Ghana-based Benjamin Lebrave speaks fluent French and English, and can schmooze in Spanish and Portuguese. He’ll report on new African music every month. Today, in the column's return after a brief hiatus, he picks things up with the Denmark-Senegal duo Fouma System.
As interest in music from Africa grows, so does interest in collaborations with artists based in Africa. Having positioned myself as a link between Ghana/Africa and the rest of the world, I’m naturally bombarded with such collaborations. But I find that most of them turn out to be way less than the sum of their parts. Too many assume you can plop yourself in a big African capital for a few days and expect good results, recording stuff you don’t have a vision for with people you don’t know.
Luckily, some heads out there do take the time to get familiar not just with each other as artists, but also with their surroundings, their food, their culture, their language, their families. Such is the case with Mustaf Mbaye from Dakar and Troels Kampmann from Copenhagen. Together they form Fouma System, a successfully tasty combination of many diverse ingredients. Their first EP, Mind Mi Dem, took a few years to brew, and is the first in a series of EPs the two will be releasing over the next months,
Download: Fouma System, "Advertissement"
How did you two meet? KAMPMANN: We met at a festival called Festa2H in Dakar, Senegal in 2010. I was at the festival to play with my hip-hop/electro crossover group Veteran Cosmic Rocker, and Mustaf hosted the festival and played with his group Baat Sen Fune. But we only met in person after a couple of sessions in the studio connected to the festival. We—Veteran Cosmic Rocker—were recording a compilation featuring a handful of Senegal's finest emcees and singers. Mustaf was one of the artists that passed by the studio.
Where most of the artists were doing hardcore rap in Wolof [the language of Senegal] and French, it was clear for us that Mustaf was incorporating not only rap, but also reggae and melodies from his Griot roots. This expression seemed to fit perfectly with the electronic beats and soundscapes we were doing, and he actually became a vital part of the compilation, featured on several tracks. This compilation later got the name DKtoDK—Denmark to Dakar.
How did you go from meeting to creating together? KAMPMANN: One year later, DKtoDK was released and kicked off with a Denmark tour featuring Veteran Cosmic Rocker and five West African artists, one of them being Mustaf. Here we had the chance of performing together, and we found a spark on stage. In between workshops and concerts we found a couple of slots in an otherwise tight program to hit the studio in Copenhagen. But performing together was one thing, communication offstage was another. I didn't speak French and Mustaf didn't speak English, so our primary way of communicating was through Google Images! Just try to imagine Mustaf trying to explain this Wolof chorus with images: “If you don't study hard and work hard, you're gonna get as stupid as a donkey.”
The tour continued in Senegal and Mauritania. Back in Dakar after Mauritania, we sat down in Mustaf's house and discussed the possibilities of doing a project together. His wife had cooked a nice maafe and over the course of this meal the basis of Fouma System was created. We actually started making the music a year later, while doing a show at Distortion Festival in Copenhagen, Denmark. We could have done the usual internet exchange - I would send Mustaf a beat and he would reply with an acapella - but we didn't believe this was the right way for us to create an original or sustainable expression. Interaction was and is key here. Mustaf might have an idea for the lyrics, and I may have a framework for the beat, but creating the track in whole is something we do collectively in the same studio.
What were the main challenges in piecing together this first EP? KAMPMANN: First of all, finding a way to go to our respectable countries to write the songs. Plane tickets travelling across continents are not cheap and the visa process is horrible and time consuming. MBAYE: One challenge has also been to make people understand that this is not white music or black music, this is music, simple as that. It's the currency of the world and it’s not limited to one country or region. KAMPMANN: But the music making process itself has not at all been challenging. The structural part, finding sufficient funds etc, has been a hassle.
What are your aspirations with this project? KAMPMANN: First of all, to create something that is original, natural, and a mix of traditions and inspirations in a musical miscegenation. Secondly, as most artists would, we'd like to travel the world with our music and let our music travel the world, spreading the message that funny stuff can come out of mixing cultures. Personally, mixing elements that don't seem to fit at first glimpse has always been of essence to me. That goes for this project as well and to release this somewhat strange music is something i'm looking forward to. This project is done because we wanted to do it and still want to. Not because we were forced to do it or because somebody came up with a concept and then hired us to do the task. MBAYE: I make music because I feel it inside of me as a griot, and because I know I can do it. I love music. This love doesn’t exclude economic realities, we need funding to create our art, but music comes first, and if the music is good and done with passion, money will follow as well.
What's next for Fouma System? KAMPMANN: As we speak, we are finishing up a tour in Senegal and Mauritania. During the summer and early fall we will continue the tour in countries such as Denmark, Germany, France and Austria. after that a new release is coming later this year.