In Conversation With

In Conversation with: Afro Celt Sound System


@WOMAD 2017

London in the 80’s / WOMAD / Whirl-y Gig / West African Music / Multiculturalism


When I was ruffly 16 years old, I listened for the first time to a global fusion album. This album was Release by Afro Celt Sound System. The album boasts multi-culturalism, with Scottish bagpipes, traditional Irish flutes, fiddles, Indian rhythms, West African Kora… to name but a few, all fused with infectious unstoppable electronic dance beats. 


This album changed my life. I had never before danced to anything non-western in sound. Nor had I heard fusions from the global North to South. I had also never previously heard the bagpipes sound funky.


Afro Celt Sound-System as the name might suggest fuse traditional Western folk instruments with West African instruments and merge the whole thing into the electronic dance scene. Formed in 1995 the Afro Celt band consists of mystro musicians in their own right.


In this interview I talk to Simon Emmerson, a prevalent figure in the changing musical trends in London since the 70’s, Larla O Lionáird of the Irish influences, and N’Fale Kouyate, the West African griot Kora player. Together in a cosy yurt at WOMAD Festival 2017, we spoke through the changing trends in music, the global Norths relation to African music and the London music scene through the ages….


WOMAD 2017 Saturday, BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillett Stage, 8:15 - 9:30pm


Speaking with : Simon Emmerson, Larla O Lionairde, N’Fale Kouyate, (Johnny Kalsi)


I was overwhelmed to be given the opportunity to talk to Afro-Celt Sound System, as a long time lover of their fantastic fusion of traditional folk musics of the global north, with traditional folk musics of the global south, the incredibly versatile fusion dance music has had me dancing for years. 


I wanted to try and map out the various influences in Afro-Celts vast discography of music spanning from their first album release  ‘Volume 1: Sound Magic’ (1996). Having since spanned a further nine albums, the endless array of incredible sounds from one album to the next is truly worthy of the term musical ‘melting pot’. 

I started by asking the guys where the Irish Celtic influences came from within the band….


Larla: well it comes from Simon meeting Davy Spillane from County Clare in Ireland and they met over Baba Mal records, and that was where the initial content was, and ever since then there’s been a array of performers and singers who, also some Scottish musicians, so theres a big heavy influence and I joined the band a few years ago and I have been playing the Irish flutes and bohdrán.


SD: Im studying ethnomusicology in SOAS and I just love it, so can I ask, how did it all come together, with the Scottish the Irish, I know the West African and Indian rhythms too? 

Simon: Yeah I mean we use Bhangra grooves, Dub grooves, yeah it's a melting pot. 


SD: How are the songs constructed? Is it all the work of one genius conductor? 

Larla/N’Fale: Ahh Simon, Simon is the clever guy


Simon: Ok so I never wanted to be a virtuoso musician. I started of as a punk, my primary agenda was probably as an activist, but then over the years, you get a little bit older, and then music has become a big part of my life. But as a record producer, I got very interested the music that I grew up with in London. 

So as a kid I grew up in South London, I was surrounded by reggae and ska, I as a punk I was very much on the fringes of all the sound systems that you had in London. In the early 80’s I worked in a jazz specialist shop called ‘Mole Jazz’ and I got very into jazz, but I discovered African music. I discovered the music of West Africa; Fela Kuti, I started trying to play African guitar in the way that Africans do it, but in my own kind of punk way. 

So I met a guitarist called Spike, who was in a punk band, and we became part of a band called Weekend and we were playing kind of African licks in a kind of Indie feel. That soon developed to me being in a band called Working Week, through all that I ended up in Africa in the early 90’s and it was Davy Spillaine who set me off on the road to the Afrocelt because he told me that the aboriginal Irish were dark skinned and that there are loads of legends of dark skinned Irish. 

He told me lots of stories about how the North Africans having frame drums like the ‘bodhrán’ and having pipes, and I got interested in the Bardic tradition which is the kind of western magical tradition that goes back to the idea that music is a transformative power, that through song and poetry you keep the ancestral legends alive. I met through Baba Mal, I met the griots, and N’Fale is a West African griot, and living breathing proof that the Bardic tradition is a reality, because this is exactly what N’Fale does, it is his culture, and he is a founder of Afro-celt Sound System.


SD: Fantastic, so tell us what is your instrument? 

N’Fale: My instrument in the Kora (twenty-one stringed Harp, West Arica), and the Balafon (wooden xylophone, Gambia) and I sing.


SD: Wonderful, as a student at SOAS University (London) we have the opportunity to spend six weeks studying the Kora. It’s such a beautiful instrument. 

N’Fale: 21 strings there are to tune… *laughs*


SD: So in the group we have many different origins, I was wondering if there is a place you perform as a group that feels like a home for the band? A base? 

Simon: The band was conceived at WOMAD 1995. That was the fist time I helped introduce a kind of post acid house rave Sound System called Whirl-y Gig*. 

In 1995 Whirl-Y Gig set up a tent at WOMAD and we played there. Here there was a lot of my friends with bands like Joy, and Transglobal Underground and all the kind of fusion techno bands. Many of which were based in East London. A lot of us were. 

The East London Asian community had created the kind of Asian Underground so you had Johnny Kalsi and we were all clustered around the Whirl-y Gig, of which came to WOMAD, and then from that we started working with Real World (Records). So in a way Real World records and the Whirl-y Gig were very much the source, perhaps the origins of the band. 

That was because East London was this kind of melting pot at the time of multiculturalism, and we’d all been brought up with music from different cultures. Where as Ireland was much more kind of isolated culturally. 


Lara: At that time for sure, actually. My sort of introduction to sounds from around the world; so I lived in New York 2000/2001 for about a year and a half, and I’d have the most amazing experience when I walked home. 

