Interview: N’Diale @ WOMAD Charlton Park (July 2016)

“When you decide what you play you also decide what kind of life you lead.” 
Hélène Labarrière


N’Diale is one of the most convincing collaborations between European and African musicians in recent years. In this instance Breton and Malian players have created a new music that resonates strongly with listeners from both regions. The dynamic Founé Diarra Trio from Bamako, consisting of her strident and lyrical Bambara vocals with hypnotic kamale-n’goni playing from Kassim Sidibe, weaves between the jazz-inflected Breton themes of the Jacky Molard Quartet (Yannick Jory on sax, Hélène Labarrière on double bass and Janick Martin on accordion). This was the group’s first visit to WOMAD, and there was never a dull moment during their BBC Radio3 Charlie Gillett Stage show on the Saturday evening. Underpinned by wonderful percussion from Alhassane Sissoko, the music bubbled exquisitely along, with superb playing from all parties, welcoming the WOMAD crowd in great style and drumming up a warm response.

It was great to catch up with the group – all in high spirits after their show- that won over the hearts of the audience with its sheer expression of joy. After an entertaining photo shoot with the band we had time to talk to some of the Breton contingent: fiddler Jacky Molard and bassist Hélène Labarrière.

Jacky, how did the group meet?

We met in Bamako. We spent ten days there, and we met these particular people. I had the idea to make this music, but I didn’t know what musicians to use. I knew that I wanted a singer, a percussionist and something with strings to complete the quartet. But I didn’t know where to start, so I asked Philippe Conrath who was the director of Africolor Festival in Paris. He knows Africa very well and all the musicians – and he knows us. So he arranged a meeting, and amazingly it worked- on the very first day, in fact! They were the first people we tried out. We were all there and began to play some things together. We just joined in with their music. And after that I returned and spent seven days working with them, and already there was a sound that was really rich. There was no doubt we were onto something! And then after – well I had a lot of reflection on the compositions. We worked our musical ideas into their tunes, and I brought some tunes that they had to learn to go with our music.

So there a lot of learning involved at the start of the process, and you must have had some musical differences as well as similarities?

Yes, it’s normal to go though a learning process. Our tunes are long, and the Malians work with smaller phrases. But we are in the same way of thinking because in Brittany we all play dancing music, and when you know what dancing music is, you know how that music works in a live setting. And we found no problem with the cycles [of Malian music] ourselves. It was really simple for us and simple for them [the Malians] too. So this is the way I think. Like in every traditional popular dance music style you can make a lot of things work well if you respect the cycles and the steps. So we all had this in mind. And we were all very aware that we were playing ‘with a different string, a different bow’, so to speak. Also we had the experience of different rhythms and improvisation. For example, the contrabass player, Helene, trained in jazz, and that has meant an opening for new possibilities. This allows for great flexibility around the traditional music by creating a third music. It’s not Breton. It’s not Malian. It’s another music. This is not a fusion – it’s of ‘mixed race’!

So, to create a collaboration like this means you need to get to know each other very well. Does that mean the Malian musicians spend a lot of time in France?

No, they live in Bamako, so it has been very hard over the last few years to meet. Getting visas is always tricky. To come here was difficult. We have only two days here and then they have to go back to Mali. We had to go to the embassy in Paris to get the visas, and that’s a big problem for us. It’s difficult when you’re trying to do something you want musically. And France is not so easy for them either you know, because the authorities think, “Africans – take care! They might want to stay.” But the Malian group is professional and we got the visas, but it’s always more and more complicated.

So, they go back to Bamako the day after tomorrow, but they will be coming back to Brittany in October when we have a week together to work. We have two concerts, and then we hope to develop some new material also. We’d love to do another album!

Yes, your first album entitled N’Diale came out in 2010 – that’s quite a while back now. It’s a brilliant piece of work, blending your Breton music, original ideas and Malian music. You have accordion, sax, bass and fiddle in your group, and the Malians provide the vocals, percussion and the kamale n’goni. Tell us a bit about that instrument for those who don’t know what it is.

