Music For Good

Anjali Jhangiani
Friday, 8 November 2019

Speaking to international headliners of The Mahindra Open Drive, Goa, about bringing their distinct sounds to India

The Mahindra Open Drive is a drive-a-thon-cum-cultural festival aimed at bringing together people from different cities, diverse cultural backgrounds through stimulating local cuisine and enroute activities to raise money for various non-profits. The drive-a-thon will commence from five different cities including Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Delhi and Bengaluru and culminate in Goa. 

In Goa, there will be a host of music performances by Indian and international artists. We speak to Brooklyn Funk Essentials and Harouna Samake, the international headliners for the festival. 

Brooklyn Funk Essentials
Founded by American music producer and DJ Arthur Baker and musician Lati Kronlund in the early ’90s, Brooklyn Funk Essentials is an all-star group of musicians from across the world who bring their own distinct style of music to the jam. Over the years, the band has featured many different artists, but the 2019 line up includes Anna Brooks on the saxophone, Desmond Foster on the guitar, Hux Flux Nettermalm on drums, Iwan Van Hetten on trumpet and keyboards, Lati Kronlund on bass and new vocalist Alison Limerick. 

The band has previously released six albums that have all been received with warmth and cheer by their fans. Along with prestigious Grammy nominations, their music has been featured in movies and TV shows. Earlier this year, the outfit came out with their latest album titled Stay Good. The album is a tribute to Grammy-winning American DJ, record producer and remixer Frankie Knuckles. The artist, who passed away in 2014, was instrumental in developing and popularising house music in Chicago in its initial stages during the ’80s. Here’s more from the band:

Tell us about the cultural diversity in the band right now and how it reflects in your sound.
Our songs talk about different themes that are important to us, both as a group and on a personal level. Typically, songs have dealt with the feelings and complications of living as an immigrant in a foreign country and various aspects of the city of New York, such as the so-called ‘cabaret license’ which a bar needs to have for people to be able to dance, definitions of cultural aspects such as hip-hop culture, and who has the right to call themselves a member and part of it, the civil rights movement, homelessness, the importance of dance as a personal and cultural expression, the list goes on…
Some of the lyrics from our songs from the ’90s have completely different connotations today than they did when we first wrote them, but it has more to with how society has changed than that we have changed. They still mean the same thing to us.

Tell us about your latest album Stay Good that released earlier this year.
Stay Good is our sixth studio album, but it’s the first with Alison Limerick as our lead singer. The essence of it is about staying true to yourself and trying to always better yourself, both creatively and spiritually and as a human being — this is particularly important in today’s very hostile and dark world.

How has your sound evolved, also considering the changes in line up, over the decades?
The scene in the ’90s was very creative and open. Sadly, the same culture doesn’t exist any more. Mainly because New York, and especially Manhattan, has become a place where only very rich people can afford to live. This has driven creativity away from the city. First it moved to Brooklyn, but then it spread to other parts of the country. Brooklyn Funk Essentials today are no longer based in central New York — in fact, the band plays more in Europe than in the USA these days.

Are you open to collaborating with Indian artists? Do you have anyone in mind?
We have been checking out some Indian artists such as Anoushka Shankar, Swarthy Korwar and Delhi Sultanate. We have worked with people from different parts of the world before and are always interested in meeting new musicians and making connections. Who knows what may come out of it in the end?

Harouna Samake
Harouna Samake has been playing jazz, blues and Wassoulou Traditions on the kamale n’ goni, an African stringed instrument, for over two decades now while touring with the Maltian musician Salif Keita. Last year, he recorded his first solo album called Kamale Blues. More from the musician:  

Tell us about all the traditional instruments you play and how you picked them up.
My musical journey started when I was 3-4 years old. I had a one-string instrument and could play every note on that. When I was 6, I saw a kamale n’goni player and fell in love with the instrument. I found a calabash, a stick and some fisherman’s nylon string and went to an old player to ask for help. He had just shot a gazelle and was about to change the skin for his instrument. I could get the old skin in exchange for new grass for his mattress. All my friends ran to the field and helped me collect new grass, and I had the elements for the instrument. Another player helped me assemble the kamale n’goni. When I played on it for the first time, it was like I had always been playing it — all the notes in my head came out when playing.
Later, I started to build my own instruments, and I have a whole collection ranging from six-stringed to 12-stringed ones. The ones I’m playing on now are almost 30 years old and have eight-strings. When I was 13, I got hired by the legendary and progressive Wassoulou singer, Sali Sidibé and we started touring internationally. This musical relationship that lasted a lifetime, until her passing away this year. We recorded her last album last year. When I was in my 20s, I got hired by one of the biggest stars in Africa, the outstanding Salif Keita. I have performed on every album of Salif Keita. Four years ago, Salif Keita asked the Danish producer and manager, Carolina Vallejo, One World, to produce my first solo album. 

Since you tour around the world so much, do you find yourself picking up musical influences from other regions and incorporating them into your music?
Absolutely. Not only from travelling, but I have always been listening to music from all over the world through the radio since I was a teenager. One of my early influences was American guitarist Wess Montgomery from whom I picked up special techniques of thumb playing the strings. Mali is a vividly musical country, we have more than 20 ethnic groups, each with its distinct musical style. 
Our drummer Thibaut Legre Sery is the rhythmical cord of the music, together with our amazing bass player Mike Clinton. We toured together with Salif Keita for four years and developed a wonderful friendship and deep musical understanding. Since then, we performed with amazing artists like Fatoumata Diawara, Black Eyed Peas and 50 Cent. 
Then we met the three-time award winning Cuban trumpet player and multiinstrumentalist, Carlos Sarduy, who adds an amazing sound to the music.

What is your relationship with your music instruments? 
They are part of who I am. I play several hours every day, and I express myself through the music. 

Tell us about your first solo album Kamale Blues.
Well, the project had been ready as a sketch for some time. My good friend Carolina Vallejo called me one day and told me Salif Keita had asked her to produce and manage me. I put the project on hold until she could come to Mali and record. She was happy when she heard my ideas and selected the songs which we recorded in my studio over two months. Then she took the files to Denmark to mix for six months. Together with her engineer, Richard Plougmann, who is with us for the Mahindra Open Drive Festival, they fixed everything to sound perfect. 
Carolina also insisted that my wife Assetou Diakite sings on the tours, as she really loves her voice and stage presence. It’s a blessing to work professionally with my wife again. In the early years, both of us toured with Sali Sidibé, and we love to work as a team. 

What is the message your music brings to listeners? 
I sing in Bambara, my native Malian language. My lyrics are about human rights, respect for the rich and poor, respect between women and men, grown ups and children. I sing about being generous when you can, and about sharing and caring for one another as human beings. In the song Blues Chasseur, I praise our sacred ancestral hunters — the brave men who also function as medicine men and magicians to predict the future and advise the ones in need. 

What are your future plans? 
Next year, we are going to tour Mexico, USA and Canada, Kazakhstan and the Middle East and hopefully, we will also be back in India. We are also going to collaborate on some songs with the amazing Raghu Dixit, whom we shared the stage with at the most important Contemporary Ethnic Music Festival in Kazakhstan, The Spirit Of Tengri. 

ST Reader Service
Brooklyn Funk Essentials and Harouna Samake will be performing at the Mahindra Open Drive festival in Goa on November 8

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