Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

After seeing Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita once again last night at the Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room, and to celebrate an outstanding concert, here’s a repost that records the first time we saw the duo – in October 2014. Continue reading “Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal”

The music in my head (part 2): West Africa and beyond

The music in my head (part 2): West Africa and beyond

This is the second of three posts which round up some of the music that I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about. This one discusses music from beyond these shores that I have been listening to in 2015, particularly some fine West African releases. Continue reading “The music in my head (part 2): West Africa and beyond”

Seckou Keita in the Phil’s new Music Room

Seckou Keita in the Phil’s new Music Room

On Monday evening I went along to Liverpool’s newest live music venue – the Philharmonic Hall’s Music Room – to see Seckou Keita give another outstanding performance on the kora. I say another because a year ago we saw him, along with the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, in what we decided was one of the best concerts we had ever attended. Continue reading “Seckou Keita in the Phil’s new Music Room”

Baaba Maal: Tales from the Sahel

I went over to the RNCM in Manchester last night to see the event billed as ‘An Evening with Baaba Maal – Tales from the Sahel’.  The music – an intimate performance by Baaba himself, with Jim Palmer on drums or additional guitar and Mamadou Sarr on percussion –  was sensational.  But the format of the evening was a little disappointing, with a vociferous section of the audience becoming pretty restless after a while.

The advance details for the event stated that ‘Tales from the Sahel will feature ancient Fula stories from Senegal; a discussion between Baaba Maal and the UK playwright and journalist Kwame Kwei-Armah about how such mythological tales have led to the inspiration that is modern Africa; and performances of songs that have emerged from these two apparently divergent strands’.   But there were no ancient Fula stories and the ‘conversation’ between Kwame Kwei-Armah and Baaba was far from revalatory, especially for an audience that was pretty evidently very well-informed about Baaba Maal and his music.

The stage was set with a table and chair for each of the two conversationalists, flanked by Maal’s guitars, Palmer’s drums and Sarr’s djembe, sabar and water drum.  Kwame Kwei-Armah kicked off by saying the evening would consist of an unprepared conversation betwee himself and Baaba Maal, explaining that they had met in Dakar last year when he was artistic director of the 3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Culture, and that the inspiration for the evening’s format came when Kwame spent an evening at Baaba’s house there. As the night went on, the house bustled with friends and acquaintances dropping by, engaging in animated, freewheeling discussions about everything under the sun, with Baaba, fluent in a variety of African and European languages, translating from one to the other for the benefit of those present.

The trouble with this element of the evening was that Kwame Kwei-Armah’s chat with Maal wasn’t especially probing or revealing for anyone who has perused their Baaba Maal CD notes or read interviews with him.  Too much of it was along the lines of Armah saying things like, ‘what a fantastic gig – me on stage with the great Baaba Maal, and getting paid for it!’  We did learn about the important influence of Baaba’s mother (who sang for pleasure at weddings and other ceremonies) and his father’s very different musical preferences.  He was a fisherman, he sang religious songs, and was fundamentally opposed to the idea of a son of his singing popular songs.  His mother also influenced Baaba Maal’s views about women in African society – her experience of polygamy was an unhappy one, as is that of most women in polygamous marriages, according to Maal.

The conversation also made plain the enormous debt that Baaba Maal feels he owes to his lifelong friend and mentor Mansour Seck. Since his father was a fisherman, Baaba Maal was expected to become a fisherman as well. However, under the influence of  Mansour Seck, Maal devoted himself to learning music from his mother and his school’s headmaster. In 1974, after his baccalauréat he chose to study music while also taking a fine arts course in Dakar. In this way he was able to convince his father that he was training to become a teacher – albeit a teacher of music. However, he and his old friend Mansour Seck and were soon recording musical performances at the radio station.  He persuaded the stationa announcer not to mention his name, but eventually his performances became so popular that, one day, the announcer let slip his name – and his father found out.

