World music matters - Sarah Lenka sings legacy of African-American women's blues
After a third album I don't dress fine in tribute to American blues singer Bessie Smith, French jazz singer Sarah Lenka has released Women's Legacy. Her subtle rendition of work songs and prison songs convey the suffering and resilience of several African American women in the early 20th century.
Since her 2008 debut album Am I Blue, Lenka has had a thing about the tragic lives of some women singers.
"From the beginning of my career I really was touched by women, how they’ve been abused," she says.
"It started with Billie Holiday and then later on came Bessie Smith. I really like the way she sang her story. Whether it was horrible or beautiful, she really opened her mouth and [accepted] what she was."
Delving into Bessie "Empress of the Blues" Smith's repertoire, Lenka fell upon No More My Lawd, a prison song that had been recorded by American ethnomusicologists Alan and John Lomax. During the 1930s and 40s they travelled widely in the Southern States recording work songs, spirituals and folk tales sung by prisoners and former slaves.
The songs were not meant to be sung to the public and Lenka was struck by their raw energy.
"I was really blown away by the fact it was not songs but just chant, just words with a melody."
She does a heartfelt but far from maudlin arrangement of The story of Barbara Allen, a traditional 17th century Scottish ballad Alan Lomax recorded at the women's dormitory at Raiford penitentiary in 1939. It was sung by African American inmate Hule "Queen" Hines.
"She was just singing whatever came through her head," says Lenka. "That really touched me, you're just saying what you lived through...in a very intimate way."
Lenka's album begins with Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around. This stirring spiritual became a kind of anthem for the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s and was famously recorded by Sweet Honey in the Rock.
She does justice to the bluesy Trouble so hard, famously sampled by American electronic musician Moby on Natural Blues in 2000, but originally written and performed by American folk singer Vera Hall in 1937 and again recorded by Lomax.
Women can relate to each other
There's humour on the song Oh Death - a "conversation" with death first recorded by American gospel and folk singer Bessie Jones.
"Oh Death walked up to the sinner's gate, Said I believe you have waited now a little too late, Your fever now is one hundred and two, You have narrow chance that you'll ever pull through," goes the song.
Lomax met Smith on a field recording trip in 1959 and remarked on her "fire to teach America," calling her "the Mother Courage of American Black traditions".
So what does Lenka bring to these songs? A rich, playful, sometimes raunchy timbre, impeccable harmonies (she does all the vocals), and a sensitivity and respect for the blues genre but with no attempt to cash in on the pain at the heart of it.
"I wouldn’t allow myself to connect with their suffering because there’s no way I can start to understand," she says, "but I think women can relate to each other in the need to express whatever abuse you’re feeling.
"Sometimes you have no other way how to express whatever happens to you ... than through the body. You have one word with one note coming and it somehow puts a space to breathe."
Women's Legacy includes four of Lenka's own compositions. One is the ballad I fight every day. "I fight every day... to wake up with a smile," she sings.
"I think it's a way of saying stand up and continue."
Sarah Lenka is in concert at Duc des Lombards, Paris, on 14 and 15 June, 2019.
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World music matters - Omo Bello: the Nigerian soprano's star is rising in France
Omo Bello was born in Nigeria but trained and found success here in France. She's recorded a solo album of Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, was nominated for a Victoires de la musique award, and most recently performed in the presence of President Macron to mark the abolition of slavery in France. She talks to RFI about making her way up and using her success to develop classical music back home in Lagos.
"Looking back I realise how hard it was, I didn’t realize while climbing because I was carried by this huge need to sing, to make music, this passion. It’s looking back that I realised oh my!"
Omo Bello laughs heartily as she recalls arriving in France in 2005 to study at the Conservatoire in Paris after she was spotted by the Institut Francais back in Lagos.
She came alone, didn't speak the language, armed simply with a passion for singing and an iron will to succeed.
She was colourblind at first and despite often being the only black face on stage or in the audience, she tries to keep that naivety.
