I have spent half of my life outside of my country. I have spent a little bit of my life inside my country and all of the rest I have spent outside so it is very different. When you go there [to Guinea-Bissau], you see things differently. I see what I can do. Every time I go there, that is one of my questions, ‘What can I do to help?’
Guinea-Bissau was still a Portuguese colony when you were a young boy and you then experienced the country’s early decades of Independence. What was it like growing up and establishing your musical career during this formative period of history?
Growing up in Bissau, I was a Boy Scout. We created a little group—there were five of us—to play when we went camping and things like that. Later on, we called the band Super Mama Djombo, the name of a deity . . . I was just the baby of the band . . . Later [as the band members grew more serious about performing] there was a need to move the band outside of the Boy Scouts . . . We brought in some lead guitars . . . and then we went to a big festival. (I am talking about during the colonial era, when the Portuguese were there.) I played percussion—the conga and I were the same height, so I had to step on a box . . . The first [festival] was in a square . . . When the band stepped out, we played our first song and it was all over. The public . . . went over the fence and the show was ove . . . The next week, they moved the festival to a stadium because the Portuguese realized that there were too many people for that square . . . That was when we chose the name Super Mama Djombo. The lead guitarist chose the name and we stuck with it. The name we previously had was a Portuguese name . . . I grew up in the band . . . for me it is a normal part of life.
I started doing solo music when I was in high school . . . One time [when my school was having an event] . . . they said, “You can come and sing one song.” And then every time an event was happening, they came and asked me if I wanted to sing something. Then I started going to the radio . . . I was 20-21 years old . . . I never dared to go on television because I was kind of a little shy . . . [and] that was too much for me at that age . . . So, I used to just stay on the radio.
There was one radio host who chased me around. He said, “I think you need to do a concert.” And I said “No . . . I am a drummer, I can’t do a show . . . Nobody will come.” [The radio host continued to persist.] One day he came to me, he was very serious and said, “You know what? You are going to do the concert. I will back you . . . People will come.” By that time, I already had a considerable number of songs on the radio. The radio host said, “People like you, they like your music . . .” He convinced me to do the show. I said, “If anything goes wrong it will be your responsibility . . .” It was a big job to hold the concert—I had to go to all of the radio stations and do all of the publicity work, like handing out flyers. For one month it was non-stop. I did everything.
There was a government theater where they held important meetings and some cultural events . . . I asked people about it, but they told me, “No, you’re not going to get that place—nobody ever has that place for a concert . . .” So, I went straight to the Minister of Culture. I asked him and he said, “Fine. Nobody has ever come here before to ask me . . . but you do need to give a deposit.” I said, “No problem.” I gave it to him and then went to the General Director of the Police, [saying] “I need some police there, but I’m a student and don’t have any money. . . .” He said, “Kid, how are you going to pay for the police?” I said, “After the concert.” He said, “What if nobody comes to your concert?” Someone came over to him and said, “He is from Mama Djombo.” The General Director said, “Okay. But make sure you come back here after the concert because if you don’t, I’ll come looking for you . . .” On the day of the concert, I was shaking and very nervous . . . I asked a musician [who had been outside the theater], “Are people coming?” He said, “There are a lot of people outside!” I asked the man who was going to present the show, “Is there anybody inside?” He said, “It’s full. There are no tickets. The tickets are sold out.” I went to look and there were a lot of people inside. Another person came and said, “Zé, the tickets are sold out and some people bought extra tickets. They are selling the tickets at double the price!”
All because of the radio host, everything started from that day . . .” He said [to me] later, “You see? I told you so!”
It was . . . because in the Portuguese era, repression was very, very high. You could not sing in Creole. You could sing, but when you sang in Creole you were seen as resisting the colonial occupation.
I was very small . . . I was a kid. But back at that time we already had a band and we would play at clubs . . . My mother [initially] said, “Play at a club? No way.” [Also] they would not let me into the clubs because I was not old enough . . . My mother had to sign papers so I could go with my brother. Even though my mother knew everyone in the band, my brother still had to go with me.
There was a club that we used to go to with the famous band Cobiana. When they would take a break we used to come out and play. They were the first Guinean band. They became very famous and popular. The lead singer was put in prison because he sang some revolutionary things during the Portuguese era. The second leader to take over the band went to jail too.
After the revolution, everything changed. Everybody started singing in Creole. There were a lot of bands and cultural activities . . . Mama Djombo had always been around. After the revolution, we changed and brought some new people in.
Mama Djombo was dissolved in 1986. [This was] after I left to go to study classical music in Lisbon . . . There is a doctor from Iceland who had worked in Bissau for eight years . . . and fell in love with Mama Djombo. [In 2007,] he convinced a lawyer to finance bringing Mama Djombo to Iceland to record and perform . . . They have now brought some youth into the band so it will survive. I do not know for how long, but maybe for many generations if it can manage to.
Your music is very clear in its call for social and political accountability. When did you begin using your music to convey this message and who are you directing it at?
Since I was a child, I have had a problem with injustice. Even in elementary school [my motto was,] “If you are cool with me, I am cool with you. If you are not cool with me, then you are picking a fight.”
There are a lot of things going on [in the world.] I see music as a drama. When I see something, I try to portray it . . . There are some things you put up with. There are some things that you let go. And there are things that you cannot let go. You sometimes have to dramatize them for people . . . Music is the way I paint things—it does not mean I am revolutionary. I am a musician, but I dramatize the situations that I see.
