An Interview with the Debo Band

Posted August 10th, 2012 at 6:17 pm (UTC-4)

On July 14th I had the chance to meet the American-Ethiopian Debo Band. The drove to our VOA studios in Washington, DC, directly from New York to squeeze in an interview before their next concert in the District at the U Street Music Hall.

The two pieces that the bare-boned quartet performed in the studio, “Ambassel” and “Medinanna Zelesegna,” surprised me for their slow, almost dragging tempos and mellow, if not melancholic mood. The minor tonality of the songs certainly played a role, but I think the lack of timekeeping instruments like drums, percussion and bass were the main culprit, not to mention the absence of the dynamic brass section.  When you listen to their recording on either the Flamingoh or Debo Band albums or, better yet, go see them in concert, the band is an entirely different, and wild beast. As Shawn Brackbill of NPR put it: “The blend is best imbibed on a sweaty club floor late at night.”

My favorite tracks from the latest Debo album are actually their three originals: “D.C. Flower” , “Not Just a Song”, and “And Lay,” but I also recommend “Asha Gedawo” and “Tenesh Kelbe Lay” for their high-energy, thrilling interpretations of Ethiopian music. Debo Band seems to be following in the footsteps of the Either/Orchestra who, also based out of Boston, really started the big band, Ethiopia-US diaspora concept by releasing their Ethiopian Suite in 2000.  Of course the 27 volume Ethiopiques series that Buda Records has been rolling out since circa 2000 surely offers the Debo artists a generous amount of guidance and inspiration, as well other greats such as Mulatu Astatke and our very own, DC-based Teshome Meteku.

One thing is for sure, though. Debo Band is on the rise to become a great new force in the evolution of global Ethiopian 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.

Sipho’s Newest Big Hit

Posted August 6th, 2012 at 6:34 pm (UTC-4)

A few days ago I caught wind of some music news in South Africa. The legendary musician Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse just “dropped” a new hit; but the “hit” wasn’t music, and the verb wasn’t “drop”–it was “pass”. At age 61, Sipho had just passed the matric, the equivalent to the US high school diploma. Sipho and I had a conversation about his accomplishment. To listen to the interview, click below:

To learn more about Sipho, you can check out his website, or go to Triple M Entertainment. Sipho’s top three music hits are “Shikisa”, “Jive Soweto”, and “Burnout”, and you can hear some of “Shikisa” and “Jive Soweto” in the recorded interview featured above.

The photo here on the left is Sipho (right) with the school Principal (left).

The Khoi (or Khoe), as Sipho also discusses in the interview, are the aboriginal Khoisan pastoral people of South Africa (along with the San) who have lived there for millennia. They are distinct from the Bantu majority of the region in appearance, custom, and language. Sipho mentioned that his paternal grandmother was a Khoi, and he is interested in studying their traditional music at university. Since our conversation, I have been researching and digging around in our own Leo Sarkisian music archive for material on the Khoisan for my own curiosity, as well as for Sipho — as a … oh let’s call it a belated graduation gift. For a contemporary overview of the music of the Khoi, musicearth does a nice job.  Our archives also revealed some fascinating nuggets of knowledge about the Khoi. First is an article written by the Scottish musician, musicologist and historian Percival Kirby (1887-1970) in 1961 in the journal African Music, focusing on musical analyses of the bow in South African and Angolan Khoisan culture, “Harmonic Sense among Bushmen, Hottentot and Bantu.”  Percy was one of the first scholars to research and publish rigorously on native South African music, most notably in his 1934 magnum opus, The Musical Instruments of the Native Races of South Africa, published by Oxford University Press. For more on Kirby and his collections see Biography of a Colonial Music Archive and the University of Cape Town’s “image blog” of the Kirby Collection. On the latter link, you can click on the photo of the marimba with tin can resonators to begin a visual tour of Kirby’s South African musical instruments. The VOA Sarkisian archive also turned up an article from the same music journal on Khoisan art, “Some Forms of Bushman Art“, written in 1957 by James Walton.  While not directly related to music culture, the article adds an interesting dimension to knowledge on Khoisan culture.

I searched high and low for Khoisan music in our vaults but came up nearly empty-handed, except for one album in our Hugh Tracey Collection from I.L.A.M. (International Library of African Music). Mr. Tracey (1893-1977) personally donated an entire collection (all on vinyl) to Leo Sarkisian. The title is Sound of Africa, and it has some fabulous selections of Zulu folk music, including several selections of musical bows (ugubu and maykhweyana) and flutes (igekle).  The singer is Constance Magogo (one of Leo Sarkisian’s favorites), and she sings in Zulu, but the ugubu bow instrument is also shared by the Khoi, so it’s worth a listen here:

  • [audio:]Thambo Le Nyoka

The musical instruments indigenous to the Khoi are the mbulumbumba and the bavugu.

The mbulumbumba is a musical bow with a small gourd resonator attached to the bow. The player uses a small stick to strike the bow string, making it vibrate, and then holds the gourd against the stomach to amplify the sound.  It is played in South Africa, Angola, and Namibia, and in Brazil (where it is known as the berimbau). The bavugu is a stamping tube instrument based on the movement of compressed air. It is played primarily by women.

Speaking of women, Sipho also says in the interview that he is interested in studying anthropology with a focus on Khoi music, because, as noted above, his paternal grandmother was Khoi. Interestingly enough, he explained, she didn’t reveal her ancestry to him and his family until Nelson Mandela demanded the return of the remains of Saartjie Baartman’s (also known as the “Hottentot Venus”) to her native South African Soil.

Congratulations again to Sipho ‘Hostix’ Mabuse on passing the matric! I look forward to hearing his new album too. Perhaps we’ll hear a new song on adult education with jazzy colors of Khoi musical bows and stamping tubes. Stay tuned, friends, and stay well.

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.

In Pursuit of African Music CDs & Vinyl

Posted July 26th, 2012 at 5:02 pm (UTC-4)

The music business is really different today than a decade ago. CDs and cassettes and vinyl discs are all but relics of the past. Downloads from iTunes,,,, and a host of other music sites are the natural way that American youth and young adults acquire their music. Most statistics on illegal downloading average out to about 95% percent since at least 2008. Subsequently, online music streaming services started popping up, such as, that offer subscribers a menu of music from a range of major and independent record labels at a nominal monthly fee (about $10 dollars in the US).  Spotify was a Swedish start-up company in 2008, and by 2010 had 2.5 million paying subscribers. As of May 2012, there are more than 20 million monthly users on the Spotify platform, with between 15 – 17 million tracks and 500 – 700 million playlists to choose from.

