Interview with Manou Gallo

Manou N'Guessan Gallo is a musician from Cote d’Ivoire. Brought up by her grandmother, Gallo first performed at the age of 12 and went on to become a success, touring in various African countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali,Togo and Benin as well recording four albums. She also performed in theater and dance troupes as well as playing on an album by Ray Lema. She performed with Zap Mama for six years from 1997, as well as appearing with the Tambours de Brazza. She sings in Dida, French and English.She produced Rising Tide the much acclaimed album of Zimbabwe’s hottest band Mokoomba. The band’s big break came in 2012 when the band released RISING TIDE produced by this pioneering Ivoirian bassist for the Belgian label ZigZag World.The success of Rising Tide led Mokoomba to tour over 40 countries worldwide in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 including performances at Denmark’s Roskilde festival, the UK’s WOMAD festival, Belgium’s Couleur Cafe´ festival, and Morocco’s Gnawa festival in the U.S. In 2016. While in Abidjan Cote d’Ivoire, I met Manou Gallo and during her busy schedule she was able to make time to talk about her career and her current success.

You are a musician, instrumentalist, producer, composer, you have all it takes musically. It hasn’t been easy as a woman in music?

Sure! It was not easy, you have to fight your way through being an African woman bass player. It is easy to say that I am a singer, a dancer, but an African woman instrumentalist, it was not given. You have to convince the public that you are serious about your craft. Recently I got a call from Bootsy Collins, I think we are going to do a collaboration work, so I feel it is promising.

What was your first contact with music?

For me it was a passion I didn’t chose music. I can say that music for me was an inner talent. I didn’t have the possibility to say I want to be a Pharmacist, a Doctor or an Engineer. At age 8 I started to play drum in my village, then at age 12 I joined a group were I discovered music instruments; a guitar, a bass, a drum set, a piano. It was at this time I began to touch all theses instruments. I particularly liked the bass guitar because it is harmonious and rhythmic. I think I unconsciously chose this instrument.(bass guitar)

Did you have other family members who were musicians?

Not at all, only my mother was a great singer. As a matter of fact when we had family gathering she got out her beautiful voice and sang to us songs and melodies of our village.

Talk about the era you grew up, what was the style of music being played?

When I joined the band Woya, I was the youngest and smallest band member. We had a leader who was a music genius, Marcellin Yace, (may his soul R.I.P.) was a great melody maker. Woya was like Kassav, the Guadeloupean group, it was a very commercial band. It was designed to be that, very commercial music. What brought me to change my style is the fact that I had the gift to play drums since I was little. When I began to play music, I didn’t know who was, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Jaco Pastorius, I didn’t know all of these people. For me it was Marcellin Yace my music father who told me about all these musicians. It is when I began to travel that I came to know that Jaco Pastorius is one of the best bass player musicians who revolutionized the bass guitar. Sure, I like Marcus Miller’s sound, I like Richard Bonas’s easiness style of playing bass. But most of all I like to be Manou Gallo, the woman who play the bass as drum.

What elements go into your music writing process?

For me it is the rhythm first, because when I think about music the first thing that comes to mind is the rhythm, then comes the harmony and melody. From where I come from, there are lots of melodies. When I were a little girl, I sang all the melodies of my village including special songs about twin babies. Because in my village when twins are born, we celebrate with dance, and also when there is baptism we celebrate. It is a time for music, even when there are funerals. All these moments of music which I participated in when I were a little girl enriched me and it is my source of inspiration. All these experiences are my weapons which allow me to reach back in the past and write good lyrics. I think that is my originality.

How would you describe your music to someone who has not heard it before?

Laugh!!!! It is Afro-groove,Afro-funk,Afro-jazz,World groove, I am a free woman. It is not because I am an African woman that I can’t put rock in my music, it is less important, I play whatever style I feel. African artists are boxed into one style as if they can’t play any other style. Today when you see African musicians playing jazz, it is normal. Nevertheless, they don’t find it natural for African artists to play rock. Who decides that African musicians shouldn’t play jazz? We saw American jazz musicians gone to South Africa to collaborate with South African musicians. Everything is possible, for me it is an opening, I am a liberated woman and I do music of a liberated woman.

You produced the album Rising Tide, the album of the Zimbabwe group Mokoomba. The album received rave reviews upon its release and became their ticket and passport to the world stage. It is as if the group grew wings, flying high and selling out at their concerts in Europe and in the U.S. What is the story? How did you meet them?