Fans of your popular music may be surprised to discover that you studied classical music and opera in Portugal and that you composed for the Sahel Opera Project. What was the mission of this project and what was your experience being a part of the creative team?
The mission of the Sahel Opera Project is very big. First of all, I view it as a way for Africa to begin seeing that there is another is another way of doing music.
Opera is not new—you can find it in all cultures. When Monteverdi started . . . it was the music of the royal court. He took the music of the streets to the stage to do something experimental . . . I think that is what Africa is doing now [with the Sahel Opera Project.] We took the kora from the village and brought it to the stage with other instruments of Africa and created a drama . . . Opera is a musical drama . . . Maybe in some generations Africa will have an established form of opera that we can compare with Western opera.
When I was writing the music of the opera, I went to the library and took out recordings of Chinese, Arab, and Indian opera . . . I listened to and dropped all of them . . . The only one close . . . [to what I was looking for] was traditional Chinese opera . . . Nobody had written an opera [like this] before. It was like I was hanging in a tree, trying to find my way out. I decided to do what Monteverdi did—to take music from the streets and village and put it on the stage with the drama on top of it, to see which direction it would go. So, I tried just to do it as a skeleton from the opening to the end of the opera . . . [After it was approved and financed,] we went to Mali and started work on it.
The opera is bigger than any single one of us. This next [November 2009] tour will prove it. When we started the work in Mali, some of the singers asked, “How are we going to be singing?” I said, “You are going to sing exactly the way you sing . . .” In the beginning there were a lot of questions. In the end when we were finished, it was the performers who would bring the suggestions to us. We had just told them, “Listen . . . This is a dialogue. You are going to sing, but you are dialoging along with the music.” In the end it was less of a struggle . . . They own the traditional music—I do not own it. They own it and play it . . . The opera was based on traditional West African music. We brought together 11 countries. It was an amazing, amazing experience and it is a beautiful story.
[The musicians] come from small towns and villages. Some of them are in the Ensemble of Mali, a traditional folk orchestra. Most of them come from Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Guinea-Conakry. They all come from that part of [West Africa.] We picked the top—the best of the best.
You have lived in California now for several decades. What was it initially like coming to California? Do you do much work locally as a musician or do you work more on an international level as you did with the Sahel Opera Project?
I do work locally . . . I have three CDs released here in the United States. I do more of my concerts in Europe because in Paris I have a team. Every time I release my albums they tour me around Europe . . . With [my first album in the United States,] Maron di Mar, I toured all over California . . .
After that, I went in a different direction. I started working more in Europe. Here it is kind of hard if you do not have people with good connections. And people try to label you as “local.” I do not like those things. I would like to do things here, but there is nothing at the present. I do things here and there, like on December 12th I have a concert in Ukiah at a theater for an organization called SPACE. They are a nonprofit organization that works with children. The concert is a fundraiser.
Finally, what are some of the other projects that you are working on?
My living room used to be full of [recording] machines. They used to stretch all the way down [towards the kitchen.] I did all of my projects here—recording and everything was done here. It was a full studio. I shipped everything to Africa. I shipped it there because I woke up day, looked at the machines and said, “You know what? These machines need to be helping somebody.” It is better if they are helping kids back home and helping to develop folk music. Traditional music is disappearing. The musicians in the villages and small cities play until they die and no one will ever hear about them or their beautiful music . . . I am going to be putting a studio together and start working with local musicians to give them a different hope.
I am working to bring about a major festival in Guinea-Bissau . . . [Due to instability,] people have lost hope and many want to leave. That is not normal—that is one of the reasons why I shipped my studio there.
I know two twins there—amazing. They draw and sell books of cartoons. [The cartoons] look as if they have been drawn by someone majoring in art. When I saw that, my heart was full. I could not believe it. I promised them that I was going to help them out, even if I can get them a computer and get somebody to help teach them . . . Every time I go to Bissau they come and see me. They do not say anything, but I just keep giving them hope. I hope one day that their dream will come true and their dream will be the dream of other kids. I hope that they inspire other kids to stay and not leave the country, to stay and make the country better, and to put on festivals.
Every time I go there people ask, “So, what about your festival?” I still have hope and one day I will make it happen.
I just talked to a friend of mine . . . and I said, “You know what? I want to create a world black arts festival, annually or every two years. Every year it would be in a different state.” It would feature black culture from all around the world . . . [such as] books, film, poetry, music, and dance . . . That is my dream—it is one of the things I want to do to bring about change, to help people start to connect. There is not only the bad part [that people tend to see]; there is the beautiful part.
I believe art connects people and that everyone is an artist. Somehow every individual has an artist in them.
My mission is to do my music and to try to project something positive. I cannot do it by myself. It takes a community . . . When you want to do something, speak it and people will come to you. I do not care who the people are . . . I care about what they have inside their hearts, what they want to do for other people.
I have spent half of my life outside of my country. I have spent a little bit of my life inside my country and all of the rest I have spent outside so it is very different. When you go there [to Guinea-Bissau], you see things differently. I see what I can do. Every time I go there, that is one of my questions, “What can I do to help?”
To learn more about Zé’s music, please visit his website.
The Sahel Opera Project’s Web site describes the history and people involved with the Project, and it also provides sample video clips and images from the opera.
Check out Super Mama Djombo’s MySpace page to hear samples of their music.
Interview Details: October 17, 2009. Oakland, CA. Sarah Lin Bhatia.
Sahel Opera Project photo by Marie Noelle – Robert.
All other images courtesy Zé Manel.