Viva Africa: An Interview with Amadou & Mariam and BLK JKS

Cary Darling
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Amadou and Mariam

African music, often exiled from the pop mainstream, is making a new incursion in the U.S. Darling speaks to two major African artists, plus highlights the best new releases.

Every decade or so it happens.

African music, often exiled by the pop mainstream into the land of world-music exotica, threatens to make a broader incursion into American consciousness.

The '60s: South Africans Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba scored breakthroughs while the New York group the Tokens went to No. 1 with "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", their take on a Zulu song written in 1939.

The '70s: Cameroon's Manu Dibango comes up with a global hit in 1972, the sweaty, sax-drenched instrumental Soul Makossa, considered by some to be the first disco track.

The '80s: Explicitly African influences could be found on albums by Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads. "Afro-beat" became music-industry shorthand for a variety of acts that had been around for many years. They ranged from the fiery soul-jazz-funk of Nigeria's Fela Kuti and the breezy, lyrical melodicism of his countryman, King Sunny Ade, to the Afro-folk-rock of South Africa's Juluka and hushed harmonies of South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose sweet sound was even later used in a TV ad for Life Savers candy.

The '90s: A wave of musicians, from Senegal (Baaba Maal, Youssou N'Dour), Mali (Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure) and Cape Verde (Cesaria Evora), became regular visitors to the U.S. and Europe, either to work with musicians such as Branford Marsalis and Ry Cooder or to headline tours.

But it's at the tail-end of the current decade that a new, more blues and rock-oriented African sound is arousing American interest. Mali's Festival in the Desert, a gathering of often nomadic, guitar-toting area musicians, has attracted such high-profile visitors as Robert Plant and Jimmy Buffett.

Coldplay tapped Malian duo Amadou & Mariam -- whose latest album, Welcome to Mali, features collaborations with rocker Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and rapper K'naan -- as the opening act on its summer tour.

Meanwhile, one of the most talked-about acts to come out of Austin's South by Southwest festival this year is BLK JKS (pronounced "Black Jacks"), a Johannesburg quartet whose dense, psychedelia-tinged alt-rock has landed it on the cover of Fader and has gotten the band a deal with the respected U.S. indie label Secretly Canadian. An EP, Mystery, was recently released and a full album, After Robots, is due shortly.

While Amadou & Mariam and BLK JKS don't sound much alike, both provide a reminder that rock 'n' roll, in all of its manifestations, has roots through the African-American experience to the African continent. They're just bringing it full circle.

Amadou & Mariam

While other parts of Africa may be known for the use of percussion, horns or vocal technique, the music of Mali -- the landlocked former French colony that borders the Sahara -- is widely praised for its use of acoustic and electric guitars. Blues and rock undergird the music of the late Ali Farka Toure and his son, Vieux Farka Toure, the group Tinariwen (which, tellingly, was part of a documentary called "Teshumara or The Guitars of the Revolution"), and, of course, Amadou & Mariam.

"People didn't know much about Malian music before, but Malian music has such links with Western music through rock and blues," says guitarist Amadou Bagayoko by phone through a translator. "With all those influences and so many good bands coming from Mali, that helps Western audiences get into it."

Westerners have gotten to know the twosome mostly through its most recent albums, Dimanche a Bamako (produced by Franco-Spanish musician Manu Chao) and Welcome to Mali, where a globe's worth of rhythms run riot through Bagayoko's swirling guitar lines and wife Mariam Doumbia's soulful vocals.

"It's normal to bring that kind of influence," Bagayoko says. "We feel like we are pop music, and we've been listening to that kind of music for a long time. It's not something strange for us. It's a part of what we do."

Amadou met Mariam when they were teenagers in the mid-'70s at an institute for the blind in the Malian capital of Bamako. "We got together because of music," says Bagayoko, who was already something of a star on the local scene. "Both of us were passionate about music. She knew the song I had on the radio at the time."

The two weren't thinking beyond Mali at first. "We were trying to be famous in our own country, rather than thinking about Europe and the world," he says.

But a visit to Paris in 1994 proved that they might have broader appeal. "People really welcomed us," he says.

Opening for Coldplay won't be the first time the duo has performed for predominantly rock listeners; two years ago, it shared the bill in England with the flamboyant Scissor Sisters. Bagayoko says that they don't do anything differently when playing for a rock crowd.

"The best thing to do is to bring what we know and do best, and we always do that," he says.


Growing up on the East Rand -- the eastern side of the Johannesburg metroplex -- in the '90s, guitarists Lindani Buthelezi and Mpumi Mcata predictably were influenced by locally popular South African R&B/pop outfits Harari, Brenda Fassie, and Stimela.

Thanks to videos played on late-night TV, they became aware of American imports, such as Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. "They played a huge part in terms of exposing us to the rest of what's out there," Buthelezi says by phone from Los Angeles.

These two strains of musical influence meld into something very different in BLK JKS, the quartet that Buthelezi and Mcata front with bassist Molefi Makananise and drummer Tshepang Ramoba. African polyrhythms percolate beneath alt-rock, art-rock and hard-rock experimentalism, prompting a cascade of clashing descriptions -- "dub metal", "prog-rock manglers" -- from music writers. Comparisons have been made to American acts such as the Mars Volta and TV on the Radio.

"Some people are saying we are far removed from certain sounds of Africa. Other people say we sound African," Buthelezi says. "Each to his own opinion, I guess."

Buthelezi concedes that, in the band's early days, some South Africans didn't know what to make of them. "People would just stare and say, 'What's going on here?' They're trying to figure out if it's relevant or whatever. No media is bad media. If you have people writing things, positively or negatively, it is what it is."

The wider world began to hear about BLK JKS last year when American DJ and producer Diplo -- best-known for his work with British-Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. -- was touring South Africa and asked around about local talent. Someone turned him on to BLK JKS and he became so enamored of the band that he recruited an American associate, Knox Robinson, to be its manager.

What followed -- a debut American disc, Mystery, produced by Brandon Curtis of the New York-based band the Secret Machines, and high-profile shows at South by Southwest -- created a cloud of hype. Buthelezi says that he didn't pay much attention to it.

"We were somehow in our little cocoon, coming out of South Africa and going directly to Indiana (to record the new album)," he says. "Thank God we weren't aware of it, but what little we did know of it, it was cool. We weren't doing all this in vain."

Another positive effect of the band's rising fame is the puncturing of the stereotypes about African music. "As you travel around the world, you mention South African music, and they just think of Paul Simon," Buthelezi says. "But they're realizing we're guys from South Africa.

"We've had our great musicians -- Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba -- but this is like a new era somehow. Things are happening. The world is moving forward."

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