Askia Modibo is the most significant African reggae musician to emerge internationally within the past five years. With a unique sound, top musicians, and potent lyrics, Askia and his nine piece band have gained much acclaim - first in Mali, next in Paris, and now finally in America. His current CD release, Wass Reggae on the Sterns Africa label, is an instant classic, and warrants listening by anyone remotely concerned with the future of roots reggae. Askia’s immaculate ear for musical fusion allows Wass Reggae to breach the gap between the African
and American Continents. The result is a hypnotic collection of songs that combine West Africa’s pentatonic musical structure with the latest in lush and progressive reggae. Reggae enthusiasts are increasingly turning towards reggae emanating from the African Continent due to their desire for a larger and more fulfilling sound.
The key to African reggae is that its ensembles are often full orchestras which include a core band along with a horn section and choral call and response arrangements. According to Askia, Wass Reggae’s cultural blending is first rate. It embodies the spirit of a disenchanted youth with a sound "that is pentatonic, the music of the Songhai, the Tamachek, Wassoulou, Bambara…" His own impassioned singing, in the soaring yet rough style of Mali’s Wassoulou tradition, contrasts with richly layered backgrounds, tight horn riffs and slithery female backed vocals. Lead guitarists Yves Ndjock, Djely Moussa Kouyate, and Ablaye Sarr weave their extended solos into the mix for some of the most breathtaking pentatonic flights heard outside of Soukous music’s realm. It’s a musical stew that is highly deliberate yet extremely vibrant and free, a modern homage to the traditional and open ended ballads of Mali’s tradition. Askia’s biography is interesting as it reveals just how this knack for musical fusion developed. His family, originally nomads and descendants from the Gao Dynasty of the Songhai, settled on the Niger River in the heart of the Bambara region of Mali.
As a boy, Askia learned traditional Bambara songs, which he would sing to pass time while tending the family’s livestock. During adolescence, Askia would hear the foreign hits of James Brown, which were being imported to West Africa at the time, offering a sharp contrast to the traditional flute-inspired music of the Bambara. A later stint in the Malian army led to further musical development, as Askia began to compose songs and perfect his guitar playing capabilities. His hard work paid off with a chance to participate in the group Le Super Tentemba, and the resulting cassette proved Askia’s ability to play Mali’s popular music. Further soul searching allowed Askia to realize a newfound desire to play a new musical style from Jamaica, reggae music, as popularized by Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Bob Marley. In hindsight, Askia Modibo’s timing was very lucky indeed, because his original foray into reggae was with the musical genius from the Cote d’Ivoire, Alpha Blondy, in his pre-Solar System band line-up. Alpha Blondy was indeed a mentor - his love for tight horn arrangements, female backed vocals, and highly technical Reggae rubbed off on Askia Modibo during their work together.
It wasn’t until a lucky chance at a solo career that Askia was finally able to showcase his own musical potential. In 1988, Askia produced his first solo album, Allah Akbar, which combined this multitude of outside influences into a melting pot of reggae. The public went
wild, and Askia went on to tour Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. His reputation grew steadily, and in 1993 he was able to record Wally Moussou in Abidjan, West Africa’s recording capital. The album’s improved song writing and quality caught the attention of Ibrahima Sylla, the godfather of the West African producers. Sylla, who is firmly grounded in the Paris music scene, liked what he heard and made arrangements to bring Askia and his Tjiladeh band to the French capital. Wass Reggae was recorded in 1995 with the ultimate in studio facilities and production
personnel. The result was an unprecedented album of quality, depth, and urgency, defining how Reggae can be produced under ideal circumstances.
Wass Reggae is composed of 11 hits, each one musically significant and with a strong message of social commentary. The lyrics tackle African issues firsthand, in a more direct way than other recent releases from the Continent. In his songs, Askia celebrates the sacredness of marriage, reminds us of the need to forgive and tolerate others, and attacks juvenile delinquency. Askia, a firm believer in prayer, unifies Christianity and Islam by drawing upon the powerful similarities: purity, unity, and discipline. Although all the songs have significance, several stand out. Les Aigles du Mali, an adaptation of a Bambara hunting song, was created to honor Mali’s semi-final team in the 1994 African Nation’s Cup. This is a top notch soccer anthem: the horns resemble a regal fanfare, the cheering of fans is woven into the mix, and the extended guitar solo is absolutely breathtaking. In Circulation de Bamako, Askia warns the listener about that city’s treacherous traffic problem. Ironically, his continuous vocal pleas "for common sense to prevail" go unheard, as traffic horns and sounds of gridlock interrupt his singing, proving the reality of the actual situation.
With Immigration Zero, Askia focuses on the obstacles that Africans must overcome should they wish to immigrate to Europe or the Americas. Recalling a past of slavery, trading, colonialism, as well as the multitudes of African’s who helped fight the War in Europe, Askia questions why the doors are now closed to Africans. Askia reasons "they didn’t talk of zero immigration then, but now, when the honey comes, they don’t want to share it." With such vocal urgency, it is evident that Askia Modibo will continue to educate, entertain and define the future of African Reggae. Askia has conquered Mali and Paris, and now, with Wass Reggae, the time has come for Americans to listen.
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