Thursday, 25 July 2013

Karim Diouf at Cabaret du Mile-End (Nuits d'Afrique)

Karim Diouf  |  Festival International Nuits d'Afriques de Montreal


“In Senegal, there are several ethnical groups,” Karim Diouf explains about his homeland, “but everyone is united in speaking Wolof. Wolof is within me. Singing in Wolof is thus very important for me.”

Quite obviously, this man considers his mother tongue as a very crucial part of who he is.  However, one should not deduct that national pride or cultural identity are the only reasons that explain why a lot of the songs he has played during his over 15-year-long career in Québec (including 1999 ADISQ Song of the Year Tassez-vous de d’là, as part of Les Colocs) are either wholly or partly written in Wolof. There is something more to it, something of which he speaks with a flare in his eyes, using an analogy that bears a lot of resemblance with the concept of synaesthesia. He calls it “colours”.

“When you sing in Wolof, there are colours that make the music special,” he declares. “If you sing in French, the colours are just not the same.” To obtain the right shades of such colours for his first solo album titled Adouna, the djembe virtuoso went back to Dakar to record part of it. “What motivated the choice of going to record the back vocals in Senegal,” he says, “was that I wanted the lyrics in Wolof to be sung with the right accent, the right colours. I wanted something authentic.” That quest for authenticity also applied to the traditional instruments he chose to use and whose best players are unsurprisingly based in his home country. These include the marimba, the kora (a type of long 21-string guitar), and the sabra (a series of oblong drums played with both drumsticks and bare hands). For these too, going to Dakar meant getting the proper colours.

Therefore, it feels safe to affirm that, for Karim Diouf, singing in Wolof and using traditional instruments from Western Africa are not only ways to express who he is. Indeed, they also appear to be aesthetic decisions.

A few among many. What made these decisions special this time around is the fact that they were his, and his only. If he obviously made such artistic choices when he was part of other projects, Karim appears very enthusiastic about having had the possibility to call all the shots for the very first time of his impressive professional journey. Indeed, even if this man has quite the background, he has made a career of holding the role of a team player who contributes his input to something bigger than himself.

He joined Les Colocs in 1998 for their best-selling (and best, period) album Dehors novembre, he recorded an award-winning LP as half of Diouf, a djembe-centered duo with his brother Élage, he collaborated with local heavyweights like Stefie Shock, Dubmatique, as well as Ariane Moffatt, and he toured around the world with the Cirque du Soleil. If these unbelievably diverse undertakings obviously got his creative juices flowing, they were nonetheless collective endeavours, for which he was happy to devote 20% or 50% of himself. On Adouna, he mentions with a big grin, “it’s 100% Karim!”

Given the variety that characterizes Karim’s resume, it should come as no surprise that his first solo record is quite eclectic. On this very well-achieved opus, lyrics in both Wolof and French are laid on top of astonishingly elaborate rhythms, to form songs that either sound like classic roots reggae pieces, or else like traditional Western African music songs. Sometimes, they even offer a hard-to-define blend of sunshiny aesthetics. Predictably, the percussions are the main course of this very tasty package. They are numerous, they are played masterfully, and they are used to forge complex patterns that serve as the backbone that supports most melodic elements. They are, in fact, Karim’s number one priority: “I sing in Wolof, and not everyone understands it. Therefore, for these people who don’t grasp it, the beat, the groove, the melodies must feel compelling.” He smiles, before adding: “From the get-go, we were making beats, and that must be why we were so welcome everywhere. Everyone wants to groove! It’s a universal language.”

Themes-wise, the album speaks of several things: the lack of willingness to help fight nature’s deterioration, homesickness blues, fraternity, peace, and more. There truly is an idea that stands out among the ones that he tackles: making music is a way to give oneself the feeling of existing as a human being. “I remember being a youngster in Africa playing music,” Diouf recalls, “and watching the sky, and the planes passing by. I wanted to export what I did, to travel the world with it. When I was finally able to do it, I realized that everywhere I went with my Senegal passport, I was asked for visas, and things of the like. It appalled me that, as an African, you’re simply not free to go where you want. Even when you’re a musician, even when you’re talented.” He pauses for a minute, before adding: “With an African passport, it’s like you don’t really exist. You’re not free, people feel like they must keep an eye on you.”

In that light, Diouf feels like making music gives him a purpose, a way to feel accomplished, a strong sense of self. He claims that it gives him a way to feel his own existence, which is something that his African passport cannot give him on this planet.

Deep stuff, huh?

To launch his debut album, Karim chooses Cabaret du Mile-End as a venue, and the Festival Nuits d’Afrique as a context. The place gets packed slowly as opening act Hélété sings his reggae-flavoured, ultra-smooth pieces to a delighted public. Then, the man of the hour takes the stage, along with an ever-grinning drummer with long curly hair, a tall skinny sabra player, a neatly attired guitarist with a faint smile, another guitarist with a backwards cap on, a bassist dressed in black from head to toes, a three-men strong horns section, and a kora player with skinny dreadlocks. The midsummer crowd does not shy away from erupting in enthusiastic welcoming cheers.

The set unfolds with poise, going from reggae to Western African traditional music smoothly. The sound is stellar, and every instrument has its place, while also contributing to a very tight, very unified whole. The horns provide a very warm, very lustrous melodic element, and they even speed up on occasions, thus giving a bit of a ska feel to the ambiance. In places, the whole band starts jamming out of the blue for lengthy phases that culminate in slick little riffs and fills. The musicians keep looking at each other with massive grins, visibly enjoying their time on stage. The complicity can be heard, seen, and felt.

Throughout the entire show, there is a just enough reverb on Diouf’s very unique vocals, and his voice dances with the red and orange atmosphere, especially when he sings in Wolof. Predictably, he displays his drumming skills here and there, including one time when he pulls out a stool on which rests a type of percussion in the shape of half a big melon. It utters a big thump when Diouf’s hands powerfully land on it.

During the encore, Karim invites a woman to dance on stage alongside the musicians. She hesitates for a second, but ends up climbing up and going wild, shaking and twisting in all kinds of ways, laughing and screaming hysterically. That’s all it takes for the spark to turn into fire. After she steps back on the dancefloor, a series of utterly enthusiastic women take turn dancing crazily on stage. And I do mean crazily, as in loosing their s**t. None of that tasteless wannabe sexy stripper-like dancing. Nah. Rather, it looks like an attempt from the performers involved to jiggle every part of the body as fast as possible, while smiling as much as possible, and throwing as many fun vibrations into the open air as possible. You know, people having real, genuine fun.

When I cross the threshold of the Cabaret’s front door back into the sweaty mid-July Montreal weather, I giggle at what Karim said at the end of the show: “I promise you that, once this show has been on the road for a little while, it’s going to sound much better!”

Modest man.

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