Meet the fugitive from lion country
Wasis Diop grew up to roars in the night. The musical maverick tells nick hasted he'd have been 'eaten' had he stayed
Friday 30 May 2008
Wasis Diop, sipping beer in a London pavement café, guitar by his side, is a tall, urbane world citizen, reflected in more than 30 years of questing music.
When Damon Albarn invited him on the Africa Express bill in Liverpool in March, it was the sort of summit Diop, 57, has been accustomed to for years. His 2003 best-of, Everything Is Never Quite Enough, could be by a dozen artists. Ranging from Wolof chants to pop, its cover of Talking Heads' "Once In a Lifetime" is apt; Diop and David Byrne are kindred explorers. Diop's new album Judu Bek boasts a Japanese opera singer and a Leonard Cohen cover. He has opened the world and Senegal to each other.
Diop's story starts with his brother, Djibril Diop Mambety, who died in 1998. He was a director whose 1973 debut Touki Bouki was "Africa's equivalent of Easy Rider". "My brother and me were born almost together," Diop says. "We spent all our lives together. My first album was the soundtrack of his first movie. If he'd been born alone, he wouldn't have done movies. And I wouldn't have done music. We were half and half. I was not a born musician."
Diop's cultural curiosity began growing in the bush outside Dakar, in the Fifties. "When I was a child, I didn't talk much. Listening was my reality. And during the night, the wind blew, bringing lion's roars and ceremonies from other villages, and it sounded like a symphony."
Diop moved to Paris in 1975, as a student, then leader of the band West African Cosmos. "Most Africans leave to find themselves," he says. "In Paris, I looked at myself in the mirror for the first time. And I knew music was what I wanted to do."
Doing so was a rebel stand unimaginable back home. "In Africa normally, musicians come from griot families. I came from a family where music was not allowed. Griots are meant to say positive things about kings and presidents. I'm part of music that makes people think, not just follow. And I want my music to be beautiful, and spiritual – an art. When the Senegalese listened to my first album in 1975, they were astonished; it was the first time they had listened to African music that was so different."
In the late Seventies, he went to Kingston, Jamaica, to Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark studio. He wrote a Eurovision runner-up and worked with the Japanese avant-garde (and met his Japanese wife). He has produced three albums for the Californian country singer Sarah.
The new album features psychedelic sounds. "The deep African sound is psychedelic. When real African musicians play in traditional ceremonies, they're searching for an explosion of colours. They try to fuse with the cosmos."
Could he go back to Dakar now? "No. I would have been eaten by Senegal – by those things that prevent me from opening my mind. Paris isn't really my home, though. I am like a piece of Senegalese wood on a river, just travelling."
'Judu Bek' is out on Monday on Wrasse Records
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