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AFRICAN WOMEN SING

 

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

Saturday/Sunday, September 6-7, 2008.

 

Let us go on a trip, cover the coasts of Africa, hear the sisters sing; sounding out beats from West, North, East and South. Let’s sample, as it were, femme songs, women singing survival songs, songs of joy and celebrate Africa.

 

West Africa: Ivory Coast

 

Manou Gallo

 

Manou (main picture) learned music but drumming came to her, and it stayed with her even though among her people drumming was not an approved activity for females.

 

Manou’s life is the fabric of legend. Her big break came at a funeral. The scheduled drummer had not arrived, so Manou dragged a stool over to the “Atombra" - the talking drums - climbed up and beat out the rhythms.

 

Not yet a teenager, Manou was celebrated as a musician possessed by the power. Even detractors were unable to deny her skill. Manou’s grandmother defended her and Manou continued on her path. At 12, Manou took part in a national artistic competition called Vacances-Culture, and for the first time in her life traveled outside her village.

 

The following year, in 1985, Manou was invited to join Woya, a professional band that was famous throughout West Africa. Up until leaving the band in 1989, Manou toured and recorded on four albums with Woya.

 

"I was the little one who was opening the concert with the talking drums," she says. "During the rest of the show I would just beat on a bell. This, however, is when I discovered modern instruments: the drums, the bass, and the guitar along with the person who became my spiritual father and who played a major role in my life. This person was Marcelin Yacé, musician and conductor of the band."

 

When Woya dissolved, Manou went to study under Marcelin in the Ivory Coast's capital city, Abidjan. She spent three years under his tutelage. “I was only thinking about music. I only had one objective: To become a full-fledged musician and I was investing all my energy in this,” she recalled. 

 

Then came the fateful day her mentor sent her away for further study. Instead of sending her to France for formal study as was then the norm, Marcelin wisely sent her to the pan-African village of Ki-Yi-Mbock, where she studied with a theatrical group. There she learned to dance and also developed a deeper understanding of music. She end up working on a recording by internationally celebrated pianist and composer Ray Lema.

 

In 1992 ,while performing in Abdijan at a pan-African showcase, Manou met Michel De Bock, tour manager and lighting engineer for Zap Mama. After the initial contact, Michel thought of Manou when Marie Daulne, the leader of Zap Mama, decided to add musicians to the Zap Mama sound.

 

When Manou Gallo landed in Belgium she carried her bass and Djembe drum. Michel’s offer was for an audition, although Daulne already had someone else in mind. After three intense days of singing, dancing, drumming and bass playing, Manou secured the gig.

Manou’s tenure with Zap Mama lasted from 1992 to 1998. Not bad for a village girl who had previously earned money selling oranges. For an encore, Manou co-produced her debut album Dida in 2003. The first two tracks (“Iniyi” and “Nayouwy”) are from
Dida. The remaining three tracks (“Stars,” “Apoahayo” and “Polyne”) are from Manou Gallo - Manou’s eponymous 2007 release on the Zig Zag World label.

 

Manou’s music is intriguing—first of all because Manou continues to sing most of her songs in her native tongue, Dida, although she is now based in Brussels, Belgium, and is an advocate of cross-cultural music.

 

Too often “cross-cultural” has come to mean elevating European and American influences while diminishing the African elements until the indigenous is a mere accessory or spice rather than the main item. This transformation is especially prevalent when an artist is attempting to reach an international audience. (Again, "international" has come to mean a European and America audiences).

 

But Manou’s steadfast refusal to silence her root is laudable; in the face of the power of the dollar, or actually the uber-power of the Euro. For a young woman from an internationally unrecognized village in the interior of Ivory Coast to hold fast to her roots is heroism of the highest order.

Music has been Manou’s salvation and continues to be the way she makes her living. She lives abroad but she sings of home.

 

The second element that impresses me about Manou’s music is her use of not only African rhythms but also African melodies and harmonies. Again, while seeking the fruit of worldwide musical acceptance she has been careful not to eschew her own cultural specifics. This is significant because most so-called advancements in “world music” are usually based on absorption into Euro-centric aesthetics.

Clearly, Manou’s years spent studying African music have produced a person with ears wide open; she is capable of hearing and using a wide range of cultural influences. But Manou is also an advocate of her own African aesthetics. She is a perfect example of learning from others without losing a sense of self. Her music is wonderfully rich. For example, if you want rock, a la heavy metal, she can and does rock out, but in the same song she will include a djembe or conga drum solo. 

 

Third, I’m impressed by Manou’s sturdy bass work. Indeed, I sometimes wish she would push her bass further forward in the mix. Watching the videos you can see how much she’s into playing her instrument and this is also a major development. Comparatively, there are far too few African women who are expert instrumentalists.

Manou Gallo is truly sophisticated. I’ve written at length about Manou Gallo because the other three singers we are going to be talking about in this tribute to African female singers, have already received far more media attention than Manou.

Even though I do not speak Dida, I listen closely to Manou Gallo. At the core of her music is an incredibly important and strong sense of self. Back in the day we called it “kujichagulia” (self-determination). We used to say “self” determines the nation, by which we meant, it is our strong sense of self that will be our salvation. 

 

“The music I wanted to create is a mix of all the steps of my life," she says. "My story and my background have inspired me.”

Give thanks to and for women like Manou Gallo. Even in these troubled times their example enables us to be cheerful and optimistic knowing that, guided by a strong sense of self, we can help create a better and more beautiful world.

