There's a Griot Goin' On

An Interview with Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara

by Stephen Humphries

12 August 2009

Photos: York Tillyer 

Blues and rock influences

The music’s more overt western influences, however, come from blues and rock influences. On “Sahara”, for example, swirls of gritty guitar gust through stereo speakers like a gathering sandstorm. “Fulani Coochie Man” is the sound of Muddy Waters turning a tribal compound into a Juke Joint. And the urgency of “Nangu Sobeh” is heightened by scorching slide guitar that makes the strings smolder like electric filaments.

Before embarking on sessions for Tell No Lies, Adams sought inspiration for the album’s sound and feel by compiling an iPod play list featuring artists such as Led Zeppelin, Johnny Otis, and the Rolling Stones. “I love the kind of swagger and abandon of those records,” says the guitarist. “It doesn’t sound too considered.”

Also on the play list: 1970s recordings from Nigeria and Senegal. Adams feels that many modern-day African records have become overly produced and clinical in a bid to cater to Western ears. That musical approach ties in nicely with the record’s lyrical themes about importance of staying true to one’s roots. “I sing about [how] the youths must remember where their grandfather comes from,” says Camara in faltering English.

Such sentiments are especially important to the griot now that he’s living in England and married to a British woman. “Anyone who has been to West Africa can understand why he’d want to emigrate,” Adams elaborates. “You’d want to get out, but you’d also think, don’t abandon your culture. There are a lot of cultural riches in your country.”

Adams was adamant that Tell No Lies would hark back to the earlier, grittier style of African music that he first discovered during the 1980s. “What I like in African music is that it was more rock ‘n’ roll than rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll was becoming a parody of itself. It wasn’t competing with new music I was hearing music from Algeria. That feel of abandon and trance. The spookiness. I loved the way a lot of African music was recorded in ‘70s and ‘80s, with amplifiers falling to bits.”

That ethos also informed Adams’s approach to producing a 2007 record by Tinariwen, the Malian desert blues group. Aman Iman: Water is Life was a breakout album for the one-time Tuareg rebels, now accustomed to having their guitars carted around by roadies rather than camels. The timing of Aman Iman coincided with acclaimed releases by artists such as Orchestra Baobab, Vieux Farka Touré, Toumani Diabate, Rokia Traoré, Etran Finatawa, and Amadou and Mariam. West African music has never had a higher profile.

“There are supporters in the media,” says Adams. “But it doesn’t really cut across to mainstream audiences. The bad thing is that it is such an uncommercial area.”

Even Tinariwen has to tour relentlessly to scrape by, says Adams. One bright spot is the festival circuit, however. This year alone, Adams and Camara have enjoyed prominent billing on stages from Auckland to Abu Dhabi. The latter concert was preceded by a week of rehearsals with Robert Plant, who was eager to raise a little Middle Eastern sand. “He just calls and says, ‘Do you fancy doing something?’” says Adams. “We get on well. He and I are the only two people I know obsessed by delta and Moroccan music.”

The duo’s set list was augmented by mighty rearrangements of a few Plant solo career songs, Led Zeppelin classics, and cover versions of Dylan’s “Corrina Corrina” and Leadbelly’s “In the Pines”.

“He is a griot,” Camara effuses. “He is very open, sweet. The way he acts and the way he gives hug and the respect he gives to you.”

Next month, Adams will join Plant on stage at an all-star concert for the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy charity at London’s O2 arena, the venue that hosted the 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion. During the rest of the year, Camara and Adams will be on the road for long stretches. Asked what American audiences can expect, Adams’s answer is simple and direct: “some very raw, rocking music.”


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