How ‘up’ are you on your modern jazz divas? Me neither, so I wouldn’t blame you if the thought of American singer Dee Dee Bridgewater getting in touch with her 'roots' by dabbling in the music of West Africa prompts no more than a sceptical “oh yeah?”.
But forget such cynicism, the album (Red Earth – a Malian Journey) features a stellar list of guests from the world-class end of the musical spectrum and an immersive approach to recording that finds Bridgewater weaving her impressive jazz phrasing around a number of griot songs and those chosen from the repertoires of her distinguished Malian guests (Oumou Sangaré, Kassé Mady Diabaté, Tata Bambo Kouyaté and Bassekou Kouyaté all feature).
The album was recorded at the legendary Bogolan studios in Bamako and arranged (both musically, and in terms of personnel) by Cheick Tidiane Seck. "I'm an ambassador for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and I've been out to Africa a few times. I always keep my ears open to the music there, and Mali really stood out“, explains a jolly-but-jetlagged-sounding Dee Dee Bridgewater on the phone from Los Angeles. "I first heard Cheick Seck on a Hank Jones album, and as soon as I decided to record an album with Malian musicians, I thought of him. So we got in touch with his manager, and he got the ball rolling with all these great artists."
I wonder if Dee Dee has any identifiable lineage back to Mali? "No, and I would not claim that, but when I first arrived in Bamako with the river Niger there in front of me and the red earth below, I felt a connection, I felt I was home. Later, when I was speaking to my mother about it, she said 'of course there’s a connection, you've always loved red earth - even when you were a baby in Memphis you would roll around in the red dirt there', so it all feels quite natural."
Natural or not, the musical results feel organic enough to this listener, although years of nestling ever further into the ‘not having to bother trying to understand the words’ comfort zone makes the sudden arrival of English lyrics into this particular idiom something of an aural jolt initially. But the trouble Bridgewater has taken to remain faithful to each song's original theme becomes ever more apparent as ears are tuned in.
Dee Dee: “I guess you would call them loose translations. Cheick translated the original words, and I would adapt them to make sure they made sense in terms of lyrics. Sometimes it’s almost a word for word translation, others there’s more of an ad-libbed approach. I think there's a similarity to jazz in many of the songs chosen, with the social resonance, the emotion and defiance of them.”
That’s a good description of Tata Bambo Kouyaté’s classic Bambo (No More), a song relating Malian women’s fight against forced marriages. Mention of the call-and-response duet between the two produces a crackle of admiration that fizzes down 5000-plus miles of phone line. “The stature of that woman - amazing! You know, women are changing things in Mali, men no longer dictate the rules. With Tata leading the way, what chance have they got! And for her to open up the subject of forced marriages with the Government - it shows the power she has.”
That song is delivered in Dee Dee's standard soulful tone, which contrasts well with Tata Bambo’s strident blues. On the Bassekou Kouyaté song, Demissènw (Children Go 'Round), Bridgewater really lets herself go, belting out a vibrant, gospel-edged blues over a performance which perfectly captures the live sound of Kouyaté’s thrilling ngoni quartet.
“That was the only track on the album that was recorded live. We started to work together with a different, more modern set-up, but with Bassekou’s acoustic band, Ngoni Ba, the whole thing just took off.”
A call to Bassekou Kouyaté confirms the mutual respect between the performers. “When we started rehearsing, Dee Dee immediately became part of my family: she is my sister, she even looks very Malian,” he enthuses. “I love the album - it is of excellent quality musically, and this is a really positive way to approach African music, by involving it with experiments with jazz, an expression that has African music at its roots. Everyone who took part feels very positive about the collaboration and will be glad to work with her in future. For me, I know it is just the start of a very fruitful collaboration, and I hope she will come back and do further albums with Ngoni Ba.”
"Yes, I may have another album coming with Bassekou," confirms Dee Dee, "He is writing the songs at the moment, and we'll maybe add even more traditional instruments like the bolon.” Meanwhile, Dee Dee has been touring Red Earth with some of the lesser-known (but still impressive) names that feature on the album (Mamani Keita and Baba Sissoko amongst them), with the possibility of a visit to the UK early in 2008. So, this is some commitment to the music of West Africa, and its relationship to American jazz and blues. I suggest to Dee Dee that there must be an element of indulgence on the part of her record company Universal, given the time she is spending in what is very much a specialist genre. “Oh, I have been producing myself since 1993 - I do whatever I please, I cannot have a record company dictating what I do. I'm a 21st Century girl!”
This feature first appeared in fRoots magazine.