Tuesday, November 26, 2013

November '13 reviews

The following reviews appeared in the Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury.

Highly recommended this month: Pusha T, the Strumbellas

Recommended: M.I.A., Deep Dark Woods, Red Hot + Fela, Omar Souleyman

Cowboy Junkies and Various Artists - The Kennedy Suite (Latent)

Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies took the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination as reason to complete a long-gestating project he’d been producing, featuring original songs by an unknown Ontario schoolteacher, Scott Garbe, obsessed with the ripples the event sent through North American culture.

Timmins had no trouble collecting an impressive circle of friends to give voices to the various characters in the song cycle. That includes generations of incredible Ontario artists, from veterans of the ’70s Toronto punk scene (who now perform as The Screwed) to country icons the Good Family to the Skydiggers to the Rheostatics to Hawkley Workman to Sarah Harmer to Jason Collett to Doug Paisley to newcomers like Jessy Bell Smith and Harlan Pepper. The backing band on most tracks is the Cowboy Junkies, minus singer Margo Timmins (who of course sings one track).

So how did it all go horribly wrong? The songs obviously captivated the Skydiggers’ Andy Maize, who gave a tape of Garbe’s demos to Timmins over a decade ago, and unless there was some serious extortion going on, clearly all the artists involved signed on willingly. When so few of them are able to breathe any life into the material, despite the calibre of talent involved, the problem has to be at the source.

Which is a shame, because there are a few gems, including the previously released “The Truth About Us” (found on the Skydiggers’ 1997 album Desmond’s Hip City) and “Parkland” (found on Lee Harvey Osmond’s 2009 album A Quiet Evil). It’s a joy to hear the Rheostatics’ Martin Tielli and Dave Clark reunite and play off each other on “Slipstream.” Outside of that, only Sarah Harmer and Reid Jamieson manage to make a song sound better than it is. 

The Kennedy Suite could have been a fascinating project; indeed, the elaborate CD packaging alone shows how much care went into the project. Let’s hope the same cast finds something else to rally around. (Nov. 21)

Download: Sarah Harmer – “White Man in Decline,” Martin Tielli and Dave Clark – “Slipstream,” Reid Jamieson – “Take Heart”

Deep Dark Woods – Jubilee (Six Shooter)

With the notable exception of the Sadies and Lee Harvey Osmond, most Canadian roots music is too safe and squeaky clean. Thank God for the weirdoes, like Saskatoon’s Deep Dark Woods, who specialize in organ-drenched, spooky and psychedelic minor-key country songs—the kind Neil Young and Greg Keelor are so good at yet rarely indulge in anymore. This, the band’s sixth album, was recorded in a Rocky Mountain cabin in Alberta. It’s helmed by L.A. producer Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Bonnie Prince Billy, Roy Harper), who recorded the powerful live band direct to tape—though the group’s superstar keyboardist Geoff Hilhorst surely layered his organs, pianos and oddball synths with a few different takes.

Much of the album is morose and set to the same lurching tempo, but that all works in Deep Dark Woods’s favour. This is not a band of showboating singers or instrumentalists. Every member digs deep into the grooves, adding layers of haunting textures and backing vocals to support lead singer Ryan Boldt’s fragile lead.

I’d heard some of this band’s previous records, which never left much of an impression. Jubilee, on the other hand, is immediately striking and sounds like an instant late-night classic. This band’s years of hard work are finally paying off; you can hear it in every note. (Nov. 28)

Download: “Miles and Miles,” “18th of December,” “East St. Louis”

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Original Soundtrack (Universal)

We’re not in District 12 anymore, Toto. The soundtrack to the first Hunger Games film was a largely acoustic affair, reflecting the rural roots of protagonist Katniss Everdeen; the sequel is considerably slicker. T-Bone Burnett is not involved. Neither, for that matter, is Arcade Fire, who nailed the first film’s tone of fascist dread with their two contributions.

Instead, we get a lot of already mopey rockers and R&B stars shoehorning themselves into a Panem state of mind. Few survive. Coldplay display a remarkable sense of subtlety, which in this case means they’re indistinguishable from The National, who also appear; neither band phones it in, though both sound like they’re doing a better than average U2 ballad. Likewise, the Lumineers and Ellie Goulding fare better than expected.

