Idrissa Soumaoro: What's the use in hurrying?

Michael Church meets Idrissa Soumaoro, who has taken 30 years to get round to making his international debut
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The two middle-aged gents who turn up on my doorstep, fresh off the plane from Mali, sink gratefully on to a sofa, down large mugs of coffee and courteously invite questions. But the length of their flight was as nothing compared to the gestation time of the record they've come to promote. Idrissa Soumaoro first had the idea for it 30 years ago: that's how long it's taken him to get a commission, plus funding, plus the right musical manpower. He agrees that 55 is rather a late age at which to make one's international debut, "but to those who wait, good things can come."

The two middle-aged gents who turn up on my doorstep, fresh off the plane from Mali, sink gratefully on to a sofa, down large mugs of coffee and courteously invite questions. But the length of their flight was as nothing compared to the gestation time of the record they've come to promote. Idrissa Soumaoro first had the idea for it 30 years ago: that's how long it's taken him to get a commission, plus funding, plus the right musical manpower. He agrees that 55 is rather a late age at which to make one's international debut, "but to those who wait, good things can come."

Kote is the cryptic name of his record, and "M'Ba Den Ou" the name of its track that has already taken France by storm: its meld of guitar, harmonica, and voices is whipped up into a warm soufflé of sound, and carries a message of nostalgia for the village the singer has left behind. It has great charm, and reflects a highly individual style: Idrissa may have emerged from the same crucible as Mali's better-known stars, but his mode is less febrile than that of his friend Salif Keita, and far sweeter than that of his great precursor Ali Farka Toure. Flanked on the sofa by his support guitarist Boubacar, Idrissa looks back with modest satisfaction on his journey from village obscurity to burgeoning global fame.

"My family are still a bit embarrassed when they hear my songs," he says, "because music is a low occupation in their eyes. They were descended from blacksmiths, but even that is something they prefer to forget. They were merchants who sold salt and cola nuts from the back of their donkeys." Indeed, despite his success, the traditional Malian attitude to musicians is still a sore point: his son is a member of Tata Pound - Mali's answer to Senegal's Daara J - but his wife took a long time to win over from her disapproving stance, and Idrissa himself insisted the boy also get an academic degree.

Idrissa's defining moment was hearing hunter-musicians at an autumn festival. "I was only 10, but the sound of their ngonis really got to me. I had taught myself to play the classically tuned guitar, and by adapting it to a pentatonic scale I found ways to reflect the way this instrument sounds." He gets his ngoni out of its bag - a huge calabash covered with skin, plus nine nylon strings, plus a beaten-out tin with rings to add an accompanying metallic rustle. Idrissa plays a short melody, and sings over the top: mellow and bluesy, gently seductive.

His original ambition was to be a village teacher. "But I was a musician while still a kid. I had my band with Cuban percussion, and we would perform salsa and French ballroom music. We didn't play for money - it was just to make people happy, us as well."

After studying music in Bamako he joined Les Ambassadeurs but that outfit foundered in acrimony. "We were owned by a motel which paid us a monthly wage, and no royalties for the records we made. We were exploited," Idrissa explains adding that the only reason they had functioned at all was that the country's Minister of Defence kept giving them money, and when he was imprisoned - after an abortive coup - that was that. "There was no more reason for musicians like us to stay around, so most went abroad. Three of us stayed on, and blind Amadou was one."

Amadou was drawn to Idrissa through the beauty of his music, but Idrissa was also drawn to him: having watched an uncle triumph over his blindness, he decided to work with visually-handi-capped people, formed two ensembles with them, and came to Britain to hone his skills with Braille. In recognition of that he began receiving civic honours, which culminated in a Malian knighthood. He is now in charge of all music-teaching in Mali.

The songs on his record all embody homespun morals about forgiveness, patience, modesty, and care: he explains that they're an art-form created to keep society together in the days before law-enforcement. When I ask whether a song about a faithless woman is autobiographical, he laughs. "I was 18. And whenever I went to her house, I found another man there." Does he still know her? - More laughter. "Yes! But she's getting old - she's the mother of my first child."

When my wife asks if he will sing for us, he doesn't hesitate. Leaning close together Idrissa and Boubacar launch into the sweetest duet to grace our home. "There," they say when finished. "That was our UK premiere."

Idrissa Soumaoro's 'Kote' is out on Wrasse on 3 May

Comments