Each block I passed would have a completely different musical sound. You had the meringue from Puerto Rico you had the Arabic grooves from Morocco, there was a trance session on in the next block and polish music over the road. This was the sort of scenery I had when I’d finish work and I’d walk home, and so that was something we didn’t have in Ireland. For me going to New York was a similar experience to Simon with WOMAD and such. 


Simon: Yes, like I said, when I went to Senegal in ’91 and I walked around Dakar I heard on African radio; there was salsa, there was funk, there was hip-hop, there was a huge amount of latino music there was, bhangra and bollywood, which of corse was huge there. So West Africa was just as much a melting pot. In Baba Mals band there were five languages, so the idea that multiculturalism was invented in the West is not true, there is just a much multiculturalism in Africa I mean reggae… 


N’Fale: Latino, the jazz and the pop, the blues all the blues, the pentatonic. In my country there are many natural players, my Uncle is the director of the National Ensemble Traditionál, all these differences come to this National band to build an Orchestral Ensemble, and me I educate in this family, and I discover many different cultures. Polyphonic singing, such as the singing. I am a teacher in Belgium of singing polyphonic, and I do some singing workshops in WOMAD, I use that and I catch some singers too. I am now also in Guinea musical director to coach some people, but this experience Africa gave me many possibilities to hear more different. 

Because I learn in the traditional musical family, I have no choice in my musical education, but when I go I go to a different cultures to study, and to mix again the music. The big musicians always like the musician from African. 


SD: So it’s safe to say you are all constantly learning… 


*ooh yess** 


N’fale: Yes I think we are always sharing, I have worked with for example Lady Smith Black Mambazo, and many others. All these experiences gave me endless possibilities. With Africa being a very nice experience for the world music; to be honest the term world music… I don’t think if I perceive very much that… because they choose the jazz out, and the French music out, the pop and rock … and the rest… what do we have to do with this? Ok same bag; world music. 


SD: I completely agree, it can be said that it would only seem to be world music from people in the western hemisphere, as it’s only our genres excluded. 


Nfale: In Africa they sing in R&B and they come and sing very nice, but if they hear them they say ok, world music, because he’s from Africa. But then there is jazz music in Africa, the base of jazz, and the blues is from Africa as is the pentatonic, but they call them ‘world music’. 


SD: You all like to mix it up…


N’Fale: The new thing for me on the music; the ‘afrotronix’ my traditional instrument with electronic, it becomes completely afrotronic


SD: Such as the music of Afriqoui, they have the Kora with electronic music, and African calabash drumming dubbed…?


N’Fale: I use the calabash, completely traditional, and I used completely modern Panasonic electronic, such as my Wah Wah with my Kora, *impression of a wah wah pedal*. 


S:D That’s soo cool.


N’Fale: I have one pedal that I like with the sound of the Kora, very very unique to other griots.



SD: I was hoping to know what music you guys are listening too at the moment in your spare time?

N’Fale: Electronic music


Lara: Yeah you know I listen to everything from Rock, to folk music to electronica to classical there so much music I listen to it all.

Theres a  great radio station in Ireland I love. I love that it goes from jazz to classical to pop, to rock. There all just sounds from different genres, I hate, I dislike being put into a genre. 




With this, the band and myself were summoned away from the yurt in order to get ready for their performance. 


I made my way over to the Charlie Gillet BBC Radio 3 stage where they we to play and awaited. As expected, the crowd grew immensely, an obvious choice on the bill it seemed. 

Sure enough out came the band, with Indian drums, Koras, balafons, Irish flutes, Scottish Bagpipes various percussion instruments and of course vocals. 

Afro Celt Sound System did not let down. They proceeded to play an electrified performance with grooves that demand dancing, melodies that shake the hips and beats that stomp the feet. 

I felt incredibly pleased to see the awesome fusion dance music performed live with such liveliness, passion and energy, all worthy of the 20 year strong band. 

In Conversation With: Oumou Sangaré


@ WOMAD Festival 2017

Wassoulou / Mali / Feminism / Social Commentary

Having recorded her first album ‘Moussolou’ in 1989 in Bamako Mali, Oumou Sangare has made the music of her homeland: the Wassoulou region in Mali one of the signature sounds to make it globally from West Africa. As well as this, Oumou has globalised the local sound of the Kamale Ngoni. 

Having been singing since a young child, and catching the attention of many, including African blues maestro Ali Farka Touré, as a voice of her generation. Oumou even went on tour at the age of 16 with the percussion group Djoliba, and by the age of 21 Oumou was already a star. 


Aside being the ambassador for Wassoulou, Oumou has alway used her voice, local and globally for social comment. Specifically commenting on topics such as women status in society, child marriage and genital mutilation. Her first album was an unprecedented hit in West Africa with over 200,000 copies sold locally, consequently in the coming years, Oumou played at every major venue in the world, and toured with global legends. 


Using her voice for women across the world, Oumou was named ambassador of the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation - fighting hunger across the world), furthermore she won the UNESCO (promotion of peace and security)  prize in 2001 for her work speaking out on social issues. 


Of course in the proceeded eight studio albums, Grammy nominations, amongst many other awards have showered Oumou, and she is celebrating her latest album release ‘Mogoya’ (2017) by playing a few gigs around the world. 


I find myself here at WOMAD Festival 2017 about to talk to Oumou Sangare before her big show on the main stage. As I wait with her for our translator I am taken aback by her sheer presence. An energy emanated from Oumou has an intensely powerful, righteous woman. A little humbled, I began…. 




Sophie Darling (SD) : Firstly, it is such an honour to be sitting here opposite you. I am in love with your music, and also with your activism. 

