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HUMANBEING: Raja Kassis on Mbalax, His New Album and Touring the World

Raja Kassis, born in Beirut, Lebanon, is an excellent guitarist with years of experience as a sideman in NYC’s African music scene. Raja is about to release his first album as a leader, HUMANBEING, out Sept. 9  on Ropeadope Records. We caught up with him and asked him a few questions about his musical history, touring the world with Blitz the Ambassador, and his new album.

Morgan Greenstreet: How, when and where were you first exposed to African music? How did you become involved as a performer?

Raja Kassis: Actually, the very first exposure I distinctly remember having to African music was listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland.  I was 7 years old and living in Cyprus at the time, too young to comprehend what it actually meant. But the music, particularly the feel of the beats and the bass and guitar lines pulled me in, and I became fascinated with that record–I didn’t know why, it just spoke to me. Fast forward many years: It was a surreal experience this year performing the Paul Simon tribute concert at Carnegie Hall as a part of Antibalas (which served as the house band)–where we performed “You Can Call Me Al” with Angelique Kidjo as well as “Born at the Right Time” with Isobel Campbell and Andy Cabic (of Belle and Sebastian, and Velvetier, respectively).

I became involved as a performer in African music quite randomly: I got a call to audition for the great djembe player, Ibrahima Camara‘s band while living in Boston, around 1997 or 1998 I think.  Ibrahima came to the states in the early ’70s off the heels of being the musical director and choreographer of the National Ballet of Senegal.  He came over with one of his good friends and great drummer Mor Thiam (who happens to be Akon’s father), and from what I remember him telling me, they were some of the first to teach drum and dance on the east coast in the U.S. along with Babatunde Olatunji.  Ibrahima recorded and toured with Stevie Wonder on The Secret Life of Plants double album, and also toured a lot with Pharaoh Sanders, which tells you the caliber of musician he is.

Anyway, somehow, I passed the audition and was asked to join his band, which quickly turned into me going to his house four or five times a week, where he would work me out intensely for four, five or six hours at a time in his kitchen. He would constantly be making attaya (Senegalese gunpowder tea), smoking his hand-rolled cigarettes and listening to a lot of rehearsal cassette tapes, which he would constantly be analyzing. Sometimes I would have to help pick up his kids from school or pick up his laundry; it was a true apprenticeship! (Laughs).  The sessions were extremely disciplined and humbling; I definitely paid my dues in his kitchen, as he would relentlessly teach rhythms direct from his djembe, sabar or voice, which I had, with frustration, to translate to guitar.  He had amazing rhythmic ears and feel. He would yell from another part of the house if he left me to play alone and I got even slightly off rhythm–thinking he wasn’t listening!  But eventually, it really started to sink in and my love of Senegalese culture and music was born.

The Arabic-tinged melodies of mbalax music also spoke to me because it reminded me of my first years–I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, spent time in Jordan, Syria and Yemen, so it spoke to part of my roots, which I was in tune with and trying to connect with then as a disgruntled teenager. But what was cool about Ibrahima was that he was from the old school in Dakar, Senegal.  He came up in a time before mbalax was created, in the time of bands such as Orchestre Baobab, Star Band, Dexter Johnson, etc. These were bands coming out of the pre-independence musical culture, where salsa and Afro-Cuban music influenced a lot of popular music. He [Ibrahima] was also half Guinean, which I think helped lead to his access and mastery of djembe, which is more of a predominant drum over there, even though he was living in Senegal. But, he was also on the scene in the beginning of post-independence when modern mbalax was being created, in its infancy.  So working with him was amazing because it was showing me the entire history of mbalax, the roots and history of the music, and how it developed into the modern sound we know today.  I was fortunate to work with him in such a close proximity–needless to say I was really spoiled by his level of groove and that’s probably why I’m so picky about the drummers I play with today.  He was so good, the real deal.  A few years after working with him, his friend Mamadou Diop showed up in Boston, who was the rhythm guitar player for Thione Seck at the time.  He was a true mbalax rhythm guitar player (a la Pape Omar Ngom of Youssou Ndour fame), and watching and working with him helped a great deal in mastering the real technique of the right hand for mbalax rhythm guitar.

Have you traveled to the continent?