But the meeting of hitmaker Sia with Toronto’s The Weeknd and superstar Diplo is shockingly flat; The Weeknd’s own track is even worse. Likewise, Santigold forsakes her usual firecracker personality and wades through the too-obviously-titled “Shooting Arrows at the Sky.” The album never gets worse, however, than Christina Aguilera singing, “Burn me with fire / drown me in rain”—a lyric the 16-year-old protagonist of the film would never dare write herself.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the only real standout here is 17-year-old Lorde, who covers Tears For Fears’ ’80s staple “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” reducing it to a death-row dirge and creating something more ominous than ever suggested in the original. It’s note perfect—and, at 2.5 minutes long, never wears out its novelty.

Who wins this round of Hunger Games? The actual teenager, of course. (Nov. 28)

Download: “Lean” – The National, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Lorde, “Mirror” – Ellie Goulding

Lady Gaga - Artpop (Universal)

M.I.A. - Matangi (Universal)

“Pop culture was an art / now art’s in pop culture, in me.” It’s a line from Lady Gaga’s new single, “Applause,” but it could just as well apply to M.I.A. Both ladies revel in visuals, incongruous imagery, provocation and performance art: what they do in the public sphere is as important as their music. But without the music, the rest is empty.

Gaga has sold millions of records; M.I.A. has inspired millions of words from critics trying to make sense of her truly cross-cultural mashups and the political significance—if any—of her wordplay. Until now, Gaga had plenty of ace pop songs to back up the avalanche of media-baiting stunts she delighted in. Meanwhile, M.I.A. was all style and little substance; her visual aesthetic and personality far outshone her lyrics and beats.

That’s all changed.

Gaga has always excelled in maximalist pop anthems, but at least she had the melodies to back it up. Here, she sounds cloying and bored. Even for a performer who always embraced the glitz and absurdity of celebrity culture, tracks like “Jewels and Drugs,” “Swine” and “Fashion” are beyond vacant—Paris Hilton could do better. Meanwhile, her production team steamrolls over everything, making the Black-Eyed Peas sound like sultans of subtlety. The nods to post-Skrillex EDM take her out of respectable discos into low-rent meth parties with tweakers’ anthems (“Jewels and Drugs”). This record sounds too loud even at the lowest volume; it’s compressed to the point where it sounds no better from the worst computer speaker than it does from the best headphones.

“Do you want to see me naked, lover?” she asks, “Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura?” Well: tough. Ain’t gonna happen. The most personal Gaga gets is an attempt at a stirring piano ballad, with the unfortunate chorus: “I need you more than dope.” Other than that, she stoops as low as rhyming the planet Uranus with, “Don’t you know my ass is famous?” One can’t help but respond: yes, but for how long?

Meanwhile, reading about M.I.A. was always more fascinating than actually listening to her records. It’s not that she’s matured or mellowed: far from it. She still spits po-mo flow over unconventional beats, and she’s still more likely to turn to Angolan dance music than any trend in American hip-hop, throwing in pan-Asian elements, Caribbean rhythms and Britpop along the way.

Her beats take samples of traditional drumming—from which tradition exactly it’s hard to tell—and sets them to pitched-up synths and clipped vocals, while tempos accelerate and drag and generally lurch in ways unheard of in dance culture. “Come Walk With Me” starts out as a power ballad for the rave generation, before the video-game-Arabic-dancehall-whatever beats kick in and turn the pop melody into a frenetic ADD anthem.

It works. As does everything else here, the first time M.I.A.’s world of sound coalesces into a truly great album that matches her outsized personality. (Nov. 14)

Download Lady Gaga: “Aura,” “Manicure,” “Gypsy”
Download M.I.A.: “Matangi,” “Come Walk With Me,” “Bring the Noize”

Machinedrum - Vapor City (Ninja Tune)

It’s 2013: does anyone listen to ’90s drum’n’bass anymore, never mind make it? Roni Size and Goldie were spotted on (some kind of) comeback trail this summer, so who knows. Yet here is Machinedrum, aka Trevor Stewart, a Brooklynite now living in Berlin who got his big break when hot new hip-hop MC Azealia Banks rapped over a couple of his tracks. On his debut album for venerable beat purveyors Ninja Tune, Vapor City could have rivalled Plug’s Drum N Bass For Papa for the best electronic album of 1997. Coming out in 2013, however, Stewart incorporates elements of the noir-ish corners of dubstep, ala James Blake, and latter-day Ninja Tune heavyweights like Bonobo. There’s no mistaking the retro vibe, and it’s a reminder that not all of the ’90s was terrible. (Nov. 14)

Download: “Gunshotta,” “Don’t 1 2 Lose U,” “U Still Lie”

Sam Phillips – Push Any Button (Littlebox)

Though Phillips has a stellar reputation among those lucky enough to know her music, she’s paid many of her bills in the last decade doing incidental music for two TV series by Amy Sherman-Palladino: Gilmore Girls and the recently cancelled Bunheads. Because I loved both those shows, I felt inundated with Phillips and that that therefore gave me an excuse to ignore her more recent records. Foolish, foolish.

