French singer Gérald Toto's lilting melodies and imaginary language make his music truly universal and deeply comforting. He talks to RFI about his new solo album 'Sway': an invitation to be quiet in the midst of a turbulent universe. And why his girlfriend is a melody.
Gérald Toto made his name in the “Toto Bona Lokua” trio alongside Congolese singer Lokua Kanza and Cameroonian guitarist Richard Bona.
They'd already experimented with an invented language on their eponymous album, the outcome of an improvised session.
Toto takes that language one step further on his solo creation, using vocalisation on several songs rather than identifiable words.
"It’s the expression of the heart," he says, comparing it to a child who has deep feelings but lacks the vocabulary.
Expressing that feeling through an imaginary language is "fantastic, because I can be understood everywhere in the world".
Being kind to yourself
Toto played guitar, bass, percussion on the album, sung all the vocals and wrote, recorded and mixed it in his home studio.
"I made it for myself, because I need it," he says. "And I can see that everybody has the same desire. There’s too much noise outside."
His music provides a counterpoint for the troublesome times we're living through.
"Just to build for one moment a space for us, for yourself, a quiet space, this can be useful."
Toto's lyrics are as pared down and minimalist as his jazz, blues, bossa nova-infused melodies.
The song My Girlfriend consists of just those two words, repeated again and again as if to express how simple the feeling of being in love can be.
"My girlfriend is actually my girlfriend," he says "but [the song] talks about the way you look at 'the other'. And I think 'the other' is first of all a melody. You have to listen [in order to] understand."
The girlfriend in question is filmmaker and artist Jule Japhet. She co-wrote the song Away Alive on which he sings “feeling all alone even in your home, feeling slightly empty now your dreams are gone”.
"It’s about the search for the true meaning of life," he says adding that many people's response is to "look away" and travel to far-flung places.
"But then you can realise that the answer is in your heart, the travel is in your heart, inside yourself."
The Away Alive video shows Toto wandering through the desert in Tunisia.
"It’s an allegory of this search for the meaning of life. The desert is like an open space in your heart. But first of all you’re lost. And then finally you can find all the answers. But you have to take [to] the road."
Sway invites us to go on that musical journey, in the hope we might live more contentedly at home.
Gérald Toto's feel-good tracks: Harvest by Neil Young, Get It On by Marvin Gaye
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La Chica: the sound of magic realism
La Chica Belleville is a music project created by Franco-Venezuelan singer songwriter Sophie Fustec. If magic realism had a soundtrack this could be it: with her hypnotic vocals, Debussy-inspired piano and adept sampling of Latin American percussion she builds "a collage" of colours and moods to achieve a state of trance. Just ahead of the release of her debut album Cambio (Change) she talks to Alison Hird about being saved by music and - trying, however humbly, to do the same for people suffering in Venezuela.
"I need magic, craziness, freedom, I need to dance, to express myself and all this inspiration I can find in Latin America."
La Chica Belleville spent most of her youth in Venezuela; its music and culture are in her blood. But she says she also "needs the modern, urban side too," and feeds on the vibe in Europe especially psychedelic rock, garage, punk and house music from the UK.
Gifting a song of hope to Venezuelans
But with the economic and political crisis in Venezuela in its fifth year, and showing no signs of abating, she's haunted by their suffering.
"People are dying of hunger, they are literally starving." She describes feeling "useless" as a musician. "I cannot change the situation, but I'm praying for change and wishing for a transformation.
In the meantime "all I can do is sing and send some energy and music because music helps and music heals".
The album features a version of El Canto del pilon, a traditional folk song from the Caribbean, popular in Venezuela.
"It's a slave song. They used to used to sing it when they were crushing the corn [with a pestle]. It's a song for hope."
"In moments of darkness in my life, moments of sadness and despair, I've been saved by several songs. So I know the power of music and I'm not the only one. So I'm trying to do that for the people there."
