a combination of one or all of these with other instruments like the electric bass, guitar, keyboard or flute. Some of sub-Saharan Africa’s greatest bands originated from these regions of Mali, such as the Rail Band, Les Ambassadeurs, Super Djata, Super Biton, and Bembeya Jazz, as well as world music giants Salif Keita, Amadou and Miriam, and Habib Koite. Bamako is Mali’s music capital as well, with dozens of nightclubs, marquees, recording studios, private dance companies, and national and district orchestras, including the prestigious National Instrumental Ensemble and National Dance Ensemble.

The Region of Sikasso is home to a totally different sound and culture in which Senufo, Minyanka, Bobo, Bambara and Wassoulou ethnic groups make music with pentatonic xylophones (balafon), six-stringed harp-lutes of sacred hunters’ associations (donson n’goni) and of secular youth associations (kamalen n’goni). This region rejoices in non-jeli music and is appreciated for its danceable rhythms, beautiful folk melodies, and ritual and sacred music related to the arcane knowledge of exclusive associations and secret societies such as the hunters (donso), warriors (sofa), and male and female initiation societies (komo and poro). Some of Mali’s greatest female singers hail from the Sikasso region, including Oumou Sangare, Nahawa Doumbia, and Coumba Sidibe. Much of the music from Sikasso is built on pentatonic tuning and short, repetitive melodies, in contrast to the heptatonic tuning and long, melismatic-style singing that characterizes the other regions.

One similarity in music from all four of the regions mentioned thus far is in percussion. The jembe, talking drum (tama), calabash drum (bara) and family of dunun drums, with their percussive metal scraper (karinya) and bell companions, are common throughout the regions, with the exception of the Senufo calabash drum that is predominant only in the Sikasso region.

As the Niger River flows north past Segou and toward Mopti, the musical soundscape begins to change as dramatically as does the physical landscape. Where sand begins to replace soil, and where people greet in Fulfude (also called Pheul) or Dogon instead of Bambara or Senufo, the balafons and koras fade away and give way to the sound of single-chord fiddles, flutes, bullroarers, acoustic guitars and overturned gourds placed in the sand.  Rhythms move away from the deep, reverberating syncopated rhythms of 6/8 and 12/8 patterns to unsyncopated 4/4 rhythms that thud, clack, and boom in dry sharp timbres that result from the open hand on overturned hollowed gourds. The great masked dances of the Dogon are as unique to the country as are as their animist religion and physical habitat nestled in and around the Bandiagara escarpment.

The regions of Tombouctou, Gao and Kidal constitute yet another cluster of culture and music completely unique, and distinctive from the other five regions. In the North, the most common forms of music are performed on the overturned calabash on sand and in water and on the three-stringed, plucked lute called tehardent in Tamashek (the language of the Tuaregs); on the one-stringed fiddle played by Tuareg women (imzad) and Songhai women (njarka); the tende drum, also played by women; the alguarita oboe and the tisinsec and tazammart flutes; and the guitar. The northern regions of Timbuctou and Gao are the home of the desert blues, that world music genre that blossomed with the emergence of the great Songhai guitarist and Grammy-Award-Winner Ali Farka Toure in his first collaboration with American blues guitarist Ry Cooder.

What is the crisis? The entire northern part of the country has fallen under the control of a handful of shadowy, militant groups including Tuareg separatists, Islamist militia (Ansar Dine), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).  Many northerners have fled in response. According to a UNHCR, (The UN refugee agency) report from early August, there are at least 256,000 Malian refugees now living in camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, and another 174,000 are internally displaced within Mali.  But many citizens who remain in the northern regions of Timbuctou, Gao, and Kidal are witnessing dramatic changes that offer less and less freedom. I was living in Bamako at the time of the coup, and forced to stay in my apartment for three days and nights as blasts of rapid gunfire, war cries from power-intoxicated soldiers, and sounds of the looting neighborhood shops kept me alert and nervous.  But the military seizure of power that happened in Bamako pales in comparison to what followed in the North. A little over one month after the initial coup, the North had declared itself an independent state. The major cities in the three northern regions were under the control of militant groups. Human Rights Watch reported numerous war crimes in the North, including rape; recruiting child soldiers; the pillaging of hospitals, schools, aid agencies, and government buildings; public executions; floggings; and threats to women and Christians. It is now August and things in the North are only worse, while Bamako still struggles to establish an effective interim government that can actually do something about the crisis. In July, Timbuctou’s ancient Sufi shrines were destroyed because they are deemed idolatrous, and Shariya law was put into effect with the same tactics as before, forcing unwilling citizens to obey. Malians have always believed in the freedom to interpret Islam in their own way, which has generally been manifest as a blend of Islam with traditional religions and practices of varying degrees. The large majority of Malian women did not wear the traditional full head scarves that cover the entire head and face, but now they are being forced to do so.

