Interview: Q&A w/ Dandana – Free the Music! (September 2020)

The fact that music keeps on gifting us new and surprising releases is one of the few positive notes of this mad 2020. One of the most exciting comes from the Netherlands. Roughly 50 miles from Amsterdam, in The Hague, a six-piece band formed in 2015 is giving new meanings to the term fusion. They are connecting West African rhythms and instrumentation, with a preference for Gambian and Senegalese ones, with North European EDM built on synths and psychedelia.

Dandana, who have recently released their second album on Belgian label Rebel Up!, is ultimately what we look for in music. A project, or better, a coalition of friends and inventive musicians with conscious awareness of the present, able to amalgamate their distant traditions in an upbeat way.

Their sound moves from mbalax and Wolof traditional music, making extensive use of instruments like the sabar, xalam and balafon, to fulfill itself in electronic arrangements and an urban perspective.

To know more about Dandana and Free the System!, their topical new EP, we reached Bas Ackermann, synths player, composer and founder of the project for a Q&A about the band, and the past, present and future of their music.

Unfortunately, we are getting used to starting our interviews in this way… How are you coping and how is your music coping with these mad times?

Hey guys, first of all thank you very much for reaching out and shining a light on DANDANA, especially in these days. The current global situation is for a lot of us intense and insecure. For the first time the people of our generation and culture face an insecurity we are actually not familiar with. What is happening, what will happen and will it all be back to ‘normal’?

Me being a lot in different places around the world, especially West-Africa, I have noticed for a  long time already how the people there are coping with the situation of short-term and not having such a future perspective as we are used to. So like our guitar player, Filly, from Senegal and Modou from The Gambia as they always say: ‘we are managing”.

I think that one sums it up for all of us at this present time.

 So hopefully with our music we can give a feeling of joy and comfort in these uncertain times.

Free the System, your new album, was published less than a month ago. How do you feel about releasing and spreading new music in the middle of a global pandemic?

Music is life, so especially in these times, music MUST unite and make us (re)think and take us out of unhappiness. The current pandemic is an unknown physical threat, but the mental threat is about to come. If this will take longer, I’m afraid a lot of people will kinda lose track and purpose. 

And this is not new, the title Free the System was actually already there like a year ago, before this whole ‘shit show’ started or actually came to light. The general cause of all this is that in the essence it’s all too much. The system doesn’t really work anymore as we wish for, and as lately revealed it was a fraud for a very long time. Where only a minority can economically benefit from.

I’m from the Netherlands and can say the ‘back up plan for the pandemic is for the short term well organised, but what is the really long term plan?’ These past 5 years I have been living and working abroad in many places like Indonesia, the Gambia and Bangladesh and that’s just not comparable. The amount of poverty and unbalanced societies is still enormous, while every young person has the device to actually look abroad and see how comfortably we actually live, until now…

So with the new album, we like to give a bit of West-African Ndanka Ndanka, Easy Easy, contemplation and joyful sounds for the ear. To dance that freaky system off your back. 🙂 

Since its title, Free the System! sounds like a pretty bold statement considering its social and musical drive and its topicality, what is the inspiration behind it and how did you set the new album’s project in motion? 

As I mentioned in the question above, Free the System! comes from an earlier insight based upon inequality and over-consumption.  I was introduced to West African culture 15 years ago and it has molted me in a way; that no matter what, there is positivity. 

So instead of we always like to revolt and say F* that system, it’s a bit more complicated and also more gentle in a way. We need to let go of what we are used to; less willing, less needing, less taking and less claiming- a more easy way of living. We have been raised in such a free world in the West that all has become very normal and then Covid came, a new global ‘war’ . And as one of my Gambian friends always told me, the real meaning of W.A.R. to us means Waste Of Resources, and that is the essence I think, of the current situation we are in now. We wasted too much for the benefit of the few and it became ill and so we are. 

Suddenly with less freedom, people started to buy shit loads of toilet paper and riots brokeout. This is not the world I’d like to live in. If you live abroad, you learn that the majority of people never use toilet paper. They use hands, water and soaps or if a bit more comfortable, a kinda shower, so yeah let’s sum 2020 up as the toilet paper year; you are willing to die for it, while you actually don’t need it.

Your debut, Third World Nightclub, came out five years ago. How much has Dandana changed since then and how has your music evolved? 

Third World Nightclub was released in 2015. At that time the band had a different set up. In 2016, the guitar player left the group and as always when an important member leaves it’s kind of a panic mode. African music grew with our interest in grooves, synthesizers and rhythm. We are diggers, so we dig deep to find new music and sounds.

I remember we made this song with the draft title Ifang Bondi (which means ‘be yourself’ in the local Senegambia Wolof language) named after the great Gambian group. When the percussion player introduced himself at that time he looked at the name and said, ‘I used to play in that group’. We were kinda flabbergasted, but the connection became stronger and also the interest and will to get deeper into the traditional West African rhythm  and sound like the mbalax music.

So after Third World Nightclub, which was actually a well produced demo on 2 LPs, I felt the need to get closer to the roots of the Senegambian sound and mix it with a more electronic Western flavour.

