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Mamani Keita's Malian harmonies

Malian diva meets French whizzkid Nicolas Repac


25/04/2006 - 

Three years after Electro Bamako, Malian diva Mamani Keita is back in the music news with Yéléma, an album where harmony rules supreme. She recorded this new opus with Nicolas Repac, an eclectic French musician known as the White Wizard. RFI Musique hooked up with the pair in Repac's home studio. Here are a few extracts from the lengthy discussion that ensued:

You make a very effective double act. How did you actually meet?
Nicolas Repac: Someone introduced us thinking it would be interesting if we could work together. I'm someone who likes to have a finger in a lot of different musical pies, someone who's interested in having a bit of a modern edge to what I do. And Mamani had done the album Electro Bamako, which is basically another take on modernity. I guess you could say we discovered we fitted each other like a glove! As far as I was concerned, there was this twelve-month probation period. I have to admit I did start freaking out at one point because it took me a year to do two tracks. It was a bit mind-blowing actually getting to make an album with an African singer for the first time. My playing style's always been a bit African. Take the songs I did with Arthur H, for instance, I know the way I used rhythm there was really African. But people don't generally realise that because they listen to so much French music; they can't make the comparison. Working with Mamani was great because this was the first time in my career that I was able to totally reveal that side of myself.

Mamani, did you start out with a precise idea of what you wanted or did you simply meet and begin playing together?
Mamani Keita: Well, I knew I didn't want to continue down the electro road. My music wouldn't have evolved at all if I'd done that. But the direction Nicolas took with the project really valorised my singing style, my voice and African music in general. There's a lot of different stuff going on on the album. I'm really happy with the result.

It's true that there are a lot of different sounds on the album, even a touch of electro here and there, wouldn't you say?
Nicolas: I've spent a long time working with samplers. I like the idea of sneaking up and stealing the sacred fire, you know, digging around and finding all these different sounds then deforming and transforming them and making them my own. I love the idea of playing sorcerer's apprentice! Besides, I've always considered electronica as a means to an end. These days, everyone works on computers. Take the latest Alain Souchon album, for instance, that's not electro but it was all done on computers. There's no actual electronic music on the album, but the process by which it was made was totally electro. For me, the main aim with this album was to show off Mamani's talent. She's a superb singer!

A number of Malian musicians use traditional Mandingo music in their work, using that as a basis from which to invent something new without any kind of Western fusion… That's a fairly recent thing, isn't it?
Mamani: Yes, it is. But I think if you have the opportunity to develop Malian music using elements of music from the West, then that's really brilliant. It gives it a lot more strength.

Nicolas: That's something I've experienced myself as a musician. The problem with so-called 'world music' albums in the '80s was that they applied Western technology to African music. I personally found the sound very naff and even vulgar. But it's a generational thing. I think different cultures have a better appreciation of one another these days. There are a lot of Malians living in France now and I think white audiences have a different attitude, too… Music has become universal. I think a better understanding of different cultures has evolved over time.

Mamani, do you still perform traditional Mandingo music?
Mamani: I don't actually have the right to sing Mandingo music, you know. I'm descended from a family of nobles, through both my father and my mother. I'm a Keita and that means I can't be a 'griotte.' I wasn't actually allowed to sing, but I believe that everyone ends up following their destiny and that's that. My maternal grandmother was a singer. She wasn't a 'griotte' either, but she sang Bambara music. As a Keita, she wasn't allowed to perform in front of an audience, though.

Nicolas: What's that, Mama? You're not allowed to sing in front of an audience? So what are we going to do if we end up playing at a festival with loads of 'griots'?

Mamani: No, that's OK! Things are different now. Singing's considered to be a profession. But when I was a kid I got a few beatings from my mother because she really didn't want me to sing, even though her own mother had. I was brought up by my grandmother. I'm like her namesake and the Good Lord saw fit to give me her voice. My grandmother used to sing for people who were possessed. Her singing would help cure them of their troubles. In Bamako, she used to go round all the different neighbourhoods seeing people and I accompanied her wherever she went. I remember one day when I was a kid I was drawing water from the well and I started singing. My grandmother turned round and said 'You're going to have great adventures in life!' She could see the destiny that lay before me even back then.

Do you think you have the same kind of voice as your grandmother?
Mamani: I don't know what sort of voice I've got, but I can tell you my grandmother had the most beautiful voice…

Nicolas: I think your voice has an ageless quality. It's like an ancestral thing…Sometimes I feel I'm listening to a little girl singing, but at other times it's like this really wise old woman. I've always felt that with your voice, especially on songs like Eye Djama and Kassi Koun. You've got the young voice of an old soul!

Mamani: You know, I never used to like my voice. But this time, I don't know why, but I've got into the habit of playing this album when I go to sleep. That's the first time this has happened. Before, I never wanted to hear myself sing!

So does that mean you feel the album Yéléma is more you then?
Mamani: Yéléma? It's totally me! I'm very proud of the new direction I've taken with this project.

Mamani Keita & Nicolas Repac Yéléma (No Format) 2006
Concert: Café de la Danse (Paris) 8 June

Eglantine  Chabasseur

Translation : Julie  Street