Something about downloading CDs, singles, and streaming music from the Internet, though, doesn’t work well for radio shows (and DJs) so I went on a hunt for still-standing record stores that carry African music. I followed a path to Sterns Music–located, as I remembered–in central London, which used to be the #1 retailer for African music in the world.  The English gentleman there explained that, unfortunately, they now only sell on-line.  I’d also caught wind of a New Jersey branch of Sterns here in the US, and reached out to them, only to the same response. After a few more calls and conversations, I found my destination. First I would head to Los Angeles, California to Amoeba Music, probably the only mega-music store remaining in the US, and browse their African music section to see if they had anything of interest.  Second, I would make plans to travel to Africa later in 2012 or early 2013 for recordings of local contemporary music. Sterns suggested a trip to South Africa, as the formidable Gallo Record Company still owns over 75% of recordings ever made in South Africa.

Fortuitously, I had already made arrangements to attend a friend’s wedding in San Diego, California when I learned about Amoeba Music, so I quickly changed my plans to include a short trip to Los Angeles.  I just returned yesterday, and wanted to report my findings with a live video of my travels to the place, and a brief summary of what I discovered. You will hear and see more of the music I acquired there in due time, but for now let me share my journey in search of African music treasures.

Once I entered the store, I had to put my camera away and concentrate on the task at hand of checking out the African music. Most of the store is dedicated to rock . . .

But i found my way to African music under the “World Music EUROPE” category.



I met the lovely and informed Viola there, and she escorted me to the African section, popping in on me from time to time to suggest this or that.  Several of the major stars in African music who are known to Americans were featured with a short biography hand-written on index cards.

I found a wonderful selection of old and new recordings on vinyl and CD and cannot wait to share them with you. Stay tuned and stay well.

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.

Dance in Ghana and Mali

Posted July 9th, 2012 at 5:57 pm (UTC-4)

My mind has been on dance lately. The late A.M. Ipoku, Director of the Ghana Dance Ensemble, once said that dance and music should be so closely connected that one “can see the music and hear the dance” (Barbara Hampton, 1984, “Music and Ritual Symbolism in the Ga Funeral.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 14:75-105). I learned this concept in very real terms when I studied dance with the Ghana Dance Ensemble in 2008. Mr. Ipoku wasn’t there, but regardless, when I first started to dance with them, my instructor, Nii Yartey, gave me about 5 minutes to work out some of the moves, then ordered me to go sit with the drummers, and play their part. “But I’m a dancer” I said. They all laughed. I sat at the end of the row of drummers, found my part, and watched as new dancers popped up on the dance floor from amongst the drummers. After a moment, I was instructed to move to another drum section of the percussion ensemble and learn THAT part. I watched in amazement as another crop of drummers turned into dancers and vice versa. When my turn came around to the dance floor again, I understood. I understood the dance better, the rhythms better, and that quote came back to me.

When I was a student of dance on the Legon Campus, we danced outside under the trees. But I did not have a video camera back then.  However, you can “see and hear the dance” on this informative and lovely video of the GDN in Texas in 1993, thanks to Daryl Dalton, co-producer, director of photography, and editor of the documentary.

I made several research trips while still studying at Legon to the Volta region which is the land of the Ewe people.  I marveled at how dynamic and prevalent dance and music was during a funeral of a paramount chief. One particular recreational dance was especially entertaining and fun: Borborbor. The photo was taken during one of these trips on the Volta River with my fellow University of Ghana students.  Listen to one recording I made of borborbor live in the Ve-Deme area! I used a portable cassette recorder and the event was live in the outdoors at night.  From what I remember, the  dance centers around the women shaking their posteriors as fast and robustly as possible while walking forward in a line in a two-step. We carry white handkerchiefs and twirl them in the air in between drumming sections. The tempo is medium to fast, and the dance is overtly suggestive. They say that many boy-girl liasons develop during borborbo dance events.

  • [audio:] Boboobo2

In the Leo Sarkisian archive, I also found a wonderful vinyl album featuring dance music from Ivory Coast recorded in 1981. Boloron is a Senufo recreational dance for the youth. The band is composed of two 13-keyed xylophones called jegbaa, two 2-stringed harp lutes called boloro-gboo, and a metal scraper called boloro-kanga. The album describes the dance: 12 girls in a row dance while facing 3 young men who take turns showing off acrobatic moves. The band sings the following phrases in turn; “Mariam is the prettiest of the girls”, “Jenneba is marvelous when she dances”, “Keke Ngolo saw the girls at the river.”

  • [audio:] boloron

On October 29th, 2011 in Bamako, right before having to leave Mali because of the March 22nd coup d’etat, I attended a modern koteba, also referred to as “African ballet” at the French Institute, formerly known as the French Cultural Center. Koteba is a traditional form of Bambara artistic expression that marries music, dance, and storytelling in three sequences: an opening ballet, a prologue, and a succession of short plays.  Some scholars describe koteba as conservative and short-sighted in vision.  Kamal Salhi, for example, finds that “although usually offering commentary that is socially critical, it [koteba] also reveres traditional, patriarchal themes which tend to offer little outlet for modernizing the role of women.” (African Theater for Development. 1998: 159). Others find it quite the opposite.  Don Rubin, for example, describes koteba as popular and participatory because it focuses with a sense of humor on everyday, current problems, especially marital relations, and usually featuring “sketches involving a range of traditional characters from everyday life and defined by established physical and psychological traits. These include the unfaithful wife, the victim of elephantiasis who limps along with enlarged testicles, the leper with twisted hands, the blind man, the boastful hunter, the smooth talker, etc. During colonial times, other characters were added – the white commander, the interpreter, the native policeman and so forth.” (World Encyclopedia of  Contemporary Theater: Africa. Routledge. 1997: 103).