Composing 20-second snippets appears to have honed Phillips’s talent for concision even more: The 10 songs on this, her second self-released record, clock in at under half an hour. Phillips knows how to encapsulate joy, loneliness, disappointment and determination in tiny, perfect songs rich with melody and driven by a rockabilly backbeat with modern production. Phillips is now free of a record contract, free of a TV show, and free to make lovely little records like this whenever she feels like it. Our gain. (Nov. 28)

Download: “When I’m Alone,” “Pretty Time Bomb,” “You Know I Won’t”

Pusha T - My Name is My Name (Universal)

You spent the last month reading about Rob Ford. You might not be in the mood to immerse yourself in an album about the cocaine trade that includes tracks called “No Regrets” and “Nosetalgia.” Or conversely, that might just put you in exactly the right mood to try and make sense of the seamier side of urban life.

Pusha T has pulled this off before, as one half of The Clipse, whose 2006 album Hell Hath No Fury spun harrowing narratives atop incredible beats courtesy of Pharrell Williams’s Neptunes. Now he has a second lease on life courtesy of Kanye West, who brought Pusha T into his G.O.O.D. Music imprint, and provided production on more than half the album. Williams, The-Dream and Swizz Beatz are also on board, as are vocalists Kelly Rowland, Rick Ross, Kendrick Lamar, Future and 2 Chainz. Despite the wealth of talent, My Name is remarkably sparse and lean—the polar opposite of West’s bloated output of late. Pusha T proves to be a better vehicle for Kanye’s beats than West himself.

The big-name backup certainly helps, but Pusha T is the rare MC who can deliver street stories, smarts and charisma in equal doses. You don’t like the guy, but you can’t help but hang on every inflection in his voice: “36 years of doing dirt like it’s Earth Day?” he posits, before exhaling with either self-loathing or mockery of your own disdain: “Gawwwwwwwd.” 

One can engage the endless debate about whether or not Pusha T is glorifying the drug game—or if he’s doing so any more than countless crime shows. Pusha T tackles the subject with menace, neither celebratory nor cautionary and far removed from the undisputed crossover king, Jay-Z. Unlike Jay, Pusha T still sounds hungry, unsatisfied, and restless—and far superior to any other MC who put out an album in 2013. (Nov. 7)

Download: “Numbers on the Boards,” “Let Me Love You,” “Pain”

Red, Hot + Fela – Various Artists (Knitting Factory)

There’s never a shortage of hastily assembled, wishy-washy compilation albums for charitable causes. The Red Hot series, raising money and awareness for HIV/AIDS, has always been the exception to the rule. After releasing at least an album a year for 12 years, the series took a seven-year hiatus after 2002’s incredible tribute to Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti—perhaps because it was hard to beat. Now a new Red Hot record only surfaces every couple of years, and this Fela-centred follow-up is more than worth the wait.

Only a few African artists participated last time. This time, it’s the Western artists who are in the minority, leaving room for Spoek Mathambo, Canadian expat Zaki Ibrahim, and, well, a lot of artists of whom you and I have never heard. Most of the major starpower, if you will, is consolidated on one track: ?uestlove, TuneYards and Angelique Kido, on an absolutely sizzling version of “Lady.” And My Morning Jacket, joined by TuneYards’ Merrill Garbus and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, get the longest track, with 11 minutes of “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am.”

The largely unknown cast that fleshes out the lineup draws from Africans living in Germany, Belgium and the U.S., as well as discoveries like the Kenyan group Just a Band and Sierra Leonean hip-hop crew Bajah.

