Rhythms of the Indian Ocean

The chief language of Madagascar, Malagasy, belongs to the Malay family of languages spoken on the islands on the other side of the island. On the Konkan coast, from Karnataka all the way up to Gujarat, there are people who owe their origins to Abyssinia and beyond. In Maldives, they speak Divehi, a word which borrows from the Indian root Div meaning island. In Mauritius, Hindi (specifically Bhojpuri), French, Swahili and English have got mashed up into a lilting creole which Amitav Ghosh plays with in River of Smoke, his second book in the Ibis trilogy. Every piece of land on the shores of or sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean share languages, religions, cuisine, customs, trades and even disasters.

These are just a few examples which give evidence of the intense traffic in the Indian Ocean over millennia. Cargo including spices, rubber, teak, opium, coffee, horses, gold, frankincense, myrrh and slaves were exchanged between the lands. All this togetherness is also embedded in the music of this part of the world.

The rhythmic movement of waves and tides serve as the basic tempo of boatmen and fishermen songs from Indonesia to Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka to Maldives to Madagascar. Islam has contributed to a Sufi like structure to song writing where the Almighty is personified as the beloved. Africa and South India have sent out varieties of drums and percussion instruments to the far lands to lend the beats.

To start exploring the music of the Indian Ocean, we can follow the spice trail – starting with Indonesia and Burma in the east through Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the islands of Lakshadweep, Minicoy and Maldives in the middle on to Arabia in the north.

We can also follow the people trail – slaves transported from Africa to India and the East Indies; indentured labourers from Bihar and Bengal transported to Mauritius, East Africa and Southern Africa; Arab traders settling down in Zanzibar, Somalia, Kutch, Malabar and the Malay; pirates setting up free cities in Madagascar and Mozambique; peoples of one land crossing the seas to another land escaping persecution and war and of course the Europeans of all shades and tongues conquering everything in sight.

In this post I go east and explore the music of a contemporary band in Aceh.

Aceh, in the northern tip of Sumatra, has a history of its own. Being closest to India and West Asia, it was a port of call for ships sailing east. Islam came to this part of the world in the 13th century with graves of Sultans dating to the period found here. There may have been some influence from Hindu kingdoms of India as there are a number of places with Sanskrit names. But for the last 800 years, Islam has been the guiding force here and remains so. The Sultanate of Aceh was one of the wealthiest in the region because of the strategic location and was much coveted as an ally by the Portuguese, Dutch and of course the Arabs. It is still has a status of an autonomous region within Indonesia, the outcome of the peace accord that ended over 30 years of internal conflict, triggered by the tsunami.

This move towards peace, some people say, started with the huge destruction caused by the tsunami in December 2004 that wiped out 120,000 people from the town of Aceh and destroying 60% of the city. There was thus a two levels of rebuilding – one physical from the calamity and one more psychological from the horrors of conflict.

I found this band called Kande (meaning candle). Built around frontman Rafli, considered a rockstar in his country, the vocals and the strong bass lines of the band generate a powerful force that makes you pay attention. His vocals remind me of the legendary Baaba Maal of Senegal.

Kande’s 2006 album Meukondroe (If Not Us) discusses the dual rebuilding process which requires peace and unity and this message comes through in this album. Rafli himself traveled from refugee camp to refugee camp in Aceh province, singing and providing solace to the internally displaced people there. Incidentally, most music shops in Aceh were washed away and it is very difficult to find music discs in Aceh itself.

The songs which I have put in this playlist are in Acehnese. I don’t understand the words. But some of the visuals in the video give their own message. The vocals themselves resemble the muezzin’s call. Aceh is one of the most conservative parts of Indonesia and the call to prayer is very much part of the ambient audioscape. Rafli’s voice travels through like those of the best qawwaals and classical singers. The band that plays around him accentuate the power of the vocals.

Playlist:

  1. Meukondroe, the title song from the 2006 album. There are two versions – the original and a concert version with a string orchestra
  2. Hoom
  3. Bumoe, the opening screen of the video suggests that the song is about the tsunami and the destruction it caused
  4. Asai Nanggroe
  5. Meukuta Alam, which has old archival pictures of Aceh and has a touch of the saudade in its tune.

Senegal: Returning to the Source of Jazz Music with Youssou N’Dour

Exploring the world through music

Part 1: Senegal with Youssou N’Dour

Senegal is on the western coast of Africa. Like most West African countries, its ports were used to load slaves on to European ships bound to the New World. This historical legacy triggers a simple question. Can jazz music be linked to Senegal? Can rhythm and blues, soul, rap, hip-hop, maybe even reggae, link up with Senegal?

