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Six artists take sounds of the world by storm

1 – Six artists take sounds of the world by storm

Two years ago, Blick Bas­sy, ​​Fla­via Coel­ho, Pas­cal Danaë, Naïs­sam Jalal, Awa Ly and Cheick Tidiane Seck spon­so­red the launch of the #Aux­Sons­Ci­toyens cam­pai­gn. We meet them again to dis­cuss the cultu­ral diver­si­ty so close to their hearts.

Artists into orbit

If you laid their career paths end to end, they would cover so much of the pla­net you would need more than a life­time to explore them all. Des­pite being based in Rome for almost twen­ty years now, the sin­ger Awa Ly, born in Paris to Sene­ga­lese parents, often tra­vels to Dakar. Her coun­ter­part, Fla­via Coel­ho, a native of Rio de Janei­ro, has taken up resi­dence in the French capi­tal after 26 years in Bra­zil. Ori­gi­nal­ly from Argen­teuil, Pas­cal Danaë took his gui­tar, voice and Gua­de­lou­pean ori­gins with him to Lon­don for seven years before moving back to the Paris area. This is also where key­board player Cheick Tidiane Seck has made his home des­pite tra­vel­ling regu­lar­ly to his native Mali. The gui­ta­rist and sin­ger Blick Bas­sy now lives in Bor­deaux after spen­ding time in Paris since lea­ving his native Came­roon just over ten years ago. Now based in Saint-Denis, the flau­tist Naïs­sam Jalal, born in Tor­cy to Syrian parents, spent time living in Damas­cus and Cai­ro after tra­vel­ling around Mali. It’s enough to make your head spin ! Though very dis­tinct, what do these “life iti­ne­ra­ries” have in com­mon ? They have all been dic­ta­ted by the same obli­ga­tion : to spread the word about music and the rich­ness of its diver­si­ty. “Artis­tic free­dom has to be com­ple­te­ly eman­ci­pa­ted from its geo­gra­phi­cal ori­gins,” says Awa Ly, who would pre­fer to for­get the ques­tion she is asked ad nau­seam : why does she sing in English rather than Wolof ? No one can argue with that. “There are no bor­ders in music,” adds Naïs­sam Jalal. “There are cultures and voca­bu­la­ries. But no musi­cal lan­guage exists in a vacuum, we can always com­mu­ni­cate with the lan­guage of others. Bet­ter still, if we strive to and want to learn other people’s lan­guages, we can inte­grate them into our own voca­bu­la­ry. Some­times I feel like a poly­glot!” A cover sin­ger – jazz, rock, reg­gae and hip-hop when she star­ted out, blen­ded with tra­di­tio­nal Bra­zi­lian rhythms – Fla­via Coel­ho is also a poly­glot in her way. She claims she relo­ca­ted to bet­ter unders­tand the plu­ra­li­ty of her coun­try, built on migra­tion. Fas­ci­na­ted by Paris, a city that offe­red asy­lum to so many forei­gn artists of the past, she qui­ck­ly found her­self confron­ted by cari­ca­tures when she arri­ved in 2006. “Record com­pa­nies all said the same thing,” she points out with a smile. “You’re Bra­zi­lian, so you’ll play bos­sa nova, put on a skirt and a flo­wer in your hair, and we’ll sign you tomor­row”. They didn’t know much about someone who has always refu­sed to be confi­ned or strait­ja­cke­ted. It should be said that plen­ty of water has gone under the bridge since the advent of world music in Europe in the late 1970s. Its essence and visi­bi­li­ty are no lon­ger the same and fin­ding a foo­thold in the mar­ket for a young forei­gn artist is now a long and win­ding road.