It’s really an hypnotic instrument! Kassim [Sidibe] is a really great player. He’s got a really intense rhythm – unhalting, and also with a lot of accentuation, so it’s a pleasure to play with him. And you know this instrument was the instrument of the hunters. In the past nobody had the right to play it if they were not hunters. So young people many years ago thought, “we have to invent a new instrument”, and that is now called ‘kamale n’goni’. It has eight strings – the original hunter’s harp has only six. So it is not n’goni, it’s kamale n’goni.

Tell us a bit about the material the Breton contingent contributes to the group. Do you use much traditional Breton music?

Only one tune is traditional, but sometimes we write in the style. I love Breton music, but I also love a lot of other music that I use as inspiration for composing. So it could be Breton, but equally it could be inspired by Eastern music – well actually there is no Eastern music in this music! But you could say I borrow ideas from Eastern music in the way of playing the violin sometimes. Also, I play together in unison a lot with Yannick [Jory], who plays the saxophone. We try to have good phrasing with some ornamentation that is precise. In fact we have maybe three traditional tunes in the old repertory, and on the next album (if we can do it) we would like to bring more of our music so that the Malian musicians come into our music more. It’s quite difficult to do, but now they know us and they are flexible.

At this point Jacky’s stomach gets the better of him, and the fiddle player ducks into the dressing room to retrieve his much-needed post-gig meal. Bassist Hélène Labarrière is ready to take over, giving her perspective not only of the collaboration but also on women in the music performance sphere.

Generally speaking, it is accepted that women in Africa sing and perhaps play some percussion, but they tend not to play instruments. So how do you think the African musicians perceived you as a female instrumentalist?

Well I think it is true that in Africa there are not many women playing instruments [though there are some, such as the wonderful Mouneissa Tandina who played drum kit with Les Amazones D’Afrique in the Siam tent on the Sunday evening], but there are not that many in Europe either. So I think at the beginning it was probably strange for the African musicians to see a woman playing double bass, but after that initial surprise you are just musicians who play together and you forget about gender.

But unfortunately this problem is not just an African one – it’s a world problem. I mean, women are not making things. In music it’s really clear. You have singers –like a vedette [a ‘star’] – and you have to be nice and pretty, like an actress. But at some point you really wonder if people are listening to what you do. They look at you, but they don’t listen. They just see you as an image, as a woman playing, but not what or how you’re playing. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the music. What’s important is what he or she’s playing, not whether it’s a woman or a man, an African or a Breton – or even an English person, you know? It’s what people do that matters to me.

Why do you think it is then that not many women play musical instruments in this kind of group?

It’s a general problem, not a musical one. I don’t know how it is in the UK, but in France you have really few women, for example, in big restaurants. You always hear about the ‘big man’, the head chef, or whatever – but not women. At home women are cooking, but when it’s a big restaurant there are few women. In politics it’s the same. You do get women, but less than men and not at the same level or in the same high positions. If you look at classical orchestras you will see many women in that, but you don’t see them in groups like this. I come from the jazz scene, and again there are few women involved, and few women in African music.

The difference is, in the kind of music we play each musician is like a soloist. We are all like composers. We are not only instrumental players. We are people who decide what we play and how we play it. So as the years have gone by, what I think is this: it’s a question of power. When you decide what you play you also decide what kind of life you lead. You take your own control of your life, and that’s a problem for women. We are not always allowed to take control of our lives. And I think that’s the point for me. It’s not a question of music. It’s really something else. When you are a classical musician and you play in a symphony orchestra you don’t decide what you play. You don’t decide the tune you play, you don’t decide how you play the tune you play, you don’t decide which day you will play this tune or that tune. You are making great music, but that’s not the point. I saw the LSO a few months ago and it was a big surprise –fantastic! So I don’t mean you can’t create great music in an orchestra, but as an orchestral musician you don’t make any decisions. They are all made for you. But the music we do in bands like this, we do decide.

And what a perfect example N’Diale is of that very concept: a group that has the collective decision-making power to combine different genres of music, male and female musicians, Africans and Europeans and together transcend stereotypes to produce the most wonderful new sound that is accessible to all. Long may it continue!

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