The lexicon of music in America and Europe borrows heavily from languages of West Africa. Merengue, the dance, is possibly related to mererek, a Fulani word meaning shake or quiver. Marimbula, the plucked instrument in the Caribbean, is very much a West African contribution. As is jive, a Wolof word and jukebox, also Wolof. And the big one, jazz – among the many theories, the Mandinka word jasi and the Temne cognate yas are prime candidates for being the mother word. All these are, of course, theory from a linguistic history point of view for the simple reason, that there are no written records or chronicles or memoirs of that tumultuous period and the journey of words from one continent to another will remain a matter of conjecture even though it sounds convincing and matches up with the recorded history of forced migrations.

But, let’s assume it is so. So if Senegal, the home of the Fulani and Wolof people, is where they – the people, the language, the music – embarked on their journey to the New World, what if those people, the words, the music came back to Senegal?

Youssou N’Dour, possibly the most famous Senegalese musician, helmed a project in 2007 called Return To Goree. This project involved N’Dour going to all the musical hubs of America like New Orleans, Atlanta, New York and Chicago to meet some of the brilliant contemporary jazz musicians there and bring them to Goree Island for a concert. The island, just a few miles off Dakar, was a custom house – for slaves. Human cargo was brought in from the interior villages, stored here in the basement, weighed, accounted for in the inventory ledgers and then loaded onto ships. They went through the Door of No Return – a doorway opening on to the small jetty that led the slaves from the custom house on to the waiting boats.

For N’Dour, this project culminated over 20 years of being an ambassador of African and specifically West African music. Back in 1984, N’Dour was in Paris playing songs from his album Immigres (Émigré) when among the audience was Peter Gabriel. That began, to use an old cliché, a beautiful friendship. N’Dour guested singing Wolof in In Your Eyes from Gabriel’s most successful solo album So. Then he toured with Gabriel, Springsteen, et al in the 1988 Human Rights tour. Since then, artistically and commercially, N’Dour kept growing to become the superstar that he is today.

In 1989 came Peter Gabriel’s magnum opus – Passion, the soundtrack for Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Youssou N’Dour was a major contributor as were many others including fellow Senegalese legend Baaba Maal (I will explore his music in the next post). You can hear N’Dour’s voice in the title track itself where his voice is blended with that of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (with L Shankar providing the strings).

Musically, N’Dour’s work encompasses multiple styles. In Noises of the World, a oral history of musicians by Hank Bordowitz, N’Dour says

My music is modern African music. African music is the mother of all these other musics (sic), and that is the truth.

This sentiment, incidentally, goes back to the narrative in the beginning of the post – where do all the various styles of music come from?

Apart from the music, N’Dour the songwriter has also been very active in raising awareness and consciousness of the culture, not just outside Africa, but also within Africa. Very consciously, he has been writing songs in French and English, international languages, that, although imposed through colonial means, help reach out to a wide spectrum of nationalities and ethnic groups in Africa (and indeed rest of the world). Much of his music also ties up with his activism.

Birima is a song from 2000. It refers to a 19th century monarch King Birimba Ngone. Birimba was known for his hospitality, his honour and that he always kept his word. N’Dour’s song, translated, has this line

Ah! Birima! A day spent in your presence
Was the picture of hospitality!

This song comes from another part of N’Dour’s lineage – the lineage of griots. Griots are a separate caste in west Africa – they are story tellers, balladeers, historians, hagiographers. Their job is to convert the events of the day into song and ensure people remember those events through those songs. N’Dour, on his mother’s side, comes from a family of griots. Birima, a tale of a king, comes out of that. In 2008, N’Dour started a microfinance institution in Senegal and named it Birima Microfinance.

Youssou N’Dour is also a Sufi follower. He is part of a brotherhood called Mouridism founded by Sheikh Amadou Bamba. Mame Bamba, a song from the 1994 album The Guide (Wommat), written in Sufi style, celebrates his spiritual guru. The song begins in Wolof and then for the most part is in English. Sheikh Amadou Bamba was a Qadriyaa sufi saint in Senegal. He resisted the French colonial rule and was even exiled. His philosophy, ensconced in Mouridism, influences Senegalese life even today. N’Dour in his song writes:

The man in me changes
Every time I read your khassayids
My strong faith in you
Makes me survive in this crazy world.

In 2004, N’Dour hooked up with the Fathy Salama Orchestra of Egypt to record an album of songs celebrating the Sufi spirit. It was originally called Sant Allah (Thank you Allah) and was ready five years ago. The events of September 2011 and the general response of the Western world to all things Islamic forced him to hold the release of the album. It was finally released with a simple name Egypt. This was a coming together of extremities of the Sahara desert but it also established Senegalese Islamic traditions as distinct from Arabic traditions. There are songs about the leading figures of his brotherhood, about Touba, the city that serves as the cultural centre for the Mouridists and about his faith. Critically hailed by everyone, no one was surprised when it won the Grammy Award.