They all excel at the near-impossible task of interpreting Fela, the man who invented Afrobeat, which seems as daunting as covering James Brown. Granted, many versions are far removed from the originals, but the spirit is intact, and what is a tribute project except an excuse to reinvent? (Nov. 7)

Download: “Lady” – TuneYards, ?uestlove, Angelique Kido and Akua Naru; “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” – Kronos Quartet, Kyp Malone, Tunde Adebimpe and Stuart Bogie; “Afrodisco Beat 2013” – Tony Allen, M1 and Baloji

Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu (Ribbon)

When Hosni Mubarak was deposed as president of Egypt during the Arab Spring, his immediate successor was Omar Souleyman—not, sadly, the Syrian musician of the same name. One can dream.

Souleyman makes dabke, the kind of pulsing Arabic electro-folk that one imagines blasting from street carts on a dusty market alleyway—which is where the American who first brought his recordings to the West first heard them. Either a dumbek or an electronic facsimile rattles away insistently, creating an ecstatic trance that Bjork (whom Souleyman has remixed) calls “Syrian techno.” Synths set to approximate reedy wind instruments play furious, frenetic melodies that would send Ashley MacIssac spinning, while Souleyman plays the energetic frontman with the command and charisma of a Jamaican dancehall singer.

Before the civil war, this was Syrian wedding music. Now Souleyman lives in exile in Turkey, admitting that he has trouble making joyous music while his country is falling apart.

He made this, his first official Western release, with Kieran Hebden of FourTet, whose dreamy, psychedelic strains of electronica Hebden keeps to himself; he knows better than to mess with Souleyman’s working formula. The only significant change is perhaps more definition of the bass tones, creating greater contrasts with the tinny synths. Souleyman’s vocals also benefit from better microphones; everything no longer sounds overdriven, which may lose some of the appeal for his early adopters, but the improvements are incredibly subtle, and absolutely nothing has been watered down or Westernized. Hebden merely loaned Souleyman’s keyboardist some new synths.

Souleyman may be a man without a country, but the whole world is about to embrace him. (Nov. 7)

Download: “Ya Yumma,” “Nahy,” “Mawal Jamar”

The Strumbellas - We Still Move on Dance Floors (Six Shooter)

The zeitgeist could not be better for the Strumbellas—who, on the surface, are another group of beirdos with acoustic instruments that sound like Elliott Brood mixed with Funeral-era Arcade Fire, tailor-made for the millions of fans that have transformed Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and the Lumineers into platinum acts in the past two years. Indeed, We Still Move on Dance Floors was produced by Ryan Hadlock, the architect of the Lumineers’ massive breakthrough.

Name-dropping might provide context, but the Strumbellas, who hail from Lindsay, Ont., would be a fantastic band regardless of current trends. Singer Simon Ward writes soaring melodies for both campfires and stadiums; his backing band, including violinist Isabel Ritchie, sound like they road-tested this material for a full year before capturing the energy in the studio. Unlike their folkier contemporaries, the Strumbellas are at heart an electric rock band, having more in common with modern classic rockers like Yukon Blonde or Zeus, and the songs would be as powerful no matter what the instrumentation.

Right now the Strumbellas are the kind of band with a weekly residency at Toronto’s tiny Cameron House, with their tour schedule including Irish pubs in Sarnia. Based on this sure-to-be breakthrough album, that’s all about to change very quickly. (Nov. 21)

Download: “Sailing,” “Did I Die?,” “End of an Era”

12 Years a Slave – Various Artists (Sony)

You’ve spent over two hours in a darkened theatre enduring the gripping, powerful and emotionally draining cinematic experience of being trapped in one man’s hell as a slave.

Now: relive the magic with this companion soundtrack album!

(Did Schindler’s List come with an album “inspired by” the film featuring contemporary pop stars?)

John Legend was put in charge of this project, and he’s done a largely tasteful job, maintaining the sombre tone of the film while curating something that, unlike the film, you can handle experiencing more than once. The heavy-handed score by Hans Zimmer is thankfully relegated to a bare minimum, and the solo fiddle tunes are impossible to hear without picturing the tortured expression of Chiwetel Ejiofor being forced to play for his masters. Legend himself shines on two tracks: one an a cappella, one accompanied by just guitar—both rare settings for the normally slick R&B singer. Bluesman Gary Clark Jr., Alabama Shakes and African-American opera singer David Hughey provide solid era-appropriate material, while Alicia Keys panders with a limp modern track, and Chris Cornell—wait a minute, what the hell is Chris Cornell doing here?