You’re an advocate for women rights, I wanted to talk about the difficulties of your strife? Was being an advocate for women rights and such a conscious decision you made to use your voice to make these political opinions, or was it something that came naturally? Something you felt you had to do? 

Omou Sangare (OS) : Very difficult, very. It was a conscious decision, I didn’t have an easy childhood, my mother was sick a lot, I felt I needed to fight to make her happy, to allow her to be happy, I wanted to fight for the injustice, against the injustice of being so sad all of that time 


SD:I am aware that one of your albums is entitled ‘Ten Kola Nuts’ which is the going currency for a Malian wife, can you tell us about that concept? Why did you want to talk about it? 


OS: It’s like a marriage package, It’s like an engagement, it’s an asking. There’ a lot of different stages in marriage, the engagement stage, then you have the devot-age stage. Basically I wanted to talk and use it as a symbol to talk about marriage, because for me that’s what deprives women of her rights, ok marriage can go well and it’s good for her, but if it goes badly, then the woman will be deprived of her life, she might become a slave, and she doesn’t want that to happen, it’s a symbol… it’s symbolic. 


SD: At what age did you start to play with the music Are your family musical? Where you encouraged to play music? 


OS: My mother, my mother *laughs* didn’t want me to leave school to follow music, but  she did want me to sing, because my own mother was a great singer, my grandmother was a musical star as well, and so my mother encouraged me, as my mum said she would hear her mothers voice in me, but she didn’t want me just to be a singer, she wanted me to follow my studies as well as be a singer. 


SD: Has your mother managed to see you perform at all? 


OS: Now yes *laughs* oh. No no no, go to school Oumor, she waited until I was a big girl, she waited until I was professional, yes.


SD: I know that in the early days, Nick Gold the record producer of World Circuits took an interest  in you after he was handed a tape of your recordings. How did you find things changed for you? Were the social barriers surrounding gender and music easy for you to manoeuvre? Were difficulties enhanced?


OM: No, the story about how he heard the music was that Ali Farke Touré was a huge huge fan of mine . So when the first record came out, he was screaming my name everywhere, and telling everyone about it, and playing the music, this is when Nick heard it for the first time, and then he went to Bamako and he said he heard it everywhere everywhere, he said oh I love that women voice, I would like to meet her. 


SD: Wassoulou music, I was wondering if we could ask a little about that, as I don’t know much about it. 

OS: So Wassoulou is the music for dancing, for rejoicing, for relaxing, but it always carries a message


SD: Do you have any pre/post gig rituals for good luck? 


OS:*laughs* Oh yeah, sometimes, I pour a small amount of water on the ground, sometimes I might forget, but always I try to do it, for the ancestors, for my grandmother. 


SD: Were you taught to sing, or where you born this way? 

OS: I was born with it




I left feeling charged up by Oumous very presence. I joined the huge crowd awaiting by the main stage to watch the Songbird of Wassoulou take to the stage. Loved by an adoring audience, Oumour Sangare exploded the stage with her powerful voice that emanated across the festival. Playing old and new tunes, Oumou focused mainly on her album. With dedications to women, wives and mothers, the reaction was of indulgence and love as the audience danced and sung throughout the entire performance. 


I was honoured to have spoken to Oumou Sangare, and can confirm that the new album is fabulous. 



In Conversation with ÌFÉ (Otura Mun)


WOMAD Festival / Religious expression / Yoruba - Ifá practises / Electronic - London music scene

WOMAD 2017 Sunday, Ecotricity Stage, 5-6pm

Otura Mun and Sophie Darling @ WOMAD Festival 2017 

Otura Mun and Sophie Darling @ WOMAD Festival 2017 

IIII+IIII Album Out now: 

Pronounced “Edgy-Og-Beh” 


As a student of ethnomusicology,  the concept of music as a form of religious or spiritual expression is something we frequently touch upon; be it the use of the African mBira for connection with the ancestral spirits, or the Islamic recital chanting of qawwali music, but Otura Mun’s debut album in his ÌFÉ outfit; IIII+IIII is a unique contemporary exploration of faith and spirituality through electronic music.


ÌFÉ firstly as a title of an album resonates religious connotations as it rings familiar to the ‘ Ifá ’  faith system within which our profound conductor of this musical outfit is himself, a practising priest. Ifá  is a branch of the Yoruba religion practiced throughout West Africa (Benin,Togo, Niger ect) I spoke to Otura Mun about these undeniable connections of faith in the album that at times plays as a spiritual experience; 


Otura Mun:  I initiated in Ifá; which is a part of the Yoruba religions as practiced in the western hemisphere. In which basically I am a priest, we are also called babalawo and our job inside that religious practices (Ifá) is divination. 

So my job is basically to find and define, what we understand as the divine destiny that each person is living or expressing at any particular moment in their lives, or looking back in their lives. So if you sit down in front of me, I’m going to define the sign out of the 256 (signs) that talks about the energy that you are manifesting.


Within Ifá, a process involving a wooden ‘divination tray’ named the ‘Opon Ifá' is used along side the sacred palm or kola nuts named ‘Ikin’, together the babalawos (otherwise known as Iyanifas/priests) will use this with the ‘256 signs’ in order to establish someones energy with the divine; 


Otura Mun:  My job (as a babalawo) is to identify the energies and help you balance yourself with it, with the idea that if you can grab onto your destiny and the life you are supposed to be living, and adhere to it right, and walk that path, then you are going to enjoy the fruits of life, have a long life of health, salvage relationships with people, you know, open roads in life. 

But if you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing, if you're not walking the path you're supposed to be walking, then you might experience loss and sickness and conflict. So my job is to help you see that destiny, and help you to give yourself to it. 