Mokoomba’s story is like my story, I was helped early in my career and if it wasn’t for other people helping me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Mokoomba is a group of young Africans musicians full of talent. Like me they love music and believe in one thing only; music. It is my manager who met them in Zimbabwe at an interregional music contest which they won. He wanted to work with them and asked me to produce their album. I went to Harare in Zimbabwe for ten days, spent lots of time working with the group. I could see the love of music in their eyes. I took the recordings done in Zimbabwe to Belgium and worked for two years on the album Rising Tide. It is normal to find them where they are today because they worked very hard. It is nice to see young Africans living in Africa working together on a project, it is very good. In other African countries, every singer wants to be a star. In music, everyone can’t be a star, you can be a good musician and earn a living. I am happy for them it is an adventure I liked and if I can work with other young Africans, it will be with great pleasure.

What makes a song great?

A nice melody, a good groove. As a percussionist I would say a good groove. But I think a great song is a good melody that touches your soul and gives you goosebumps.

Does a song have to be a personal experience, or a story?

There are artists who sing their personal experience. In my next album for instance, I am doing a song about the son of a musician friend, a bass player who told me a story about his son. The story touched me so much that I decided to make a song. It is not a personal experience but as you see, one can write about many things, a story, an image, a sentiment. I believe artists are free to express things they feel.

Your country is the crossroad of African music, many African artists from all over the continent began or launched their career from here. Yet, aside Alpha Blondi no much is known about Ivorian music or artists outside the country, some are known only in France. What do you think that is?

As you mentioned, Cote d’Ivoire is the crossroad of African music, every year there are numbers of music festivals and music market events which give chances to many African musicians to showcase their talent and be discovered. Cote d’Ivoire has many diverse ethnic groups and this mix can be negative as well a positive one. For example, in the country of Mali, they have an identity, the Mandingue culture and tradition. There is Malian music, with the traditional instruments, Kora, Ngoni, kamele ngoni, balafon, djembe. Cote d’Ivoire is more of an open society, so we take a little from here and there, all the other cultures which came from other countries. Mixing it with the different ethnic languages the country has, so it appears as if we don’t have an identity, it is not true. We have the identity from the north, from the forest, from the coast. A while ago prior to this interview, I was recording a flute player from the western region of the country with superb style. Ernesto Djedje, one of our musical icons attempted to develop and put on the maps Ziglibity, the style of music from his area of the country, and it was taking off. The sad thing now is that with the electronic era many youth are taking the easy way out but I can assure you that there are many ivoirian artists who are overseas studying eager to showcase our rich rhythms and harmonies which will have a great jazz player say, I never heard this before! Ivory Coast is rich in harmony and rhythms. It is up to our young musicians to bring out all these music richness.

Your experience with Zap Mama?

It is thank to Zap Mama I went to Europe. I was still a young bass player and one day I got a call for an audition with the group Zap Mama in Europe. I already knew of the group because I used to listen to them on my walkman here in Ivory Coast and I wondered if the call for an audition with them was real. I went to Europe and met Marie Daulne leader of the group, it was her album which revolutionized the acapella style. I couldn’t have imagined I will be on a stage with them. That was done 15 years ago and the collaboration still continues. I went solo career and we kept a good relation, we work together sometime. In fact they will participate on my next album, I am producing a potpourri of Zap Mama’s songs and all the members of the group will come together to sing on the album, It is a family now. I started music in Ivory Coast and Zap Mama opened the world to me.

What are the artists you collaborated with?

Wycleef, Manou dibango, Dobet Gnahore, Karece Fotso, Marcus Miller and many others....

How has your music evolve since you started to play music?

After the release of my last album, Lowlin 7 years ago, I decided to take a studio break and work on my bass guitar. I believe that on my next album people will feel my musical evolution. It is through my instrument that they’ll see my evolution. Through this next album people will see where I have been and what I’ve been doing.

What do you think of the Ivoirian music the last 10 years?

There are good and bad ones. Commercial music has taken over in the continent and rightfully so. It was Congolese music in the 80s, today it is Nigerian music,maybe it will be Ivoirian music next, but presently for popular African music it is Nigerian music dominating in Europe and U.S. In term of Ivoirian music, yes, there was couper decaler and many other styles. It is a generational thing.

What do you think it is your most contribution?

I believe my collaboration in many projects, I think of Zap Mama, we’re still collaborating and I hope there will be more projects to work on.

What would you like people to know about Manou Gallo’s music?

That it is special, you have to take time to listen to my music, to enter in my groove, it takes times and I hope to display all my talents on my next album.

Thank you Manou!

Thank you for giving me the opportunity and I hope to come to perform in California in the near future.

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