Yes, I have traveled to Dakar, Senegal, and Accra, Ghana as a musician, and Cairo, Egypt and Nairobi, Kenya when I was a kid.

You currently play in Ghanaian rapper Blitz the Ambassador‘s band. We’ve been enjoying his music for a while, and especially noticing the excellent guitar touches. How is it to work with Blitz?

I have had a close working relationship with Mr. Bazawule, AKA Blitz the Ambassador for over five years now.  It started during the recording of the album Stereotype. We really connected on a musical as well as philosophical level, which led to a full working relationship for Native Sun, The Warmup EP and most recently Afropolitan Dreams.

First off, I would say he’s probably one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met. We went around the world two times playing almost every major festival out there with no record label, just on will and desire.  It’s pretty crazy when I think about it. To me, he represents a modern, young African voice in the diaspora, which is something I support coming more into the limelight.

Most African music fans outside of Africa seem to be drawn to the old and retro music, which, of course is amazing and important, but there is a part of that attraction which I feel feeds the stereotypes of Africa that are a legacy of colonialism.  There is a modern Africa too, you know?  If you go to the continent, you will realize this immediately. I feel that allowing the current generation’s ideas and music to be heard is important for Africa, for real progress to be made in the state of world affairs and fair treatment globally, etc.  It’s all connected.  Working with Blitz is about that discussion, and the music is not just music, it actually means something and carries a message, much like one of his big influences, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.  In fact, Fela’s son Seun Kuti, was featured on the hiplife/highlife anthem “Make You No Forget” which we cut for Afropolitan Dreams, and has garnered a lot of attention from that track and video.  It was great to see two important young African voices get together, they both deserve any recognition they get.

Is this your first record as a leader?

Yes.

Is it all instrumental? If so, why?

It is 99 percent instrumental except for the forro-reggae/samba track “Bright and Sunny Day,” which has vocals, and which was inspired by my time touring in Brazil with Blitz.

For my next record, I think I will be using much more vocals, but for this one I wanted to prove to myself that the music could stand on its own, in its own right.  I think it does. But mostly, I wrote this record as a story, from the first track to the last, the way I see the world through my lenses, traveling all over the world and the experiences and cultures I’ve encountered. Basically, I’ve gone where my guitar has taken me in this world, and the guitar is the best, most honest voice I have right now. Also, vocals are probably the hardest thing to deal with when you play any music from a different culture, but the music on this record has been my story, so I had to tell it.  The melodies were strong so I went with it.  But it’s definitely just the first step of things to come and my evolution as a songwriter and direction as an artist.

You’ve released three tunes so far, each with a different style and flavor. Can you talk a bit about “Mbeuguel,” which has a strong Senegalese mbalax influence?

Mbeuguel is the Wolof word for “love.”  In mbalax music, much like most of West African music, there are themes or topics that every artist uses, which pertain to everyday life.  For instance, almost every artist in mbalax has a song called “Mbeuguel.”  It’s similar in Mali, where they have a canon of traditional music, songs such as “Jarabi” or “Kaira,” which are almost like jazz standards, where everyone interprets a traditional melody–it may be innovative and pushing the boundaries, but the core melody must be there for certain songs to exist. The difference in mbalax music is that essentially, mbalax is pop music, so it’s mainly just the theme topics that reoccur.  There is not necessarily a melodic connection like the songs “Jarabi” or “Kaira” have in Mali.  But it is about the feeling, so a lot of songs called “Mbeuguel” will start down-tempo and nostalgic, to evoke the feeling of love, either good love or love gone bad–and so many songs may in fact be similar in this way.  It’s what a lot of Senegalese musicians refer to as “Le Feel-ing quoi,” [Laughs]. Even though there are obviously a lot of traditional elements such as sabar drums and guitar lines derived from the sabar and xalam (Wolof version of the ngoni), there is also a freedom from the tradition, since this is pop music. It’s a tension that creates a sound that I believe is totally unique, despite all the similarities that the countries of the old Manding Empire share. This is also mainly due to the sound and language of the sabar drums.

