By Stanley Gazemba
Although he doesn’t like to be compared to them, his act is in the class of Baaba Maal, Salif Keita and other West African greats of poetic Islam-influenced griot music tradition. The long-drawn wailing vocal intonations akin to the quintessential call of the muezzin to the dawn prayers in Muslim towns easily invokes visions of wind-kissed desert sand-plains, a lone nomad leading his camel by the leash on the horizon. It is the music of the desert. Albeit served in one of the few remaining open-air performance spaces in Nairobi’s city centre on a warm Friday evening.
“I want to develop my music everywhere in Africa and later in Europe,” said Alif Naaba in an interview at Ketebul Music studio following his successful show at Alliance Francaise on his last visit to Kenya. “I want to use my music to preach peace and development. It is important for Africa to have economic and cultural growth.” He was at the studio to record a collabo, Pougbi, which he did with local musician Winyo, and which elicited a warm reception from the audience when they performed it at Alliance. The song, in which the singer declares his love for his wife, was rehearsed backstage for five minutes before the performance. It is a pointer to his mission of unifying Eastern and Western Africa musically.
“It is important for our generation to make the connection between East Africa and West Africa,” he said when introducing Winyo on stage for the four-hour long show that got the audience- predominantly white interspersed with a few local artistic types - on their feet the entire evening. It was an electrifying performance, the drums resonating in life-like thumps reminiscent of the African long-drums of the bush telegraphers of yore, enticing the city to come out and dance. Interspersed in the rich vocal and guitar dalliance was the distinct plucking of the kora that crowned the fine serving of time-ripened West African fare.
Naaba’s percussionist, Mohammed Sana, is unique in the sense that he doesn’t use drumsticks. His bare fingers get the job done. His eccentricities start with his drums, which are not your conventional set. The bass drum is the half of a huge calabash, three djembe drums of varying sizes making up the snare and tom-tom drums. Every time his bare fingers completed a roll he punctuated it with a hearty bang on the hi-hat cymbals and a deft flick on the chimes that left no doubt he was thoroughly enjoying himself. Naaba’s music makes for an interesting fusion of the unique vocal arrangement popularized by the Keitas of Mali interspersed with the melodic kora and a dizzying guitar arrangement that morphs between the Congolese seben and screaming rock. One minute you are sitting under an old baobab tree listening to Dao Mamadou’s ancient kora weaving a sensuous tapestry, and the next guitarist Michael Avron thrusts you into the electric age of Jimmi Hendrix, the bassist Achille Ouattara, working all the while in the background to keep everything grounded.
“I am a modern traditional singer,” he describes himself. “I am a troubadour. I perform barefoot because I consider the audience as my chief. As a troubadour, when you perform before a chief or a king you do not put on your shoes.” Naaba, who sings in his native Mooré language and French, was born in Konkistenga village, North West of Burkina Faso, but soon after moved to Cote d’Ivoire with his family. He was introduced to music at age 6 by his mother who was a traditional singer of the Mossi tribe. As a child he was entrusted to a Koranic master by his father who wanted him to learn the strict discipline of Islam. Part of that training entailed physical labour and begging.
“This education taught me humility and gave me a good vision of the people of the world,” he said. “It also gave me spirituality and taught me that life is full of surprises. It taught me to accept our different philosophies and helped me to convey the message of peace in my music.” From the Koranic school he proceeded to a regular school where he started to develop his love for music. His music, which draws from his Mossi roots, is inspired by the Salou rhythm of Burkina Faso and other desert rhythms of West Africa, together with jazz. “I make fusion music that is inspired by the cultures of the places I travel to.”
He made his debut with his first album Regards Métis (Mongrel Glance) which was recorded in 1999 but released in 2003. It earned him the Kundé Award for the best artist from the diaspora, catapulting him to instant fame in his home country, Burkina Faso. His second album, Foo, followed in 2005, also bagging a Kundé for best francophone song. The album that opened his music to the world beyond West Africa was Wakat, released in 2009, and which embraced an acoustic Afro-pop style that encompasses both poetic griot story-telling and funky dance riffs. When he made his debut in the US at New York’s Globalfest in 2010, the New York Times described him as ‘singing earnest admonitions above briskly finger-picked six-beat webs of guitar and percussion, a gentler but no less engrossing counterpart to music from neighbouring Mali.’
He has also performed at the Cervantino International Festival. Naaba wrote the music for the musical comedy Nguwino Ubeho produced for the 15th commemoration of the Rwanda genocide. He shared the stage with Kenya’s Makadem at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival at the World Cinema Pavillion. His performance at Alliance Francaise, Nairobi formed part of an Eastern and Southern African tour of ten countries, supported by the Institut Francais in Paris.