Tuesday, Jun 10 2003 | 16:54

Where and when were your born and what is your family background?

I was born in 1973 in France. Just like many Africans coming from the former European colonies, my father came here as a student. He graduated, became an English teacher and returned to Africa where I spent most of my boyhood.

What are your first musical memories?

I always had music around me: Most of my first musical memories come from my father: I remember watching him playing the guitar or singing over music he’d play on his stereo. That impressed me a lot. My father could have been a musician but the social, political and racial context of these times made him fight a different struggle. He used to listen to various styles of music. Basically he loved all black music in general and … music with orchestrations and density … no matter which style. He loved melodies and so we heard great music all the time.

When did you start playing music by yourself?

Me and my brothers and sisters we all did take piano and music lessons in music school in Abidjan (Ivory coast) but I wasn’t very good at it. I really started to get into music when I started playing the drums. I was 14 years old. It wasn’t heavy playing but the beat was there and I got into it quicker than classical piano playing, needless to say.

How did you get into afrobeat in the first place? Did you had to “discover it” or was it part of your environment. I am asking this based on my limited knowledge of how relevant afrobeat is today in Africa and the African diaspora.

Well African sound was always there. At home, at church, during celebrations, on TV … I didn’t really discovered that music, these beats were there. It’s true on the other hand that I really started listening to FELA round the clock around 1995, probably because I needed to get back to this sound at one point and learn about all I didn’t know concerning “Africanism” as he would say.

What other musical influences do you have?

Well the way we were brought up and with the eclecticism of my father’s tastes, I learned to appreciate many styles of music as long as it is good music. There are hundred names I could cite … Well I love Miles Davis, The Wailers (all Bob, Peter & Bunny’s stuff), George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix, Sun Ra, Prince, Frank Zappa, Kassav to name but few. It would take ages to name them all.

When did you start Massak and what is your role – bandleader, singer, composer, producer?

Massak started in 1997. I was probably finally able to play my stuff; what was my goal? To express what was inside and try to do something else with all those influences: I wanted to work on different elements that I had in mind. I wanted to work on polyrhythms. I always start with the rhythm when I compose of or write. My role in the band? It’s all you’ve mentioned in the question, nowadays you must be able to be versatile. I’ve learnt that.

What does the name Massak mean?

Massak is a Bassa (Cameroonese tongue and tribe) name that means music, trance and enjoyment through rhythms and sounds. In West French Indian Creole it means slaughter and in one of Madagascar languages it means food’s ready so you can pick up the meaning you like the best.

Tell me a bit about the tours and gigs you did?

We’ve been touring France with some gigs in the UK for six years now. As the time went by we played less and less bars. Than less and less clubs. Now more and more venues. Touring is rough without a real crew and organisation but I’ve learnt a lot and got looser on stage as time went by. I also worked a lot on the band leading side of the stage act. As a sideman I did a long US tour during summer 2001.That was really a good experience.

How did you hook-up with Soul Fire and how did it envolved?

The music business is sometimes very frustrating. Follow-fashion than recycling, than hype, than follow-fashion … It’s like that over and over. At that time (late 2000) I went to New York because I was tired of hearing “your music is old fashioned” or “you’ll never get signed with 15 minutes long music pieces” from the people over here in Paris. I went to Desco records who had a reputation for releasing uncompromising sounds. They had stopped their activities. Therefore I went to Soul Fire and that’s how I worked with them.

Let’s talk about Fela Kuti. Like no other music Afrobeat is identified by this one artist. For most people afrobeat equals Fela. What means Fela for you personally and and how do you deal with his omnipresence as a musician and singer who is doing afrobeat?

Apart from Miles Davis, Fela is according to me the greatest musician of the 20th century. A true genius. He knew western musical theory as well as traditional African songs and rhythms: He created a mind-blowing musical form that some have called” classical African music”. As a player, he was a fine trumpeter, a mind-blowing saxophonist with a unique sound and technique and inventor of new harmonic chords and voicings on the piano and keyboards. As a singer or band leader or frontman, he had the same stature as … James Brown. My admiration for him is boundless. I think that I don’t really have to deal with his omnipresence since I’m not one of his sons playing afrobeat but he’s for sure one of my major influences and a major source of inspiration for contemporary music, that’s plain to see.

