Welcome to Rhapsody Radar, our series highlighting 24 up-and-coming artists we're thrilled about, augmented with all manner of playlists, videos and other such ephemera. Today we've got an exclusive interview with Sam Doumbia of Malian rap trio SMOD. Enjoy.
Even over email and through a French-to-English translator, Sam Doumbia of SMOD has a lot to say, and a compelling way of making people want to listen. It's a rather useful skill for a hip-hop artist to have. It's also not all that surprising, his being so outspoken and charismaticafter all, he's the son of Mali's Amadou and Mariam, the blind couple who've worked magic on Afro-pop. But he and his band are in the process of carving out their own legacy, one that's steeped in the power of hip-hop to simultaneously critique and celebrate, but laced throughout with new innovations in African musical traditions. In the process, they're changing the African hip-hop game, and bringing it to the attention of people around the world.
Here, Doumbia talks with Rhapsody about working with Manu Chao (who produced their new, self-titled album), the complicated influence of West Africa's griot tradition on contemporary hip-hop, and musical life in his hometown of Bamako, Mali.
Rhapsody: Tell us the story of how you came to make music together.
Sam Doumbia: We all met in high school in Bamako and started jamming in the classroom when the teacher was away. The jam session got deeper when we hit Faladié, a popular neighborhood where you could meet MC's just around any corner. The SMOD crew basically got stronger and stronger by battling with Faladié MC's every night.
R: This is your third album, but only your first to get release in the U.S. and Europe, right? How has your sound evolved/changed since the first album? What did you want to say with this album?
SD: The beginnings of SMOD were very much influenced by U.S. hip-hop heroes like Tupac or Wu-Tang. But little by little, it appeared clearly to us that real hip-hop being a reflection of reality, gangsta rap was not a faithful reflection of our African identity. Therefore, our style evolved naturally, including elements of traditional Malian music more and more. Malian-style guitar and bambara song sketches are now powerful stylistic features in SMOD's music. Each song has a different meaning, but the main goal of this album is to express today's African youth stages and hopes.
R: What was it like working with Manu Chao? He can have a pretty strong thumbprint -- a distinctive sound. Was it difficult to balance that with your own musical ideas?
SD: We had a ball working with Manu, he's very humble and open-minded. There was never any conflict between us. Simplicity in music is a common goal that we share with Manu.
R: I know you created and recorded much of the album on your parents' terrace. Is that symbolic? What kind of influence have Amadou and Mariam had on you musically? As a group and as a person?
SD: The 7th heaven terrace in Bamako is the spot where we rehearse. This is also where we first met Manu Chao. That's where our music sounds best, so why should we go elsewhere to record it?
In Mali, tradition and family is the root of every achievement. We are blessed to be part of such a beautiful musical family, and will do our best to perpetuate Amadou and Mariam's heritage. As a group we've always enjoyed the musical company of Amadou and Mariam. As far as I am concerned, my parents are real proud to see me extending Malian music to new territories and genres.
R: What other musical influences have influenced you? Or artistic influences in general?
SD: Apart from hip-hop music, we listened to all great Mali artists such as Oumou Sangaré, Ali Farka Touré or Salif Keita. We also love reggae music, rock and folk music. We are deeply connected with all African artistic expression like dance and griot tradition.
R: You've had a video censored by ORTM and you have several songs that criticize government actions. Do you consider yourself a political group?
SD: Yes, being part of the new African generation, SMOD wants to see some changes happening on the African continent. This is why we dare to criticize our leaders that often don't make the right choices. They tend to keep on defending their own interest instead of those of the people, thus letting Africa remain in a state of dependence.
R: Do you still consider yourself primarily a hip-hop group? You call your sound Afro-Rap -- describe that for us.
SD: Afro-rap or hip-folk is the meeting of hip-hop and Malian folk music, the turntables being replaced by DJ Sam with Mandingue-style guitar. But beyond styles and labels, our goal in music is to remain spontaneous and the voice of the people, therefore SMOD will always be a hip-hop group.
R: What do you want listeners outside of Mali to know about hip-hop in Western Africa? What misconceptions do we maybe have about African hip-hop?
SD: We want listeners to make up their own conception of African hip-hop by listening a wide range of it, and if possible, by going themselves to Africa. Some people might think that African hip-hop is a poor copy of American hip-hop -- the reality is that the new generation is just starting to re-appropriate itself the African roots of hip-hop.
R: I've read some interviews where you talked about the connections between the griot tradition and hip-hop in Africa today. Can you speak to that a little bit?
SD: The griots have been for ages the voice of the people in Africa. They were the only ones, for example, able to criticize the princes and kings when necessary. Nowadays, some griots seem to be real busy making money praising influential people, therefore hip-hop artists are today much more representative of what the griots used to be.
R: What's Bamako like, musically? Paint a picture.
SD: Bamako today is full of music. There are so many great artists, young and old, that keep on re-inventing traditional music. Everyone should come and check it out!
R: We're featuring SMOD and this interview as part of a new series called Rhapsody Radar -- up-and-coming artists we think should be on everyone's radar. What does SMOD bring to the table in the music scene of 2011? What sets you apart?
SD: By mixing its African roots with hip-hop, SMOD comes up with a new flavour and definitely manages to bring back some spontaneity and freshness into the game.