This koteba that I saw was named Yélé (Light) and was created and choreographed by one my my African dance instructors in Bamako, Dieli Makan Sacko, and his dance troup Benkadi, which means “collaboration is sweet”. As you now know, I am no stranger to sub-Saharan traditional dance and its core principles and practices:  parallel feet,  articulating polyrhythms with body isolations, flat back, loose hips but tight abs, and smiles – always smiles – and, in my case, no one ever had to tell me to smile because that came naturally. Dancing with a powerful battery of traditional, live percussionists still feels every time like one big, extended tickle that only ends when the music does.  Needless to say, I frequented the dance center, La Maison des Arts de Bamako, for traditional dance sessions and even an occasional salsa class. However, I am a novice to koteba. I have seen a few community productions that were commissioned by national health campaigns on HIV/AIDS awareness, but full-blown, modern productions are rare, and I was thrilled to learn that Makan, the elder dance instructor and co-owner of La Maison, was creating a new koteba soon to be debuted.

The French Institute auditorium was packed. I sat in the second row to the front with my camera alongside other dance students and family members of the cast. The audience was predominantly white, which was not surprising, since local audiences rarely pay top dollar to see interpretations of their own musical theater. Most neighborhoods in Bamako have their own community dance centers and troups that offer free participation by way of dance, music, or just hanging out.

You can see the publicity for the performance here:  Yele.  I had to re-read the plot summary as presented on the webpage because, unfortunately, I never was able to understand it during the concert, and I don’t think the entire problem was due to the language barrier. Loosely translated, the summary reads “Inspired by secular tales and founding myths, he [Sacko] invents his own story, in our modern times of a Mali in full transformation of epic proportions, in which youths attempt to respect tradition yet seek liberation at the same time.  It is in this context that the young heroine struggles for her life, struggles for her rights, struggles for her choices. It is the Malian woman’s destiny to be caught in the tug of war between the demands of family heritage and individual emancipation.”

The show itself was what I would call a work in progress, because the message so clearly articulated did not transmit in the performance, though it began with a big bang.  The opening scene depicted a community of hopeless youth, singing and throwing trash all over the ground, drinking, and couples sneaking off, in stylistic modern-dance movements, to dark corners . A row of musicians with three jembes, balafons, flutes, dunu drums, and iron scrapers line the back of the stage in stunning traditional attire and play a gentle Malinke accompaniment. The actors sing in Bambara. Suddenly, a loud booming voice from the heavens berates them for their slovenly ways and commands them to clean up their lives. They scramble to clean up and as the dust clears (because there really was a lot of dust that got stirred into the air and onto us sitting in the front row from their sweeping the “ground” with traditional brooms), and the story begins to unfold.  Next, three (or was it four?) acts were gorgeous to see and hear. The acting was typical koteba — caricatures of the patriarchal father, the stoic mother, a young woman in love with a charming and exuberant young man, but torn because her lover is not her father’s choice, and plenty of others (though no lepers, blind men, or enlarged-testicle limpers). The theme was true to form because it centered on the current preoccupation among young Malians struggling with balancing modernity and tradition in family and other social areas, but it offered little by way of solutions–at least, not as far as I could tell. The end was a big downer, sadly, leaving all of the characters on stage crying. What I liked about Yélé, though, is that it existed at all. Traditional theater is alive and well in Mali and the genre continues to evolve. Parenthetically, Mali celebrates Women’s Day on March 8th.

Here is a clip of Yélé that I took from my second row seat. The man in the center with the horsetail fly is Makan Sacko.

Stay tuned for more posts about African dance. Though I have yet to discover other dances and African ballet companies on the continent, if you pressed me to choose between enjoying traditional dance or koteba, I’d stick with the  former. That puts a smile on my face every time.

Check this ensemble out. I recorded it right outside of my home in Bamako in 2012.

And a special thank you to Dr. Ruth Stone from Indiana University.

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.

Today’s Beat in Burkina Faso

Posted June 28th, 2012 at 2:45 pm (UTC-4)

Since June 10th, I’ve been exploring contemporary music from Burkina Faso.  Vocalist/lyricist Mai Lingani is a dynamite artist and performer and I’ve been following her since 2005 when we performed together at Floyd Fest, an annual world music festival that takes place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Central Virginia.  We performed together again in 2006 at the Chicago World Music Festival.  Mai performs and tours a lot with the group Burkina Electric, an electronica band led by New York-based Austrian composer/percussionist Lukas Ligeti.  The group has a tight-knit crew of Burkina and Western European musicians and dancers who have toured worldwide: Wende K. Blass on guitar, German electronicist Kurt “Pyrolator” Dahlke, dancers/choreographers “Vicky” Idrissa Kafando and Zoko Zoko, the latter of the two also being a lyricist.  The video, Mdolé, was made in Burkina Faso in 2006. It is one of their slower paced pieces, based on a love story.  Lukas Ligeti makes a cameo appearance at about 7 seconds into the video and the rest features beautiful scenery and people of Burkina Faso.  I especially appreciate the guitar work of Wende and the contemporary dance sections. Contemporary dance is forever evolving and providing fertile ground for musicians, singers, dancers, and choreographers to blend tradition and modernity in new ways.  Click below to enjoy the music video Mdolé:  Mai Lingani with Burkina Electric

Mai is currently in Burkina Faso working on her second solo album that draws from traditional dances and music from Mossi, Djula, and Warba traditions.  Here is Burkina Electric’s most popular song, To Mi To Zi (Whatever You Do always Comes Back to You).

Burkina Electric "To mi to zi" by pyrolator

On a different beat of Burkina Faso’s music scene, is the up and coming group Waga 3000 with a new blend of blend of electronic music and hip hop. Based in Ouagadouou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, the trio consists of two MCs, Art Melody and Joey Le Soldat, and French beatmaker DJ Form.   This track of off their brand new album, Waga 3000 that is digitally distributed through the platform Akwabaa Music. The trio is named after the ouaga 2000 development project, a luxurious neighborhood where the elite and businessmen congregate from all over West Africa, only steps away from the poor neighborhoods of Ouagadougou.  The two rappers air their complaints about Ouaga’s hoods, day to day without any foreseeable future, and rife with poverty, corruption and violence.  They embrace the electronica/rap genre — a close, younger cousin to Burkina Electric.  They also embrace their indigenous Warba music, a traditional dance of the Mossi people and largest ethnic group in the country, in their tracks. Their music is much edgier, however, and was reported to have been recorded in only two days.  Here is a sample of my favorite cut on the album, “Sak Sin Paode”, which also means (Accept What is Small) just as To Mi To Zi by Burkina Electric. If Burkinabé live by the lyrics to their popular songs, then they are kind and humble people.