Back to my history! Later on, there was a time towards the end of working with Ibrahima Camara that I had a fateful night.  I was still in Boston, and I went to see the Senegalese singer Alioune Mbaye Nder (which people just call Nder for short) at The Paradise rock club.  At the time, he was so popular in Senegal, that people were calling him the new king of mbalax (as a challenge to Youssou Ndour’s throne). I entered into the club confident that I would know what was going on due to my large exposure to Senegalese music thus far, but halfway into the first number, it was clear this was a whole different ballgame.  The band was young, playing hot with a hipness and flair that soon had me totally mesmerized. There was something totally different in the air. Oh my goodness, all of a sudden it became clear to me that I knew nothing at all. But I wanted to. Really bad. I was hooked; the music spoke to me in a really deep way. The style they were playing was what I would later learn was referred to as “Generation Boul Falé” (generation “I don’t care”), which I would basically say was the young hip-hop generation’s take on mbalax in Senegal. Whatever it was, it was super hip and fresh.

At the show, one of the sabar players, Lamine Touré, really stood out, and I had a brief conversation with him in my broken French–I also talked to most guys in the band in a similar fashion, and expressed how they had just blown me away. The guitarist, Papis Diouf, would  later become one of my main influences in the style, for his melodic approach. He played spacious, beautiful and funky melodies that soared over the cacophony of the intense rhythms of the sabar drums. He had learned from Lamine Faye, of early Super Diamano and later Lemzo Diamano fame, who was one of the architects of the modern mbalax sound. So through Papis, what was being represented was the lineage and passing of the torch into the new generation of guitarists, which was really exciting.

It was my fate, that shortly after, Lamine Touré, that exceptional sabar player I saw at the Paradise, would move to Boston, and he and I quickly connected and started a band that was called Group Saloum.   This is the period where I became immersed in the “Generation Boul Falé” style that the Wolof people affectionately refer to as mbalax pur et dur (‘pure and tough’). We eventually ended up doing an “Afro-Mbalax” sound due to Lamine’s legitimate concern that mbalax pur et dur wouldn’t work in America–a sentiment shared by many Senegalese–due to its specific cultural aspect, and the fact that most American people couldn’t feel the beat of pur et dur mbalax, which is mostly true. All the same, I still had an uncanny access to the new sounds coming from Senegal through Lamine and his partner Patricia Tang, a sabar and mbalax enthusiast, who teaches sabar at MIT in Boston. She wrote a great book called Masters of the Sabar about Lamine’s family of drummers.  But it was also this musical relationship that would ultimately take me to Senegal for the first time–where again, I would have an even greater “I-don’t-know-anything” moment when I saw my first live mbalax show in Dakar.

In Dakar, this happened at the moment I was almost forcefully asked to jam on stage at the club Sunrise au Sahel, because the band was excited that an “American jazz guy” was there [Laughs].  That’s when I really started to understand the true feeling of mbalax pur et dur.  I was pushed onstage with a popular singer named Assane N’Diaye (Thione Seck’s son), who had garnered a couple hits already, so naturally I was nervous.  But to be on stage struggling to keep up with a fast mbalax 6/8 line (which I thought I was comfortable with!), with a real-deal rhythm section in a Dakar nightclub, was the first time when I finally felt what mbalax pur et dur was really supposed to feel like.  It was unbelievable, a whole different level of rhythm, and a feeling that I wanted to have again–many, many more times.

That brings me to when I moved to New York some years later.  I was able to link with the Senegalese community quite easily as the community is so close knit all across America. I initially linked with the great bassist Thierno Camara, another Thione Seck alumnus, but who had also grew up in the famed neighborhood of Cecap in Dakar, where basically a big part of where modern mbalax was created. It’s where a lot of the young musicians were experimenting and pushing the boundaries of mbalax. One thing that I was so surprised about upon arrival in Senegal, is that when I would work out with musicians, it quickly became evident that there were five major Western influences everyone was shedding on: Charlie Parker heads, Jaco Pastorius, Weather Report, and for guitarists especially, Mark Knopfler and George Benson. If you listen to mbalax long enough, these elements become quite obvious. There was a real thirst for jazz knowledge in the streets of Dakar. Thierno was from this school, and soon we were gigging all over NYC with his project called the Waaw Band. This was also my first time being introduced and playing with the great rhythm section of Mahanta Faye on drum set, who played and recorded with his older brother Lamine Faye’s band, Lemzo Diamano (and whose other brother is Habib Faye–the famed bassist for Youssou Ndour), Arone N’Diaye on Yamaha DX-7 marimba keyboards, who played with the great N’Dongolo, and Morcoumba Gueye, the son of Mar Gueye, whose house in Harlem represented the epicenter of the Senegalese scene in Harlem, and who also led the Sing Sing drummers in NYC for traditional parties.