The film is a stunning, unforgettable work of art; the fact that the largely unrelated “soundtrack,” which on the surface seems like a quick cash-in, manages to make an impact of its own is a minor triumph. (Nov. 21)

Download: John Legend feat. Fink – “Move,” Alabama Shakes – “Driva Man,” David Hughey and Roosevelt Credit – “My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Rokia Traoré

Mali is a West African country that seems to export more music than most of that continent, which is why it was all the more shocking when it was threatened earlier this year by an extremist Islam takeover of the country's north, which coincided with a coup d'etat in the capital of Bamako. Among other atrocities, the fundamentalist Islamists wanted to ban music. A French military intervention helped stabilize the situation somewhat, a move that was supported by even some of the most peacenik musicians I know, who had travelled to Mali years earlier. 

That context informs part of my enjoyment of the new Rokia Traoré album: after all, what better to inflame the ignorant than a female singer and killer instrumentalist who lives a cosmopolitan life that thrives on cultural exchange between Europe and Mali? But more importantly, Beautiful Africa, her fifth release, is simply gorgeous: not just Traoré's stunning vocals, but her entire band's performance and the production of PJ Harvey's right-hand man, John Parish. 

I had a chance to talk to her earlier this month, in advance of her show this Wednesday, Nov. 27, at Koerner Hall in Toronto, for this article in The Grid. We chatted during a week when I was glued to 24-hour news stations detailing the misadventures of my arrogant, hubristic and downright dangerous and ignorant mayor. Speaking to a woman with such a beautiful, lilting and comforting voice about the horrors and the beauty of her own country, and about the virtues of pleasure, courage, humility and beauty—all running themes throughout Beautiful Africa—during a ridiculous news cycle in my hometown was a glorious respite, to say the least.

Rokia Traoré
November 5, 2013
On the phone from Brussels

In almost every song you talk about pleasure, courage, humility and beauty. Those four words are in almost every song on the record.

All of these words are connected. I haven’t realized, but now when I listen to you, I think you’re right. Yes, it’s about life, and how to take advantage of good things in this life: you must be honest and at peace with yourself. Being courageous is important, to have a clear idea of who you want to be. You have to be courageous enough to realize your own bad sides and realize you’re not perfect. Then you can experience love and beauty. All these words are connected.

Is it possible to courageous and humble at the same time?

You must be courageous to experience humility, to accept your limit in this life. It’s very difficult. For some people all these things are sad: to realize you are nothing and are here for a limited time. You are limited yourself in what you can do and who you can be. Accepting all that mean you know what humility is. To be humble, you have to be courageous.

Then you can experience “all pleasure without measure,” is that correct?

Totally. You cannot make ego disappear. Knowing it’s there, you can accept it and say, ‘I know you’re there but I’m not going to follow you.’ You feel at peace with yourself once you can deal with your ego. There are so many things we feel bad about in this life because of our ego. If we can deal with our ego all these things will not be a problem.

When have you had to deal with your ego?

I keep it with me. We are like friends. I can say, ‘I know you’re there and trying to take control, but I don’t want that.’ I can feel it. I can’t say I don’t like it, because you need it sometimes. But I play with it and have fun with it but I don’t let it take control.

You kind of need it when you’re on stage with Paul McCartney and John Paul Jones, don’t you?

(laughs) That is just pleasure, sharing the stage with musicians I’ve listened to for years, and I imagined I would meet them one day. They are great people. You want to talk about humility? These are two people who are very good examples, very peaceful people. I was pleased to share some moments with them, to work with them and discuss with them and have them among my friends.

I didn’t know about that Africa Express tour until I was getting ready to talk to you. It sounds like quite an adventure.

It was a great opportunity to meet some people and share some time with them. The two other Africa Express projects have been just during the weekend, and you’re in the same hotel. It’s not the same as being on a train for a whole week. Of course we were not sleeping on the train; we had hotels. But yes, it’s an organization, every morning everybody having breakfast at the same time, and we were generally the only customers of the hotel we’re staying in. In some train stations while waiting we’d play some music. It was a great experience to share with some musicians you don’t have opportunities to meet.

Was it only in Britain?

It was in U.K., all around. It was a city per day for seven days.

Do you know many of the musicians from Mali that we all know in the West?

Of course. I know them and there is a respect between us. It’s not like I see everyone every day in Bamako. We have different sides of life in different areas. Everytime I see Amadou and Mariam we say, ‘Oh yes, when are you going to be back in Bamako?’ And we make plans to see each other there, but of course we never do—for 10 years now! I don’t see these people except when we’re performing at the same festival.

When did you spend the most time in Bamako?