 

North Africa: Algeria.

 

Souad Massi

 

       

 

Cross the Sahara desert into North Africa. The language is Arabic, the religion is Islam and the struggle seems indeterminate—who remembers when it started? Who can possibly predict its ending?

At one time,
Algeria was a beacon of revolution. Franz Fanon was sent there by imperial French to do psychiatric work, instead of championing colonialism, he joined the revolution and became world recognized as a leading theorist of the struggle against capitalism. Some even referred to his book, The Wretched of The Earth, as the bible of the masses revolution. The Battle Of Algiers, the Academy Award-winning 1966 movie directed by Gillo Pontecorvo is considered not only a classic of revolutionary cinema, it is also perpetually included on critic’s list of best films of all time.

 

In the 1970s, some of the Black Panthers went into exile in Algeria. But then the center could not hold and a major civil war erupted, a war which at varying levels of intensity continues today.

 

Souad Massi grew up in Algeria but she lives in France today. In exile, too often, the wounds never fully heal, the scars remain raw. One perpetually dreams of the past.

 

"Each time I return [to Algeria] they look at me as a stranger.  I feel their looks.  I feel that they don’t know me.  They watch what I do," she says.  "They are curious.  And it’s crazy because in France, I am a stranger.  And now at home, we are also strangers.  We no longer feel at home.  For example, our young people are treated as immigrants in France.  They are treated as immigrants in the country of their parents [Algeria], and now they are also immigrants in France.  This is one of the problems behind the recent disturbances in the neighborhoods of Paris.  People are trying to understand what happened.  Well, a big part of it is that so many of these young people don’t know where they belong."

In
France, Massi Souad says she has so much opportunity, privilege, good health care, and much more liberty as a woman than she could have Algeria.  But on the other side, since leaving Algeria, she said she have evolved a lot. 

 

"I have changed," she says. "Now, I am looking for middle ground between the life I had in Algeria, and the one I have in France."

 

Souad seems to have it all. She is a major star in France. Depending on who is making the reference, Souad is often compared to either Joan Baez or Tracy Chapman. She is revered by many young Arab women.

 

She was born August 23, 1972, and arrived in France in January of 1999 to participate in a “Women from Algeria” Festival. One thing let to another. Today her music is on the radio, she routinely sells out concerts and has four albums and a DVD.

People love the poetry of her music. The beautiful flow of her voice. Her emotionally engaging lyrics which convince rather than confront, invoke empathy rather than outrage. But there is a deep and contradictory core to her outward success.

She has a degree in architecture and has both formally and seriously studied music, both classical music and Arab and Andalousian music. In
Algeria, she sang solo accompanying herself on guitar, and then she joined a flamenco band, and when that didn’t work, she quit music for a moment until her brother pushed her to continue.

 

So she joined a rock band, “Atakor,” which garnered a major following and, at the same time, because of their political stance, the band members received serious death threats. At one point, Souad cut her hair and dressed as a boy to escape persecution.

Cilvil war is the ultimate domestic violence and, as always, women are day-to-day victims of the violence. Souad does not play up the details of her background but her Arab audiences know; they recognize her as a frontliner in the fight for freedom from political persecution and the fight for gender equality, a fight which is far from easy in exile.

 

Moreover, the real conundrum is that she has to fight on two fronts. In her music, she fights the historic fight against French colonialism and cultural imperialism. For  when it comes to the cultural arts and to language in particular, the French are historical stalwarts of xenophobia.

 

But beyond that fight, and even more confounding are her struggles within her own culture, especially the struggles with religious fundamentalists.

The day-to-day battles are unnerving and can cast one into unfathomable despair. Consider what it must feel like to be embraced and feted by one’s literal colonizers and to be the butt of death threats and persecution by one’s own people. To sing about and under these conditions takes the strength of a saint to keep the faith and keep on keeping on.

 

“I call for an end to war. [“Bladi” is] a completely naïve song, but for an artist that’s the only way to say that you’re against wars, that you’re against all human stupidity, against all forms of oppression that can exist.”
—Souad Massi

 

In addition to the seriousness of her back story, I am interested in two other issues. First, Souad sings in Arabic and, second, her live concerts are very different from her studio albums.
 
Arabic is not only a foreign language to western ears, it is also a language associated with ethnicities and a religion that are deemed to be at odds with western democracy. Make that American capitalism, whose rapacious free enterprise is the not-so-hidden, but also not fully comprehended, economic enforcer.

 

Islam is also often assumed to be at odds with America’s and Europe's de facto official religion of Christianity. Moreover, the very sound of the language is totally different from the Romance languages not only in script but also in pronunciation. The Arab tongue does things the Romance tongue doesn’t and vice versa.

All these divides notwithstanding, Souad’s music bridges cultures and promotes at the very least a curiosity about, if not a full blown appreciation of Arab-Islamic culture.

 

Listening to her songs in concert, one can easily understand that there is a spiritual core, not just in terms of the meaning of the words but also in terms of the trance and transformative power of Souad’s music. The drumming, the audience participation and the length of the songs—it all encourages one to lose oneself in the music, and in losing the public self, Souad encourages us to find the inner self.

Perhaps, it is all the contradictions she has had to deal with that gives her music such a sharp edge, such a serious core. Without understanding one word of Arabic, it is clear Souad is a great musician in making!

 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.

 

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