  • [audio:–Sak_Sin_Paode.mp3] Sak Sin Paode
  • Burkina Faso holds a special place in my heart because I recorded a song called “Donba Kononi” (The Little Morning Bird) from a collaborative album released in Abidjan 1999 that I sang during a tour in Bobo-Dioulasso, literally translated as “the home of Bobo merchants (Dioula)”, that country’s second largest city.  One of the concerts (done in playback as opposed to live) was televised and that song struck a tender chord with a wide audience.  It is a traditional Bambara song that I learned in Mali.

Donba kononi yo, donba kononi n’tato ye sugula ka na, donba kononi.

(Little morning bird, little morning bird, I went to the market today and came back).

N’taara sugula de, donba kononi, n’taara Bamako sugula. N’ye n’ka sugujo muso nyininka,

(I went to the Bamako market and asked the market lady),

Woloba santaan te yan wa? Woloba santaan ma soro, donba kononi.

(Are you selling mothers here? [and she replied] Mothers aren’t sold here, little morning bird).

N’ye n’ka sira ta de, donba kononi, n’ye n’ka Segu la sira ta, n’ye n’ka sugujo muso nyininka,

I took up my trail for the next town, Segou, and  asked the market lady,

Wolofa santaan te yan wa? Wolofa santaan ma soro, donba kononi.

(Are you selling fathers here? [and she replied] Fathers aren’t sold here, little morning bird).

The song continues to describe the futile mission of this little bird (i.e. orphan child) who goes from town to town on market day looking for a parent to ‘purchase’ until she finally gives up, at which point, she goes to the river bank of the great Niger and cries the last verse to conclude:

N’ye nka kasi ke de, donba kononi, n’ye nka falaya kasi ke.

(I cried, I went to river and cried my orphan’s cry).

Donba kononi yo, donba kononi n’tato ye sugula ka na, donba kononi .

(Little morning bird, little morning bird, I went to the market today and came back).

Here is the original version of that song and for all of you Burkinabe out there, this is for you.

  • [audio:] Domba Kononi

Stay well, my friends and send me comments as I am always happy to hear from you.

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.

Tinariwen Rocks Washington D.C.

Posted June 21st, 2012 at 4:12 pm (UTC-4)

Thursday night, the group from northern Mali delivered a beautiful performance in Washington D.C. The opening band — an amateur, quirky singer/songwriter American duo from New York City — did little to set the musical mood  for the Tuareg headliners.

When the heavy, velvet curtains finally did open, it revealed a row of  musicians holding guitars. They were draped from head to toe in brilliant bazin [a hand-dyed and pounded fabric which is used to make the traditional tunics (or boubous) worn in West Africa.] White smoke was billowing up from the stage floor at their feet. The audience collectively quieted and gazed ahead as the guitars began to sing, and the calabasse drum kicked in with a gentle gait of clicks and thuds. Stage lights in bold magenta and yellow swirled the stage and audience alike as they began to sing. Aside from a small group of local Tuaregs in the crowd, most of whom had positioned themselves right up at the front edge of the open floor, pressed up against the stage, the rest of us had to idea what they were singing about because it was all in Tamashek. One thing we all understood, though, was that the musical mood was now definitely set; majestic, warm, genuine, hypnotic, bluesy…these adjectives come to mind. I brought along my camera and filmed a segment of the show for you.


Here I am with the guys in the dressing room at Howard Theater discussing the map of Mali I brought with me from VOA.

To the right is Ayedou Ag Leche, the bassist and spokesperson for the group. Below is the interview, translated in English (conducted in French).

My name is Eyadou Ag Leche and I’m the bassist for Tinariwen. I Come from northern Mali between Gao, Kidal, and Timbuctou.

Heather (H): We were surprised to see that Ibrahim isn’t with you. Why didn’t he come this time?

Actually he hasn’t been with us for the last two tours because of the problems in Mali. When the time came for us to leave for the tours, it was impossible for Ibrahim to leave because he lives in a zone where the army is and all that so he didn’t want to risk it, so he stayed with his family. But he’s doing very well.

H: How has life changed since you won the Grammy in February?

To tell you the truth, winning the Grammy was an enormous thing for us. In fact it is a victory for all Tuaregs. It’s a gift for the whole population. Now, if you look at the list of World artists who won the Grammy, you find Tinariwen – Tuaregs. So, we’re very happy, but our life has changed because of the events in Mali. That’s the change – not the Grammys.

H: Have the crowds been larger since February?

We have a lot of people now. In the US, in California – and in each concert we see more and more people so that encourages us to keep going.

H: Clearly you’ve been following the developments in Mali. Have they inspired any new songs or musical ideas?

Of course we follow very closely the situation in Mali because  it concerns us 100%. So we are in the process of composing songs that talk about certain things; what we hope for the future of life in general for the two countries; for the two peoples today because there are some very sensitive points that we have to face honestly. We are working on finding a way to deliver a message that can help find a definitive solution to the problem.

H: What are your plans once the tour is over? Will you go back in the studio? Will it be in Mali, or France, or somewhere else?

After our tour here, well, we are all committed to humanitarianism either in Azawad or in the whole world. Our project is to play in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso to help the Malian and Azawadean refugees. We are also going to Mauritania to play for our refugees, and also in Niamey. They are completely forgotten. No one helps them. Tinariwen – we are not stars, we’re just a little group who make our living the best we can, so we can’t finance and protect and pay for medicine for all of the refugees. We want them to know that we are with them.

H: In the song Tenere Taqhim Tossam, “Jealous Desert,” you sing that the desert is jealous…and you mention it again in the song Imidiwan Ma Tanam “What Have You Got to Say My Friends?” Why or in what sense is the desert jealous?

Actually that poetic idea came to me on the spot when we were recording.  I went outside and climbed up a  rock and looked around. Then I thought about all of the other countries that I have seen and I realized that the desert is truly, very jealous. If you look at a map, you can see that the water is very far away, vegetation is very far away,  there is no potable water here, no hospitals, no schools. So the desert is like a mother. The people are her children. The mother wants to have all of these things for her children, water, school…like every other country has, but it’s never enough. It’s the earth itself that is jealous because it always wants more.

  • [audio:] Tenere

H: With the song, Imidiwan Win Sahara, “My Friends from the Sahara” I was curious about something.  In this song you sing:

“My friends from the Sahara, our feedom is gone.