So some of what you're hearing in the record, is sort of maybe me coming to terms with another way to view the world around me. Because I initiated in this practice maybe around four years ago right; so this is an African religion and an African way of viewing and understanding the world that you live in, right. So maybe seven years ago I would have thought it would be silly to be praying to a stone, right, because of my western up bringing, I couldn’t understand that a stone has life, it is expressing itself, just the way that say this wood *holds table* is still expressing itself you know what I mean. But I couldn’t really wrap my head around that, it was me, meeting a new me, working through this new way of understanding the world, and inside of the songs, theres almost always a theme that I'm dealing with, and they’re general theme, say like loss or forgiveness. 


The last song ‘Yari Gemini’ is talking about forgiveness and it’s talking about a friend of mine that helped me get through a ruff moment in my life, you know. And so, Geminis are the two stars that are in the sky, and so I think about living with this best friend of mine forever, we’re going to be together forever you know, and inside of the Yoruba religion, the two twins are ‘Ibeji' and so theres a song at the end of the album, where I'm talking about the Gemini's being these two stars in the sky, but then you flip it and were singing to the Ibeji which are the twins in the Yoruba religions. So there’s sort of several different levels on which you can understand the music 


Having presented the album originally on ‘A World In London’ as an exclusive ‘new release’ back in May on SOAS Radio (, I’d relinquished in the opportunity to divulge fully into the album. Each tune sways seamlessly through speaking Yoruban or Spanish to English lyrics; as with faith that transcends languages, it seems this is another way in which the album becomes almost a religious experience. With further reminisce of trip-hop and a Cuban percussive section, I rather became entranced with the album. I asked Otura Mun how the rest of the world have reacted to the release…


Otura Mun:  It has been pretty amazing, I am really just overjoyed with the people that have hit me up from so many different parts of the world I think that were somehow able to connect through the music, on so many different levels, whether it was somebody who lets say is initiated in a certain part of the nation that let’s say is part of the religion, and say it touches them there. Or whether it's someone that doesn't speak either Spanish or English or Yoruba, but it is somehow able to connect with the sentiment of the album, in a very clear way. I’m just really grateful to be able  communicate with so many different people, and for people to be able to pull something out of the record that’s meaningful, that’s special. 


Knowing full well that the chart music of Puerto Rico, where Otura calls home, has for some, time been highly dominated by the reggaeton rhythms since the 1990’s. I ask Otura if this has had an impact on the success of his electro-afro-cuban album at home in the heart of Puerto Rico, and if this effects, as ÌFÉ, where he feels most musical at home…


Otura Mun: Home for me is in Puerto Rico, but actually to be honest, my home for performing is London. I love the UK, this is the third time I’v been here this year, all the shows we play in UK have been amazing. Im also a big fan of UK music, like I like listening to BBC One Extra, Mr.Jam  is cool, I love al that stuff and so I mean, home is cool, we actually have played three shows in Puerto Rico in total, that’s it. 


It’s totally really well received, it’s just that the music scene in general is really conservative over there you know, it’s sort of over run by like, reggaetone and just a lot of crap music. And so you know, there is a space for what were doing, but it’s soo new, that the people, especially the young kids, haven’t been able to reach out and interact, so yeah we play internationally a lot. 


I managed to catch up with Otura Mun after his set at WOMAD Festival UK 2017. Otura was playing on the Ecotricity Stage at a sun setting time of 5-6pm. Having listened to the album extensively before the set I was expecting an immersive performance, however was taken aback by the reaction of the audience, whom much like a religious ceremony seemed completely entranced in his soundscapes, almost as if sacrificing themselves to the music. Playing nearly the whole of ‘IIII+IIII’ I left the set feeling as tho I had received a generous helping of IFE’s music, and with unshakable taste for more. I asked Otura Mun if this was the reception they always receive when they play? 


Otura Mun: I tell you we didn’t want to leave the WOMAD stage! I suppose we do receive a similar audience participation wherever we go, but you know once again, the UK crowds are a lot of fun. For some reason I think that you guys know electronic music out here, and so you're used to those sounds and those types of performances, and so yeah, I just think that theres something about it, I don't know what it is, I can't put my finger on it, but this music in a way is built for you guys. I think perhaps you are the party people *laughs*.


I highly recommend listening to IIII+IIII in solitary concentration. The beautiful harmonies of the lyrics resonate such as a choir singing a sacred Yoruba praise song. I feel that the album is a journey through the faith and ÌFÉ is the carriage of our discovery. Perhaps in this new era IIII+IIII marks an age of albums being a medium of faith expression, and in themselves become an artefact of religious meditation. IIII+IIII in this case becoming Otura Muns religious manifesto. 


The opening song being perhaps the opening ceremony in our journey; with a call and response typical of it’s African influences, along side the cuban son rhythms, we are welcomed to the melting pot of inspirations to be found in the album through a soft meditative chant. The album then immediately picks up in the second track ‘Bangah' (Pico y Palo) with its foot tapping electronic Jamaican dancehall esc energy, suddenly we are able to revise and absorb the message, but it seems we can also express the album through dancing. The third track ‘YUMAVISION' diverting and taking us to a trip-hop ÌFÉ. As well as taking us through a concoction of traditional and contemporary sounds; IIII+IIII also subtly and seamlessly blends Afro-Cuban rhythms, such as their use of the ‘Son’ rhythm which inspired Salsa and originally was of an Afro-Cuban descent. ÌFÉ helps to shine a new light on these otherwise heavily Afro-Cuban sounds rarely heard outside the boundaries from which they originated.


All in all, ÌFÉ’s IIII+IIII may be a personal spiritual exploration for Otura Mun, but it’s also a unique exploration of music as an expression of religion, blurring the line between preacher and the preached and perhaps adding a medium to how one can express faith.


