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Africa is beautiful! [2004-10-13]

I was most impressed by Bliss’ latest album, Quiet Letters. As you can read in my review here, the multi-cultural influences on that album are essential to Bliss’ sound. A lot of that multi-cultural aspect comes from the African singer & composer Tchando. A very good reason to set up a chat with him, and at first I asked him to introduce himself.

Tchando: My name is Salvador Embalo known as Tchando. I come from a small country called Guinea-Bissau in the west coast of Africa, between Senegal and Guinea-Conakri. There I grew up, studied and learned to play some music instruments.

m[m]: You grew up in a Fulani tribe, surrounded by Mandinka traditions. What is the difference between these two cultures and how has this influenced your music and thinking?
T: I was born in the city of Bafata (east of the country). The sentence Ba Fata is actually Mandinka meaning “The Plain River”, referring to the river Geba that crosses the town. The Fulani tribe used to be nomads with an economy based mainly on live stocking. Therefore the music instruments had to be adapted to their lifestyle: light instruments as flutes, njanjeros (kind of violin), dondons (talking drums), hoddo, mola (three and two-stringed small kind of guitar), etc, etc. Those are used a lot due to their light weight and of course easy to carry around. The Mandinkas belonged to the sedentary tribes. They were mainly fishermen and farmers. Their huge and well-known empire (of Mali 13th century) extended all the way to the actual Guinea-Bissau. After its fall (16th century) the Gabu region (east of Guinea-Bissau) became an independent kingdom until the end of the 19th century when the Fulanis conquered it, and settled in the whole region together with Mandinkas. Among the other instruments the Mandinkas have the legendary kora, balafon, nguny, dundun and several other types of drums. In this tribe, apart from the festivities, the music is also used to praise the society for its most important members and also to encourage the warriors. However both tribes converted to the Islam centuries ago as most of their culture aspects were strongly influenced by that. There was I born and grew up. How could I afford to escape these cultural influences? Nevertheless, despite all the similarities each tribe has its own musical approach.

m[m]: You moved to Portugal and later to Denmark. What made you make these decisions? Are the musical opportunities in European countries opposed to the African of much importance to you?
T: I have moved to Portugal to continue my studies of economy in the Superior Institute of Economy in Lisbon, but I had no financial support at that time and therefore I had to play music beside my study in order to survive. In fact the difficulties became enormous and finally I had to stop and the music became my only life ever since. I would love to be able to live in Africa as a musician and go for tours around the world but to me this is not just another simple issue. There are many things to it as the music is faced mainly as an industrial something, or even an industrial something very big. In one side we have our African countries struggling with their economies and therefore cannot be competitive in terms of marketing or for example a world-wide promotion of an artist, or the quality of the products in terms of sound and technique, etc. On the other side we have the industrial world where the policymakers are not yet so open to the other cultures. Nevertheless there are a few artists in Africa that are doing it themselves, thanks to either big names from this side of the world that helped them or a very few record companies that promoted them. I came to Denmark for personal reasons, and here I have a family.

m[m]: How did you learn the instruments you play, especially the six-string guitar, which isn’t a very common instrument in African tribes?
T: The only lesson I ever had is by a friend that taught me just a few accords he learned from another friend himself. No school at all. Down in Africa we learn an instrument mostly by playing on it. Today I incorporate both modern and traditional instruments in my music.

m[m]: You have been very quiet lately as a solo-musician, and you seem to concentrate on various other projects and acts…
T: I am still active as a solo artist, even though it has been a bit quiet due to the Bliss productions. And right now I am working for a Danish theatre company as a composer. This will take me some months before I can start working on my own coming project. I’ve learned a lot from my previous works, both as a musician and producer. One accumulates a great deal of experience that helps a lot in developing someone’s skills. It gave me the opportunity and pleasure to meet and perform with many artists from different cultural backgrounds. And I felt so happy to see my own people showing big interest and appreciation for my work. Because of my previous works I have been called to join a number of good projects. For all these reasons I look back on them with joy and thankfulness.

m[m]: How did you get involved with Bliss and how do you see Bliss in your future career?
T: I had a phone call from the Danish well-known DJ Kenneth Bager alias Dokter Baker from EMI records, telling me about the project. Some days later I went for a meeting and listen to some of the music. I liked the idea. I am still working as a solo musician as I mentioned earlier and I will continue to do so.

m[m]: How is the music written in Bliss?
T: We work in a very pleasant atmosphere. Sometimes we are all together inspiring each other, but many times we do the job in small groups: just two persons working together for example. It really depends on what we are going to do, and at which stage we are, etc.

m[m]: Do you think that Bliss’ music could interest more people in African music?
T: Absolutely!!! I really do think so, not only because of the African element brought by me, but there is also the world bits and sounds very present in it.

m[m]: How do you look upon the African music “scene” in Europe?
T: About the African music scene in Europe I think it swings a lot!!! And very limited still. We need much more promotion in Europe in order to have more Europeans to listen to our music and learn how to buy them. In this way the labels can survive as well as the artists.

m[m]: Ten years ago you went back to Guinea-Bissau for an extensive musical research. How did you experience that and what did you learn back there?
T: I have learned a lot, and not less important, I came back to Denmark with big inspiration. At the time I did compose and wrote so many songs with strong Mandinka influences because I did spent most of my time with their musicians. I visited a number of villages and family musicians with very deep roots. I mean musicians from generations through the centuries.

m[m]: Your lyrics deal with different subjects, could you enlighten our readers a bit on some of those subjects and the traditional stories you’ve used?
T: I normally send messages of tolerance, love and justice to the world. Although it appears to be very idealistic I still think that it is very important to have some people out there dreaming about a better world. I grew up in the middle of the storytellers. I remember still those distant nights seating on a mat together with the rest of the family listening to the stories told by a man as he played on his string instrument. Together with all my fantasies those are still the best nights in my childhood.

m[m]: I read in your biography that you’re not only interested in music, but also in justice, which you paid for with two years in prison in Guinea-Bissau. How do you look back on that period now? There are still many countries in which human rights are violated; do you think your music and lyrics inspire people to stand up?
T: I really hope that the leaders of the world and the local ones would address there issues very seriously. This is the 21st century. I don’t know at which extend my lyrics can help people, however I just write what I feel and what I really mean.

Related links:
Bliss website
Tchando website
Music for Dreams website

Justin Faase
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