The first of the WOMADelaide 2018 line-up is about to be announced this Thursday so it seems timely to dust off some interviews with artists from this year’s WOMAD. Back before her visit to Adelaide in March 2017, I was lucky enough to interview the wonderful Inna Modja. The interview is below.
WOMADelaide 2018 tickets are currently available at www.womadelaide.com.au
You’re coming to Australia for WOMADelaide. Have you been to Australia before?
This will be my first time. I am really excited because I’ve wanted to come to Australia for a long time.
We are spoiled because we like your music but we have never seen you. What can concert goers expect of your live shows?
A lot of energy. There are 3 or 4 of us on stage depending on the locations and we really like to have interactive concerts and share with people and make them engage in what is happening on stage. Also, for me, I like to tell people what the music is about. It’s true that singing in Bambara, there can be a language barrier. The idea is to transmit an enjoyable moment and to transmit important messages. It’s a great time particularly while dancing.
It isn’t difficult to dance to your music. You are Malienne and French as well. How old were you when you moved to France?
I’m not French, no.
I grew up in Mali and first arrived in France when I was 19 years old because I was studying. Afterwards, I returned to Mali and started to travel. I came back to France a few years ago. For me, it was for my study that I came to France.
You have kept strong contact with Mali.
Yes, I live half my time there when I am working. All of my family is over there. I only have a brother and a sister in Europe. Everyone else lives in Mali. My parents. I go back in 3 days.
Your music speaks of political matters. I was listening last night but didn’t find the lyrics for “Boat People”.
It’s from the album. What I wanted was for a farewell discussion between a mother and her daughter. Oumou Sangaré , who I consider a little like a big sister and not like a Mum. I see her as if she is my Mother and I am saying goodbye. And I’m leaving for an unbelievable adventure. Getting on a boat. Crossing the desert and getting on a boat and arriving in this Eldorado that I think exists.
She speaks of all of the difficulty of being far from your home and of sometimes living through difficult times and promises to not drown and that she will come back one day with dignity and diamonds. It also shows the courage of people who have lost hope. Because you must really be without hope to no longer be in fear of putting your life in danger and going on a boat and not being sure that you will arrive one day. When I spoke to Oumou, I had written the song. I made her listen to the song and told her what I wanted. She put herself behind the microphone and sang, sang and sang. Afterwards, she turned to me and said “so I’m not sure if this is good for you” and it was perfect. The only take that she did. It was exactly what I imagined. She is amazing woman.
I don’t know if you know about the Australian Government’s policies for people who arrive by boat ?
It’s disgusting. In Australia, people who come to Australia by boat are put onto the Island of Nauru, which isn’t even an Australian island and we put them into detention centres. Plus, we made an agreement with the Obama government so that people who are found to be refugees are sent to Australia and never come to Australia, even though we are a party to the Refugees Convention. We said “no, we’re not going to do it. We are going to send them to the US”. So, it’s really disgusting because we have people in detention centres and they don’t know what is going to happen to them.
And even the United States…
Yes, exactly with Trump, we don’t know if he will still take them. So we have people who have come from very horrible situations who think they are going to come to Australia but they arrive on this island and they don’t know if they are going to be in Australia or in the United States. They have no idea.
It’s such a desperate voyage. It must be so difficult. And when we arrive at a port, we thin that we have arrived and that we are going to have a better life. To be put into a detention centre is really, really difficult. These people have already suffered and have barely any hope left.
And then we do that to them.
There needs to be a discussion about how we treat people who have come from war-striken and dramatic economic situations. We welcome them like they are lesser humans.
Yes, and the Governments like to call them “illegals”. It isn’t illegal to seek asylum.
It’s for that reason that it is exists. The asylum seekers don’t leave countries where all is well for them!
Exactly. You must be desperate.
As long as we aren’t going to grow up. A society for a world where there is a little more empathy, the hand extended for people who need it. For me, in order to advance, society needs to be constructed. It’s annoying.
And especially because Australia is so big and that the number of people who arrive by boat is so small when compared to Europe.
Yes. It’s incredible. There’s also the closed minds. We don’t want to mix with others. We are scared of others. It is really important that everyone has future communication so that there is a bridge between people. That cultures share, that people meet. It’s the only way that the world can continue to evolve together. The world is closing in. Me, for my part, I am very conscious of speaking of this even though it’s not always easy. It would be easy for me if I was someone who sang pop and lived a beautiful life.