Check out Songlines October magazine review in which IIII+IIII received a 5 star review;


In Conversation with: Vigüela



Vigüela are a Spain who take their traditional music to a global audience. Having been playing for over 30 years together, Vigüela, part family members, aim to keep alive and vivid the traditional repertoire of specific styles from their home in Castilla La Mancha. The melismatic vocals and pulsating guitar rhythms create a beautiful harmonic sway. 


I managed to catch up with Vigüela at WOMAD Festival 2017 before their slot on the BBC 3 Charlie Gillet Stage, and I spoke with them about their influences, their traditions and how they were finding British WOMAD. 


Members: Juan Antonio Torres, Mary Nieto, Carmen Torres, Luis Garcia Valera.




Sophie Darling: firstly did you enjoy your set 

Viguela: Yes of corse, a lot 


SD: So let us know the relationships within the band, how do we know each other? 

Viguela: Antonio is founder of the band, he was 15 years old, so that was 35 years ago. Carmen is his sister, so she joined very very soon after he created the band, Marie is from the same village as they, she joined the band ten years go, so they know each other from all their lives, and she has been involved with many groups of women singing and playing music, and so when they decide they want one more woman, they asked her to come with them. Louis is from the different region is from the north and he is like on hour away. We know from the world of folk and traditional music, he is a director of a school for music, so we know him and we needed one more man so he joined the band 5 years ago,  he is only 21 years old. He is from the south eats and we know him only over the internet before we met in person, because he is active mainly int eh traditional practise of music, so he. 

They go to play in the street, so he spend a couple nights in this world, so we wanted to bring someone here, because he sings and he know this music directly from his family, especially his grandfather is his inspiration but also his mother is dancer, and she dances wonderfully so when we had this cache to come to womad to play here on the bbc3 stage, we thought about bringing  a guest artists to show what he can do, the music he knows can join perfectly with Viguela, because it continues in a style of music that is like a language. 


SD: Can you explain a little bit about your genre of music, and for example is there a strong timing

Viguela: This is a very interesting questions, because the question of rhythm is quite intriguing, beaus elf you put up a clap you always say this is awful, because you can't play this music with a clap, because the procession of ‘compas’ you have these music sheets with the lines, so they say this is a 3/4 compas rythm, this is a 2/4 4/4 that concession in this music doesn’t have place, this a totally different way of making music, I mean you can't record this with a clap because you make the drums then  you have to make the bass… no, you have to play together of corse to make a records with this, you can add voices after that perhaps, but everyone has to be together because the rhythms is moving al the time, you can’t really touch the rhythm in the modern conception of music. 


SD: How did you all start learning your instruments, was it passed down from your family? I assume from what you just explained that it wasn’t a western ‘sitting down’ and reading scripture technique? 

Viguela: Mainly we learned from our families, but also from the social environment, Antonio and Carmen; their father was a professional drummer, he was in band that play for you in the villages, but their grandmothers used to sing, not professionally, but they are singing with people all the time, so they picked p this excuse they have grown, in the rural village with 2000 people, so it’s notary big, and maybe like a little not well communicated with each other, there is no train, and only one bus to the city, so they have guessed some music in their village. 

Marie she is from the same when they were younger this music was totally alive, this was a music that for 

Louis came into the music mainly because he kew his father used to play guitar, but when we was a teenager, he realised that his father didn’t play anymore because he didn’t have someone to play with, so he started to play the lute in order to accompany his father, so after this he also got some of the older people interested again to play some of this music and also to play some specific music they used to play. So it got alive again. So now he studies and teaches education for music, he knows how to communicate in both ways, int eh modern way, but also int he traditional way, and for 

Habe, he is only young, 20/21 years old. So he has all the possibilities to be interested int his music because all his grandfathers died, but his family in general they are very musical and dancing and playing. 


SD: Do you have a good fan bass at home? Where have your most enjoyable performances been? 

Viguela: In Spain of corse they have played a lot, they have some people that are really really encouraging them all the time, “ahh Viguela you ere going round the world”, because you know sometimes when you are doing things like this, coming here, the people are very proud of this. But we are so happy in Spain that there are a lot of prejudices against this music, because they really don't listen to it, but they feel it is rural its old fashioned lack of modernity. The contemporary people can only sometimes be interested. This is traditional music from the people in our village. There is also perhaps new folk lets say inspired, but from a modern point of view I mean, the ones who can’t record an full album of music with a clap, so we also have that in Spain. For me it is another world, it is a different world, because this is a different approach to music, totally different. But we have these two things, The traditional music we also have other kinds of gigs with bigger line ups, with choreographic with um, dress, everything is quite standardises lets say, they go they make their show always the same, or maybe they can include one more song, but its more different now. It’s another world too. But sometimes it’s very confusing everything gets old, people don't understand really how to interpret it, how to excuse they think this is like the other thing meh but this is shay we face a lot of prejudices, but this of corse is why it is very important to be here, because we are so traditional to excite the Spain, and of the other people that have prejudices, but for others too to be very proud 


SD: What was the small guitar you were playing? 

Viguela: Mini guitar, e’darram mancheio’ 


SD: any follow up gigs? 

Viguela: yes in Spain, we have gigs on Fridays and Saturday and we hope no later than the end of the year we will have recorded a new album 




In a beautiful atmosphere Vigüela came out roaring a stunning Spanish tune from their homelands. The guitars and the vocals caught the attention of the audience, who gathered to listen to the traditional music. 

For me the vocals are truly the aspect that stands out in this beautiful music, almost Arabic with it’s tonality, I love how they interact singing together. 