Songs that have saved La Chica:
- Maestra Vida by Ruben Blades
- Les Arabesques by Debussy
Cambio is released on 8 February 2019
Concerts: 12 February Café de la Danse, Paris, other dates here
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Taraf Bucurestilor: keeping the Lăuteri troubadour tradition alive
Taraful Bucureştilor are one of the few remaining lăutari bands able to interpret the traditional, accoustic lăutari (Romani troubadour) repertoire as it was played in its hey-day in Romania from the 1960s to 1980s. The five-piece band talk to RFI about inheriting this musical tradition from their fathers and why, despite the trend to electrify and amplify the sound, they believe it will survive.
Lăutari refers to both a class of Romani musicians and their accoustic instrumental and vocal repertoire.
The tradition developed in the early part of the 20th century, notably in the province of Muntania around Bucarest, at weddings between two lautari families.
"What is special is that they play for themselves and their families," ethnomusicologist Speranta Radulescu told RFI. "This music is part of Romani identity. They often cry when they perform."
The five band members were less given to emotion as they prepared to give a rare concert at the Maison des Cultures du Monde as part of the Festival de l'Imaginaire.
"We're all the sons of lautari," says violinist Nicu Ciotoi. "The tradition goes back more than a century. There are no scores, the melodies are handed down from father to son."
"We play by ear," adds cimbalum player Gheorghe Raducanu, "mainly at weddings, for up to 24 hours. Once I played for three days, but admittedly that was 20 years ago."
An uncertain future
Lautari's golden age was between the 60s and 80s when other musicians, including Yehudi Menuhin, and Romanian intellectuals took an interest.
Radulescu says while Taraf Bucurestilor "continue to make a good living for themselves and their families" the advent of synthesisers and bass guitars over the last few years means "the music is changing" and poses a challenge to the accoustic tradition the band defends.
"This music's disappearing," Gheorghe comments with a shrug. "It's less fashionable."
The band's accordionist Ionel Ioinita Cinoi refuses to be brow-beaten.
"I don't think this music will disappear, it will last forever because it's original and extraordinary."
Taraful Bucureştilor (left to right): Ional Ionita Cinoi (accordion, vocals), Nicu Ciotoi (violin), Gheorghe Raducanu (cimbalum), Gicu Petrache (vocals), Ghită Petrescu (double bass).
Kafé Groppi: jazzman Khalil Chahine's album of memories
On his latest album, Kafé Groppi, French composer and guitarist Khalil Chahine was inspired by childhood memories of an old, mythic café in Cairo. He talks to RFI's Alison Hirdabout making 'an album of memories' beautifully evoked through music which, ultimately, speaks for itself.
Kafé Groppi was founded by a Swiss Italian patissier in Cairo in 1905.
As a young boy Chahine remembers going there with his Egyptian father and American mother before they moved back to France.
"Kafé Groppi is a childhood memory, I used to go there with my family very often when I was a young kid. But you know it’s the concept of the café that was very interesting to me because it’s a place where you meet people and you talk about many things, heavy things but also light things."
Cairo has changed a lot in recent years, and Kafé Groppi has closed, but in its hey-day in the 50s and 60s it was the place to be, and be seen in, for artists and politicians alike.
"You always meet people you knew, maybe from San Francisco or New York. You meet them there, it’s funny. It used to be funny."
Mother's blue eyes
Kafé Groppi is Chahine's eighth album. Recorded with André Ceccarelli (drums), Kevin Reveyrand (Bass) Christophe Cravero (piano) and Eric Seva (saxophones).
Previously he's composed filmscores (Vénus Beauté Institut, Monsieur Batignole...), jingles for the news and weather forecast, and music for the 1925 Adventures of Prince Ahmed.
But while the album builds on scenes and stories inspired by Kafé Groppi, he doesn't see it as a soundtrack.
"Composing for movies is a very different thing, because you compose as a technician more than artist. This is an album of an artist, I suppose, so it’s quite different. But I try to talk about things through music."
The piece Ojos de cielo pays tribute to his mother's blue eyes. "My mother used to date a Colombian guy and she had very light blue eyes and he said 'you have [eyes] the colour of the sky'.
"So it’s a hommage for my mother, who died last year."
Kafé Groppi is out on Turkhoise/Socadisc records.
Kafé Groppi quintet play Sunset jazz club in Paris on 2 March 2019.