Robert Christgau, in the Village Voice, writes,

So for N’Dour, who for 20 years has been building bridges to Europe and America, to go to Egypt to record these pointedly pan-Sufi lyrics–in addition to praising the two Mouridist founders, he devotes songs to Qadiriya history, a Tijani anti-colonialist, a Tijani pan-Africanist, and an eccentric messianic brotherhood–is to remind his Western friends, and enemies, that in the crucial matter of faith he is not “Western,” not even a little bit.

The career graph of Youssou N’Dour, from the 1980s to the present, shows his journeys across the world. His music today is spans multiple genres – rock, reggae, electronica, jazz, soul. He uses synthesisers to generate traditional mbalanx sounds. His favourite music, apart from African sounds, if one might say, won’t shock anyone – Marley, Gaye, Prince. He is called to tribute concerts, charity concerts, World Cup football opening events, political events and other occasions. He tried to run for president but withdrew. He has set up a state of the art recording studio in Dakar, where he continues to live, when not traveling. His studio has now become a hub for Senegalese music which had to otherwise go to Paris to be recorded. He is an important person.

My Youssou N’Dour Playlist on Youtube has the following songs (You can check out a pre-curated playlist on Apple Music)

  1. Return To Goree, a documentary that rivals Buena Vista Social Project in artistic excellence
  2. In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel)
  3. Passion (Peter Gabriel), a most goosebumps raising blending of voices of N’Dour and Nusrat.
  4. Birima, with a simple video from the streets of Dakar
  5. Badou, composed and created when he was still unknown to the rest of the world.
  6. Mame Bamba, one of his older songs about his spiritual guru Sheikh Bamba
  7. Egypt, 2004, Grammy Award winning work, to use a much abused word – seminal
  8. La Cours des Grands, a typical song for the World Cup, used in 1998. The original French song does however have a slightly more poetic feel than the modified English version.
  9. 7 seconds (with Neneh Cherry), from 1994, the title of the song refers to the brief fleeting moments of innocence that a new born baby experiences before being told who he or she is, what the colour of his or her skin is, what it means, etc.
  10. Ob La Di Ob La Da, a lovely rendition of a Beatles classic

Explore The World Through Its Music

The ancient Greeks used the word barbaros to refer to various groups of peoples – those who spoke Greek badly; those who did not speak Greek (and therefore were incomprehensible and strange to the Greek citizen); the Persians; the Turks; the Huns; etc. Today, the word barbarian has come to mean a person who is not civilised i.e. not from the mainstream.

However, one person’s barbarian was another person’s model citizen. The perspective of the observer was the deciding factor. Who decides what is mainstream? Who decides what is the reference point for being termed a member of a civilised group of people versus a barbarian group of people?

The term World Music was a lazy attempt at defining any thing which was not Western Popular Music. The perspective of the observer was clearly American.

Carl Rahkonen sums it up in his 1994 technical paper when he says world music is more about what it is not rather than what it is:

World music might best be described by what it is not. It is not Western art music, neither is it mainstream Western folk or popular music. World music can be traditional (folk), popular or even art music, but it must have ethnic or foreign elements. It is simply not our music, it is their music, music which belongs to someone else.

So the next time you select world music in your playlist settings, you are essentially saying, hey, let’s listen to their music.

I got hold of Paul Simon’s Graceland cassette quite soon after it was released. Like everyone else outside of South Africa, I got to hear artists from that country for the first time. The opening A Capella by Ladysmith Black Mambazo followed by the opening bars of the guitars in Diamonds on the Soles of the Shoes are to me one of the finest openings in pop music. Later, I learnt that this was fusion music. I also learnt that this music brought hitherto unknown ethnic sounds from South Africa into the mainstream. The commercial success had made Graceland a template for future musical experiments in cross-border music mash ups. To top it all, with record companies coming out with International or Ethnic recordings, World Music got its stamp of credibility when an artist of the stature of Paul Simon immersed in it with considerable artistic and commercial success.

Over the years, I have come across music from many countries and at any given point in time, my smart phone music player has a playlist of songs which cover at least 10 languages and sourced from at least 15 different countries. Each of these songs come from long musical traditions which have their own stories. Appreciating the differences between the music of the Senegalese musicians Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour or between Amadou & Mariam and Tinariwen, both from Mali, and acknowledging that they come from completely different traditions should be as natural as discerning the difference between rock & roll and soul or jazz and reggae or electronica and heavy metal. As jazz, soul, R&B or rap tell stories of an entire race liberating themselves from slavery, the music from the world over tell their own stories about their people.

In the coming months, I will revisit all these musical works and explore the home country through the music. I hope to cover all the continents and will mostly avoid using the term World Music. Watch this space. Till then a playlist of six pieces of popular music from six continents which I will cover in the next six posts. I hope to hit at least 30 countries in the next month or so.