It marked the beginning of many years playing together for Faye, N’Diaye, Gueye and myself, all over NYC, for countless singers and soireés Senegalais, tabaski and korité parties in Harlem, as well as a tours backing up such luminaries as Fatou Guewel, Kiné Lam, Marie N’Diaye and Fatou Laobé (which also included the great xalam player Djibi Cissokho and the legendary sabar player Thio Mbaye–who happened to be Lamine Touré’s uncle and teacher). We were also opening up for superstar singers like Pape Diouf when they came to town.  The band name would change frequently as singers  would come and go, but somehow we remained as a unit through the turmoil.  Later on, the final addition of the phenomenal Patrice Blanchard on bass, originally from Martinique, but who played mbalax so naturally people would swear he was Senegalese, made us one of the hardest-hitting rhythm sections anywhere. But the main reason it was so great for me, was because we were doing mbalax pur et dur.  As a non-Senegalese fan of mbalax, I always wanted to see the real thing, not a hybrid or Westernized version of the real thing.  I wanted it in its pure form.  I was convinced others did too and that it would work on American audiences because I actually saw it happen when I booked the band in hipster areas of Brooklyn.  The dancing may not have been necessarily on point but the audience was mesmerized and the appreciation and fascination was there. Those were some crazy, sweaty parties for sure. Even though this is an extremely cultural music, the energy that this particular rhythm section would play it with was with the same feeling as rock ‘n’ roll.  That’s ultimately why I think it works. It’s music on the edge that any young person can relate to.

Unfortunately, this rhythm section was never recorded properly for various reasons, so I was determined to record the band as is and instrumentally, to shed a spotlight on the genius of what the musicians do, and what we are as a unit. Otherwise, I don’t think anyone would ever hear this band in its pure form.  So, the mbalax songs I wrote for my record, which includes “Mbeuguel,” are very special to me. They were recorded on the first take with no metronome, live, as a tribute to the chemistry we have as a unit.

Can you talk a bit about the song “Aiisha”? What are the stylistic influences and what does the song represent to you? It also features Jojo Kuo on drums, who played with Fela. How did you meet Jojo?

“Aiisha” is a song I’ve carried with me for years but never properly recorded. Stylistically, it’s mainly influenced by my experience playing with musicians from Mali through the years.  As the whole mbalax thing was happening, this experience was simultaneously happening as well.  I played for many years with the great balafon player Balla Kouyaté, the great kora player Balla Tounkara, who is a nephew of the guitar legend Djelimady Tounkara (I was able to record a track with Djelimady for Balla’s album which was called No More War when the Super Rail Band made its resurgence and was touring the U.S. for the first time–a dream come true for me), and Sidi Mohammed “Joh” Camara.  So initially, it was influenced by this period of work, where I really got into the likes of Lobi Traoré, Oumou Sangaré, Zani Diabaté and northern stuff like Ali Farka Touré.  It takes a northeastern turn towards Ethiopia in the second half, namely the entrance of the cello, performed by my good friend Dave Eggar–a child prodigy and Grammy-nominated solo artist who plays and records with everybody. He did the strings on the Frank Ocean record, as well as stuff for Coldplay and Mumford and Sons to name a few. I was touring down south with his project named Deoro when he heard the rhythm track of the song which I had just cut for “Aiisha.”  He loved it and we incorporated it into his set. Eventually he started implying this Ethiopian Masinko melody which worked really well (he had traveled to Ethiopia to record a soundtrack where he learned that stuff), and we developed it from there. We got back to NYC and went straight to the studio. He laid down many parts with just his cello, which made it start to sound kind of like an orchestra.  That gave me the idea for the outro–we took a bunch of four and eight bar phrases he played, and looped them on top of each other at different starting points and it created this huge orchestral sound. The original inspiration for me was the orchestral outro on Curtis Mayfield’s “Right On For the Darkness”.  Still can’t get anywhere close to that! But it worked for the song and really was the final missing piece for me.

