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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World music matters - Ghana's Pat Thomas still living the highlife
Dubbed "the golden voice of West Africa" Pat Thomas embodied the glory days of Ghanaian highlife in the 60s and 70s alongside the great Ebo Taylor. The music fell out of fashion in the 80s but Thomas never stopped singing. He made a much-praised comeback in 2015 with the Kwashibu Area Band thanks to Ghanian musician and producer Kwame Yeboah and together they've now released another gem: Obiaa! (Everyone).
Listen to Thomas and Yeboah, two generations of highlife, discussing their love of the music, where the "high" in highlife came from and how the younger generation is discovering the importance of this music, the precursor to Nigeria's afrobeat.
"They themselves realise you have to go back to the roots," says Thomas. "We're doing lots of collaborations and it's working out good."
Obiaa! is out on Strut Records.
Pat Thomas and the Kwashibu Area Band are on a European tour. You'd be a fool to miss them live. Check out their facebook page for details.
World music matters - Natacha Atlas: engaging dystopia on new album Strange Days
Natacha Atlas began exploring jazz and Middle Eastern melodies on her 2015 album Myriad Road with Franco-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf. She goes one step further on Strange Days, co-written and produced with violinist Samy Bishai. An accomplishment for the vocalist at the height of her talents, but who says she couldn't have done it without Bishai.
"It's probably the most accomplished album and all the most accomplished albums I’ve made have been with Samy Bishai," Atlas tells us just ahead of the album launch at the Bal Blomet in Paris.
"I’ve learned more about musical theory with Samy because he was more classically trained than I was. There’s lots of things that I can do on this album that I could not have done 10 years previously."
Both artists are Anglo-Egyptian and share a love of the Arabic language. Bishai admits it was challenging bringing jazz and Arabic music together.
"On the surface they’re really incompatible," he says. "Arabic music is largely modal and uses lots of untempered scales that have quarter tones in them which makes it very difficult to make harmonies around them. Whereas jazz is largely obsessed with harmony."
He says not only did Atlas rise to the challenge "she surprised me with just how good she was".
Atlas and Bishai wrote the album together "throwing ideas backwards and forwards". They're extremely complicit, completing one anothers' thoughts and phrases as they talk. On stage, notably with dystopian love songs like Min Baad, it's hard to decipher who is pulling the (heart)strings.
The album benefits from other first-rate musical support with Hayden Powell (trumpet and flugelhorn), Robinson Khoury (trombone), Alcyona Mick (piano), Andy Hamill (double bass), Asaf Sirkis (drums) Laurie Lowe (drums) and guests Joss Stone, Tanya Wells and Sofiane Saidi.
Bishai has described the album as a "darkly dystopian Arabic-infused jazz fantasy" a way of avoiding pigeon-holing their oevure. Is it jazz, world music, world jazz, modern Arabic? Who cares. It makes for a great listening experience.
To find out more about where the dystopia lies, the influence of Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers and making bridges between Arabic music and jazz, listen to the interview. You might also care to subscribe to the podcast.
Strange Days is out on Whirlwind Recordings.
Follow Natacha Atlas on facebook, official website here.
World music matters - Collectif Medz Bazar: jewel of the Armenian and Turkish urban diaspora
Collectif Medz Bazar is a six-piece 'urban diaspora band' based in Paris. With roots its Armenia, Turkey, France and the US, they draw on the rich traditions of all those cultures, and sing in all four languages. But the blend of Turkish and Armenian musical cultures, based on deep friendship, adds to the band's originality. Their third album 'O', meaning love, is testimony to that.
The band formed in 2012 following a jam session on a barge in Paris.
"I’m sure it's no concidence that we met," says double bassist Shushan Kerovpyan. "As Turkish and Armenians I think we were thirsty also of meeting each other and exchanging. But we never thought 'OK we’re gonna do an Armenian-Turkish band and we’re gonna have this discourse of fraternity and stuff'.
"It’s a friendship first of all and actually it’s also a form of love and that’s what drives us."
Their new, third, album is called 'O' which in the band's invented language means love. It includes bluegrass and rap as well as arrangements of Turkish and Armenian folksongs and their own compositions.