Why has secular music been banned in the North? All forms of secular music was banned last week because, the Islamists currently in control of that area say, it is satanic.  What this means for northerners is clear: listen to, watch, or make music at your peril. With conditions like this, who knows what the future might hold? But this ban has implications for the entire country.  I interviewed people to get an idea about what those implications are as well as to get a current consensus on what role music is playing in Mali’s crisis.


Rap music plays a leading role in moving  Mali  forward.

The biggest discovery I made during my conversations with three people from Mali–Moussa Remi Mariko, Bruce Whitehouse, and Mamou Daffe–is that Malian rap artists have taken the lead in messaging to the population through music. Where are the griots and popular music vocalists who have historically been the voices of the people? On the one hand, Oumou Sangare and Jenneba Diakite dropped bringing out new singles promoting unity and peace. But the rappers are offering dialogue in their music, explaining the problems in detail, and offering road maps to solutions. It might just be that rap and hip-hop music has become the new ‘music with a message’ in 21st-century Mali.

First, let’s hear from Moussa “Remi” Mariko, Malian musician and Director of the National Instrumental Ensemble of Mali (l’Ensemble Nationale Instrumental du Mali) based in Bamako. I have known and worked with Remi in Mali since 1989, and the last time I saw him in Bamako in early March, we were talking about collaborating on some compositions and recordings for one of the Presidential Candidates in the upcoming elections that were to be held in May 2012. My phone conversation with him yesterday made it clear that not only has the ban been a shock and an affront to Malian culture, but that the whole political upset since the March 22nd coup has crippled the music community.

For French speakers, click here to listen to the interview

  • [audio:] Interview with Moussa Mariko Pt.2

Heather: What changes have you seen in music since the March 22nd coup d’etat?

Remi: Well since the coup d’etat, things haven’t worked well at all in general. But in the music domain it’s worse. Because to listen to music you have to be relaxed, happy, joyful for things to work. But now since March 22nd 2012 everything is upside down. We don’t have gigs, the festivals have stopped because of the lack of security, you see? But what has angered me the most, we the artists, we make our living from art, we have our producers who make their living from art, we have editors who make their living from art, our painters make their living from art; there is an entire structure built around art and especially around music; but if they come and tell us now that we are not free to make our music but religious music – me, I don’t understand.

H: No.

R: I don’t understand.

H: But they say that uniquely for people who are in the North, right?

R: Yes, they say that uniquely for people who are in the North. Okay. But what is sure is that it will affect us here because as long as we cannot go freely and make music throughout all of Mali, there’s something wrong. For example there is the Essakane Festival which is in the North. There is the Gao Festival. That too is in the North. But if we don’t play our music there, we can’t stay clustered in our own little zone. Voila!  And then there are Songhai musicians, for example, Baba Salah.  You know Baba Salah?

H: Yes, of course.

R: Well he’s from Gao. But if they ban music making – It’s not about whether or not we are located in Gao – it is catastrophic for Mali.

H: But Baba Salla can still make music or is he afraid for his security?

R:  He continues to make music but he criticized the ban on the radio.  Now me, I can permit myself to speak my mind because I’m here [in Bamako] I don’t have my mother or father there.  But Baba Salla has his parents up there. Maybe they can even attack his folks. Voila.

H: Do you think that there were signs in music before the coup that it was going to happen?

R: I think that we, the artists, felt the situation coming on.

H: How?

R: Because even when the rappers began to sing “Mere Zoun” (“Mother Thief”). Right after that song, they sang another piece where they said “Fato ce dun durun be Koulouba” “A crazy man is on Koulouba [the hill on which sits the Presidential Palace]”. That was ATT [Amadou Toumani Touré – the ousted president of Mali].

H: Who was that?

R: …they even censored them, les Tata Pound, they censored their album.

H: Really?

R: But even still the population listened to it. But that [song] was to criticize the situation that prevailed.

H: The corruption, you mean, of the democracy as it was?

R: Yes, exactly. The corruption, the laissez-allez approach, the irresponsibility of power, you know?

H: So that song was censored in Bamako?

R: Everywhere! It was censored everywhere. Because, don’t you  know, when a song is censored it excites everybody and they all want to hear it. So everybody got it on their telephones.