I still live there now. I grew up going back and forth, because a diplomat [her father] cannot be in one place for more than three or five years, I can’t remember the rules in Mali, so every year we’d come back for 100 days. Since I started working I’m back and forth there all the time; I go to Bamako to rehearse. I always had a band of half Malians, half Europeans. Five years ago I moved back there: I have a place there, I have a foundation there, I work with amazing young musicians. Bamako is my base, and I have a secondary house in Brussels, which is my European base.

Did you leave the country after the troubles last year to keep your family safe?

Not really. I couldn’t leave because of all the projects I have there that depend terribly on me. The foundation is still at a young stage, we are building studios. Also my house is there. But I had to send my son to school in France to stay with his dad. So I’ve been travelling between Bamako and Europe for work but also to spend time with my son, who’s been there for a year now. I couldn’t imagine leaving him in Bamako when I would leave for work. If I was there with him all the time, I wouldn’t feel any fear, but you cannot leave a country at war with a seven-year-old child behind you. I didn’t want that. So I’m more back and forth than I was two years ago, but home is still Bamako.

You’ve said that without music, Mali would not exist. Could a regime that bans music, as the Islamists would do, ever have a chance of successfully controlling that population?

Culture will continue. In Mali we are in the middle of a very special period. Yes, things are fragile. As fast as the destruction started, the stability started the same way, surprising everybody. People saw that it was impossible to organize elections; I always said we need elections, because there was no choice, it was either elections or a situation that would get worse and worse. With elections, we could at least expect the beginning of a reorganization and reconstruction. Elections went really well, maybe one of the best in Africa in recent years. In terms of candidates trying to do things in a bad way, to win even though they weren’t winning, no one tried things like that. Malians really participated. It was probably the highest percentage of people voting since the democracy started, and we chose a president whose work is very difficult.

Now things are fragile because the North—when a situation is melded to religion and extremism it’s always complicated and things cannot be stable in a couple of months. We also have had this situation since the ’60s in the north of Mali with the Tuareg rebellion. All these are problems we have to solve. At the same time, the way leaders used to manage the country will no longer work. When Tuaregs say that Malian governments don’t take care of them, it’s important to know for people who don’t know this country that governments in general don’t take care of countrysides—not just in the north of Mali, but everywhere. Of course the situation with Tuaregs is historically complicated, and the real reason is not the government taking care of people. And you can’t even say all Tuaregs, because not all of them were supporting this rebellion.

Weren’t they betrayed by the extremists? The Tuareg supported them initially until they realized how bad it was going to be.

Yes, absolutely. So some Tuaregs are part of it, but even in the same tribe not everyone is supporting it. But we are self-confident and trust in the possibility of continuing to push Mali toward a better situation.

What role do musicians play in maintaining stability?

Doing our best and trying to use music the best way it’s supposed to be used, and has been used for centuries in Mali, when it was part of kingdoms and empires in West Africa. Music was a means of communication and education, and a means to make the connection between different tribes and ethnic groups. We’re in a situation where music has an important role. It depends on the ability of artists to make this work, not as in the past, because we are not in the past, but using new structures and ways of doing things and means of communication to do what we used to do with music in West Africa and Mali. It makes our role more interesting but also more complicated.

In this case, the threat to Mali is posed by people who don’t think there should be music at all, outside of prayer music. Does that make it more clear cut?

When we were under occupation—when the North was under occupation—there were worse things going on: people killed, women and children treated in a very bad way. It’s shocking for someone doesn’t live in Mali and knows the country for its music, but for me, a Malian, I have relatives and friends who were directly in the situation in the North. You are so preoccupied by the human situation, so yes, when this thing with music happened, it was like a joke. As a Malian, you think we will never stop music, because for us, music is not what they are describing. You understand how differently people can think, and how the difference and diversity can be a source of destruction, when it must be a way to bond us together. In diversity, we have something to learn from each other, from everyone. Nobody is superior: I know things you don’t know and vice versa.

When you are from there, and when you are crazy and destroyed inside your mind because you didn’t expect that to happen, and then you reach another step and you are really fearing very bad things that are already happening all around you, and then you reach another step: you have no fear at all. You are able to really analyze what’s really going on.

You sound like the daughter of a diplomat.

(laughs) Yes, let’s say.

Tell me about Foundation Passerelle. What is it and when did you start it?