From Gol­den Age to crisis

In the 80s, eve­ry­bo­dy lived diver­si­ty, but no one tal­ked about it,” says Pas­cal Danaë. “Jazz fusion, or music like it, was played in the clubs. We used to hang around rue des Lom­bards. The Bai­ser Salé club was an incre­dible haven for talent and the place to be for great musi­cians. It was where I met Fran­cis Las­sus, Richard Bona, Mini­mo Garay, Étienne Mbap­pé and Hilaire Pen­da… And some big public hits came out of this diver­si­ty, with Cheb Kha­led, Yous­sou N’Dour and Kas­sav. There was room for this sort of music and a curio­si­ty for what was hap­pe­ning around the world was played on the radio”. Cheick Tidiane Seck beams with nos­tal­gia as he casts his mind back to this per­iod. He was intro­du­ced to music theo­ry and the black and white keys of the har­mo­nium by a French-spea­king Spa­nish nun in a Catho­lic school in Sikas­so and lived through the dazz­ling debuts of La Sono Mon­diale – “the world­wide sound sys­tem” – as Jean-Fran­çois Bizot from Actuel news maga­zine used to call world music. When he set foot in the City of Lights in 1983, he arri­ved with bags of expe­rience acqui­red along­side famous orches­tras such as the Bama­ko Rail Band, The Ambas­sa­dors and Bem­beya Jazz. He went on to write music for some big names on the rock and jazz scenes : Car­los San­ta­na, Joe Zawi­nul, Ste­vie Won­der and Public Ene­my, to name but a few. “People were much more open-min­ded about this kind of music back then,” he agrees. “The venues that played host to these artists were gene­rous with their fees and there were plen­ty of them : the Phil One, the Fara­fi­na, the Exca­li­bur… all of which are now clo­sed. As for new venues, most of them have been sanitised”.

We now find our­selves in the dic­ta­tor­ship of a smooth and stan­dar­di­sed sound. Large TV chan­nels and public and pri­vate radio sta­tions now dance to this tune, dras­ti­cal­ly redu­cing the air­time given to diverse world music. Even the metro and the streets no lon­ger offer these artists a spon­ta­neous haven. “There are far fewer concerts in these infor­mal places now,” accor­ding to Fla­via Coel­ho. “My first big tour in Paris was on the metro, on lines 4, 7 and 12!” Add to that the strin­gent laws impo­sed on forei­gn artists when it comes to obtai­ning a visa or a resi­dence per­mit and the pic­ture can turn into a night­mare for advo­cates of world culture. “No mat­ter how much we talk about human rights and demo­cra­cy, we rea­lise that these great concepts have been emp­tied of their content,” says Blick Bas­sy. “We don’t have the same free­dom of move­ment today, whe­ther we have an Ame­ri­can, Ger­man or Came­roo­nian pas­sport. I have Came­roo­nian natio­na­li­ty and des­pite a ten-year resi­dence per­mit, I have to juggle like cra­zy, other­wise I can’t work. I need a pas­sport for the Schen­gen zone and a visa to go to Afri­ca or elsew­here. What do I do when I’m tou­ring in Europe and at the same time, I have to drop off my pas­sport to get a visa for other concerts?” With media cove­rage down and mobi­li­ty res­tric­ted, our artists have enough to wor­ry about, but not to the extent of giving up. In this hos­tile cli­mate, they go out of their way to open up new horizons.

From cri­sis to solutions

In our indi­vi­dua­lis­tic socie­ty, where the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of fear, even hatred towards the Other has become a rea­li­ty, cultu­ral diver­si­ty has more of a rea­son to exist than ever. It becomes a neces­si­ty, a dri­ving force for our artists who pro­mote plu­ra­li­ty. “We are all indi­vi­duals, so we are all dif­ferent, and we must stop thin­king that some people are worth more than others,” says Naïs­sam Jalal, who gave the name Al Akha­reen, The Others in Ara­bic, to one of the three groups she for­med with rap­per Osloob. Defen­der of his lan­guage and Bas­sa culture, Blick Bas­sy has made his cultu­ral uni­que­ness the foun­da­tion of his music. It is clear to him how sen­si­tive the public is to the ima­gi­na­ry uni­verse he’s built with his music. “Through lan­guage, people want to know a bit more, they write to me and ask about the mea­ning of my texts,” he says. “Beyond music, I’m offe­ring a culture, and this is the rea­son why our music is so easi­ly mar­ke­table. I sell much more inter­na­tio­nal­ly than an artist sin­ging in French. I played more than 250 concerts during my last tour, half of them all over the world, out­side Europe. It’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty, a real deve­lop­ment stra­te­gy”. The same goes for Pas­cal Danaë, who, with his Creole blues group, Del­grès, has achie­ved unpre­ce­den­ted public suc­cess. “Some­times I’m ama­zed by the public inter­est in what we do,” he says. “The other day, we played near Paris and I met a couple with their chil­dren : they had made the trip from Arles to come and see us!” So, the audience is there and venues are often full. To get media cove­rage, like many of his friends, Blick Bas­sy calls for change : “We have to break down cate­go­ries, break free from the ‘world music’ genre we’ve been put in to reach the gene­ral public”. This stra­te­gy has been applied by his No For­mat label for the release of his latest opus, 1958. By joi­ning forces with the label Tôt ou Tard, which has a par­ti­cu­lar­ly fran­co­phone and mains­tream cata­logue, he can take advan­tage of a new strike force. When it comes to musi­cal edu­ca­tion, the signs of open­ness also speak volumes : “Plen­ty of young people from the conser­va­to­ry are much less condi­tio­ned than they were before,” notes Pas­cal Danaë. “They have a vast culture that ranges from clas­si­cal to jazz”. Encou­ra­ging young musi­cians to be crea­tive, to take pos­ses­sion of new tech­no­lo­gies, to have a pre­cise vision of their pro­ject, in short, to be them­selves, is an atti­tude to which our six artists lay una­ni­mous claim.