Exactly. How do you create songs which have such happy melodies but which have messages that are quite serious ?
It’s in my culture. Even when I made my last album, the second one, it was a bit poppier because I wanted an album that paid respects to people like Nina Simone. My Malian culture, with which I started my music, is that even when we speak of sad subjects, we are positive and put energy into it. Because education is like that too. We know that it is difficult but we have to fight. It’s a choice. A choice to see things less sadly. It’s not an easy choice. I chose to transmit these messages without being miserable. THey are already difficult messages. People see that they are being heard. It comes quite naturally actually.
For example, the singer Féfé, when he sings his song « Dans la rue » (In the Street), speaks about not having opportunities but if we didn’t speak French we would have no idea that he was speaking about things of that nature because he is smiling and full of energy. I like this because when people sing about sad things in English, there is a whole drama attached. Even the melody of the music tells us that it is a serious matter.
I think that it’s also a willingness to show that despite the difficulty, we are still standing and remain strong.
Yes, in one of your video clips on Youtube, you said things along those lines.
“Don’t have pity on us”.
Yes, exactly! We are not pitiful. We have a lot of dignity. We fight to evolve, to not stay in this situation. Even in my life outside of music, I am like that. Naturally, that finds its way into my music.
And you write your lyrics and melodies yourself ?
That’s what I thought. Apart from the influence of your father, who made you listen to the great singers, did you have any specific musical training?
Salif Keita was my first mentor. He introduced me to the members of the RAIL BAND, of which he was no longer a member but had been during the 60s. He said to me “if you want to follow my path, this is how I started”. So I went along. I spent all of my time working with them, learning with them. I was taught without formal study, I was trained by my elders. And so, I worked with them. I also worked with Habib Koite. And afterwards, I met Chez Jickien Sec, a Malian singer. So I started like that. Later, I wanted to have something personal… so I started to listen to American hip hop from the 80s… I started to forge my style listening to music from Mali and music that spoke to me like the hip hop and the blues. Little by little, listening to others, helped me to understand what I wanted to do. Something really personal where I found my inspiration. I understood how to make music. Because today I compose completely by ear and I feel it. I don’t know how to read music. It’s all made on “feeling”.
You have also been very frank about your experience of female genital mutilation.
Me, it was not easy to speak about it but I think that it is my duty, in some ways. Because even before having a platform as a musician, even when no one knew me, I was active in the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM) and little by little I started to become interested in different forms of violence which against women and said to myself that as someone who has a duty, I wanted to fight against that, to speak out against that. I started to share my experience, to give desire to other women, who like me had experienced FGM, sadly for them, so that they did not feel like victims but that they feel like survivors. As to say that they are not defined by having been subjected to FGM. And it does not define the lives that they are going to lead.
It’s very important to be able to share my story and to be able to prevent what is happening to women’s bodies. And to incite young women who have lived through FGM to get on with their lives and to not remain stuck with this experience and to become whatever they wish. And especially so that the 3 thousand little girls who are mutilated each day, escape it.
It’s something that I have been doing for 12 years now. To be feminist is not easy in this world. Because for me, being a feminist is not being against men. It’s wanting to have the same rights. Feminism has a bad image but I don’t care. I want to defend the ideas of equality and the idea of women’s rights. I do it as a woman but also as a musician.
And we think that it doesn’t exist here in Australia. But there have been one or two criminal cases. A young woman went to the police and the police filed charges against her mother and the woman who committed the genital mutilation as well as against the “religious leader” who covered it up. I think that he was imprisoned. The mother and the woman who did it got “home detention”. It was the first case that went to Court and it made Australians think “What? That happens here! I didn’t know!”
Unfortunately, it happens everywhere.
But it’s easy to ignore, to think it only happens “over there”.
Yes, exactly. It’s a subject which is taboo. No one speaks about it. It’s 12 years that I’ve been working on it and just last year I found out when I went to the UN Day against Female Genital Mutilation that it is practiced in Latin America. I didn’t know. No one speaks of it. It’s a taboo subject. There are Indian American communities in Latin America that practice it.
Unfortunately, we are out of time. Thank you very much. It was a great pleasure and I can’t wait for your WOMAD concerts!
Thank you. It was a pleasure for me too.