In Conversation with: Maya Youssef

Maya Youssef and Sophie Darling   @ WOMAD Festival 2017, Ecotricity Stage 28.07.17

Maya Youssef and Sophie Darling 

@ WOMAD Festival 2017, Ecotricity Stage 28.07.17


WOMAD Festival / Arabic Maqam / Qanun / Syria

WOMAD FESTIVAL 2017, Friday, Ecotricity Stage 3-4pm

‘Syrian Dreams’ Album Out NOW


Album Launch: Rich Mix 20.11.17

Maya Youssef took to the WOMAD Festival 2017 Ecotricity stage on the Friday 3:00-4:00pm and there played her unique Syrian music that rightfully has earned her the title ‘The Queen of the Qanun’ of which Maya is a virtuoso plucking the 72 stringed zither with practice, passion and class. 

In this interview Maya Youssef discusses how she came to graduate in both Arabic and Western classical traditions from the University of Damascus and since 2012, her journey to London, studying and later teaching at SOAS University, and what her new music means to her. 

“To me, music is a healer and an antidote to what’s happening, not only in Syria but in the whole world.” - Maya

Transporting back in time to seeing Maya Youssef play at WOMAD Festival, on stage accompanying Maya and her qanun were her trio, a fine set of simple percussion along side a standing bass. The audience, and myself were at the set where entranced, listening intently to everything that the lovely Maya had to say, and her versatile set, with emotional slow ballads, to more upbeat happy songs. 

The sound of the qanun is one of such intense beauty, and Maya Youssef plays it with such an intellectual spiritual familiarity. Having started to compose music only after the war broke out in her home country, Syria, Maya’s songs are a reflection of the all encompassing pain that she feels for her country, her people and the situation in Syria, and more so how it’s reflected around the world.

After an emotional, powerful set, I met Maya Yourself to catch up…. 

S.D: How did you enjoy the set? 

MY: I absolutely loved my set, I think that the people received it so beautifully, they interacted with it in an amazing way, and I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude by the end of it. 

SD: I noticed that a lot of the meanings behind the stories of your songs seemed to resonate with the audience, is this something you find at all your concerts? 

MY: Well the WOMAD audience certainly cheers with vigour, very loudly and proudly about the messages I was giving out. Maybe in other places they don't interact quiet as warmly, however I don’t mind, my excuse is that I feel that my songs are like seeds, and my hope is that they will grow later on. 

SD: You’re from Damascus I do believe; when did you come to London? 

MY: Indeed I am from Damascus, so at the end of 2011, I was presented with an amazing opportunity to apply for an ‘exceptional talents scheme’ in the UK in which I was selected for 300 artists from around the world to migrate to the UK, which was a real honour. At the time I was teaching at  Sultan Qaboos University so I wasn't in Syria as the university is in Muscat Oman. Although I was really thinking about going back home to Syria, but because of the war, I accepted this opportunity and I was very very grateful for it, and this is how I ended up being in the UK. So I ended up moving her in 2012, and it has been amazing ever since. 

SD: So is this a busy time for you with gigging in the summer and everything? 

MY: It has been really busy throughout July but then I have two weeks off. Then straight back in doing Edinburgh Festival, and then Shambala. After that I will have some time off, so I am looking forward to that, and on the 20th of November I will have my album launch for ‘Syrian Dreams’.

SD: For people that don’t know, can you tell me a little bit about you instrument the ‘quanun’? Visually, well what to say; there are so many strings! 

MY: Ahh yes, there are 78 strings, very specific, individually tuned. You see every three strings is one note, so I tune each three strings to be one note. It covers about three and a half octaves, and has a wonderfully large range of sound. It also has the strings tied on both ends with metallic leavers on the sides. These play the role of black keys on the piano, and these allow me to modulate, and change the pitches. Finally the quanun translated into Arabic means ‘the law’, so it is called this way because basically the other instruments are tuned to the pitch of the quanun, and also traditionally a quanun player was the leader of the ensemble. So it is one of the main instruments of Arabic classical music. 

SD: It sounds fabulously gorgeous. As it’s an Arabic instrument can we assume that is uses the ‘maqam’ scales? 

MY: Oh yes, correct. 

SD: In which case, when did you start to learn the maqam scales, and how long did it take you to learn them? 

MY: Firstly, the maqam scales are what the majority of Arabic music is based upon, and it has eight notes for every one western note. I learned from my teacher firstly aurally, and also had to learn on my own too, but when I had to start to teach it, I really felt the need to delve very deeply back into the scales and the hole maqam system of scales. 

So that was in Demascus when I was about eight and half/ nine, and I was heading to the city with my mother and the taxi driver was playpen a recording of the quanun. I was amazed, I needed to know what it was I said “wow, what is it, I want to play it”, to which the taxi driver laughed at me and said “no, this is an instrument played by men, you are a girl, just forget about it”, he was so harsh. I really should thank him, for he re-kindled the fire within me and I told him “yes” I will play the quanun. Then it became really crazy, because the very same night, in my site reading class, the head of the institute walks in and says “qanun class is open for registration, anybody?”. So without hesitation of corse, I went along to the class. My mother asked what she was to do with the violin they had brought me, and I said I didn’t care about the violin, and said they could send it away. Which they did, then within three days they had brought me a second hand qanun.

SD: Wonderful, so it sounds as though you had really encouraging parents? Are they musical? 

MY: They are so supportive, really amazing. My father has a huge collection of music, but neither of them play any musical instruments. 

SD: I am aware that with other zithers of a similar family to your quanun the skill is taught in a master to student way only. Is this how you were taught? 

MY: Yes, absolutely, I studied with many masters, and had many ideas from them. Such as the idea of cosmologies; which is connecting scales to a certain time of the day, or too a certain colour. Then there are also two Turkish players I learned with, and I have been taught amazing techniques of Turkish quanun playing from them, I used all their knowledge and used elements of each to create something of my own.