"If not, it makes it too hard to express the beauty, the joy, the love that you feel when you want to make music.
"You can chose to look and say 'oh dear lord this is terrible there should be more colour equality' or I personally chose not to see. I just see human beings, I see people making music, loving to make music."
Bello's first album was chamber music, lieder by Mahler, she's performed Haydn and loves Bellini. She says her ideal second recording would be opera arias with an orchestra.
"I love Italian music, bel canto, and I also love French romantic operas, so that means for me a good mix of French and Italian opera arias. An orchestra would be "l’idéal" for a second album."
Becoming a role model
In 2017 she returned to Lagos to perform at Muson, the Musical Society of Nigeria, and was amazed by the reaction.
"I wasn’t expecting the reception in terms of awareness of what I do, who I am, because opera, obviously is not well known in Nigeria."
She hadn't counted on the powers of social media.
"What I realised was that a huge community of classical music lovers had formed online through social media and many got to know me on youtube, facebook etc.
People came to her with "emotional stories of how they’d encountered classical music" and it had changed their perceptions. It was no longer "burial music, sober and boring".
"I realised I’m actually a sort of a role model to these people, to be able to aspire to do things that appear impossible, that break boundaries."
Omo Bello Foundation
Fired up with their enthusiasm she launched her own foundation "to discover, develop and eventually promote musical talents in children". And disadvantaged kids in particular.
"The child who starts early playing instruments, learning music, has a fighting chance later on," she pleads. "The one who starts at two, because his parents couldn’t afford to pay the fees of piano lessons, most likely wouldn’t be able to make it on an international level.
"So we want the children to have a fighting chance if they chose to have musical careers, and also to build hope."
Bello is convinced that the only thing stopping the development of classical music and opera is Nigeria is the absence of structures: "formal institutions where people can be guided in their musical journeys, concert halls, an opera house, a theatre, a conservatoire, in Nigeria".
"For me there’s a lot of music going on but it’s all over the place. Musicians are just “doing it” in church, in the corner in some jazz clubs, but we don’t have the possibility to become the professionals that they deserve to be."
There's no lack of talent, passion and energy.
"The energy in Lagos, I've never seen that anywhere in world. If that can be channeled in a proper way it can yield such unbelievably huge results."
Omo Bello's official site
World music matters - From Desert to Douala: hot from a pop up studio in N'djamena
Inspired by the huge scope of traditional music in Chad, DJs Nickodemus and Djbuosis began working with musicians in N'djamena in 2018. They talk to RFI about helping them record their first album From Desert to Douala: a subtle compilation of life-affirming songs with an electro beat.
The album was recorded in a pop up studio in N'djamena in 2018: the latest episode in the inspiring Hape Collective initiative, founded by djbuosis in Havana in 2016, now active in 10 countries.
"It aims to connect the dots between musical industries and music talents" djbuosis tells RFI "and there's a lot of talent in Chad".
But it's difficult to produce and record music in the country so "many musicians go abroad". He cites Afrotronix, currently Chad's biggest musical export, but who works out of Canada.
Hape supports talent on the ground.
In N'djamena, Djbuosis met musicians Yaya Idriss (Chad), Samy aka Gari Boy (Cameroon), Stingo (Togo) and Wahlid (Cameroon) among others.
New York DJ and producer Nickodemus, founder of Wonderwheel Recordings, then brought along state of the art equipment and decades of experience on the dancefloor to run DJing and electronic workshops in the capital.
The band, Pulo NDJ, was formed and From Desert to Douala is the fruit of their unique, leaderless collaboration: a celebration of a rich traditional musical culture and the wonders of modern technology.
Listen to the two DJs sharing their love of the project and country as they introduce us to some of the 11 original compositions.
From Desert to Douala is available on Wonderwheel Recordings
World music matters - Marcus Gad sings reggae from the soul
After his 2017 debut album Chanting, largely inspired by indigenous kanak culture in his native New Caledonia, Marcus Gad continues to enrich roots reggae on his new EP Enter a Space, with a meditative strain verging on the liturgical. Recorded with Parisian beatmaker Tamal, the six songs draw heavily on India's Advaita Vedanta philosophy in which life is transient, the important stuff is elsewhere.