Let’s unite , or else we shall all vanish

Not a single soul will be left alive in the desert.”

So my question is, what is the threat?

The threat has several sides actually. Climatically we are threatened. There is a shortage of water, jobs, development and everything. Next, our country is becoming a playing card for other countries who want to install terrorists and whatever else, so that’s another threat.

  • [audio:] Imidiwan win Sahara

H: In Takest Tamidaret, “Scorching Afternoon,”  you tell a story of a young boy who stole your saddle. First of all, is that a horse or a camel saddle?

It is certainly a camel saddle (laughing).

H: You are tracking him down with a brand new sword, all sharpened, and a brand new rifle, all greased, loaded with a couple of bullets that bear bad news. Your skin burns like an incandescent log. If you find this child, do you plan to kill him?

Never! It’s just that when you love something so much, sometimes you imagine what would happen if you lose it.

H: Was this a true story?

Yes. It was a true story. We sing about what we live. Even before Tinariwen, our ancestors were people who fought wars, traveled in tribes, and herded cattle just like people all over the world, but now we fight wars through poetry. We also send our loved one messages through poetry. Even before 1963, poetry about our revolution exists. Since even before France, we have always wanted our independence.

  • [audio:] Takkest Tamidaret

Here is Tinariwen after about the 3rd song into the concert:

Tinariwen took off for New York right after the concert. Bon voyage.

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.

Northern Mali Comes to Washington, D.C.

Posted June 14th, 2012 at 5:12 pm (UTC-4)

Tinariwen, the phenomenal guitar-based Tuareg group, will play for us here at the Howard Theater in downtown DC.  The group won a Grammy Award in February 2012 for Best World Music Album. Get ready for an exciting report on the show coming up early next week.

In the meantime, here is a video segment of the music from Ghana that I featured on my show last Sunday, June 10th. The segment was recorded during a ground-leveling event in the village of Kunyevela, Tamale 1987, Ghana. Women are repairing a family’s badly eroded courtyard floor. Music and song kept the work flowing. Aishetu is the lead singer — and also director of traffic. The project took 2 full days. I was behind the camera.

Here in the United States, one of the cornerstones of identifying and distinguishing African music from other music cultures around the world is its functionality.  I was particularly impressed by this when I took a social anthropology course taught by a Ghanaian professor.  After reading J.H. Kwebana Nketia’s book The Music of Africa (1974)  and John Miller Chernoff’s 1981 classic ethnography African Rhythm and African Sensibility, I was determined to go to Ghana myself and see how music had  a more functional role in daily life.

The video clip I recorded in Ghana and featured here is one of the most spectacular examples I found of the functionality of African music. I also discovered music’s  multi-functionality on several other occasions:  While attending the funeral of a Paramount Chief in Ve-Deme — an Ewe town in the Volta Region — and again at the University of Ghana in the resolution of a robbery incident. The ground leveling event highlighted in the video was unfortunately the only time I had a film camera.

Granted there are many countries and regions in Africa where music is less profoundly entwined in the day-to-day lives of people.  Ethnomusicology in the United States caught on to this fact in the 1990s and dropped the use of terminology such as “African” music.   But times change, too, and there are many instances where people recall a day when they used to play drums and sing in the fields during harvest time, for example. It is a wonderful thing, however, to find oneself in the midst of a  “functional”  musical moment such as the Kunyevela ground leveling. Enjoy the video.



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.

Welcome to the New African Music Treasures

Posted June 11th, 2012 at 4:08 pm (UTC-4)

In case you haven’t noticed, the VOA radio show, Music Time in Africa, and this companion blog has a new face; and it’s me!  So let me begin this new chapter in the history of VOA’s longest running show to introduce myself. I’m Heather Maxwell and am delighted to be taking up the reigns from Matthew Lavoie and from the founding father of Music Time himself, Leo Sarkisian, who began the radio show in May of 1965.

Since 1987, when I was still a college student, I started traveling to West Africa in pursuit of  music knowledge and experience beyond what I learned growing up in Michigan. I was born into a musical family and had already studied years of classical piano and voice when I first met African music face to face in Ghana.  It was at the University of Ghana – Legon, the School for the Performing Arts where I put down my first roots as an ethnomusicologist and world music artist.  Since this ancient time when internet, laptops, and cellphones still did not exist I have had the good fortune to spend a cumulative total of 6 years doing music in some way or another in Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and South Africa.

Most recently I was in Bamako, Mali as a Fulbright Scholar teaching Voice and American Music at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers Mulitmédia Balla Fasseké Kouyaté, and researching Malian song for a book  on the subject. I also sang and liased with various jazz and Afropop combos in clubs and at the Festival sur le Niger,  along with some of Mali and Africa’s greats like Salif Keita, Habib Koité, Lokua Kanza, Cheick Tidiane Seck,  Khaira Harby, and Sauti Soul.

Landing in Washington D.C. at the Voice of America is a marvelous opportunity to continue my journey in African music, and  share my experiences and new discoveries  with you, our devoted listeners and readers.  The original mission of the African Music Treasures blog was to share our Leo Sarkisian music archive  with other music lovers. The collection is a room in the basement of the Cohen building in downtown Washington DC that is overflowing with audio reels (over 10,000), 45 rpm singles, 33 rpm lps, and cassettes from every country in Africa since the early 1960s. The majority of these recordings were either recorded by Leo in the field, gifted to him (by producers, artists and radio stations), or sent to him by mail from listeners. Mathew and now I have since also contributed our personal collections adding still more African music  to the archive since 2007, mostly in the form of cassettes and CDs.

With me, you can expect to find fresh, weekly treasures of music, stories, photos, and video as I discover them; either from revisiting my own or my colleagues’  past  in Africa or from new musical encounters I seek out. Your comments and requests are most welcome and I look forward to good conversation and fun in discovering new African Music Treasures.

I begin today with a few photos, mp3s, and video snippets that serve to tell you all a little more about  me, your new host, and how I have come to know and adore African Music.

