In the predominantly Arabic region of North Africa known as the Maghreb, for example, a Gnawa musician plays the same ancient West African rhythms that inform so much contemporary Western and Latin music. And in West Africa, a muezzin incants the same call to prayer as heard throughout the Maghreb, the Middle East, and beyond. The global music conversation is at once omnidirectional, ongoing, and cross-pollinating and can yield incandescent multi-hued hybrids.
"We want to expose our audience to music they normally wouldn't hear," says Festival manager Erica D. Zielinski. "We start with the idea of giving artists a platform to do whatever they want without being under the constraint of having to promote something." To wit, Idir and Najat Aatabou, two legendary Imazighen musicians, will make their U.S. debut at this year's festival for "A Night in the Maghreb" (July 18); and pairing Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara with Issa Bagayogo in "Afro-Blues for the 21st Century" (July 21) is something of a dream bill for fans of West African music.
There are at least four millennia represented in Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara's music. "The ancient kologo [lute] and ritti [a one-string fiddle] we play are represented in the Pharaonic art of Egypt," says Justin Adams, a British guitarist who plays with such contemporary Western artists as Robert Plant and Brian Eno. Camara, a Gambian griot (praise singer) who learned his craft from his blind griot father, has a different set of references: "I play at marriages and naming ceremonies, for working farmers and campaigning politicians, for the Wolof, Mandinka, Fulani or whoever," Camara says citing Gambia's three largest ethnic groups.
The result of their improbable collaboration is revelatory and faithfully captured on the duo's new album, Tell No Lies (Real World Records). Camara's shape-shifting ritti and traditional West African melodies perfectly complement Adams's foot-stomping African/Western blues guitar. The duo fearlessly tackle contemporary hot-button issues like illegal immigration, teen pregnancy, and the corrupt distribution of foreign aid: 21st Century Afro-Blues indeed.
Issa Bagayogo's ancient-modern amalgam may be the Festival's most wide-ranging. "Techno Issa," as Bagayogo is known, was raised in the small village of Korin in Mali's Wassoolu region where he worked farming millet and where he learned to play the kamale n'goni (a six-string lute): which hardly explains his nickname. No, the musician didn't spend time in Ibiza's famed dance clubs, but rather on the streets of Bamako where French producer Yves Wernert first heard Bagayogo's traditional-sounding cassette. Wernert thought to fuse Bagayogo's n'goni and smooth commanding baritone with electronic beats and samples. The partnership has since yielded four albums, including his latest "Mali Koura" ("Six Degrees"), which has a more organic and jazz-inflected sound than past recordings. Bagayogo's Lincoln Center performance will feature a DJ and a sound engineer triggering samples offstage.
It wasn't a blues song but rather a lullaby performed in 1973 by an unknown musician in his ancient and forbidden Tamazight language that inspired an entire people. The song was "A Vava Inouva" ("My Dear Dad"), and a Imazighen musician named Hamid Cheriet performed it on Radio Algeria when he was asked at the last minute to fill in for a famous singer. "A Vava Inouva" became an international hit and helped strengthen the long-oppressed minority's ethnic identity. The singer changed his name to Idir (which means "he shall live") and immigrated to France in 1975 where he could more freely compose and perform in his native tongue.
Idir has since become an unofficial Imazighen cultural ambassador. Though his sound is elegiac and breezy, employing both ancient (the Kabylian flute and the derbouka goblet drum) and modern (electric bass and keyboards) instruments, his political messages are razor sharp. On songs like "B An Warrac" ("What the Youth Want") Idir speaks harsh truth to oppressive power: "To you who rule us / It's high time you left / So the country can forget you / Nobody wants you / We've had our fill of you / We want to forget your faces."
As a woman and an Imazighen from Morocco's Atlas Mountains, Najat Aatabou has faced discrimination on multiple fronts: which didn't prevent her international star from rising. Her first single "J'en ai Marre" ("I've Had Enough") expressed her frustration with how women in her culture were treated. Aatabou, who has released some 25 albums, is known as the "Queen of Chaabi" combining both Imazighen and Arabic sounds which range from full-blown orchestras to sparse backings by a lone bendir (frame drum) and/or a lotar (a Moroccan guitar). She sings about gender equality and other social issues like adultery, domestic violence, and single motherhood: topics long-considered taboo in the Maghreb. "I try to sketch a fair picture of Moroccan women," Aatabou says, "but I also try to defend their rights and to change prevailing views."
Najat may be best known in the West for her 1987 song "Hadi Kadba Beyna" ("Just Tell Me the Truth"), which was sampled by British electronic duo The Chemical Brothers on their 2005 smash hit "Galvanize." Rather ironically, the track was later used in a popular Budweiser commercial. Onstage Aatabou is known to reach an exultant ritual trance-like state known as jedba. Offstage, the audience finds its own bliss.
For more on the annual fest, kicking off July 7, visit Lincoln Center Festival.