H: Where you surprised that the coup occurred?

R: No, not at all. It just shocked me right at first because everything was upside down. But once it was consecrated, we understood the falsehood of the President. . . and we understood that even if the elections had taken place the politicians would have killed each other because they were stockpiling guns in their homes. So even if the elections had taken place, there would have been wars … it would have been even worse than what happened.

H: Now that things have changed, do you still have work?

R: The National Instrumental Ensemble does not belong to a president or a minister. It’s the National Instrumental Ensemble of Mali. The reason for which I work in such a way is to have one piece for every region that I play during my performances. Even recently, when the CDAO military came here. Did you hear about that? The CDAO military came here. Okay, so it was the 15 countries of the CDAO. They called on me and we played 15 pieces for them – one representing each country. Even a piece in English for Nigeria! “Welcome in the Land of Mali, Nigerian People.”  That pleased the Nigerian General who had come so much. The Ensemble did that. All of that is to say that it is not an ensemble of one personality or a president or minister, it is the National Instrumental Ensemble of Mali.

H: That is excellent. So you continue to work, despite everything?

R: Yes, we are giving concerts. But it is a little slow because of the current situation.  Because before there wouldn’t be one conference goes by when they wouldn’t call on us. There were lots of inaugurations and public events for which we were invited to play. And they invited us not because one president or minister liked us. No! No! It was because were the National Instrumental Ensemble of Mali. We make our nation of Mali proud.  It’s a National Instrumental Ensemble that was created in 1962 during the time of Modibo Keita [Mali’s first President].

H: Do you still play music from the North? Music of the Tuareg?

R: Yes. We play “Sundiata.” “Sundiata” is not a praise song about someone, it’s a praise song about the descendents of Sundiata Keita. We play “Touramagan“. That’s a praise song about the descendents of the Traore. We play “Da Monzon Diarra” [for] the descendents of Da Monzon and of Biton Coulibaly. Do you see?

H: What do you hope for the future of Mali?

R: Well, what is sure is that I have hope because it’s starting to get better. We created a unified government. Even though the government is criticized by certain groups, but I think there are all kinds of possibilities in this government . . . that can recuperate the North. I think that Mali is not Mali without the North because it’s the ethnic brassage that gives Mali its color- its trademark. Now I think that with the new government, if they call forth to really work, if they avoid selfish quarrels, if they say “we are all Malians, let’s keep our sights on Mali’s best interests”, we can recuperate the North and I think it will work out. I have hope. Voila. And Anna [my Malian name] will come and we’ll sing.

H: I  sure will.

R: No, I know it will all work out. Mali is a big country and there is a Bambara proverb that says “Mali  be lombo lamba. Ng’a t’i fili.” That means, “a strong wind can rock a canoe on the river, but it won’t capsize.” That’s Mali!  And one more thing. You know the actual President now, well people were annoyed with him because they thought he was not on their side. They attacked him at the palace, and he spent two months or so in France for treatment — Dioncunda. But when he came back he pardoned his aggressors . . . can you imagine? And to think that when someone threw a pair of shoes at George Bush, they put him in prison [he laughs teasingly]. But our President, he pardoned his aggressors. That act there really touched me… as an artist it really touched me.


I also had a conversation with Professor Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist who teaches at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.  Bruce was a fellow Fulbright Scholar with me last year in Mali. He lived in Bamako with his family, and rode out the coup d’etat until June when he returned to the US. During this time, he kept his own deeply insightful blog on current events in Mali called Bridges from Bamako

Bruce’s insights into the recent banning on secular music by the extremists currently controlling Mali’s North helped clarify the political situation in the North and in Bamako, and the role of rap artists Amkoullel, Mylmo, and Les Sofas de la Republique in guiding the youth toward a solution to Mali’s problems. Listen to our interview here:


Finally I was able to speak with Mamaou Daffe, the founder and director of the Festival sur le Niger, considered one of Africa’s finest music festivals for several years running.  Mamou is highly optimistic for Mali and for the role that his music festival will play in Malian reconstruction.

Heather: How has life changed in Segou since the events in Mali since March 22nd?

Mamou: Segou remained very calm. When you are in Segou, you don’t feel that there is a crisis. Our daily activities continue on uninterrupted because all of the major talks happen in Bamako and we don’t really understand the details of the problems in the North. I dare to say that Segou is Mali’s zone of confidence; its artistic and creative zone. Since the coup d’etat all of the artists have come to Segou and almost every month the Festival sur le Niger Foundation continues its programs and projects.  Just last week we finished a program on basket weaving produced by local weavers, cotton producers and others to promote local cotton.  So really Segou profits from the situation to strengthen its reputation as the cultural capitol of West Africa.