I mentioned that I was in Mali recently. Here are a few pictures at the conservatory in Bamako.  Here, the fabulous alto saxophonist, Zaid Nasser  and I  are  teaching voice students how to improvise on a 12-bar blues. We are practicing one of the solos to Charlie Parker’s  “Now’s the Time”.   Zaid was visiting Mali with the Ari Roland Jazz group and we collaborated to teach a 3-day workshop on jazz.  At the end, Ari Roland gave a concert for all of the students, and then the music students who were part of the workshop sessions joined us with their renditions of  some jazz oldies “After You’ve Gone” and “Look for the Silver Lining.” It didn’t take long after that for them to storm the stage with their own songs, a few of which the jazz group had learned and accompanied them on, such as “Yala” by Oumou Sangaré.

I composed a piece called “Malado”, which is a woman’s name in Mali, but I adapted the name to refer to a powerful talisman that has the power to make the man I love – but who is happy with another woman – fall in love with me instead. The song and video represent my own particular style of fusing Malian and American music, ideas, and localities in an artistic, playful way. The footage is recorded in Charlottesville, Virginia (2010) and Bamako, Mali in 2000 when I lived there to research music for my doctorate thesis in ethnomusicology.

I learned how to play that stringed instrument (kamalen n’goni) when I was in Bamako in 1999-2000 and before that when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali in 1989-1991; both times from the same player, Shiaka Sidibé. I recorded hundreds of lessons just like this one, in his home in Lafiyabougou,  Bamako and  live performances such as the one we were headed for in the back of this pickup truck shown below –  a wedding celebration (1999).

One of the best kamalen n’goni players today is ‘Benogo’ Brehima Diakité. Benogo plays with Oumou Sangaré. His introduction to the same song “Yala” that I mentioned earlier with regard to the jazz band playing a Malian piece, features his wonderful funky style on this uniquely Malian, electro-acoustic, pentatonic harp-lute.

  • [audio:] Yala

I returned to Mali in 2006 to perform with my Afropop group with the same kamalen n’goni I’d left with in 2000. Two members were American and the other five were from the fabulously popular balafon ensemble from  southern  Mali,  Neba Solo

We had worked together before at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2003 that featured Mali.

In 2010 I joined a new musical family with the Virginia based jazz band, Inner Rhythm. I’d found a way to accompany myself on familiar blues songs like “St. Louis Blues” and “Senior Blues” using traditional  rhythms, namely sirabakelen (meaning “the one, straight path”) with a modified melody (see the kamalen n’goni behind me).

If you’re interested in learning more about the kamalen n’gnoni and its cultural and historical context, I wrote an article about it in the music journal called African Music, based out of South Africa.

African Music Journal

Of Youth Harps and Songbirds

During my PC years, I lived in a small, rural village called N’Tossoni, in southeast Mali. We all lived without electricity or running water and when I wasn’t doing forestry work, I was learning how to play the balafon (French and Mande word for xylophone), sing in Bambara and Minyanka, and dance. It was a wonderful and formative 2 years  both as an artist and a person. Here is a recording of my main balafon teacher, Brehiman Mallé, playing Sunguruni Taama, translated from Bambara to mean “The Young Woman’s Walk”.  We played on my front porch at night, I on the supporting balafon that played simple ostinato patterns, and he on the lead. The introduction to the recording is Brehiman answering my question about the meaning of the title. He replies, loosely translated, “Why, that’s obvious! Doesn’t everyone admire the posterior view of young women walking?!”

  • [audio:] Sunguruni Taama

He sings, “Oh what a delight it is to see young women walking on their way to and from the market.”

This photo was taken in 1990 in a neighboring village to N’Tossoni close to the Bani River. I came here from time to time to learn from the undisputed master of balafons in the whole region, Duga Koro Diarrah.  The picture below is Duga standing next to a ‘good’ tree by virtue of its wood qualities for balafons. This whole area he is standing in is where he would come to fell trees for new balafons. The whole process would take several weeks and involved smoking the wood, harvesting the gourds, hunting the mirlitons (spider egg sac coverings found in trees) – job that Duga’s children really enjoyed, and making the mallets with melted tree sap. I wrote another article on this instrument, published in the book Turn Up The Volume! maxwell.when the xylophone speaks

Near the end of my tenure there, I joined a team of Peace Corps Volunteers and local Bamako-based musicians to record a cassette of original music based on the theme of maternal health care. The Malian singer was Djeneba Seck who has since become a national success and household name as one of Mali’s most beloved singers. Below is the 1991 release of “Sachets Keneyaji” (Oral Rehydration Packets).

“Mousso Konoma Lou” (Call to Expecting Mothers) was also made into a music video that received a lot of attention. In this song we encourage mothers to go to their local maternities for prenatal consultations.

  • [audio:] Muso Konomaw Yo

One of my favorite songs of Djeneba since then is Djourou, from her 1996 release of the same name.

  • [audio:] Djourou

For more information about Djeneba, see Djénéba Seck

Ironically, during this era (1989-91) in Mali and my most recent one in 2011-12, there was a coup d’etat both times. Mali has been one of the most politically stable West African countries on the continent except for these two coups 21 years apart. Nontheless, there’s more to my story in African music but let’s let that unfold with the future discoveries we  will make together in AfricanMusic Treasures. Don’t stay away long and, in fact, make a comment and tune into my radio show every Saturday and Sunday at 09:00 and 20:00 UTC. Till next time, stay blessed.

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.

Papa Ntita Albert, Mbuji Mayi, 2011

Posted April 14th, 2011 at 11:31 pm (UTC-4)

I have just returned from a month in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that confirmed my long held conviction that the DRC is the most musical country on the planet. Often called the beating heart of Central Africa, Kinshasa―despite the city’s many problems―remains obsessed with music. From thousands of churches, from the bars of Matonge and Bandal, to the hundreds of neighborhood groups rehearsing in courtyards across the megalopolis, to the upscale nightclubs of the Gombe neighborhood, thousands of musicians draw from the creative life force that, against all logic and odds, keeps Kinshasa from imploding under the weight of its absurdities. Like the dreamers and schemers who head, from throughout the country, to the diamond fields of the Kasai provinces looking for the Moko Moko―the massive gem diamond―that will forever change their lives, musicians from across the DRC migrate to Kinshasa determined to make their fortunes. This river of musical migrants, from all four corners of the country, has been flowing swiftly since the first recording studios were opened in Leopoldville, back in the 1930s.