What is the message of afrobeat in 2003 for you?

The message of afrobeat now? Fela’s words and lyrics are even more relevant today then they were when he was alive. Now everyone can see it. The 2003 “afrobeat” scene is a whole different story. Maybe Tony Allen or Femi Kuti’s answer for this question would probably be more legitimate than mine

What has afrobeat to offer musically today and it what direction do you want to develop the music. A lot people would say that afrobeat had its peak 15, 20 years ago.

As this music grew stronger a lot of people including me have clearly been influenced by it. For me afrobeat is a major source of inspiration but the music I play is different: when I started I called it “Afrolectric” because it suits better the person I am: an african who was taught and lives in a Western culture. It represents myself as who I am and not as an afrobeat inheritor.
I disagree with those who have the nerve to say that afrobeat had its peak 20 years ago. Listen to “Chop & Quench” listen to “Underground system”! Just like Miles Davis Fela constantly evolved and searched and found new ways to approach his music and that’s what’s incredible with him. It is a very complex harmonically structured music and the problem of all that’s released now under the label “afrobeat” is the lack of harmonic advancement. I’ve composed and recorded a lot of instrumental music in which I try to work on this aspect of the music but it takes time and knowledge. I’ll keep on working in that direction because that’s the only way to grow.

What do you think about other new afrobeat bands like Antibalas or Kokolo? How do you feel about the retro aspect that most new afrobeat bands seem to carry?

Antibalas and Kokolo are goods bands plus both those bands work with Jojokuo a drummer who worked with Fela). They are not that retro; They play what they feel and the people enjoy it and that’s what matters in the end. I think that since they present themselves as afrobeat bands, they do it right. With Massak we toured with 15,17,22 even 27 people on certain shows and it was very interesting because an orchestra ‘s got a natural powerful sound. With female singers, our music sounds wider. Here in Europe of course it ain’t easy to work with such a unit but who knows, one day maybe …

How do you like Femi Kuti and Tony Allen’s new stuff and how do you compare Massak to them ?

Tony Allen and Femi Kuti are great musicians. Femi Kuti’s band is ass-kicking and he’s a bad saxophonist and real front man. I really like tunes like “Sorry Sorry”, “Wonder Wonder” and the “Fight To Win” album is very good and even surprising. Tony Allen is one of the most amazing and innovative drummers ever. He’s like Tony Williams (legendary Miles Davis drummer). No one will ever do it like he does it. I’ve had the honour to be his opening act last year and was honoured. I questioned him a bit about his music and he told me “When I play, there are six people playing in fact”. There’s nothing more to say. I like tunes like “The Same Blood”, “Get Together”, “Afropusher Man”, “Kindness”, “Jalewah”. He’s open minded. He’s a fine musician. Massak is quite different from what they do. It’s rawer. There’s a lot of freedom in Massak like organised improvisations. I prefer that.

There is an obvious interest in Afrobeat from certain American artists like Common, Roots, D’Angelo. What do you think about this?

The r&b and hip-hop scene is influenced by afrobeat and the “Red, Hot & Riot” LP is a good example of that state of mind. I think it’s positive and that it prooves the undoubtable power and importance of this music. Femi Kuti tours the US constantly and that surely helped a lot. New connections can be made and that sounds exciting. One must hope nevertheless that it goes in the right place.

How do you see the future of afrobeat? Who can relate to it in 2003? Is it doomed to stay in in the so-called worldmusic genre or do you believe that it will reach a broader (and younger) audience?

It’s a futuristic music in its own shape so the modernity is already there. If the only matter or concern is to make it crossover just for the sake of the crossover it will be impossible to make it grow. All of those who seek for music with a lot of substance, with a meaning and a vision will relate to it and be attracted to it. It’s the music business who puts labels on records and classifies music in genres, the pop-rock one always being the N°1. World music to me is a label that prevents African music to be widely acclaimed and commercially successful because its too rich and diverse. Afrobeat fortunately escaped this. It is too strong and will grow bigger. Personally I’ll work to bring my one contribution to the development of African music and be original. If there are many African musicians doing so, according to the afrobeat influence, then the tables will be turned musically speaking.

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