World Music Matters - Sona Jobarteh: Changing the tradition of kora playing to ensure its survival
Sona Jobarteh comes from a long West African tradition of Griots and kora players from Mali and The Gambia. She's become one of the rare women in the world to master the 21-string instrument which is traditionally reserved to men. She talks to RFI about working within the tradition to be better able to expand it.
Sona Jobarteh's grandfather was Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, an oral historian and hereditary praise singer from the Mandinka people of The Gambia. Her cousin is Mali's Toumani Diabaté. Her brother began teaching her to play the kora when she was just three, but when she decided she wanted to make a career out of it, she turned to her father Sanjally Jobarteh.
"I always had a very natural connection with the older repertoire," Jobarteh explains as we sit at her hotel before a concert in Paris's New Morning early November. "That's why I really wanted to study with my father because he is very much an expert in that style of playing."
Her father was a demanding task-master.
"He told me that he will teach me as his child, not as his daughter, not as his son but as his child which is no gender. And also he told me that the one thing he wanted in return for teaching me is that I aim to be just a good kora player not a good female kora player."
"He said if someone listens to you they shouldn’t be able to say it’s a girl or it’s a boy it’s just a good kora player."
Jobarteh has gone on to become a very successful and respected kora player, vocalist and instrumentalist, demonstrating to her own and future generations that "you don't have to conform to outside influence to be successful in the music industry."
"You can actually represent your tradition, you can even sing in your own language without having to bend to pressure not to do so."
She did just that in 2011, singing in Mandekan on her album Fasiya.
"Fasiya was all about my heritage and I saw it as a risk or a challenge because I’m no longer singing in English, I’m no longer playing any European instruments, and it’s traditional.
"I was not sure if I would get any audience, but I made the conscious decision to prefer to do what means something to me and have very few people follow than try to conform to something that is not true to me and be popular."
Her gamble paid off. But she hasn't released another album since, putting all her energies, and finances, into the Gambia Academy of Music and Culture she returned to The Gambia to open in 2015.
The school educates children in their cultural traditions and heritage alongside the mainstream curriculum.
She says it's important to "demonstrate the worth of what they have rather than what they don't have," so that they remain in the country rather than believing that "hope, the future and everything lies outside their country".
"The academy is actually everything I do," she continues, "and in many ways the music increasingly is now just a means for me to be able to support and to spread awareness about what I’m trying to do in The Gambia."
Music in this week's programme is from Jobarteh's 2011 album Fasiya. Her upcoming album will focus on the future: social activism, education, women and raising awareness of the challenges her country is facing.
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World Music Matters - Emmanuel π Djob: a soul man from Cameroon
Emmanuel π Djob started out singing gospel in his native Cameroon and is building a successful blues-soul career in France. He heads up the six-piece AfroSoul Gang, but it’s performing alone with guitar that his gravel-rough baritone voice, raw emotion and soul really shines through. We caught him performing live on RFI's Musiques du Monde.
Emmanuel π Djob started out with Bayembi’s International, a pan African gospel formation popular in Cameroon in the 1990s.
After settling in France, he helped to revive and renew the gospel tradition, performing with the Black & White Gospel Singers and Gospelize it!
He released his debut album, Seven Minutes, in 2008, drawing on the blues, pop and rock to explore the theme of the death penalty.
He went on to record a series of albums called Terrassa’s Conversessions in 2010.
In 2013 he created a storm on the TV music talent show The Voice singing Ray Charles’ Georgia on My Mind.
“Ray Charles, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela, they were my musical foundations,” he says. “It was normal that I sing one of Ray Charles’ songs.”
“That song meant a lot to me because I’m in exile here and it’s a song about love and exile."
In January 2016 he packed the huge Zenith concert hall in Montpellier with his band AfroSoull Gang, accompanied by the 500-strong Afro Soul Mass Choir.
He’s taking this ensemble to Cameroon in December “to Yaoundé and to Douala, just to show to people that Cameroonians can sing together, even if we have problems".