"We are very focused on music," says percussionist Elâ Nuroğlu and maybe we want to change [things] with music, not with our discourse about the music."
Nuroğlu plays a two-sided drum called the duvul, and much of their percussive-heavy music and songs are dancefloor friendly.
"When you hear the music, the language, you start to dance and enjoy it," says the 29-year old Turkish percussionist, "you can share something with someone else who doesn't have the same history or origins. That’s it."
Collectif Medz Bazar are:
Ela Nuroğlu: percussions, vocals Ezgi Sevgi Can: clarinet, saxophone, vocals Marius Pibarot: violin, cuatro, double bass, vocals Sevana Tchakerian: vocals, accordion, shvi, percussions Shushan Kerovpyan: double bass, vocals Vahan Kerovpyan: vocals, percussions
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World music matters - Senegal's Abdou Mboup: master of the griot "cell phone"
Abdou Mboup's skills as a percussionist and kora player have led to collaborations with the likes of Johnny Clegg, Claude Nougaro, Nina Simone and Michel Pettruciani. After 25 years in the U.S. he's returned to France to build his career in Europe. He talks to RFI about his new album African Lullaby and the role of the tami (talking drum) in his native griot culture in Senegal. "I like to call it our cell phone," he says.
Mboup grew up in a griot family in Kebemer, north Senegal, playing the drums in the courtyard from the age of three "like every griot kid”.
The tami (talking drum) was used to spread messages from village to village.
“Whatever the rhythm people could understand [whether] it was about a wedding, death or a snake biting someone. That’s why I’ve always said it was our cell phone.”
His uncles were master drummers, his grandmother an accomplished singer, and he went on to join Xalam, Senegal's top band in the 1970s.
“I was the first musician to incorporate the African percussion into mbalax [a popular dance music]," Mboup remembers. "I composed the first hit in the history of mbalax," it was Daida, with Xalam," in 1975.
The need to explore other music
Mboup didn’t want to restrict himself to one genre and in 1995 he left for the U.S. where he ventured into funk, fusion, jazz and world music.
“I don’t want to repeat myself, I have to go and explore other music,” he explains. "Some people called my music Afro-fusion, others called it Afro-jazz, my way is to mix everything together.”
His openness, inventiveness and sheer energy when drumming has led to collaborations with an array of top singers and musicians: Claude Nougaro, Nina Simone, Johnny Clegg, Michel Pettruciani, Harry Belafonte, Jon Hassel.. but to mention a few.
He was percussionist with French jazzman Eddy Louiss for a decade, and made two albums with French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
He also played percussion on Scottish rock band Simple Minds' 1989 Album Street Fighting Years.
Mboup recognises working with such a broad range of people has expanded his own musical culture, but why did they turn to him?
Nougaro described Mboup as "a percussion genius"; Johnny Clegg was impressed by the many ways he expressed rhythm. After frosty beginnings in concert with Nina Simone in 1972 in Paris, even she came to appreciate his talent.
Perhaps his griot ancestry is part of the explanation.
“Before, only the griots could play music, now everybody can play music," Mboup says. "Even so, you know through the sound if you are a griot or not, because the non-griots play with feeling, but the griots play with feeling AND they speak the language of the drum, that’s the difference.”
An African Lullaby to be shared, not put you to sleep
After 25 years in the U.S. and “feeling a bit tired of America” Mboup has returned to France and settled in outside the capital, in Orleans.
His new album African Lullaby, recorded with his U.S.-based group Waakaw, was mixed by Orleans-based producer Matthieu Minier.
Mboup plays kora (21-string harp), xalam (five-string African banjo) and percussion. And he sings in Wolof and in English.
"I’m reporting social injustice, corruption,” says Mboup the songwriter, "I think when people buy your music, listen to your music, you should talk about their concerns."
One such concern is the abuse of power at the highest level of government on the African continent, a subject he explores in the song Nguur (Executive power).
“Presidents are not working for the people, they are working for themselves and their families, this is not right.”
But he also sings of love and African culture like on the track Motherland. "Africa generated almost all music, that’s the motherland and I'm saying I want to share that music.”
He hopes to do that with a new band.. and a good booking agent!
Abdou Mboup's official website here
Follow Abdou Mboup on facebook