SD: How long had you been playing before you thought that you had managed to put your own spin on the instrument and had created your own music? 

MY: I started writing my own music after the war. You see before the war, they hadn’t come to me, I was happy to perform different repertoires, classical, western, therefore the need to compose had never come to me to. However after the war started, I felt I could either write music, or explode.

SD:Would you go back to Syria? 

MY: Obviously its very dangerous to go there now so I can’t, but I do have family there. So I’m going to have to hope that this war will end very soon, so that I can go and visit my family. 

SD: I noticed that your personal politics and beliefs are in your compositions, is this something that you think is helping? Are you trying to spread a message? 

MY: I think I live in alignment with my beliefs, so when I say that I am hoping to spread a message of love and peace, I live it. I think that’s what the worlds needs really, and its’s very simple. By focusing your attention you can just change things. It’s really amazing, because we are so used to giving away our power, thinking, oh no, the news is awful, we can’t do anything, the world is collapsing. Actually you are way more powerful than that, we must focus our energy on peace. We just created some unseen ripple of energy that no-one can see. 

SD:Now tell me, can we expect an album soon? 

MY: Yes! We will be launching in November, in London and Paris. Very exciting. 

SD: Wonderful I look forward to it! Now my last question for you is this; Do you have any pre/post gig rituals? 

MY: I pray. Simply pray with my eyes closed connecting with my breath. 



Maya Youssef is launching her album 20th of November, at the Rich Mix ‘Syrian Dreams’ 


Maya Youssef set at WOMAD 2017:

Maya Youssef website:

WOMAD Festival Website:

Tickets for Maya Album Launch:

In Conversation With: Ganga Thapa


SOAS University (Islington)



On the second of February, I went to the Rich Mix to see the band Namlo, fronted by Ganga Thapa, perform at their album launch. Namlo is the only Nepalese touring band in England. I was taken aback by the versatility of their tunes, spanning from their opening bass driven funky song, totheir more serious emotive slower songs. Knowing very little about Nepalese music, I decided to ask Ganga if he would mind meeting with me to have a one on one chat about his music, Nepals music, and his journey to the Rich Mix. Sure enough, an efficient week later, we met at SOAS University for a one on one conversation. Here’s what happened that day….. 


A Sunny (but windy) Thursday….     

I was working in the SOAS radio station when everyone abruptly dropped what they were doing to rush downstairs to the SOAS steps. I was alerted that the King of the Yoruba people (Southwest and North Central Nigeria) was to be arriving at SOAS within half an hour with twenty of his court musicians. The reason for this was apparently to make stronger alliances with the SOAS research department. I happily left what I was doing, grabbed my notebook and camera and ran with the crowds to see what all the fuss was about.

 I was here to be meeting Ganga Thapa, leader and front man of all-Nepalese band; Namlo. I asked him if he would mind taking our meeting outside into the sunshine and explained the added drama of the supposed royal visitor. Also rather excited by the prospect of seeing a King, we agreed to set up outside in the beautiful sunshine. We each first grabbed hot drinks; a coffee for me, and hot chocolate for Ganga. 

We firstly exchanged pleasantries, and I told Ganga how I had been at his album launch in the Rich Mix, how enjoyable I found the evening and how I found the versatility of the music amazing. It was immediately apparent how easy it was going to be having conversations with Ganga, friendly and chuckling, Ganga was open to sharing and also open to laughing. 

Together we sat outside for over an hour awaiting the royal arrival and chatting about all manner of things. 

S.D: Let’s talk firstly about your time before moving to London and before Namlo…

Ganga Thapa (G.P): Growing up in Nepal you’re surrounded by the beautiful Himalayan mountains, and so, that’s what everyone automatically thinks about. I found no-one thinks about the music there.

I studied Ethnomusicology in our capital city Kathmandu. I enjoyed it, but decided to carry on my studies elsewhere, somewhere a little more versatile. That’s why when I was twenty two I moved alone to London, England. Here I continued my studies in Ethnomusicology at degree level at the University of SOAS (otherwise known as, the School of Oriental and African Studies). Ethnomusicology is the study of music and cultures. I realised that there was very little focus on the musics of Nepal.

 I was very lonely at first. The cultural change was crazy, London is such a big busy city, it made me feel very lonely. The adjustment period for me never quite seems over. I dearly missed the open spaces of Nepal, and found it hard in London with the lack of sunshine. Sunshine energises you and there is very little of this in London. I think perhaps how much I missed Nepal effected a little of my studies. I would sometimes miss class’s, and had the teachers emailing me to ask where I was. 

 When I was studying in Nepal, I had picked up playing the Sarod, which second to the sitar, is the most played instrument in traditional Indian music and classical Hindustani music. I also learned to play classical guitar, something I continued in England, and now offer classical guitar lessons also. 

A great deal of the musical focus in Nepal is on Indian music. I therefore started off learning Indian Ragas’s (Indian melodic modes). I found myself more interested in the folk melodies coming from the classical Nepalese musicians. This became important to me. The radio will always be playing new ‘pop’ music. Indian pop is most prominent on the radio’s in Nepal, other forms of music are somewhat discouraged and less important. This fed me further into the desire to play the traditional folk musics from all over Nepal. I have childhood memories of the folk musics played, and it is these memories that I wanted to remember in my music.

S.D Have you faced any difficulties?  

G.T: It has not always been easy in England, being from Nepal, it is sometimes hard to travel around, and consequently I have had a lot of distressing issues with living in England. I am sure these are not unique to me, but they are not easy. It is when facing these difficulties that music really becomes the driving force behind not just my creativity, but everything. It’s music that keeps me happy, healthy and able to continue through the tuff times. Sometimes these unfair things that get thrown at us, sometimes maybe they help. Maybe sometimes we need a little pain. 