π Djob’s latest album Get on Board ! is resolutely afro-soul. The stand out track is Sons of Lilith, Daughter of Kham on which he weaves the legend of a demonised woman and cursed man into an allegory of how he sees the world.
His live rendition of the song on Musiques du Monde is a treasure: the sound of a singer-songwriter possessed by the need to sing and communicate about his dispossesed African ancestors.
Emmanuel π Djob in concert in Pessac 7/8 December 2019, with AfroSoull Gang in Montpellier 29 February 2020.
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World Music Matters - Klezmer, funk and hip hop unite against racism and intolerance in Trump’s America
A decade after their acclaimed album Tweet Tweet, Abraham Inc. return with Together We Stand, using their eclectic mix of klezmer, funk and hip hop to show that different religions, ages, sexes and races get along. David Krakauer, Fred Wesley and Socalled talk to RFI about how the U.S. president’s “Muslim” ban got them back in the studio making great music.
“The band is kind of crazy mix of just about anybody you can imagine,” says Socalled, a Canadian beatmaker who’s been working with Krakauer on reinventing klezmer for over a decade.
“Men, women, black, white, brown, Latino, Africans … we have basically Jewish culture and Yiddish culture meeting African American culture. And on the song Together We Stand we invited an Arabic percussionist Mohammed Raky, so there’s Arabic percussion.”
The title track was written by Fred Wesley, master funk trombonist and James Brown's former musical director.
"Together WE stand is also the peoples of the world," Wesley says, “all races and all nationalities and all religions of the world standing together in the name of peace.
"If we all could stand together, could listen to each other we would find out we have more in common than we have differences.”
“I’m a black man and you’re a white farmer, let me just tell you what I go through and you tell me what you go through.. and it’ll be the same thing you know,” he continues, in reference to some of the hate speech that's come out of the woodwork since Trump's election in 2016.
Lullaby for Charlottesville
Socalled wrote the song Lullaby for Charlottesville in tribute to Heather Hever, killed at a white supremacist rally in 2017.
“It’s an ode to the memory of Heather Hayer, the young woman who was murdered by someone from the white supremacist movement that Donald Trump said “there’s good people on both sides”. It sort of paints a story in music of voices coming together to pay homage to that tragic moment in American history.”
The Hippies were right, weren't they?
Krakauer wrote the song The Hippies Were Right. Though he was only a teenager at the time of Woodstock, he “marched against the war in Vietnam" and hung out in East Village, an old Jewish quarter of NY popular with hippies. He was inspired by the fact they believed they could change things.
“They were protesting the Vietnam war, they were talking about defending the environment, about love among people and I thought this makes sense.
"Politically they didn’t have muscle or power. It was sad that the actual pure message of the hippies, about living life, embracing life, got perverted and smashed and commodified.”
Trying to convince through music
“What Trump did was take the sheet off of people that were kind of racist and people that were anti-Semitic, anti-peace, people that were pro-corporate America,” says Wesley.
"Trump exposed all of these people because they all came out of the closet. And these are the people we have to convince.”
While there's a fair amount of political commentary on the album, the band aims to convince by example not by preaching or banging the table.
The instrumental track B Flat à la Socalled is a fine example of the way they find harmony in their very different musical cultures.
“This album is pretty polemical and a bit of a pulpit cry, but hopefully it’s also musically an example,” Socalled says.
“If you see on stage a bunch of people, different religions, ages, sexes, just loving each other and creating beauty that brings people together, that’s the mission of Abraham Incorporated.”
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Together we stand is out on Autre Distribution
Abraham Inc. official website
World Music Matters - Nick Gold: "I feel privileged and lucky to produce music with these people"
Nick Gold has been at the helm of World Circuit Records for close to three decades. The label has produced some of the best world music around: Buena Vista Social Club, Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangaré, Toumani Diabaté, Cheikh Lô ... and most recently Trio Da Kali and Fatoumata Diawara. The London-based producer has a nose for talent but maintains being allowed to work with such artists makes him the lucky one.
In 2018, World Circuit merged with BMG and together they recently released remastered versions of four of their cornerstone albums: Ali Farka Touré's Savane, Omara Portuondo's Buena Vista Social Club Presents, Radio Tarifa's Rumba Argelina and Guillermo Portabales' El Carretero.