So I see it as the next step within DANDANA and actually only just the beginning also.

I’ve read many times the word “collective” associated with your band. Can you explain to us what that implies and how does the collective format define your sound?

Collective maybe yes, I think the word ‘coalition’ is also mentioned which I actually prefer more. DANDANA is more a vehicle than an actual music group, we are a collective of creatives, musicians, storytellers from different countries with a passion for music. So for me it was very clear that the traditional mbalax sound, for most Western listeners, is a bit too heavy, sound and rhythm wise. It’s loud  and fast, African style and with this eclectic mix we have tried to make it a bit more digestible for the Western ear.

For example, Modou Joof plays the famous marimba percussion on the DX 7 Yamaha, a synthesizer from the eighties. It’s a typical sound which comes from that region, mostly recorded really staccato. If you add a bit of reverb etc to it, it becomes more deep, psychedelic and ambient and that was actually what we were looking for. To strip it down a bit and start to tweak the traditional sounds a little. 

If I’m not wrong, you are all based in The Hague now. How much are the city and its music scene helping and shaping your music? 

We used to come all from the Hague (and Rotterdam), but that changed with this album and after 2016. So now we are a global mix partly living in The Hague, Rotterdam, Ziguinchor Senegal and Serrekunda The Gambia.

The Hague is a peaceful city and also known as the city of Peace  and Justice, because of its many embassies and the international criminal court. It has never been a trending city, but more laid-back because of the beach  and ocean, surfer style 😉

Back in the day, The Hague was very well known for its more underground and squat scene and the diversity of music and venues. Also the North Sea Jazz Festival contributed to the international status. Unfortunately with time all this has kinda faded, but still left its musical marks within the band members.

At the same time, the music scene in the Netherlands and Amsterdam in particular, is thriving and broadening its perspective with more and more musicians looking at “exotic” styles to build their sound. What can you tell us about the music scene there and is there any name (musicians and/or bands) you would like to suggest to us?

The exotic sound is a broad description, the same as the ‘world music’ genre. The revival of retro / vintage sounds from exotic places made people open up more for these sounds and through DJ remixes a lot of these original sounds became more like dance-able for the Western ear.

To me it’s sometimes a bit double sided, because the exotic sounds often only seem to have that “party” kinda approach, while most music, and especially traditional African music, has a whole story & culture behind it. Like for example the griots in West-Africa. So with DANDANA we like to tap a bit more into the deeper layers of music and take that cultural background with us.

Listening to your new album, it’s easy to understand why you released it with Rebel Up!. There are indeed plenty of common points between your projects. How do you feel working with them and is there any act in their roster you’re passionate about? 

Rebel up! comes from the heart and so does our music. To produce, record, release, promote and play live music costs a lot of time and money. Something which, especially in these times, is very hard and almost un-doable for artists. So with the support, the experience and hard work from Rebel Up! it’s really a blessing to release it on this label. 

I also heavily believe in loyalty, that’s the only way to make something happen long term and in any way. Same with our booker Bravissimo music, due to this whole Covid 19 stuff, the booker evolved more as a manager role, something which is so much needed besides the creative process. And in times where nothing is sure with live shows constantly being postponed, to have that motivation and loyalty is how to actually continue.

The times of big contracts etc are over, but we both strive to preserve the culture behind music and to give the people the actual joy of an alternative global sound. These days with all the algorithms a lot of music has the tendency to sound the same, because of the need to stream and the amount of streams needed to give artists a certain income. But if that means that most music will sound the same, to me that’s kind of lame. Personally music to me is about roots  and culture. You can dance, you can sit and listen or whatever, but at the end music that gives an understanding will stay.

It’s quite a risky time to  plan any projects for the future. By the way, do you have any for the next months?

The future is indeed a bit unknown at the moment more than we are used to. And as I mentioned earlier, currently we are living a bit more in an African way of thinking, just managing day by day, week by week, not really to be able to set the outcome.

I see a lot of positivity also in this current situation. Slowing down, as one of our singles and songs point out, Ndanka Ndanka. It’s the slower life people actually like to live, being busy was always the standard and is always the excuse to actually never sit down and contemplate. So with our music we hope there will be a moment to contemplate and hope to share that with our local audience in The Hague  and Rotterdam beginning in November to do a special masterclass release show.

Currently we cannot fly everyone in, so we decided to make it more of a storytelling and behind the scene live show, where we listen to the album, tell listeners about the making of it, share all the experiences, how to manage a band with members who live abroad combined with a minimal live performance. So if you are around please join!

How would you describe Dandana and the music you play to someone who never listened to it?

DANDANA is a coalition of creative people who really love music, and through that have the aim to connect and exchange culture, rhythm  and sounds. 

I think in a way we all rebel against the certain system we have been forced into and try to move around it. Some people call it hustling, others creativity. I think DANDANA doesn’t really fit into a certain genre or scene. We like to give people comfort  and joy in our music, let them dance without throwing a big ass party. I think the human interaction and the traditional cultural aspect play the most important roles, it’s music from the soul, like the African storytellers, Griots, who pass on their traditions and roots.