Boston’s 31st annual Bastille Day street party (sponsored by the French Library and Cultural Center and the Alliance Française) this Friday commemorates events in Paris, but the soundtrack will be West African. Senegalese rappers Daara J, singer-songwriter Daby Toure of Mauritania and Senegal, and the beloved “blind couple of Mali,” Amadou and Mariam, have something else in common too. As much as they love their ethnic roots, their music is all about fusion and modernity — Wolof, Pulaar, and Bambara, as well as French, yes, but also the pulse of hip-hop, mainstream pop, and classic rock and roll.
DAARA J: “In the beginning we were trying to rap like Tupac and Biggie, but Senegalese reality is different.”
The three rappers of Daara J have emerged as Africa’s most successful hip-hop act. Freddie recalls, “In the beginning we were trying to do like Americans, trying to rap like Tupac and Biggie, but Senegalese reality is different.” The trio wanted no part of what they saw as disrespect for women, and they also wanted to address local politics in Senegal. Daara J and other rap acts were vocal during the 2000 elections, and they helped bring President Abdoulaye Wade to power. Says Freddie, “Rap music in Senegal is not really about ego trips and bling bling.”
Daara J have a riff about how rap has Senegalese precedents: tassu, with its social commentary; kebetu, a kind of spitfire speed vocal; and bakku, the boasting that precedes a wrestling match. Freddie elaborates, “All those styles got involved in the slave ships and went to America to grow in the plantations, and then the descendants of those slaves brought it out under a new form called rap music, and that went all over the world to come back to Africa.” Daara J’s international debut, Boomerang (Wrasse, 2003), blends rap, singing, beats ranging from Senegalese roots to dancehall, and sweet sonic touches, including flute, accordion, and acoustic guitar. On stage their sound is more streamlined and driving, their choreography an athletic blend of hip-hop strutting and ostentatious traditional dancing.
Amadou and Mariam scored a worldwide hit with their 2005 collaboration with Manu Chao, Dimanche à Bamako (Nonesuch), and the core of their appeal is the bluesy edge that first caught Chao’s ear. The story of how Amadou and Mariam met at a school for the blind in Bamako, started making music, fell in love, and married has been told many times. What’s not so well known is that Amadou played guitar in the legendary band Les Ambassadeurs, with Salif Keita at the helm. The music that band recorded was African, but on stage they did much more. “There were a lot of singers,” Amadou recalls. “There were some who sang James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett. There were singers who did Bad Company, also French songs, and international repertoire, tango, waltzes, blues, jazz.”
Amadou eventually found his true calling in blues rock, where he heard affinities with his ancestral Bambara music that included the minor pentatonic scale. When you hear the couple’s live combo, with both French and African musicians, all this makes perfect sense. They rock.