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Idrissa Soumaoro’s keen gaze, great eloquence and natural kindness are immediately apparent. The singer-songwriter has done much outstanding work in the field of Malian song and has partnered Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keïta and Amadou & Mariam among others. Although Idrissa is unfailingly talented, recordings of his music are extremely rare. He has released only three albums over his forty-year career! While he may not be a household name internationally, he is a key figure in the history of Malian music, which is why Rokia Traoré, president of the 2004 Découverte RFI award jury, backed the nomination of Soumaoro for his second album, Kote. She wanted the achievements of the legendary personality of Malian music to be rewarded and recognised worldwide. Seven years later, a new album - Djitoumou, produced by Ibrahima Sylla and released by Lusafrica - underlines the immense talent of singer-songwriter Idrissa Soumaoro. Idrissa Soumaoro, a bluesman with an irrepressible sense of humour, was born in 1949 in Ouéléssébougou in the Djitoumou region of Mali, 75 km to the south of Bamako, as the country was preparing for independence. Idrissa was interested in music from a very early age, particularly hunters’ music. Later, when he went to the cinema in Bamako during his school holidays, he acquired a passion for Indian film music. It was then that he began to play the timbo (a sort of Malian lamellophone), and then the pipe and flute. On the 22nd September 1960, Malian independence marked the start of a euphoric period in culture and the arts. The country’s musical heritage experienced a renaissance with the introduction of electric and other modern instruments. Still a child, Idrissa listened to the songs on Radio Mali - songs by Enrico Macias, Joselito or Richard Anthony, names he still mentions with a hint of emotion today. As a teenager, Idrissa learned to play harmonica and guitar, and began to write like the rural troubadours who travelled from village to village. This style of writing would stay with him throughout his career. At eighteen, he formed his own band, the Djitoumou Jazz, and played dance music for the local inhabitants. The group held bals poussière (dust dances) each Saturday night and began to gain a reputation as far away as the capital. Once he had passed his Basic Education Certificate, Idrissa went to study at the National Institute of Arts (INA) in Bamako, learning about new forms of music (including piano and rudiments and theory). Now he began to write song after song. The ORTM (Mali’s national broadcaster) asked him to record his work, including Ancien combattant (War Veteran), a song based on an argument he witnessed between old Filiba Sacko, a retired war veteran, and an insolent youth called Sidi. When Sidi chased after his sister and beat her in front of Sacko, the old solider was appalled and gave the youngster a piece of his mind, mentioning his exemplary service record as a Second World War veteran. Idrissa was inspired by this true-life story and simply wrote down what he had seen and heard. The song spread like wildfire throughout Mali and all the sub-region. The Guinean group Balla & Ses Baladins covered it with great success in 1970 and a pirate version also circulated in Abidjan. Idrissa did not make a penny, since he had not copyrighted the song. Ancien combattant was sung everywhere in French-speaking Africa, from Guinea to the Congo. It was a huge hit in 1984, when it was rerecorded by the Congolese singer Zao (who incidentally pocketed the publishing rights). Idrissa continued with his studies, obtaining his Diplôme des Ecoles Normales Secondaires, Section Musique, and graduating first in his year at the INA. Appointed professor of music at Northern Mali’s Diré IPEG (Educational Institute of General Teaching), he seized the opportunity to study and learn the Songhai and Tuareg traditional music of the region, before being appointed to a teaching post in Gao. From 1973 to 1976, Idrissa became music section head at the Institut Pédagogique National (National Educational Institute) in Bamako. At the same time, he was asked to play a few songs on folk guitar during the interval at concerts given by Bamako’s Ambassadeurs du Motel, a group led by Guinea’s Manfila Kanté and starring the singer Salif Keïta. Like Idrissa, Ali Farka Touré also appeared as a folk singer during the intervals. Following one of Idrissa’s performances, Manfila asked if he could play the piano. So Soumaoro began to appear with the group on piano or guitar, according to the occasion. The Ambassadeurs played Afro-Cuban, jazz, pop, rhythm 'n' blues and rock music, and even Russian, Chinese and Arabic songs, depending on which foreign delegations were visiting the Motel. Idrissa describes his apprenticeship: “We chose the latest songs. The customers themselves brought us cassettes of what they wanted to hear: Orquesta Aragon, Fela, James Brown, Celia Cruz… We played by ear and each of us knew what he was doing. When everyone was ready, we played the song. We really understood each other completely.” He became close friends with Keita and a young blind rhythm guitarist called Amadou Bagayoko, who joined the Ambassadeurs in 1975. At the time, the Ambassadeurs were one of Africa’s top groups, scoring special triumphs in Guinea and Burkina Faso, and at the Lagos Festac in 1977. But then the following year, Salif and Manfila left for Abidjan, taking members of the band with them. A whole era came to an end. To Idrissa’s great disappointment, those of the group remaining in Bamako split up, so he applied for a transfer to teach at the Mali Institute for Blind Youth (IJA), while continuing his music. Working with Amadou Bagayoko, Idrissa trained young blind musicians and formed a band to put his teaching into practice. The aim of the group, L'Eclipse, was to encourage public awareness of the emancipation of the blind in Mali, but resources were limited. When the wife of President Moussa Traoré visited the Institute, she was dismayed by the conditions there, and ordered a complete set of instruments so the band could rehearse properly in the Institute’s music room. Idrissa wrote several songs with Amadou Bagayoko that were featured on a vinyl album released in 1978, sponsored by aid from the German Democratic Republic. A great masterpiece of 1970s Mali, the album included such pearls as Djama (Sociéty) and Nissodia (Joy of Optimism), with radiant vocals from Mariam, “the finest singer among the IJA’s students,” said Idrissa. Hypnotic organ riffs and astonishing drum breaks merged to form a funk ambience never heard before in Mali. The group subsequently changed its name to become Miriya (Thought), but once the band was on its feet, Idrissa bowed out. From 1984 to 1987, Idrissa studied Braille musicography at the University of Birmingham in the UK, where he obtained a diploma in special education for the visually impaired. Back in Mali, he returned to the IJA in Bamako as Director General of the Institute. In 1996, he was named Inspector General of Music at the Ministry of Education. In 2002, he was made a knight of the National Order of Mali. But throughout his impressive educational career, he remained a musician at heart (in 1989, he became the Hôtel de l'Amitié band leader) and still took an interest in popular music (hunters’ music in particular) and its development and contextualisation in an ever-changing world. In 2003, Soumaoro released his second album, his first real solo effort: Kote (satire, humour), which won the Découvertes RFI prize and went gold on cassette in Mali. The album finally brought the artist world recognition. Now in 2010, Idrissa Soumaoro is back in the limelight with Djitoumou, an inventive album whose influences range beyond Mandingo blues to Congolese rumba, Eastern music, folk and country.
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