Ah, the great Jojo Kuo.  I played with Jojo in many projects including his own band through the years, and we just connected musically and as friends as time went on. I think I first played with him in Duke Amayo’s [lead singer from Antibalas] project the FU-arkist-ra, and of course became a fan of his instantly.  He’s one of the best drummers out there. He played with Fela in Egypt 80, Papa Wemba and Peter Gabriel, he played on Mory Kanté’s hit “Yeke Yeke” and it’s rumored that he is the drummer on Manu Dibango’s classic “Soul Makossa.” I had lost touch with him for a couple years, but before I decided to do an album, I randomly ran into him at this pizza shop on a freezing winter night in the East Village. We hugged and caught up a bit and he said “Anytime you need a drummer, let me know.”  I asked him, “What are you doing tomorrow?” [Laughs] “I have some ideas I want to try out.”  He obliged and I believe “Aiisha” was the first song we cut.  We cut two more after that, real quick, with two or three takes at the most. It was at that point that I gained the courage to turn this into an album.  So, in many ways I owe the credit of making this album to Jojo!  If I didn’t run into him by chance that night, I probably never would have started it.  That’s NYC for you.

More so, the importance of Jojo is that, for what I was really going for, I knew he would be the only one for those songs because of his energy and diversity as a musician.  He really can play anything and does it with reckless abandon.  I needed that tension, the feeling that things could fall apart at any time, someone who would go for it, and not play it safe.  You see, I was taking a chance.  I know most people will see my record as a world music record, but to me, it’s really a rock ‘n’ roll record (the mbalax stuff included) because its all played with the feeling of rock ‘n’ roll.  I think it will be more evident when people hear the whole record, but “Aiisha” is a great indicator of that element.  Rock ‘n’ roll is the roots of my guitar playing and it’s the thread that ties everything together for me on the album.  It’s also an indicator of where I’m going next, musically.  Ultimately, I’m just a musician trying to find my own, honest voice.  As much as the African stuff is a part of my history, rock ‘n’ roll, funk, soul and electronic music is just as much a part of it, too.

What about the other musicians on the album? I see many familiar names from NYC’s African music scene. Mostly friends?

All the musicians  on this album (and there are a lot!) are great friends of mine. And many who are not on the African music scene as well.  I play a lot of different kinds of music, and my sources of inspiration vary greatly. Unmentioned thus far is Luke Quaranta from Toubab Krewe who was instrumental in being able to provide the real Malian language of djembe in a rock ‘n’ roll environment on four tracks; Morgan Price (FELA!, Duke Ellington Orchestra), who helped co-write the horn lines on “Aiisha” and “Are You Ready?” (unreleased); Nate Edgar (Nth Power and John Brown’s Body); Nadav Nirenberg (Streetlight Manifesto); Jason Colby (Lee Fields and the Expressions); Sam Hoyt (Jorge Ben); Ron Johnson (Warren Haynes, Greg Allman); Josh Werner (Bill Laswell, CocoRosie); Mayteana Morales (Pimps of Joytime); Domenica Fossati (Underground System); Daniel Spirandelli, my friend from Sao Paulo who was instrumental on the track “Bright and Sunny Day” and a beautiful berimbau interlude piece as well; Takuya Nakamura (CocoRosie, Nerve); Troy Simms; Billy Polo (who also engineered and mixed the album); my good friend Sydney Driver (the drummer in Blitz’s band for years); Igmar Thomas (Esperanza Spalding, Revive Big Band); and Lex Sadler (Rhythm and Stealth) to name a few.

Do you plan on putting together a touring band, or is primarily a recording project? 

Eventually yes.  It’s definitely a studio record, but most of the tracks were initially cut live, so it makes sense to perform it live.  There will be a record release show TBA in mid-September, early October after the release, due to touring commitments with other projects, but offers are coming in so I’m just waiting for the right timing now. We’ll see!

We’re looking forward to hearing the whole album, out on Ropeadope Records September 9th! Keep us posted.

Absolutely.  Thank you so much to the whole Afropop Worldwide crew.  So far the response has been great for the singles, so I really can’t wait for everyone to hear the whole record, and hear the story from start to finish.

 

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