Gold reflects on three decades of helping to get great music from West Africa and Cuba to western audiences even, as he says, the musicians in question didn't need reminding it could travel!
"Musicians from Cuba and Mali value their own music, they know it's incredibly important. It's not like they need validation from outside."
He also talks to us about the magic of recording Buena Vista Social Club in Egrem studios in Havana in 1996 and driving Oumou Sangaré's pink car on the streets of Bamako.
And he might never have recorded Buena Vista Social Club, the best-selling world music record ever, had it not been for Ali Farka Touré whom he met in London in 1987 when Touré came to record his debut album with World Circuit.
The two men would go on to have a long and fruitful collaboration. Gold "facilitated" the Grammy-award winning Talking Timbuktu with Ry Cooder in 1994 and which helped establish World Circuit as a big player in the recording business. But Gold says the Mali bluesman also acted as a kind of talent scout (A&R), introducing him to new music from all over West Africa. And, thankfully, Cuba.
"It was because of Ali that I worked with Toumani Djibaté, he introduced us to Oumou Sangaré, to Dimi Mint Abba from Mauritania. And he encouraged me to listen to Cuban music so he was very important as an unofficial A&R man as well. And a real inspiration."
Listen to what it's like being a leading world music producer and extracts of the great music he's helped get out there in this week's podcast.
Check out World Circuit Records here and follow them on facebook
World Music Matters - Raashan Ahmad: bringing light into the darkness
Raashan Ahmad is an American DJ, MC and hip hop artist with a big heart and a sharp mind. A thought-provoking rapper whose latest album The Sun explores joy and pain, hope and despair: the loss of his mum, the birth of his son. "Balance is something I've strived for... I can never get out of my mind how beautiful things are at the exact same time that they’re horrible."
"Do you know what it feels like to be a black person?" asks American comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory on the opening track No.
Ahmad does and it hasn't always felt good.
"The song's inspired by the police killing of black Americans in the United States," says Ahmad, "that’s pretty much it and my experience with it. I speak about being pulled over with my father when I was about seven and that was my first experience with the police."
He raps over a bed of free-jazz inspired saxophones.
"I love the Sun Ra Arkestra, Sony Rollins, Yusef Lateef ... these American jazz musicians who were playing this type of frenetic type of energy and I felt like that was very relevant to how I felt about what’s happening now."
How do you not turn to hate when you're being singled out just because your black?
"I'm not sure how to get over that. I see the trauma and how it affected me and affects countless other black Americans. And these things are not taken into account, no one speaks about them really. You just have to bury and put it somewhere."
Ahmad has put it into his music. The song Breathe reflects on how to cope with the physical stress that "holding in" can cause.
"Music has always been a therapy for me and I think for most musicians. And a place that feels the safest in a lot of ways."
One of his heroes is Nina Simone, a hugely talented but troubled soul if ever there was one. He does a version of her great song I Got Life.
"I love this song, she talks about the things she doesn't have, and then she goes into all the beautiful things that she is and that she does have. It’s always touched me that song because it doesn’t leave out a part of emotion, you’re not just a happy person, not just a sad person and you can give thanks and be terribly saddened by a lot at the same time."
The experience of feeling both pain and joy, of what makes us human, is wonderfully rendered on the song The Day the Sun Came, with vocals from Keren Ann. It talks of losing his mother to cancer and the arrival of his son.
"I don’t know if I ever had the conversation I’ve had on that song with a human and so it’s very bittersweet and it’s hard to listen to, but also really joyous at the same time.
"And the beautiful thing about this song, especially the verse about my mum passing has really touched a lot of people and it’s been really wonderful to get feedback from other people who’ve lost their parents."
Ahmad also sings on a couple of tracks, and in Wolof. Listen to the podcast to hear more about how Paris has opened up his eyes and ears to the African continent.
Raashan Ahmad performs at Le Tamanoir, Gennevilliers on 19 October as part of the Villes Musiques du Monde festival.
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