S.D Can you tell me about your musical inspirations? 

G.T: My primary inspirations came from the folk melodies in Nepalese music. This is something that I wanted to present in my music; all the Nepalese folk areas of music. In England, the Nepalese music is very bad, terrible, I wanted to make sure that the subconscious cultures from all over Nepal are being played and represented. 

However saying that, in Nepalese music, the vocals are technically very very good, this is something I wanted to harness, however the vocals can also be very boring, there is too much happening in their music, and they stay within the melody all the time. Very boring. Also Nepalese songs tend to have very long lyrics, in my songs, the overall structure of the lyrics aren’t as long.Itake the technicality of the vocals and make it my own, make it interesting. 

I also very much like African tonality. That’s why I take some inspiration from West Africa as well, such as from Mali. 

Many Malian artists inspire me, I particularly love mystros Bassekou Kouyate and Toumani Diabate, as well asAli Farke Toure and Habib Kouyate. Habib Kouyate actually has the guitar that I had always wanted, and finally got for myself. The guitar is a Godin guitar and has a midi output built in, very cool indeed. 

S.D What is your song writing process?

G.T:  Inspirations for me songs come in all places. When I write my songs, the melody will come to me first, perhaps I will play something on the guitar, then the lyrics will come second. This is how I write my music. Very often inspirations will come randomly when I am travelling, and I will need to write a song there and then, but always I will mainly be inspired by the folk traditions, the rhythms and melodies of Nepal. From the North and the South, all over, I want to take the little differences in their cultures, and play them all.

S.D Can you tell me about your music and Namlo? 

G.T: I was originally in a band in England called the Yak Attack when I first moved, but now I am playing with Namlo. I am also a teacher in classical guitar. However Namlo is what I am doing full-time. 

Together in Namlo we represent all of Nepal, with four of us directly from Nepal, our double bass player is from Wales, and our clarinet player is Australian. We recorded the percussion on our debut album in Nepal. Another of my inspirations if of corse Bisso Shahi whose produced our album. He has been a constant influence to me and Namlo as a band. I feel our sound would be rather different without his inspirations. He has guided me very much so.

Namlo in Nepal is actually the name we call to the strap. A strap that holds our ‘Doko’ baskets. It is a very strong strap that is used in everyday life, it is an integral part of out lives, and everyone from Nepal knows exactly what a Namlo is. It helps us to carry things easily. I like it because it represents what we are doing with our band. The basket you see is weaved together for strength. Just as we are weaving our cultural bonding together in support of the Nepalese community worldwide. 

We want to create cross cultural global music. From all the different folk scenes and melodies from different parts of Nepal, to London UK. I want to fuse these Indian and Nepalese and Western influences in order to raise the profile of Nepalese music in a global context. I want to represent our diverse community.

When there was the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, we knew we had to show our solidarity and try and help our people. Therefore we arranged 10 gigs all around England, and all the money we made went straight to those effected by the earthquake. It was very difficult for us to see the suffering, so we had to do something to help.

S.D: Do you have help organising your schedule?

G.T:  To help us tour and play gigs everywhere, we managed to get some Arts Council funding. This helped us dearly, as we have no band manager. I book all the concerts myself, which can be very challenging. Also keeping our social media up to date is also a task I find sometimes difficult asI feel my English is not always the best. Never the less, we find venues, promoters who want cross cultural performances, and we travel around the country playing these gigs. 

S.D: Where can we listen to your music?

G.T: Our Debut album self titled Namlo is now available after our album launch in the Rich Mix on the second of March (2017). It has been produced by my good friend and guide Bisso Shahi. The launch at the Rich Mix was one of my favourite concerts. The sound in the venue was really good, same as when we played in Union Chapel. As our music has a story, it is nice to have venues that have good quality sound as we can really feel as though we are portraying our message and our story to the audience. You can also listen to my catalogue of music on my website:


After a good couple of hours of chatting, we decided to call it day. For those wondering, we did manage to see the King of the Yoruba people during our conversation. He arrived with all the gusto and grandeur expected of Royalty. with twenty musicians playing and singing for his as he walked fro his limo to the SOAS steps under a large umbrella propelled by two of his men. After witnessing this arrival, we made our way inside to warm up from the bitter London ‘summer’ weather. 

Having listened to the Namlo album, I found it hopelessly catchy and infectious. I listened to the album for the first time back to back. It is certainly a product of fusion. The beautiful sounds such as the flutes playing Nepalese melodies, and the voices being used sometimes as just harmonium drones. With up-beat feel good songs such as ‘Kauda' with more obvious Indian influences and the stunning voice of Shreya Rai, to the more emotive ‘Pida’ (translated Grief) taking us on a journey, and using near to no lyrics in doing so. The whole album from beginning to end captures the fusion Ganga speaks of so desperately of wanting to portray. 

When times are tuff I listen to the Namlo album, it’s soft and pulsing groove allows me to travel to a happy musical space. I can listen to the album from start to finish with ease and pleasure. It’s lovely to hear and recognise the wonderful Nepalese rhythms and melodies spoken so highly off. I would buy this album for my nan and also for my best friend. Truly a beautiful piece of work, it has an appeal to the great majority. 

Conducting this ‘one on one’ with Ganga was an absolute pleasure, we laughed and smiled and talked of all things good and bad. His honesty and openness was an absolute pleasure to work with. I like to think I found a friend in Ganga that sunny Thursday afternoon. 

You can catch Namlo play on: May 26th at the Southbank Centre (London), July 6th at the Folkestone Festival and July 9th at SOAS for the South Asian Festival. You can also buy the album ‘Namlo’ on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. Be sure to follow them on all media platforms to follow Ganga and Namlo on their journey to spreading Nepalese music globally.