Rai­sing the diver­si­ty flag on all fronts

Blick Bas­sy, Fla­via Coel­ho, Pas­cal Danaë, Naïs­sam Jalal, Awa Ly and Cheick Tidiane Seck are wor­king out­side their artis­tic careers to culti­vate this pre­cious mul­ti­cul­tu­ra­lism. Awa Ly gives concerts for the SOS Médi­ter­ra­née asso­cia­tion that she acti­ve­ly cham­pions ; Cheick Tidiane Seck teaches mas­ter­classes in Den­mark and the Uni­ted States, men­tors young people infor­mal­ly and spon­sors the Ollin Kan Cultures in Resis­tance fes­ti­val in Mexi­co City ; Blick Bas­sy has laun­ched the Wan­da-full plat­form that helps emer­ging artists mas­ter all aspects of the music indus­try and foun­ded, along­side jour­na­list Eli­sa­beth Stoud­mann, the Show Me event in Swit­zer­land, a digi­tal mar­ket­place where inter­na­tio­nal pro­gram­mers get to meet artists without sup­port struc­tures. As for Naïs­sam Jalal, she is for many the voice of free Syria and the mar­tyrs of the Revo­lu­tion. She has dedi­ca­ted an album to them, Almot Wala Alma­za­la, and per­for­med a num­ber of concerts in sup­port of the Syrian people with her quin­tet Rhythms of Resis­tance. Howe­ver, she’s oppo­sed to the idea of being an ambas­sa­dor : “We can­not sepa­rate a per­son from their influences, world or ima­gi­na­tion, nor can we reduce them to that. They have their own lan­guage. I only represent myself”. Except Naïs­sam Jalal pushes the boun­da­ries back so far that she some­times ends up being the Other. With this in mind, she tells this won­der­ful anec­dote, lau­ghing out loud : “One day, I recor­ded a piece for the Afri­can Vibra­tions album by Sébas­tien Giniaux and Che­rif Sou­ma­no. At the end of the ses­sion, one of Cherif’s friends – who had been lis­te­ning out­side with ama­ze­ment – asked him who the musi­cian playing the peul flute was… Noti­cea­bly proud… It was me, a French girl with Arab roots, on her trans­verse flute!”

Frédérique Briard

© Hannah Assouline


BRIARD Frederique, rédactrice photo et journaliste au journal Marianne

Frédérique Briard is a journalist at Marianne and has worked at L’Évènement du Jeudi, Reggae Mag, Africultures and France Culture. She has also published Tiken Jah Fakoly, l’Afrique ne pleure plus, elle parle (not translated in English, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Africa no longer cries, she speaks) with Les Arènes editions.

World music tells stories - traditional, urban, social, political or simply human; this is the subject of her blog “Sono Mondiale”, with an emphasis on African music.

The first to celebrate this sono mondiale while hanging around the ghettos of Abidjan and Soweto was Jean-François Bizot, founder of Actuel. In a way, her blog is dedicated to him...

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