Little of this would be news to most of those in the Manchester audience who, an hour into the session, with the musical interludes short and the conversation extended, were getting restive, with calls for ‘more music!’  Armah seemed to recognise the way things were going, abandoned a promised audience Q&A with Maal, and handed over to the musicians.  They completed the show with three or four numbers that moved from contemplative passages in which Baaba Maal’s voice soared above his acoustic guitar, to storming finales driven by Mamadou Sarr’s thunderous percussion.  Sections of the audience shook free of the format’s shackles and danced – one or two joining the musicians on stage, where Sarr whipped them to a frenzy.

Baaba Maal was born in 1953 in Podor, in the Fouta province, Senegal. That makes nearly 60 – something very difficult to believe, with his still-youthful appearance.   He is of the Toucouleur or Haalpulaar (pulaar-speaking) people, of northern Senegal, sings primarily in Pulaar and is a deeply-committed promoter of the traditions of the Pulaar-speaking peoples who live on either side of the Senegal River in the ancient Senegalese kingdom of Futa Tooro.  He spoke passionately about his home town, which has featured in several of his songs.

In 1982 Baaba Maal completed his musical training in Paris at the Conservatoire. Mansour Seck joined him and they began touring in various European countries. In Brussels they recorded their first album, Djam Leelii.  I can still remember when the album was released in 1989 in the UK, bringing home the vinyl lp with its emblematic cover featuring a room, photographed through a doorway, that contained traditional wooden furniture and a modern matt black stereo system, red LED glowing.  I recall the moments when the first notes of the opening track, Lam Tooro, flooded the room.  Like the rest of the album, it was beautifully hypnotic, with the two musicians’ guitars and Baaba Maal’s ethereal voice, accented by dabs of African percussion, producing pure magic. It remains one of my most treasured albums, amd Baaba Maal’s best in my view.

In July 2003, Baaba Maal was appointed as a Youth Emissary for the United Nations’ Development Programme. As part of his role, the musician-ambassador devoted a significant amount of time and energy to raising young people’s awareness of AIDS and HIV. In 2006, Maal organised the first Les Blues du Fleuve (River Blues) festival in Senegal. The festival has become an annual spring-time event, linking the countries that border the Senegal River and involving all branches of the arts from music to painting, crafts and public lectures.

Baaba Maal recalls his childhood in Podor (BBC World Service)

Baaba Maal: Baayo

Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck: Djam Leelii

Mamadou Sarr with Baaba Maalperforming in Ireland in 2009

Links

WOMAD: Rokia Traore, Youssou N’Dour and Ethiopiques

WOMAD: Rokia Traore, Youssou N’Dour and Ethiopiques

Rokia Traore

Reading the reviews and listening to Radio 3’s coverage, it seems to have been a great year at WOMAD. For me, the outstanding performances were from Oumou Sangare (who I later saw perform in Liverpool at On the Waterfront), Ethiopiques, Youssou N’Dour and Rokia Traore.

Rokia Traore

The Independent said of the festival’s first night: ‘the star-making performance comes from Mali’s Rokia Traoré … It is when she dances, hips swinging half-way to Somerset, and straps on an electric guitar to lead her band in hard, dramatic rock, that she becomes potent with pride’. The Guardian agreed: ‘All good Womads rely on great Africans, and N’Dour’s set was equalled only by the frantic dance workout of a gloriously funky Rokia Traoré’.

I treasure memories of seeing Rokia Traore four years ago in a tiny venue in Oldham. At WOMAD, as heard on Radio 3, she gave a great performance of ‘Zen’ off her recent album, Tchamantche, with its wonderful lyrics:

The Angelus bell has rung
A dog is falling asleep at my feet
I have had the courage
To do nothing

The hourless hours
Slipped
Over the horizon
Taking with them only this day,
I have had the courage
To do nothing

Zen
I am
Zen

Let the years pass by
Let time grow used to it
For me, it’s alright,
I’m getting rid of
These gluttonous hours
They eat me every day

Zen
Oh, how I am
Zen

I eat life and the wind
I dance in the rain showers
And in the mornings, tired
I fill my palms with dew
And let the sky settle on my eyelashes

Zen
Oh, how I am
Zen

Let time pass by
And the hours follow one another
Day after day
I will afford myself the pleasure
Of doing nothing

Zen
Oh, how I am
Zen

The Angelus bell has rung
A dog is falling asleep at my feet
I have had the courage
To do nothing