Of all these early Leopoldville studios, none could match the successes of Ngoma Records, a label started in 1947 by two Greek brothers who imported and distributed domestic goods. With massive hits like “Marie Louise” by Wendo Kolosoy, Ngoma helped birth the Congolese rumba. The label also featured many artists who performed regional styles that drew on “traditional” repertoires. Last month, in Mbuji Mayi, the capital of the Kasai Oriental province, I had the good fortune to meet Ntita Albert Lubumbula, who was a member of one of the first Baluba groups to record for les Editions Ngoma. In 1957, Ntita Albert was brought to Leopoldville for six months by Nikiforos Cavvadias, who then managed les Editions Ngoma.

The day after I arrived in Mbuji Mayi, I struck up a conversation with a young man who was walking home with an acoustic guitar. This conversation led to a recording session, by the pool of the Hotel Ka Be de Luxe, with the group “Le Couloir Musical Talentieux.” At the end of this session, the waiter who had served our drinks asked me if I was interested in “traditional music.” Encouraged by my response, the waiter told me that he would arrange for Mbuji Mayi’s best traditional singer to come see me. Although I was somewhat skeptical of the waiter’s claim―I have been introduced to a LOT of “music legends” whose repertoires include such “traditional classics” as Malaika, el Manicero, and No Woman, No Cry―I did not discourage him. Two nights later, the waiter introduced me to Ntita Albert. Almost immediately, I realized that Ntita Albert was much more than a mere “traditional artist.”

  • [audio: Albert Mbuji Mayi 2011.Mp3]

Ntita Albert Lubumbula was born, in 1930, in Bakwanga, the town that since 1966 has been known as Mbuji Mayi. Papa Albert remembers spending hours of his childhood listening to the 78 rpm recordings that a local shopkeeper would spin on his victrola. His favorite artists were Wendo Kolosoy and Leon Bukasa. In the mid 1940s one of Albert’s cousins taught him how to tune and finger a few chords on the guitar, and by the early 1950s Ntita Albert was one of Bakwanga’s more talented instrumentalists. By the mid 1950s, he was the guitar player for a popular Mbuji Mayi group that performed modern arrangements of Baluba melodies. In 1957, during a long residency in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), the group was asked to share a bill with the Trio Bow (Bukasa, D’Oliveira, and Wendo). Nikoforos Cavvadias, who had accompanied the Trio Bow to Elisabethville, was impressed by the trio of Baluba musicians who opened the show. A few months later, Cavvadias invited the trio from Mbuji Mayi to Lubumbashi to record for les Editions Ngoma. Ntita Albert and his colleagues spent six months in Leopoldville and released four 78 rpm recordings. The group from the Kasai spent six months in Leopoldville, and Papa Albert still has fond memories of the many hours he spent with his friend Wendo Kolosoy.

For the next twenty years, the trio toured throughout the Democratic Republic of the Congo, building on the popularity generated by their Ngoma singles. After two decades of performing together, the trio split apart in the early 1980s, when the bandleader decided to move to Kinshasa.


Ntita Albert stayed in Mbuji Mayi and formed the Groupe Dinanga. Encouraged by a wealthy patron, who paid for his plane tickets to Kinshasa and financed a long stay in the capital, Ntita Albert recorded a half-dozen singles for the Bukebi-Kebi label; singles that he hoped would relaunch his career. The tracks were laid down by the Pere Buffalo at the Studio Renapec in downtown Kinshasa, and Papa Albert returned to Mbuji Mayi in 1982 with a few thousand 45s.








Unfortunately, Papa Albert’s vinyl investment coincided with the arrival of the cassette tape in Mbuji Mayi. He never sold his stock of 45s and his career never regained its momentum. For the last several decades Ntita Albert has continued to perform, making occasional appearances on local television programs, or at local events, but he has not played outside of Mbuji Mayi since 1982. For many years he was able to keep a group together, but for the decade he has been performing solo.


At the end of a long interview, Ntita Albert mentioned that he had a thousand 45s in his house that he didn’t know what to do with. I asked if I could take a look at them the following afternoon. Sixteen hours later we met Ntita Albert in the Bipemba neighborhood of Mbuji Mayi, and followed him to a small hut surrounded by cornfields, deep in the rural fringe of the city. Under the shade of a large mango tree, Ntita Albert laid piles of unplayed 45s on a small wooden table.

  • [audio: Albert Lubumbula Balunda Tudikonka.Mp3]
  • [audio: Albert Lubumbula Kuenda Nkumona Malu.Mp3]
  • [audio: Albert Lubumbula Nzambi Ne Bantu.Mp3]
  • [audio: Albert Lubumbula Wewa Ludimi Wetu.Mp3]

Special thanks to Pasteur Celestin, the staff of the Hotel Ka Be de Luxe, Mbuji Mayi, Dieudonne of RTDK, and especially to Godefroid for putting the Landcruiser through the ringer getting to Ntita Albert’s house. Over the course of a month in the DRC we recorded a dozen musical groups and a hundred interviews. The only interview I did not record was my long conversation, through a few translators, with Ntita Albert. As fate would have it, the only thing I lost during my month of traveling was the notebook that contained this interview with Ntita Albert, as well as his phone number. As soon as I realized I had lost the notebook, I wrote down what I remembered from our conversation. I am still trying to get back in touch with Ntita Albert to fill in the details that have slipped my memory. The long recording of Papa Albert was made on an Olympus LS-11.


Khadija al Bidawiya: Queen of Al-Aita Marsawiya

Posted February 24th, 2011 at 9:27 pm (UTC-4)

Hello again!  I am happy to announce that, after a brief hiatus, African Music Treasures is back with a new design—let me know what you think—and more musical gems to share with you.  First up: the long promised Khadija el Bidawiya feature.

Khadija el Bidawiya was born in 1953, in Ben Msik Sbata, the densely populated and chronically marginalized neighborhood on the southeastern fringe of Casablanca that has long been an incubator of al-aita, the popular music of Morocco’s Arabic speaking rural and urban poor. (The neighborhood has also sent more players than any other to Casablanca’s two greatest soccer clubs, the Raja and the Wydad.)  Khadija grew up, in a conservative and modest family, to the music of Bouchaib Bidaoui, a star of Moroccan popular theater and one of the kingdom’s first television and recording stars.  A gifted singer, Khadija learned the rudiments of her art memorizing Bouchaib’s repertoire, and imitating the singers she heard at neighborhood weddings.  She was forced, however, to put aside her creative ambitions when she got married; her husband wouldn’t allow her to even attend musical events.  It wasn’t until 1979, when she was in her mid twenties, and husband had passed away, that Khadija started to perform in public.  She made her public debut, unbeknownst to her family, as a dancer accompanying a popular Cheikhate—a female singer—from the neighborhood.