H: How has Segou reacted to the most recent ban on all secular music on radio in the North?

M: Like I already mentioned, people here were surprised and shocked by the situation especially Shariya. But very quickly we realized that we needed to start working within the logic of reconstruction. And that has translated into the theme of Timbuctou for our next festival here in 2013.  The Festival of the Desert will take place here in Segou with us, as our invited guest.  We will feature cultural caravans that will come from Morocco and northern Mali to encourage dialogue and harmonious cultural diversity. There are many structures that revolve around the Festival sur le Niger such as the Kore Cultural Center, the council for local economy, SMART Segou- an English program based in Segou. All of these programs are working together in the spirit of reconstruction because we understand that Mali has taken a big hit. We can’t do much in the way of national or international systems but we believe that in Segou we can work to reach the summit of our own art and to contribute hope morally and mentally. Now that we have a new government and talks have begun, we hope that the problems in Mali will get resolved quickly. . . maybe by the end of this year.

H: So you still plan on holding the Festival sur le Niger in February 2013?

M: Absolutely! Absolutely! More than ever. We think that it will even be the biggest edition ever. We think that in fact, this is the most important time to hold the festival because we can organize resistance through culture.

H: This is the ninth edition right? Can you explain the theme for this edition more specificially?

M: Yes the theme is about “Cultural Governance.” This is a timely theme because we experienced our own democracy at a crisis – it was totally blocked up. So this year we want to explore new ways toward a legitimate African – Malian democracy. The main question we pose now is the fragility of the nation which is broken because of problems in governance, justice, and equality.  So we are going to work very hard toward this central theme through a variety of angles, such as culture and citizenship, governance and citizenship, and art and democracy – and make connections between all of these. We are inviting Timbouctou because it is our universal heritage and we’re going to work toward a Timbouctou reconstruction and renaissance. We’re inviting cultural actors and artists from Timbouctou who will come in a caravan from the Festival in the Desert.

H: So the Festival in the Desert is also going to take place in 2013?

M: No it will happen in Segou because there are still some problems in the North.  So in the name of fraternity – because we are brothers, Heather – we are brothers and we do things together. It’s true that we don’t understand each other in some areas, but for the most part we have done things together, we have gone to school together, the director of the Festival in the Desert is a good friend, so I want to receive him and his delegation with a strong cultural caravan. Also we have Moroccan friends that want to bring a caravan. They are coming from Taragalt in the Sahara. The third caravan will come from southern Bamako. So there will be a wonderful moment where the North and the south will converge. It will be a moment of artistic and culture fusion. We’ll have Tiken Jah Fakoly from Mali, Alou Mbaye N’Der from Senegal, Burkina Electric from Burkina Faso,  Bara Bara Kandam from Ivory Coast and Congo. We’re going to release this artist roster next week so you are the first to have this roster actually.

H: You are not concerned about security?

M: No, not at all. As you well know, we always have a professional security force. Also the Festival takes place right next to the military base. And in all truth, security issues in Mali have calmed down a lot. It is very calm in Bamako now. The only security problem now is in the North. But even there, with our brothers there, very important discussions are happening so even up there, we are hoping that within a few months things will be calm too. Furthermore we have a global security program that, like last year, is in partnership with the state. Since the Festival is a national festival – it’s private because we own it but public also because we’ve been in partnership with the state since we started nine years ago, so we help each other to make it safe. We hope that it will be an very important moment for national conciliation and construction.   

H: You have a recording studio at your foundation there in Segou called Kore Records, right?

M: Yes.

H: How is that going? Do you have musicians from the North coming in to record?

M: YES! But I am happy to announce that we just started a new recording project yesterday that is called the “Sahel Blues” with artists from the Sahel. Mama Sissoko, Bouraga Diabate… you know, the part of Mali we call Western Sahel near the First Region in Mali.  So we started this creation of artists from this region and they will begin recording in the studio next week. They will perform at the Festival and in other parts of Mali and abroad. Again you are the first to know about this group! We also have our local artists that we support, which is in line with our mission to develop jobs in the cultural domain. So yes, the studio is busy.  In sum we are taking advantage of the calm and tranquility of Segou so that by December, certainly, we will have a sufficient amount of products and we will be very happy to have our artists interviewed by the Voice of America.

In light of these conversations, it seems the ban on secular music in the North is doing less to silence Mali than to fan the flames of music’s power to rally and rebuild the nation.







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.



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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