Guest Post by Robert Nathan
They’re not your average musicians. Sons of West African griots and court musicians brought up in Washington DC and St. Louis, Weedie Braimah and Amadou Kouyate have straddled the Atlantic all their lives. Indoors, they assiduously studied the kora and the djembe under the guidance of their fathers — master musicians from Senegal and Ghana. But outside people weren’t too familiar with the instruments they played, much less the historic institutions to which their families belonged. “I grew up in an African house, true enough,” Weedie says. “But at the same time when I walked out of my door, I had a whole different world. I grew up in the Hip-Hop age.” That’s a paradox they’ve been living with all their lives.
But it’s one to which these uniquely placed artists have reconciled themselves. Masters of their craft — and just as comfortable on snare and guitar as on calabash and kora — they’re one more example of artists experimenting with a fusion of African and American musical influences. Inheritors of those two traditions, they move between them like there were no boundaries at all.
And that, in a way, is what Weedie and Amadou are all about. They’re not parroting old djembe rhythms, nor curating a musical museum of African sounds. Above all else, they’re creators. And they’re letting their creativity run wild.
The result is a duo with a captivating show. One minute you’re at a Dakar dance party, the next Weedie is hitting the snare so hard you think you’re at a Roots concert, and then Amadou lays down a luscious kora riff that unexpectedly turns into a Bill Withers song. They’re all over the place — and it works. See for yourself in this clip recorded before a 700-strong crowd at Victoria’s McPherson Playhouse in Canada:
This organic blending of influences is infectious. Weedie and Amadou are masterful with any material, and you catch that vibe when they’re on stage. They feel the weight of their African musical lineage, but they also that of the American musical greats who inspire them. “I feel a responsibility to my Kouyaté lineage. But I’ve got a sense of responsibility to making sure Sam Cooke and Donnie Hathaway are heard, that Coltrane gets heard, too.” And they want to be understood in that transcultural context. They aren’t a curiosity. They don’t want people to dig them because they’ve never heard a kora before and the experience is novel. They want people to like what they do because they like it, and because of the musicianship they bring to the stage.
From their perspective, while they respect the Africa-US musical collaborations that have taken place in recent years between artists like Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Touré, these have tended to be superficial. “It’s mostly cosmetic,” Amadou says in an interview outside a djembe workshop at the University of Victoria. They have the right to speak that way. After all, if you didn’t grow up in an environment where you ate your Corn Flakes and then practiced kora with your master musician father before heading to school with the rest of DC, how could you gain the knowledge required to fuse the African and the American at such a profound level?
Weedie and Amadou are proud of their complex musical heritage. And they want African Americans to be proud of a musical tradition that belongs to them too — one that many in the US don’t know much about. But at the end of the day, they’re artists with musical sledgehammers, and they’re breaking down the borders that exist between ‘African music’ and music writ large. In this respect they’re part of a broader global movement to deparochialize African art, and their work resonates with efforts like the Manifesto for a World Literature in French (a document signed by authors like Alain Mabanckou and Nobel laureate JMG Le Clézio that aims to erase the difference between African literature and literature tout court). Indeed, the day when djembe and kora get the same respect as piano and saxophone is they day they’ll rest easy.
In a way that day’s already here, because they play with jazz greats like Chick Correa who love their style. But there’s still plenty of work to be done. So until then, expect Weedie and Amadou to bring their transgressive sound to the world stage by stage, showing everyone what it means to be an African, an American, and an artist who transcends these narrow boundaries.