Gad grew up with reggae on the island of New Caledonia in the Pacific.
"We listen to island music," Gad told RFI, "but also the kanak people of New Caledonia, tribal people, they have a really strong resistance and rebel culture so Jamaican music was really a vector for rebellion in the '80s."
On a visit to Ethiopia at a time when he was "looking for some kind of discipline [...] and direction" he found the roots of rastafarai. "This spirituality became my directive, I thought it was plain, simple and natural."
India has also opened his mind and "the whole lyrical part of [Enter a Space] is really influenced by the Advaita Vedanta philosophy.
"It says you're not this body and you're not this mind, so the whole philosophy is based on how to separate yourself from the illusion that you are the body. You're a soul and cannot be influenced by any physical experience."
The video for the song River was shot in the Indian holy city of Varanasi.
"The song River is really a metaphor speaking about the pathway of the soul from birth to death in this life and it’s comparing the human soul to the water of the river."
The video for Live up to the day was filmed in both Delhi and the Himalayas, and features Youssouf Diabate on n'goni, a three-stringed lyre popular in west Africa.
"Tamal likes to incorporate lots of world music instruments, it’s something we like to do because I feel that reggae music can accommodate a lot of outside influences."
They continue in that vein on the song Inna Nature featuring Burkinabe griot Losso Keita.
"A great, amazing singer," says Gad, "the song has this really spacey feeling. It’s a style we’re not used to playing so this is why we invited Losso and he’s really got this unique voice. If people get the occasion to hear him singing it would really be a blessing for them."
Marcus Gad is on tour with Enter a Space. Next concert 27 April, 2019, at La Bifurk, Grenoble.
For further dates check out his facebook page
Enter a Space is out on Baco Records
World music matters - Zakouska: French quartet spiking sounds of the Mediterranean
Zakouska is a Russian hors d'oeuvre you knock back with a glass of vodka, but the band serve up a meatier dish. Their mastery of the violin, lyra, accordion and guitar, coupled with great complicity as a quartet, means they can take sounds from the Mediterranean, throw in some country guitar and clucking hens, and it makes perfect sense and exciting listening.They share their third album La Criée.
Elodie Messmer (violin), Arthur Bacon (accordion), Aline Haelberg (violin/Cretan lyra) and Fabien Bucher (guitars) are classically-trained musicians. They met and began playing together a decade ago in Strasbourg, nurtured within the Assoce Pikante collective.
Their first album, Musique Roumaine Amoureuse, was largely reinterpretations of Romanian gypsy music; on the second, A Dos de Géants, they wove the occasional original melody into music from the Balkans. La Criée (Fish market) is, you might say, their coming-out album: original pieces inspired by their travels in Mediterranean ports in Crete, Corsica, Marseille, Athens and Istanbul.
Aspasia is a tribute to a woman bar owner in the south of Crete and gives pride of place to the lyra: a beautiful pear-shaped three-stringed lyre similar to the violin but which you play with the back of your nails rather than fingertips. Haelberg fell in love with it but admits "it's quite difficult," to master.
La Valse des Vagues (waltz of the waves) is a wonderful guitar and accordion two-hander, inspired by "a Greek-Turkish mode called saba but played in a more western way with influences from gypsy jazz and musette," says its composer, Bucher. "It's a sort of meeting between a musette accordionist and Greek buzuki player in a bar in Athens."
Lautari gypsy music, heady rebetiko blues, jazz... Zakouska revel in experimentation giving full vent to their desire for both slow, wistful melodies and more frenetic, turbo violin.
They have a wicked sense of humour too. A few appreciative hens found their way into the mix and make a notable contribution to Cowboy. Click on the photo above to listen to the hens and much more.
Zakouska official site here
Follow the band on facebook