When we spoke, Khadija reminisced, “I would tell my family that I was spending the night at an aunt’s house, and I would go perform at weddings with a group of Cheikhates.  I was a very popular dancer.  But even though I was showered with money every evening, I would be in tears at the end of each performance.  I was ashamed.  My family had always told me that singing and dancing in public was shameful.  Finally, one night, my boss told me, ‘you have to accept your talent. You are an artist.’  A few weeks later, I admitted to one of my aunt’s that I was performing.”  By the end of 1979, Khadija was singing on stage, winning over fans with her strident voice.

Ten years later, Khadija had her own group, released over a dozen cassettes, and was recognized as the rising queen of al-Aita Marsaouiya.  According to Hassan Najmi, author of the two volume Al-Aita:Oral Poetry and Traditional Music in Morocco (in Arabic), al-aita is the oldest style of Arabic language music in Morocco, with some songs dating back to the 12th century.  Al-Aita songs have their roots in the poetry of the Beni Hillal, the tribes from the Arabian Peninsula who started to settle in present-day Morocco in the 11th century.   Najmi identifies nine distinct regional varieties of al-aita, the youngest, and today most dominant, being al-aita marsaouiya.  For centuries, al-aita was the music of village festivities, marriages, and harvest celebrations, performed by amateur musicians.  The songs expressed the values, hopes, frustrations and tribal identities of Morocco’s rural Arabic speaking—as opposed to Berber speaking—communities.

The story of al-aita marsaouiya is the story of Casablanca and of rural migration to the big city.  Starting in the late 19th century, and picking up dramatically in the 1930s when the surrounding regions suffered serious droughts (1936, 1937, 1939 and1945), poor farmers made their way to the ‘marsa’—the market or port—of Casablanca to find wage labor.  These rural migrants settled in dense and disorganized neighborhoods like Ben Msik Sbata, where along with their dreams of a more stable and prosperous life, they brought their songs and poems.  It was in this overcrowded suburb of Casablanca that the first generation of professional Cheikhs and Cheikhates started to earn a living performing al-aita marsaouiya.  This group of Marsaoui pioneers include the aforementioned Bouchaib Bidaoui, who dominated the city’s café scene, Fatma Bent el Houcine (perhaps the greatest Cheikha of the modern era), and Hajja Hamdaouia—who came to music, under Bidaoui’s tutelage, through the popular theater and who is still performing today.

When I asked Khadija al Bidawiya about the history of al-aita, she told me the story of Kharboucha:  “There was a Caid by the name of Si Aissa ben Omar elAbdi who ruled despotically over the Ouled Zaid tribe, helping himself to all of the tribe’s resources and riches, including their most attractive daughters.  One day, this Caid decided that he wanted Kharboucha for his wife.  He asked for her hand in marriage but Kharboucha refused.  She had already given her heart to another, the Caid Si Aissa’s son.  If Kharboucha would not marry him, the Caid decided, she would never marry.  Her punishment was brutal.  Kharboucha was buried alive.  But as she was being walled into her tomb, Kharboucha defied the Caid, singing a long poem that divulged her love for his son.”  There are several different versions of the legend of Kharboucha—historians believe her real name was Hadda, and that she was a popular early twentieth century aita singer from the town of Safi—and her boldness continues to inspire Moroccan poets, playwrights, filmmakers, and singers.  Kharboucha’s story incarnates the main themes of aita songs; determined pride, unrequited longing, the injustice of life, and the obduracy of true love.

Khadija al Bidawiya has lost count of the number of cassettes she has recorded.  At her creative peak in the late 1990s Khadija was releasing four to six cassettes a year, and today, she releases a cassette every six months.  Khadija has performed for Moroccan audiences in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and over last decade has settled into her reputation as the doyenne of al-aita marsaouiya.  She continues to perform regularly throughout Morocco, and makes frequent appearances on Moroccan television—last spring, for example, she memorably shared the stage of the popular program Studio 2M (Moroccan Idol) with Hajja Hamdaouia and Hajib, the aita star from Rabat.

The following tracks span the last twenty years of Khadija’s career.

First up is an instrumental featuring the ribab—violin—and the qadda, an overturned metal basin that is stomped on by a dancer.  The song alternates between short taqsims, or improvisations, on the violin and intense rhythmic ensemble passages.

This next track was probably recorded in the late 1980s—very few of Khadija’s cassettes are dated—and features the Ouled al Aouni, who backed her for many years.  Khadija sings, “My boyfriend has gone, bring him back to me.  He has taken his wallet and he is going to spend all of his money.”

These next two tracks are the B-side two a terrific early 1990s cassette also featuring the Ouled el Aouni.  In the first song, Khadija begs her lover not to forget her on the day of the Aid.  The second track is a long dance song that features some wicked violin and percussion interplay.

Toulati el Farah Lamnawar is a Casablanca-based bandleader and producer, who has been one of Khadija’s most frequent collaborators.  This track is taken off an early 1990s release on the Disco Disque cassette label.  Khadija calls her brother to come and talk with her.  (The lyrics are buried in the mix, if you can identify the lyrics more clearly, please send them along.)

As is true in many popular Moroccan musical styles, al-aita pieces often cycle through several rhythm changes.  These next two long tracks give a good sense of the rhythmic ebb and flow, and climactic punch, of al-aita music at its best.  In the second track, Khadija sings the praises of some of Morocco’s Sufi brotherhoods; the Aissawa, the Jilalia, the Gnawia.

  • [audio:]Khadija al Bidawiya

This final selection features a Khadija and Toulati el Farah Lamnawar collaboration from the late 1990s—I am dating these recordings based on the history of the changes in Moroccan phone numbers.  Toulati introduces the drum machine, and Khadija re-imagines a popular melody from the Gnawa repertoire.  This one is a tribute to Lalla Aicha—the mythical Aisha Kandisha.

This post is based on interviews with Khadija el Bidawiya, Hassan Nejmi, and Ahmed Ajmi.  Thanks to Tifa Bourjouane, Cherifa Alaoui el Mdaghri, Mohamed bin Ihya, and Rafiq Senhaji for their help.



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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