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Interview: Baloji – WOMAD New Zealand 2019 Festival

Interview: Baloji – WOMAD New Zealand 2019 Festival

Gareth Shute / Thursday 31st January, 2019 12:36PM

Gareth Shute catches up with the Democratic Republic of Congo-born, Belgium-raised rapper who is playing at WOMAD New Zealand 2019 in March.

At first listen, Baloji’s music grabs you with its funky Congolese rhythms and flowing-yet-precise raps. Yet dig deeper into his latest album, 137 Avenue Kaniama, and there is more to admire - sharp lyrics that bring out the poetry of the French language; startlingly beautiful music videos directed by Baloji himself; and songs that extend out toward the ten minute mark (often by reinterpreting the central musical ideas in different ways across the span of the track).

One case in point is the track, ‘Peau de chagrin - Bleu de nuit’ (translation; ‘The Skin of Sorrow - The Blue of the Night’). It begins with a poetic rendering of a one night stand, but in the second half the same musical elements are twisted to create a darker mood - the climax is over and there is a more sombre moment of reflection and disentanglement. Baloji explains:

“I had a concept about sensuality and how the man’s body reacts; how the woman’s body reacts. What happens after it’s over – how the man feels empty and how it’s different for a women. Usually in urban music, rappers talk about how they’re good at having sex, but never about that moment after. I thought it would make for interesting subject matter.”

There is humour in Baloji’s music too - for example, ‘L’Hiver Indien’ which takes the idea of an ‘Indian Summer’ and flips it on its head, with African migrants feeling like they are living in the endless ‘Indian Winter’ of the title. In the chorus, Baloji imagines one of them: ‘Exilé intérieur, accroché à son radiateur’ ('Exiled inside, hanging on his radiator’). Again Baloji provides a second, slower part to the song – ‘Ghetto Mirador’ – where the same major chord progression suddenly turns minor and the song becomes a quieter, more downcast reflection on the loneliness of being an immigrant in an unfamiliar land.

Baloji himself plays a few instruments (bass, keyboards, etc), but turns his idea into music by taking them to his band - a five-piece core group, who he’ll be bringing along to WOMAD. He traces his desire to explore longer song lengths back to the music of his homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo:

“It’s something that was very common in Congolese music in the 70s and 80s. Artists did one song on each side of the [EP] vinyl so they’d be 12-15 minutes long. There were always the slow parts and then they’d built up so you had the same sound and same chord progression but at a higher tempo. For ‘Blue de nuit,’ I did the opposite – I started slow and then went even slower in the second part!”

Baloji’s playful and experimental musical approach rises to a peak on album-closer, ‘Tanganyika’ which is named after the lake that borders DRC and Tanzania. It is a place that provides a refuge for those escaping conflicts in the area:

"I read about how, during war, people like to be close to a lake as deep as Tanganyika, because that means they have only a 180 degree span to protect. Behind them, they have the water and it’s safe because they know most people can’t swim. I just thought – what a crazy thing it is to be in that situation. So I built a story about the different people around the lake – who are probably enemies of each other – and described how they see things. The first part is mainly percussion – music you might hear in a village. Then I added elements that are more suburban, more ghetto, before moving to a sound that is more wild. I invited Serge Kakudji the opera singer to be involved, because the song is like a fresque (fresco). I thought it’d make sense to have him singing behind the craziness that is described in the chorus because when you hear people yelling it sometimes sounds like a bad opera."

Baloji’s interest in bringing together contrasting backgrounds in this manner makes him the perfect artist for a festival like WOMAD, where musical fusions of this type are a guiding theme. In the past, Baloji has collaborated with the Columbian guitarist, Yuri Buenaventura, and says he has a particular interest in this music because two of his closest friends in his teenage years were a pair of Colombians who only listened to salsa."

When asked what he’d like to see himself at WOMAD, he says “everything” before going on to pick out a couple of acts:

“I’ll be excited to see Angelique Kidjo - she’s amazing. I saw her in New York a few years ago and it was mind-blowing. She’s wild! And Shantel & Bucovina Club Orkestar is coming - I like Shantel very much too.”

While some critics might struggle with the concept of ‘world music’, Baloji says he is open to the idea of music from different parts of the world being brought together and thinks it can only be positive. He laughs when asked about the controversy around Vampire Weekend using African rhythms to back their songs about preppy life in the US:

"I have no problem with them. I know a lot of people have a problem with it, but we all get inspired. It’s music answering each other and I think it’s a beautiful and I think we should be happy about. If James Brown didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have Fela. If we didn’t have the Congolese boxing match between Ali and Foreman, there may not have been the burst of Congolese music that happened a few years after that." (James Brown played at a side event to the fight).

Baloji’s achievements on his new album show what can happen when an artist is able to develop beyond their first decade of music making (a possibility that is seldom open to artists in the youth-focused area of hip hop). You might put his longevity down to the fact he’s had one foot in world music (given that he took part in Damon Albarn’s 2013 Africa Express tour etc) and another in the indie world (through his label, Bella Union). However, Baloji believes the answer is more simple:

“I don’t think those things really helped that much. I’m not pushed that much in the world music scene and, as for labels, it’s more about the people – you can find freedom at Universal (his old label), just as you can feel abused at an independent label. It’s more about the way people work your project and sometimes the people that are working on your project don’t care about it. That can happen in both situations. In the end, what has saved me as an artist is that I just love music. That’s all there is to it.”

WOMAD New Zealand 2019 is happening from Friday 15th March to Sunday 17th March, at New Plymouth's TSB Bowl of Brooklands, Pukekura Park. Head along over here to explore this year's timetable.


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Womad New Zealand 2019
Fri 15th Mar 8:00pm
TSB Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth
Womad New Zealand 2019
Sat 16th Mar 8:00pm
TSB Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth
Womad New Zealand 2019
Sun 17th Mar 8:00pm
TSB Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth