Since our little blog is called Good because Danish, it might be a little surprising for you to read about African music here. And yet – the interview you have in front of your eyes is connected to Denmark! Some time ago Ania had the great pleasure of talking with one amazing artist – Moussa Diallo.
He is a Malian musician working and living in Copenhagen, with strong Danish roots but also – a strong love to Africa. A storyteller and a traveller with a great talent and genuine love for performing. His music is full of life, energetic and vibrant. (Read more about Moussa Diallo on his website and listen to his very rich discography on Spotify)
Read Ania’s interview with Moussa Diallo to find out about his impressions on Mali and Denmark, what inspires him to play music, African influences and what makes life beautiful!
Good because Danish: I read you were born in France and grew up in Bamako, Mali. It’s a pretty long way from Mali to Denmark, why Copenhagen?
Moussa Diallo: Well, that’s a really long story. My mother is Danish and my father is from Mali. When I was 18 I’ve left Mali, because I was a bit of a rebel who didn’t want to go to school and had just one goal, one dream – to become a musician. I decided to travel with two other friends. We had very little money, travelled around Africa and ended up in Monrovia, Liberia. It was 1972. Our goal was to sneak ourselves on a big ship and go to America. Meet all our stars, Jimi Hendrix and all these people we were looking up to. But we stranded there, it was tough. At that point I connected to my mother’s roots. I got to Denmark in 1973. It was difficult because I grew up in Africa, my experience of Europe was very limited. I’ve been there only a few times when we were kids, with my Mom and Dad. Funny thing, there is actually a film coming up soon – by Helle Toft Jensen – telling the story of my life and tracing my career. It’s going to be a beautiful movie and I am quite excited about it.
Didn’t your Mom bring any Danish accents into your life when you were a kid?
I think the only really European cultural experience was Christmas, as my Mom was very keen on celebrating Christmas. We had a tree and she made packages with presents for us. We were all looking forward to that, but that was about it. Culturally I was an African when I came to Denmark.
Have you spoken any Danish at that time?
No. No English, no Danish. Just French, because Mali is an old French colony. But I gathered myself together pretty quickly. Adjusted to the way of thinking and doing things. Against my mother’s will I didn’t go to school, bought myself a guitar and played.
Did you learn how to play music on your own?
I’ve learned on my own. I wanted to go to school and learn, but somehow I was one of the first guys who started slapping the bass. Each time I was with a teacher and he would see me slapping the bass, he would say: „Hey, what are you doing there? Show me!” So I thought, „well, if each time I want to learn something, I have to show them what I’m doing, then maybe what I’m doing is pretty good!”
How was it, to start on your own in a new country?
I was really fortunate, I quickly found my way to the music scene in Denmark. My first band started in 1974, it was called „Sweet Africa” and we played with local African people. Soon after that I started performing with many different artists, breaking grounds in the Danish music industry. But around early 2000 I started to miss my roots. I was getting bored with all the mainstream pop music. Really wanted to go back to Mali. I was busy that time, playing with bands and being popular. But feeling miserable – something was lacking. I had money, success but I was not happy. At that point I’ve started to write more music myself.
What is it about African culture, music, that makes it inspirational for you?
It is joyful! And it swings. You listen to it and it makes you…
Yes, and it’s not pretentious. Because sometimes modern music can be so posed. People check you out, everything has to be correct, everything is structured. And not that African music isn’t always structured, but it is more free and has this rhythm I was missing so much. Malian music was already taking off big time, with Salif Keïta and others. I was listening to them, thinking „Wow, this is exactly the type of music I would love to play”. With music I used to play it had become a routine, just a job, not a source of freedom or happiness. I started to make some music and sing it in my native language, Bambara. Also, about 12 years ago I’ve started to write children’s stories.
Yes, I read about that project: you are touring schools – that sounds great!
Yes, it also made me reminiscing my own childhood in the village, when my grandma would tell me stories. I wanted to share those stories and this feeling and memories of singing and clapping together.
I imagine it must have been a clash between what you were used to in Mali and what you found in Denmark, right?
Yes! Mali and Denmark are so different. The way people interact in Africa is warm, people aren’t so judgmental. In European society you have to prove who you are, people keep asking what are you doing, what kind of job you have.
Because that is what defines you here?
Yes, defines you, evaluates you. In Africa you don’t have that type of relations, people just interact. It was a shock for me. Coming back to Africa was fantastic. Seeing people who have less money, smiling, joking, welcoming people with open arms.
Let’s get back to African influences. I read about griots who are responsible for passing on the oral history by singing and telling stories. Do you feel connected to that tradition?
Yeah, more or less. There are different layers of griotism, some have messages to pass. But Salif Keïta is not a griot, neither is Oumou Sangare, they have deeper lyrics. Because griots are very ingrained into tradition, singing the same old folk songs. They have huge voices and they praise more on the past, on ancestors. My lyrics are based on my own reflections, upon the society we are living in.
I am asking about it because some of your lyrics have a form of parable or a tale for instance on my favourite album of yours, “Acoustic Groove”. What inspires you to write it that way?
Yes, that’s true. I see myself as a spiritual man who is questioning life, how we live it, how we need to find a deep meaning in whatever we are doing. I pick up things inspired by books I’ve read or stories from African writers. Sometimes I just automatically start writing, like I did with my last record. The lyrics were a reflection of a crisis Mali was going through – the war and extremism, the way religion is being misuse and all the indoctrination that is taking place. Not only in Mali, there is a lot of madness in the world. But life is still beautiful – despite all the madness. And even though I bring up some serious issues in my lyrics, I also want to stay optimistic.
What makes life beautiful then?
What makes life beautiful? Talking to you now! I love travelling, meeting people, sharing experiences. I love that there is no barrier, colour has no meaning, religion has no meaning. We limit ourselves with those things. People are beautiful naturally, we all are one and we are nothing without the other person.
Are there any new projects coming along?
Yes, I’m working on music for my next children’s book. I’ve written 10 new stories. Then I’m going to Mali at the end of July, to get new bands for the next Spot on Mali. I’m also touring schools and going to Zanzibar in the end of August, which I’m excited about. But the big thing is finishing the book right now and I have a lot of music laying around, maybe for the new solo album.