World music matters - Yemeni-style hip hop from A-WA sister trio
A-Wa sing electronic-infused versions of Yemenite folk songs in Arabic. They proudly defend their Israeli Yemenite identity on their second album Bayti Fi Rasi, inspired by the story of their great-grandmother Rachel, a Jewish refugee brought from Yemen to Israel in 1949 as part of Operation Magic Carpet.
Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim came to fame with their 2016 debut album, Habib Galbi, on which they set traditional Yemenite songs to pulsating electro beats.
But Bayti Fi Rasi is a 14-track album of original compositions, based on the life and times of their great-grandmother, Rachel.
"On this new album Bayti Fi Rasi we talk about the notion of home and is life a matter of luck or fate," says Tair, the eldest of the three sisters, as they prepare to perform at Paris's Café de la Danse. "These are the themes and issues that our great-grandma Rachel dealt with.
"Bayti Fi Rasi means my home is in my head. Whenever she was asked in Yemen why she travelled from one place to another she said 'I can't stay in one place, my home is in my head'."
As a Jew and a single mother, Rachel suffered discrimination and wasn't allowed an education.
"She didn't know how to read and write, she couldn't express herself freely," Tair continues, "this is why we care about letting her voice be heard. It's really important for us in this album."
"We really felt she was present in the studio," says Liron, "it was very challenging and emotional to blend our voices with her voice."
On the video for the song Mudbira (a colloquial word for unlucky or miserable) A-Wa dress up as fiesty shepherdesses, delivering a strong feminist message to men who might dare to mess around with their goats.
Rachel's problems continued once she arrived in Israel in 1949, along with some 49,000 other Yemenite Jews.
"Where will I stake a home? You have a tent for now. Or at least a small shack. Along with four other families," A-Wa sing on Hana Mash Al Yaman (Here is not home).
"They were placed in tent camps, they couldn't work and had to use coupons for food," Tair explains. "The country was young and couldn't include everyone. It was sort of a mess."
"And you can't really disconnect the person from his or homeland and culture," Tagel adds.
Pride in Mizrahi culture
A-Wa are proud of their heritage but resolutely anchored in the present, mashing up traditional Yemenite headdress and costumes with sneakers.
They feel much more at ease with their Mizrahi culture in Israel than their great grandmother did.
"We want to bring the glory back to our culture," says Tagel. "The generation before us felt a bit ashamed but we feel it's so beautiful we have to celebrate it. Our generation is way more curious, really going back and digging in the roots and bringing to the front."
"People are more accepting now and more open for this kind of music," says Tair, "and the fact that we blend it with hip hop and more modern styles [means] it's very danceable and it's more accessible to all people.
"I guess the A-Wa experience now, we're becoming more and more mainstream in Israel and it's a blessing."
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World music matters - Kenyan singer JS Ondara keeps the American dream alive
JS Ondara began writing songs as a kid in Nairobi, obsessed with American artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. His dream of following in Dylan's footsteps became reality when, in 2013, he reached the U.S. He released his acclaimed debut album Tales of America in February this year.
JS Ondara would appear to be living the dream. After releasing a remarkable debut album recounting the tales of living as an immigrant in America, he opened for Neil Young on his US tour in May.
"It's a bit of a dream, I still have to pinch myself," the 26 year old self-taught musician told RFI at a recent sold-out concert in Paris's Nouveau Casino.
"I'm essentially a folk musician, I have a wandering heart and a wondering mind and that's why I'm here now. I'm in Paris playing folk songs."
He talked to us about the difficult beginnings, grappling with the complexities of the American Dream and why, for the moment, he has "said goodbye" to the boy from Nairobi.
Listen to the podcast at the audio link and read some of the highlights below.
On his place in President Donald Trump's America
"There’s definitely some kind of growing intolerance towards immigration in his era and I’m sort of trying to navigate that space and trying to shine some light through living out the American dream and show that’s something that can still be achievable. Maybe my place in Trump’s America is to succeed as an immigrant and show that it is possible and that there is a place for immigration and for immigrants, that there’s value in it still.
On questioning the American dream
Writing the whole record, it’s a juxtaposition of what the dream is and how sometimes it turns into a nightmare once you’re in America ... the romance with firearms that America seems to have and there’s racism obviously and lots of other things that trouble America. But despite all that it still ends up becoming this place that people look up to in some way. So "that dream but not really" is what I was trying to convey in some fashion.
On his family back in Nairobi
My family is mostly puzzled, they didn’t really know this was a version of me that could exist in the universe. They had no way they could conceptualise that because of how we grew up and because of what was around us. They’re largely puzzled but they’re happy for me. Music wasn’t really part of culture back home, of the family, so obviously they’re not going to support that because it makes no sense to them at all.
On the song "Saying Goodbye"
I’m saying goodbye to a lot of things, I think of it as the totality of the past, just who I once was. The tradition, culture... And I think I reached a point in my life when I felt those things were keeping me from becoming the best version of who I am. And so I felt I had to separate myself from that and that’s part of the reason I moved to America.
On returning to Kenya
I haven't been back. I would love to at the right time. Right now I’m busy and I’m glad I am. At the right time I’ll go back.
JS Ondara is in concert on 5 July, 2019 at Cognac Blues Passions festival
Tales of America is out on Verve Forecast Records
Visit his official website here
World music matters - Serpentist Michel Godard meets Alim Qasimov: spellbinding
French avant garde jazzman Michel Godard is one of the world's leading players of the serpent, a Renaissance wind instrument, ancestor of the tuba and which was first used to accompany Gregorian chant. The instrument's connection to the sacred is wonderfully rendered on his latest album Awakening recorded with Azerbaijan's Alim Qasimov.
Godard started out as a classical tuba player and joined the Radio France Philharmonic orchestra aged just 18. His love of early classical music pushed him to look for an instrument he could play it on properly.
He discovered the serpent and "completely fell in love with it".
Made from wood and covered in leather with a mouthpiece made of cow horn, it has a softer sound than the tuba, closer to the human voice.
"The serpent is a sacred instrument," says Godard. "Like most religions, [the Catholic Church] had a wind instrument to make the connection between earth and heaven. And the serpent had this role."
Godard has worked with scores of musicians and singers from both the jazz and classical music world and his latest adventure, Awakening, is with renowned Azerbaijan singer Alim Qasimov.
The serpent offers a counterpoint to Qasimov's soaring maqam, his variations on Azeri poetry and traditional chants. With enchanting results.
"Being on stage with someone like Alim Qasimov, you immediately feel when he’s singing that it’s not him, there is something coming to him, that passes through him," Godard explains.
"He is completely connected with something else, you can call it what you want: it can be God, energy, creativity, something is coming through him, this is absolutely sure, and to be on stage with him is wonderful. I never felt this so strong."
Listen to the full interview to hear about how Godard and Qasimov met, worked together and the fascinating history of the serpent: its French origins, fall from grace and revival thanks to a British trio.
Michel Godard and Azim Qasimov play at the Morgenland festival on 14 June 2019.
Awakening is out on Buda Musique
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