Interview: Waaju talk afro-beats, Ali Farka Toure & their new LP

By March 28, 2018Blog

After their sold-out show celebrating Ali Farka Toure at London’s world famous Jazz Cafe, the mesmerising meld of international influences of Waaju are joining us for a special show ahead of their upcoming debut LP launch.
Paying tribute to such a heavyweight influence of African culture is no easy gig, but few bands are quite as well versed and excitingly willingly to interpret a kaleidoscope of world influence, as Waaju.
Equal parts heavy West African grooves, latin textures and always rhythmically informed by Ben Brown’s vocal percussion, they bring their quixotic live show to Gwdihw on Sat April 21; ahead of the show, we chatted to them about their intertwining influences, covering the totemic Ali Farka Toure & the long road to releasing their debut album.

See Waaju here on Sat 21st April + Cosmogramma DJs & support

Q: What is it about West African music that captivates you guys?
Well,  as a whole it’s so vast & varied that really I think there’s something for everybody if you know where to look. The community element & value placed in the music in unparalleled in the West & is always something we’re trying to bring & channel when playing this music. There’s always something that I haven’t heard that baffles me & I want to learn about – some of those styles have grooves & weights in the music that feel so alien to us its hard to imagine how someone moves to them at all – but they do & it grooves so hard!

Waaju performing Ali Farka Toure at Jazz Cafe

Q: Tell us about the new LP – what can people expect?
Well, this is a band that’s constantly evolving & never standing still, so the LP is really a snapshot into where we were when we recorded it, & I’m really happy with the way its been captured & how its turned out. We’re always striving to present something that’s maybe less obvious but framed in a way that works in a Western context. I hope the less familiar feelings from some of these heavy grooves change the way some people hear music & feel the way their bodies move differently, in the way that I have when discovering some of these amazing lesser-known styles.

Q: How long have you been working on the LP – what’s putting it together been like?
We recorded in January 2017 so it’s a long road releasing it, with many delays & complications along the way. So in that way it’s meant we’ve had to dig deep, so I’ve learnt a lot about myself in the process. The good thing, is it makes you question why you’re really doing these things & is it worth it, but the more I’ve thought about that, the more profoundly I’ve always arrived at the conclusion that it definitely is! It’s certainly made me look at music differently as a whole & I appreciate every second of it now more than I ever have.

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Q: What was the making reworkings night of Ali Farka Toure’s music like – where did you start with playing those songs?
The first thing was trying to digest the music, then write it down so I could make arrangements out of them & that music is surprisingly difficult to write down! Some of the tunes sounded more like the original whereas other were in more of a modern, Western soundscape, but I think at the heart of all of them was the Waaju sound & his sound. I actually found a lot of the writing & arranging quite natural.

Even though it would perhaps be ‘easier’ if I were a guitarist, Ali’s playing is so rhythmically informed & advanced that it gave me a lot to work with. As for the gig itself, it was incredible – probably the most fun I’ve had on stage for quite some time! We intend to do a lot more with the project & they’ll be videos & recordings from that gig very soon.

Q: Ali Farka Toure is one of those totemic figures of African music and culture, but what about him particularly interested you guys?
There’s really no one quite like him for so many reasons, he has one of the most recognisable guitar sounds in the world & that way of playing has become a whole tradition now. But for me no one’s quite reached that level of depth & fire since. Tal our guitarist really had to immerse himself in that tradition for gig & did an amazing job, as the particular myriad of ornamentations, unusual scales & rhythmic phrases are so specific to him. Also, most other widely known Malian music is either Tuareg music from the North or from Bamako in the south, & he’s got quite a different sound to both of those, being from Niafunke in central Mali.

Q: You all have so many influences – how do you decide what ones comes forward when you’re creating music together?
Things will often come out if you can hear them in your head but you won’t necessarily know where they’ve come from, so in that way, I’m not sure how much of a decision we really get! Between the 5 of us there’s a huge array of influences, having grown up on different continents & with different cultural backgrounds but all of those culminate to one purpose & way of expressing ourselves. So, its much more like expressing yourself with everything you know rather than picking & choosing bits of yourself, which of course varies for each of us, but that mixture of characters is what really makes the band work I think.

Q: You’re all part of other various acts in the burgeoning nu-jazz scene in London – it feels like a special cultural moment – why do you think it’s happened now?
It’s difficult to know exactly why it’s happening now & I’m sure there’s a number of factors much more than I could understand, but it’s a good wave to be in. I think the main thing that appeals to people is the energy. There’s an unsurpassable energy to musicians improvising in front of you that is unlike anything else – such a raw, risky form of expression of oneself is often hard to find & we seem to be in a time where people appreciate that again.

Q: Do you find the reception/appreciation of your music is different in London to other cities?
This is actually one thing I’m looking forward to seeing on the tour, as its the first time doing a long run of dates outside of London in a variety of venues & regions. We’re lucky that everywhere we’ve played so far in & out of London, we’ve received an amazing reception but I do find it fascinating how that can mean different things in different venues. Like at our Ali Farka Toure show there were some guys stood at the front completely still just staring (which was a little daunting for us) & others were jigging around like crazy but after each tune both kinds of people were showing loads of appreciation, but had different ways of absorbing the music.