An interview with Juldeh Camara and Amadou Diagne
By Louise Ungless
It was such a pleasure to interview two renowned and extremely talented musicians in one evening. Gambian singer and riti player Juldeh Camara and Senegalese percussionist Amadou Diagne were playing a gig for the cross-cultural collaborative project Julaba Kunda at London’s St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.
Despite being tired and hungry after their performance, the two musicians kindly set aside some time to have a chat. “I’m very tired now” says Camara, who has just returned to the UK from his JuJu tour in Belgium. The Gambian riti player is well known for his collaboration with Justin Adams called JuJu. They fuse together trance-like rhythms from West Africa with elements of jazz and rock. Julaba Kunda is another collaborative project that Camara is involved in, exploring connections between West African and Celtic music. The group was formed by Camara and Griselda Sanderson, who were then later joined by Diagne on percussion and Louis Bingham on guitar and banjo.
When asked if the West African and Celtic connection has a historical base, Camara answers “Irish, Scottish, Fulani, Wassoulou from Mali – we are all family, somewhere.” He certainly sees strong links, “When European people play a song, before they finish I will hear all my music; Fulani, Mandinka, Jola, Wolof, all the music will be there and they don’t realise.” It is no wonder that Camara is so eager to collaborate with European musicians, with the vision that all music is descended from the same place.
So how did Julaba Kunda come about? A few years ago, Camara played a gig at Dartington College, where Sanderson is a performance lecturer. “I saw Gris at the front of the audience with a big smile, watching me and the instrument” says Camara. Extremely interested in the riti (a one-stringed fiddle,) Sanderson asked Camara if he could make the instrument for her. In one week, Camara made the instrument and began to teach her. “I was surprised, she started to play exactly what I taught her, and on the violin she played Fulani, Irish and Scottish music” he says. In 2010, Sanderson and Camara thought it was now time to do something. “It was snowing very bad, we played everyday, early mornings… We just tried to find if we could put something together.” When Sanderson sent the recordings over to Camara, he thought “Oooh, OK, I like that, oh yeah!” From then on, they started working together.
It’s fascinating that with a one-stringed fiddle, Camara is able to create such a dynamic, rich sound. During the Julaba Kunda gig, Camara was able to replicate the sounds of a Celtic fiddle onto his riti. “I’m a griot” he says, “I started to play this instrument when I was five years old.” Taught by his blind father, Camara went on to make his own riti and started to play at marriage ceremonies and other social occasions. “I can’t tell you exactly when I started to play this instrument. I just grew up with it. I can’t tell you how I create these sounds.” The musician certainly looks happy on stage too, “I enjoy it. If I’m sad or angry, when I get to the stage I have to be happy. As musicians, when the audience is there, we have a big responsibility, we have to give something” he says.
Although highly known for his cross-cultural collaborations, Camara also plays solo. “I like playing alone sometimes. If you hear me play alone you’d be surprised, because I’m free.” You can expect a lot of things from the Gambian riti player in the future, “I’m looking very far. Music is my life and I try to do the best I can.” He will be appearing at WOMAD Charlton Park this year.
For Amadou Diagne, this was his fourth gig for the group Julaba Kunda, “I’m new in the band” he says. Diagne has just released his debut solo album Introducing Amadou Diagne on World Music Network and has won their recent ‘Battle Of The Bands’ competition. “I’m so excited and so happy for that” says Diagne. The album takes on a singer-songwriter approach, focusing heavily on the acoustic guitar and lyrics. “I write songs for Africa, such as my song ‘Talibé’. Where I’m from, Senegal, some children in the capital Dakar can’t put on good clothes and they ask people for money. When I see this, it makes me upset, so I wrote this song” he explains. As a result, the album is politically and spiritually centred, touching on local Senegalese issues. This is an important aspect for Diagne. “I write songs when I want to sing for people” he says. ‘Yomal Khyam’ for example, he sings to Muslims. “Prophet Mohammed said ‘Don’t kill anyone, there is too much going on’. I write this in my song and remind people what Prophet Mohammed said” Diagne explains.
With Diagne now living in the UK, the music here has had a big influence on him. “I’ve learned a lot of beats and counts, like the twelve-beat” he says. “I never used to play guitar really, I sang and played the drum.” Diagne was introduced to the guitar when he came to England, “I met a friend who was English and I was always going to their house for tea. I started playing the guitar. I’m a tailor so I did alterations for him, like nice jeans, and he gave me a guitar” explains Diagne, “I practiced very hard for two years.”
Diagne is from a griot family, with a tradition in percussion. The Julaba Kunda gig certainly showcased his skill, where he switched between the calabash drum, djembe, tama and cymbals in just a single song, using his hands and sticks. “I’m a drummer, I like rhythm” he says. When asked why he decided to feature the guitar so heavily in his album, he answers “I prefer the guitar and singing… For this album I decided to write very gentle songs, with a little rhythm. I want people to hear the messages I’m saying, whilst I’m doing gentle and simple music.” The result is a calm and mellow album, driven by his rhythmic background.
When asked whether he prefers performing or recording, Diagne laughs. “I love recording. I always tell my manager that I’m not desperate to play a gig. I need to work with writing songs for recording. I don’t want to be busy busy busy for concerts. I want to practice writing and recording.” Diagne also loves to jam with other musicians here in the UK, “Sometimes you get great musicians that play and fit with your music.” This is exactly what happened when he was recruiting a bass payer. Diagne was then asked whether he worries about losing his musical heritage through such collaborations. “No, I keep the music I have. I don’t want to lose it.” After all, his music crept into his soul when he was just a boy. “When I was five years old, my mum started to buy me a drum every Christmas and I started to play very early.” His first performance was at seven years old. “It was a celebration for Muslim people” he says, where he played the drum and sang. Despite performing from such a young age, the singer-songwriter expresses how he finds collaborations, such as Julaba Kunda, rather difficult, “It’s not easy work, playing with three great people. If you’re not a professional musician or you don’t get the music, it’s not going to fit” he explains. “You have to make the sound great, so that people can enjoy it.” Despite the hard work, Diagne looked as though he was fully enjoying the Julaba Kunda performance.
The multi-instrumentalist has many plans for the future and is already working towards his next album, which will be a collaboration. “I’m writing my next album. Five songs are done. I need to record another five.” he says. He particularly wants to work on the technique of slapping the guitar body, which can already be heard throughout his recently released debut album.
New video for ‘Help A Child’, featuring Griselda Sanderson
For more information:
Amadou Diagne’s website
Juldeh Camara on Realworld Records
JuJu on Facebook
Julaba Kunda on Facebook
Buy Introducing Amadou Diagne on Amazon and
Buy Julaba Kunda’s Traders on Amazon and
Buy JuJu’s In Trance on Amazon and