The hourless hours
Slipped
Over the horizon
Taking with them only this day,
I have had the courage
To do nothing

Zen
Oh, how I am
Zen …

I am …

Rokia’s record label, Nonesuch, says this about the album Tchamantche:

Tchamantché stems from a simple inspiration—the sound of an old Gretsch guitar—and employs a traditional pop rhythm section. The instrumentation is often sparse, contrasting the Gretsch or the classic Silvertone guitar with subtle percussion effects provided by human beat box and hip-hop artist Sly Johnson, or the n’goni, the tiny, sharp-edged West African lute that has always been an integral part of her sound, played alongside the Western classical harp.

Traoré composed all the songs on Tchamantché, with the exception of the Billie Holiday classic “The Man I Love,” a song she first sang in a duet with Dianne Reeves during the Billie and Me tour in 2005. Known for her outspoken lyrics, Traoré covers a variety of topics on her new record. She discusses the problem of illegal immigration from Africa to Europe in “Tounka,” and, in “Dounia,” reminds Malians that they should be proud of the glories of their past. “Zen” is a song about having the courage to do nothing, and “Yorodjan” was written in praise of African street parties.

The daughter of a Malian diplomat who was posted to the US, Europe, and the Middle East, Traoré studied in Brussels and performed in a rap band before deciding to go back to Mali to create the music she wanted, which was to be “not pop, not jazz, not classical but something contemporary with traditional instruments,” as she says.

Traoré has explored a breadth of directions in her career. Her last album Bowmboï, which Time called “mesmerizing, casting its spell with virtuoso vocals, rich textures and startling diversity,” included collaborations with the Kronos Quartet, and in 2006, she wrote and performed a new work for Vienna’s New Crowned Hope Festival, which was curated by Peter Sellars in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthday. In Traoré’s piece, Mozart was born as a griot in the time of the great 13th-century Mande ruler Soundiata Keita.

Traoré’s acclaim began before the release of her debut album Mouineïssa (1998), when she won the Radio France International prize for African Discovery of the Year. Her second album, Wanita, made numerous Best of 2000 lists including that of the New York Times. Traoré is equally celebrated for her live shows, which Time Out London says are “arguably the most exciting, most thrilling live African music show around.”

Youssou N’Dour

The Guardian review:  ‘This was a festival dominated by two great veterans and a whole lot of newcomers – and it was Youssou N’Dour, who first appeared at Womad back in 1986, who provided one of the highlights. His performance on the final evening, in a rainstorm, was a rousing reminder that he still possesses one of the greatest voices in Africa, capable of moving effortlessly from edgy, urgent mbalax dance songs to light, soulful ballads such as the glorious Li Ma Weesu and Birima. Then there was the “positive” ballad New Africa, a speech about fighting malaria, and a solo reworking of 7 Seconds. N’Dour is nearly 50, but he was on classic form’.

Youssou N’Dour: Probayako (WOMAD 2009)

Youssou N’Dour: New Africa (WOMAD 2009)

Youssou N’Dour: Mame Bamba (WOMAD 2009)

Ethiopiques

The Independent:  ‘The heavy rain that threatened Womad for two days fell solidly as the festival ended on Sunday. But closing act Ethiopiques made the downpour irrelevant. The result of the albums of the same name, which revealed the soul and jazz of early 1970s Addis Ababa to be sensual treasures, it brought lost stars from Haile Selassie’s last days to a Wiltshire field. Keen young musicians stand in for old Addis’s vanished bands. But it is the originals that matter, from saxophonist Gatatchew Mekurya in his Lion of Judah shawl, to Alemayehu Eshete’s James Brown screams. In a weekend of great voices, deceptively venerable, robed Mahmoud Ahmed’s may even be the best. Rising from an exotic, wobbling murmur to a roar, he leads this triumphant resurrection’.

Ethiopiques & Badume’s Band with Mahmoud Ahmed (WOMAD 2009)

Ethiopiques & Badume’s Band featuring Getatchew Mekurya (WOMAD 2009)

Ethiopiques & Badume’s Band featuring Alemayehu Eshete (WOMAD 2009)

WOMAD 2009: flyglobalmusic.com round up