Interview: Batch Gueye Band @ Womad 2014

When the time came for Batch Gueye to choose between becoming a singer or a dancer, to carry on with the griot tradition or West African dancing he eventually decided not to choose and proceeded along both paths. Today this indecision is paying off. An accomplished artist he can go on stage and honour the Senegalese storytelling tradition while at the same time perform a spectacular and eye-catching sabar dance.

His show at WOMAD 2014 on the bucolic Ecotricity Stage was a clear reflection of the most recent turn that his career has taken. Accompanied by a six-piece band and three dancers he blended his talents to give life to an eclectic performance, paying homage to the two most popular aspects of Senegalese culture: music and dance. These two interdependent disciplines are, as Gueye displayed, impossible to separate. Minutes after his show the Senegalese artist carefully explained to us his artistic beliefs.

First we tried to reconstruct his intriguing and multifaceted career. “I come from a griot family. My mother, as well as being a singer is a dancer too, and also my grandmother is a dancer, while my grandfather is a drummer. Hence both music and dance have always been part of my life.”

Dance breezed into his life during childhood. He started dancing with his brothers, then performed next to some of the most important Senegalese musicians like Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Mal and Cheikh Lo. “I first intended to be a dancer, then I wanted to learn everything. I wanted to complete one thing first, then I could move forward. If you live in Senegal it is not traditional to doing two things at once. You are either a singer or a dancer. That’s why I wanted to perfect my dancing first.”

But it was with the musical “Afrika! Afrika!” that his life changed. “I was working with the Afrika! Afrika! dance company and, after touring the world with them for two years we ended up in London where my contract expired. So I decided to stay there. I had the opportunity to go back home but I preferred to carry on with my British experience because in that way I could help my people back home”.

Singing is an integral part of the Baye Fall religious brotherhood. Members follow the teachings of their Muslim spiritual leader Sheikh Ibrahima Fall. Being part of this group meant Gueye began singing back in Senegal. “Back in Senegal I sang every Friday in front of a group of fifty people. Being part of Baye Fall I was singing prayers during the weekly praying meetings. Even though my aim was to dance I absorbed a lot at that time. Many of the religious themes I was singing during that period of my life appear today in my songs. It was here in Europe that I decided to sing again. There came a point when I realized I needed another skill next to dancing, so I revived my singing”.

Religion is indeed a crucial subject in Batch Gueye’s songs being his inspiration and guiding principle. “Religion is important not only for me but for my whole country. In Senegal religion is more important than the government and I reflect this in my songs too. I’ve just recorded a new album called “Yari” and “Yari” has an important meaning which is very useful when it comes to explaining my point of view. I sing in the Wolof language, and when you listen to my songs you probably can’t understand what I sing. But after a while you will find that the meaning is inside you. You will understand everything even without the help of a translator”.

Today, Batch Gueye is one of the rising stars of the Senegalese artistic scene. He is one of the most interesting sons of a country able to give birth to a never-ending stream of creative souls. And this year’s WOMAD, with five Senegalese musicians performing on its stages, is direct evidence of the artistic fruitfulness of the West African country. We tried to understand why Senegal, and the Western African region in general, is so fecund when it comes to art. “In Senegal music, dance and art in general are a mixture of influences and traditions. We are close to Mali, Gambia and Guinea and everything that pops out, we share it. Every time there is a new song coming out it is something you can use for inspiration. That’s why the scene is getting more rich and popular. People here in Europe have finally realised that Senegalese music is nice music because they have understood that we sing and play with love. Our music comes directly from our heart”.

Despite being an embodiment of Senegalese culture, Gueye always tries to link his West African roots with European influences. We asked him how is to put these cultures next to each other. “The first time I arrived in Europe I thought that I had to share my tradition and my music with the people who were living around me. They let me in. I was living with them so I had to settle in and adapt to them. I had to work with them. I’d never listened to Western music before coming here, but every time I mixed it with my music it gave a particular flavour gives to my works, and that has become very important for me. To better express this flavour I’ve also looked for musicians coming from different parts of the world. Indeed, in the Batch Gueye Band you can find that there’s an Italian, two Englishmen, one Zimbabwean and three Senegalese. We are quite a mix.

Quite a ‘unique’ mix also considering that, for example, Italian Stefano Vandelli is the kora player, while Bristol born Simon Sleath plays the djembe – not what you’d expect when it comes to playing Western African instruments. But Batch Gueye had a fitting answer to our doubts. “That’s right, but nobody was born with something he is good at. Look at me. I was born a griot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn and become a griot too. Since I’ve inherited it, it was easier for me to become a griot. But even though I was born in a griot family I still had to learn how to become a griot, step by step. So, that is why I believe that you can become anything you want to be. Just fall in love with it and you’ll find yourself”.

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