Cameroon's Blick Bassy remembers 1958 and his fallen hero
Blick Bassy’s career took off internationally in 2015 when the tech giant Apple took a shine to his subtle falsetto voice and deft banjo playing and used a clip from his album Akö in an ad. His upcoming fourth album promises to be radically different. He talks to RFI's Alison Hird about the need to "re-tell" the story of Ruben Um Nyobè.
Nyobè was the leader of the Cameroonian independence movement who was asassinated by French colonial powers in 1958.
The album is due out next spring, but Blick Bassy, who's also a writer, has already devoted a talking gig to Um Nyobè.
He brought the piece, "1958", to the stage during the recent Africolor festival alongside Cameroonian rapper Krotal and story-teller Binda Ngozolo.
The assassination of Um Nyobè by French colonial powers in 1958 is a sordid chapter in French history.
Nyobè founded the Cameroonian People's Union (UPC), a party that took up armed struggle to claim full independence for Cameroon from France. He was shot in the back by French forces, his body dragged to his village and exposed, then later sunk in concrete.
For years Nyobè was portrayed as a terrorist. Under Ahmadou Ahidjo, Cameroon's first president post-independence, even mentioning his name in public was tabou.
Bassy says it's time to tell a different story, closer to the truth.
"Ahmadou Ahidjo was put into place by colonial powers," he said, "so it was normal he towed the same political line as those who pointed the finger at people fighting for our country's complete independence.
"They were treated as maquisards [a derogatory term meaning bush fighters], people who wanted to do harm. And yet various ethnic groups and communities from that time knew very well what was happening.
"Nyobè managed to stay a long time hidden in the forest because he was backed by a large part of the population."
Time to write our own history
Um Nyobè was affectionately known as Mpondol meaning "who is the voice of" in the Bassa language. Bassy, whose 20 year career as musician, writer and producer has given him a wide audience, has embraced the role of truthsayer.
"This story was written by others, so my role today is to take part in the writing of our own history. It’s up to us to write it if we want to change things, so that a Cameroonian living in Cameroon, a Chadian living in Chad, wakes up every morning saying 'I’m an incredible human being, I live in a magical place, I’m lucky to live in this place and my happiness is not elsewhere, it’s where I live'."
Seeing Nyobè everywhere
"Nyobè is my hero because I understood that this guy was talking about what Africa was actually living. He was talking about all our future issues. About [the importance of] connecting to our roots and how we really have to stop imitating what Europeans are doing."
Bassy says a desire to imitate the West, rather than developing their own more Panafrican system based on their own environment and resources, has led to an increase in tribalism in Cameroon.
"Tribalism is really coming back. In the last election in October we had a kind of dynamic coming back from tribalism; people just voting for the person who's coming from their tribe, it's not about the programme."
Nyobè, he says, fought for a greater sense of African identity, for the need to create structures and systems that corresponded to "the way we are living".
Bassa, one of 280 languages
Bassy moved to France some 12 years ago to make a career in music. He's been successful, despite, or hopefully because of, his decision to sing only in the Bassa language from the region near Yaoundé.
"Nyobé was also coming from this part of Cameroon, and I'm thinking first in Bassa and I'm building my world with this language. The other thing is our country is bilingual, French and English, and we don't have a common language but we have 280 different languages. We have to start teaching our languages, maybe the biggest ones, to our children, because I'm sure in the next 20 years, most of them are going to disappear."
Speak your own language
Bassy got a big boost in 2015 when Apple used a 15 second clip from the song Kiki in one of its ads. It came from his third, critically-acclaimed album Akö, inspired by the late American bluesman Skip James.
The 44-year-old recognises it helped his career but also thinks it should encourage African musicians to sing in their mother tongue.
"This really helped me to promote my language but also to help the young generation to trust in themselves. Because some of them are thinking that if they want to be known they have to sing in English or in another language. But having this is really showing that no you can sing in your language."
"For me the main message is you just have to be yourself and if you’re doing this in a professional way and you’re working hard to make things happen, things will happen."
Blick Bassy plays La Cigale, Paris on 15 April 2019. Other dates in US, Germany, Austria check out facebook.
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