In a time when unity and community are sorely needed, voices from different parts of the world are coming together. The Brooklyn Rage Massive All-Stars, stalwarts of the NYC Indian music scene and dubbed "leaders of the Raga Renaissance" by The New Yorker, are collaborating with West African phenom Awa Sangho.
The group will play the Rubin Museum on Friday, August 12th at 7 pm. Awa previously appeared with BRM at a show in February. "I love the melodies of India," says Awa. "I feel the music."
Awa's live performances are known for their high energy; when not singing she can be found with her eyes closed, dressed in flowing bright clothes, smiling, dancing and feeling the rhythyms of the musicians surrounding her. She also joins them, adding to the wash of her native percussion instruments, often the calabash gourd. When it's time to lend her vocals, her voice soars like an eagle over the landscape of sounds from her homeland.
Awa was born in Bamako, Mali, and raised by her grandmother. She found her musical voice at a very young age. "They always tell me that as a little girl of 3 or 4, I used to sing," she says wistfully. "I'm a very emotional person, and I would sing these melancholy melodies. People in the family would give me candy or a little cash to make me sing! Then as I was growing up and going to school, my dad moved to the Ivory Coast, where there was a very famous band called the Ensemble Koteba. They wanted to bring a new element to the band."
Awa's dad, who'd moved their, encouraged her to try out. "He took me to audition and I joined them. I was 14 years old."
Awa traveled the world with the 25-member group beginning in 1988. "We went to France and spent 10 months there, and from there went to Italy, Switzerland...I learned a lot."
After 5 years, Awa joined forces with two other young girls and co-founded
Les Go De Koteba. "All women, singing and dancing and playing different instruments. Everything began there."
The group went on to record several albums, including the successful Dan Gna in 2000, which included the hit Sou (The Night) produced by Bruce Sweiden (a 5-time Grammy Winner and frequent Quincy Jones collaborator) and a hit a many different clubs.
After over a decade with Les Go, Awa began to appear as a solo artist. "I had been touring and working with a lot of amazing African musicians," she says. "Manu Dibango, Amadou and Mariam, Salif Keita. I was invited as an artist to do the Festival of the Desert in Timbuktu. Salif was invited and I worked with him and also did my own show. Salif wanted me to come on tour with him. He said 'Give up everything, come with me and after that I can produce your album.' I said, 'With all due respect, I have to do my own thing right now. It's time to do my own album.' I met with (master percussionist) Daniel Moreno, who's my actual cousin, and he invited me to NYC, and we decided to do the album here."
Awa moved to New York in 2011, and her debut solo album, Ala Ta, (The Truth Belongs To God), was released in 2014. Awa learned songwriting under the tutelage of Ali Farka Toure, and her lyrics are socially aware, while set against high-energy, jubilant rhythms and soaring melodies.
"I love to talk about the reality of what we're living every day," she says. "And plea for more harmony and peace in this crazy world we're in today. We need to have more love, more kindness. As an artist you can spread the word and share that with everybody."
Ala Ta features a melancholy song of gratitude called Neba Nifa. "It's to acknowledge, honor, and to thank my mom and my dad for the life they gave me," Awa explains. The album also has a song for the children: Denko, a composition particularly dear to Awa and relevant to our times. It speaks of the tradition of communal child raising in Africa (Awa has an 18-year-old son) and is sung partly in Wolof, a language of Senegal. "It's a very emotional song," notes Awa. "When I listen to it myself, I'm in tears. My son listened to it and I explained the meaning, and he was crying too."
Denko touches on the crucial need for education. Awa observes that the world needs to change, and that change starts with the children. "You have to give them the right attention, the right education, the right advice," she says passionately. "If they can learn as a child how to share, how to be more accepting of others, none of this would happen. We need to spread more love... If people take the time to listen, to let the other express themselves, and accept them as they are, maybe people won't hurt each other."