It’s a contribution to the development of the music economy in Mali. As a musician, I can bring something that the Malian government and the ministry of culture cannot bring, because they are not on the road as I am. They haven’t had the chance to experience these stages and they don’t know what being an artist is. So I can bring my experience to complement what they are doing. Also, all Malian musicians try to contribute to the development of the country. I work with young artists and we’re building a stage where I hope we can provide young musicians with professional conditions to perform, and encourage the show business side of Bamako. It’s not about how to make money. And I think this work is even more important now than before the troubles.

You were mentored by Ali Farka Toure, were you not? Did you teach you similar lessons to what your foundation is doing now?

Ali was a dear friend of mine. We had a special relationship when we learned that Ali was a neighbor of my mother’s. His wife used to take care of me when I was a baby. What Ali did for me was preparing me for my first recording. While we were in the studio, my mother, who was in Brussels because my father was still working there, came to visit me. I was surprised to see her and Ali giving each other a big hug. I said, ‘What, you know each other?’ My mother said, ‘Yes, of course, he knows you since you were a baby.’ Ali said, ‘My God, is this the baby Rokia I used to take care of and have in my house all day long?’ He was a mentor, just telling me what a tour is, what a career is, and how relaxed I should be about my career, and not to always have more and more ambition, because that can destroy your ability to appreciate your professional career as a musician. He was definitely a friend, with whom I could speak about my fears concerning my profession. Even though my career started after that first album, I couldn’t always talk to Ali because I was always on the road. He was too. He was such an exceptional person—I don’t know, you can’t have so many friends like that in a lifetime.

Tell me about working with Toni Morrison on the Desdemona project. What did you learn?

So many things. I’m so lucky, I’ve been working as a professional and going to university at the same time—and working with Toni Morrison was that. It was a great way to learn while you’re working.

Did you know each other’s work?

Yes, Toni knew. [The British theatre director] Peter Sellars I met first, and he was a friend of Toni’s; he gave her my album and she knew everything on it, and that’s why she wanted to work with me. We met a year and a half before and she told me about the project. When she told me she must give me her email address, I thought, ‘Wow!’ Desdemona was a great experience, and I learned so much professionally about the stage, and it was my first time in theatre.

I love what John Parish brings to this record. What’s your favourite PJ Harvey record?

Actually, I listened to his other projects, including his own albums. Professionally, I simply respect John’s work on all projects he produces. I hear one thing: the ability to use the essential, not more, not less. That doesn’t mean having a clean sound, but just what you need according to who the artist is. I could hear through his work with other artists his ability to be sensitive to bring the artist what he needs, to make the project the best possible, not trying to exist through the artist’s work.

Tell me about the song “Beautiful Africa.”

It’s the only song directly connected to the situation in Mali. I have no word to describe the spirit in which I was when that happened. First you are so scared that you feel like you are no longer existing. You don’t know what to do. The day before I couldn’t imagine a coup d’etat in Mali. After the coup d’etat, for two weeks, things were getting worse and unbelievable things were happening. I couldn’t imagine half of Mali being occupied by extremist Islamists. You fear when you have an idea of the danger. You see all your dreams about your country and your environment getting destroyed. Several questions at the same time you cannot answer. People around you are asking questions you cannot answer. And you cannot show them you do not know.

For example, the youngsters I work with at the foundation: How can I tell them? We were supposed to fly that day for a tour. Are we going to leave Mali? And my son asking me, ‘What is a coup d’etat?’ And me trying to protect him. He’s say, ‘They killed this person. Why did they do that?’ And I’d say, ‘How did you know that?’ You are the mother, the sister, the daughter, and you are the teacher of many students you can no longer teach because you have stay inside your home. You have to know when you can go out and get food. And if you leave, where do you go? What about your parents, who are old? Will they stay in Mali? There are so many things happening that you no longer know in what spirit you are. You do not sleep, day and night, you try to find solutions.

After two weeks of that you feel very bizarre. But we kept going on with all the projects at the foundation. July arrived and I didn’t feel better because the problem was still going on and the rest of the world was starting to tell about it, but telling about it in the wrong way. When you hear their opinion of what’s going on in your country you don’t even recognize your own country. I thought, well, I can leave Mali and go somewhere else. I am not obliged to stay there. I can provide my parents with all they need. Why do I still want to stay there and make things? It came back to me in a beautiful way, in a way I never realized before. I simply love Africa. And I wanted to write a song about that, just to explain how a country in war can still be someone’s country.