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

Youssou N’Dour with the Fathy Salama Orchestra

Youssou N’Dour with the Fathy Salama Orchestra

Youssou NDour

Tonight at at the Philharmonic.

Muslim life in Senegal is centered in the country’s Sufi communities, which have adapted to the modern rhythms of post-independence Africa. N’Dour, who sought to explore the links between his homeland’s religious beliefs and that of Muslims in Egypt and the Middle East, has explained that Egypt is an album that “praises the tolerance of my religion”

“Egypt” feels celebratory. The music is by turns witty (“Cheikh Ibra Fall”) and delicate (“Bamba the Poet”), and it has moments of conversation-stopping sweep. N’Dour provides his reassuring tenor, but much of the magic comes from the Fathy Salama Orchestra, a rich ensemble that makes use of hand drums, the kawala (a flute) and violins. In key passages, the sound becomes cinematic — you can almost see North and West Africa spreading out before your eyes.”
Nick Marino, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Songs of Praise to the Brotherhood

By Max Annas and Dorothee Plass: an article previously published by TAZ, Germany, 28 July 2004

The 45-year-old N’Dour has also made a shift in content with his new album. “Egypt” is a deeply religious album, recorded with an Egyptian chamber orchestra, which pays homage to the Mourides and other Islamic brotherhoods in Senegal.

The fact that Youssou N’Dour is portraying the leaders of the Mourides, the most important brotherhood, is a testament to their status in Senegal: There is hardly a home to be found there that does not contain a likeness of one of these esteemed and honored role models; the people live with them and know about their lives.

Thus, “Egypt” refers to a local variety of Islam, and the sensitive music for strings that Fatih Salama’s orchestra plays here helps the listener transcend the vast expanse of the Sahara.

Pop music has a very different sound in Africa than it does in Europe anyway. In the countries that achieved independence later, such as Zimbabwe or Guinea-Bissau, it has always been part of the political struggle.

Islam is still a bonding element in Senegal

At the same time, in the countries that were already independent, the most important dance combos accompanied the upheaval in the new nation-states: In Guinea, Bembeya Jazz paid tribute to President Sekou Touré; Orchestra Baobab from Senegal sang – among other things – about religion and religious themes.

After all, Islam was – and is to this day – an important bonding element in the social structure of this small West African country.

Youssou N’Dour explains his approach this way: “I believe that Islam has to make use of creative media such as music and cinema in order to be better understood. I don’t see myself as the champion of the religion. I am a faithful and practicing Muslim, but I am creating a work of music. And through this work of music, I speak about the realities that I perceive in relationship to the religion.”

More than 20 years ago, Ndiouga Dieng, one of the singers from Orchestra Baobab, would hardly have expressed it differently, had he been asked about the lyrics of “Werente Serigne”. The song, which appears on the legendary and recently re-released CD, “Pirates Choice”, advises listeners to steer clear of religious disputes and to respect the religious leaders.

Bambar, pillar saint of Mouridism

Thioné Seck, who was briefly a bandmate of Diengs, a member of Baobab in the mid-1970s, wrote one of the most moving songs in the history of Senegalese pop music for the band: “Bamba”, an ode to Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba.

Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba is the pillar saint of Mouridism, the most important variation of Senegalese Islam. He fought against colonialism; his birthplace of Touba, 100 kilometers east of the capital city of Dakar, is thought of as the country’s holy city. At the same time, it is the fastest-growing city in West Africa.

Youssou N’Dour also dedicates two out of the eight tracks on his “Egypt” album to the religious leader who died in 1927. In addition, one song deals with the city of Touba and yet another is devoted to Bamba’s closest companion, Cheikh Ibra Fall.

The African pop star considers it important to ground “Egypt” in Senegalese tradition. “Everybody has sung the praises of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba; that’s how it is where we live. He is a leader, he is very important to the society; we sing about him and we thank him. There has always been music honoring Ahmadou Bamba. But I think that, for the first time, we have done something different with the more acoustic approach, which brings home the religious theme very clearly.”

“Except for the finale, about the seat of N’Dour’s Mouridist sect (Touba, the fastest-growing city in West Africa), all the songs extol Sufi teachers. Senegalese Islam is largely Sufi. Islam being anything but monolithic, and Sufism being highly individualistic, that doesn’t mean Sufi like ecstatic Pakistani qawwali mystic Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or like calm Turkish musical healer Oruj Guvenc, or like the fierce Chechen Muridists, or like the secularizing Afghan Naqshbandis. Senegalese Sufism divides into the seminal Qadiriya, state-building Tijani, and N’Dour’s Mouridists, whose work-worshipping mercantile ethic, Calvinist in a highly un-Swiss way, dominates Senegalese politics and émigré communities like New York’s. Opposing animism, Sufism is a modernizing force. But like most sub-Saharan Islam, it’s also very non-Arab. So for N’Dour, who for 20 years has been building bridges to Europe and America, to go to Egypt to record these pointedly pan-Sufi lyrics–in addition to praising the two Mouridist founders, he devotes songs to Qadiriya history, a Tijani anti-colonialist, a Tijani pan-Africanist, and an eccentric messianic brotherhood–is to remind his Western friends, and enemies, that in the crucial matter of faith he is not “Western,” not even a little bit.”

Why N’Dour refused to tour America in the spring of 2003

“It is my strong conviction that the responsibility for disarming Iraq should rest with the United Nations. As a matter of conscience I question the United States government’s apparent intention to commence war in Iraq. I believe that coming to America at this time would be perceived in many parts of the world–rightly or wrongly–as support for this policy, and that, as a consequence, it is inappropriate to perform in the US at this juncture.

“I understand that there are many in the US who do not support the idea of their government initiating war in Iraq at this time, and I offer my greatest respect to them. I also regret the difficulties this causes those who were to present my concerts in North America and those who were looking forward to seeing me and my band. This tour was over a year and a half in the planning and was the greatest commitment I had ever made to performing in the US.

“It is my fervent wish to return to the US in better times. But I find it impossible to imagine playing concerts in America when such grave issues are confronting all the peoples of the world.”

– Village Voice, June 8, 2004

Personnel: Youssou N’Dour: lead vocals; Kabou Guèye, Souka Guèye, & Mama Guèye: backing vocals; Babou Laye: kora; Mbaye Dieye Faye: various Senegalese percussion; Beugue Fallou Ensemble: various Sengalese percussion and backing vocals. The Fathy Salama Orchestra, featuring: Fathy Salama: arranger & conductor; Yuri Kablotsky and Midhat Abd El Sameeh: first violins; Mamdouh El Gibally: oud; Abdallah Helmy: kawala; Mostafa Abd El Azeez: arghul; Shaker: rababa; Shibl: magruna; Hasaneen Hindy: mizmar; Ramadan Mansoor: tabla; Ayman Sidky: doholla; Ahmed El Gazar: sagat; Yaser Mal Allah: various Arab Gulf percussion; Bisheer Ewees: bass violin; Vassily: bass violin. Hassan Khaleel: score manager.