The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It’s true, but in today’s global village, you may be able to knock that one off before lunch. The journey through life has become a more remarkable challenge than simply overcoming time and distance. As a world musician for instance, how do you keep pace with modern business while keeping one foot firmly grounded in ancient culture and traditions?
Multi-award winning, Guinean guitarist, Alpha Yaya Diallo was embarking on a whirlwind journey of his own when he stopped into the studio for a chat on my radio program. He brought a film crew in tow who would continue to shadow him as he left Vancouver, Canada (his home for the past 9 years) to return to family and friends in Guinea for two weeks. The trip was to be the second half of a new world, old world recording process, which ultimately would become his millennium project, his fourth album called ‘The Journey’.
Q: Are you nervous about this new millennium?
A: For me, life is normal. We just have to do positive things. Life is going very, very fast right now. Everybody is running a business. Musicians too must be very quick to catch time.
Q: You have some pretty prominent musicians lined up back in Africa?
A: Not really but it’s always good to get back together with friends and jam, anywhere … on the street. I don’t know if there’s even a studio we can use but record anything we can. Even in a basement studio, whatever, as long as I’m playing with my childhood friends.
Alpha has never been at a loss to find people to play with. While at school and university he performed with The Sons of Rais, Syli Authentique and others. His first shot at international exposure came when he moved to Europe and joined fellow West African musicians in the group, Fatala who recorded on Peter Gabriel’s Realworld label.
Q: Alpha, you’re a multi-instrumentalist, you sing in four different languages but you’re probably best known for your very distinctive style of guitar picking. Where did that come from?
A: To tell you the truth, I learned to play the guitar at a very young age and by traveling around Africa, I picked up many different styles and I took advantage of it. Actually, my father was a doctor who traveled to every corner of Guinea and he always traveled with his family. It’s a small country, four provinces but a lot of culture. Senegal, Mali, Gambia, even Cape Verde with its Spanish influences is nearby Guinea. In Africa, you move one point to another and it’s a different kind of music.
Q: But growing up in Africa were there western influences upon your guitar playing as well? I listen to you and I hear Mark Knopfler among others.
A: There are those in Africa who stick to their traditions, that’s it. I like to travel, learn languages and different music. I have the ambition. I’m not that kind of person. I listened to many different kinds of artists; Mark Knopfler, George Benson, Jimi Hendrix. I used to listen to George Benson’s tapes all day to try and figure out the notes he was playing. When I came to North America, I heard some great guitar players … blues players. I’ve been here 9 years and that’s the point. You can’t live somewhere that long without learning something of the surrounding influences. But I am an African musician and I will always work around that.
Now, a festival circuit veteran and two time Juno award winner (the Canadian Grammy), received for The Message, his third independent album and this year for The Journey, Alpha and his Afro-funk band, Bafing enjoy a reputation as one of the hottest acts in global music. For Vancouver world music fans, he’s looked upon as a kind of torchbearer for the genre.
Q: You played the Starfish Room in Vancouver the other night. Before the show, I ran into some friends and said, “Fancy meeting you here.” They replied, “well, of course, we never miss an Alpha show.” Do you see the same faces in the crowd each time you play?
A: (laughs) You know, my audience has been building and building. It's a very good sign as a local band, that your shows are always sold out. You always see the same people but what happens is they tell a friend who comes along to check out the next show and so on.
Q: Some of your countrymen and other musical luminaries from West Africa have made a home and wonderful career for themselves in say, Paris. Do you ever get itchy feet? Do you ever feel you’ve outgrown Vancouver and maybe should move to one of the really big global music centers?
A: It’s not about the people in Vancouver, but it’s very difficult to deal with business and those who control the music. It’s very, very difficult and kind of disappointing sometimes because they have the power, they have the money and they can use you the way they want. People like to see African music, but as a musician who has won a Juno award and many others, I still get the feeling I’m not up there on their list of priorities. I’m still not being given the opportunity to do what I want to do.
Like Madagascar’s fabulous Tarika, Alpha became a casualty of Wicklow’s demise, the BMG label started by Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains to promote global talent. But Alpha’s the consummate professional who’s well aware that the industry can throw you a curve ball at any time.
A: You know, anytime things like that happen, you have to replan, sit down and think about what to do next. I ended up closing the contract with them and getting the master. The Message is still with BMG. That deal is still in place. It’s a very complicated business between Wicklow, BMG and Alpha, so now we’re looking for another opportunity in place of signing with a record company, because it’s not always the best way. We would like to release the new album territory by territory. We’ve negotiated a contract to release it in Canada for now …
Q: ... from my understanding that’s with Jack Schuler’s label, Jericho Beach right?
A Yes. This is not a signing deal but a licensing or distribution deal for a period of time. I think that’s not too bad because I still own the product compared to The Message where I don’t own the entire recording. I signed it over. The more you do things like that it’s an experience. I was lucky to get the master back for the new album compared to others who’s record company has decided not to release the CD and then don’t give the artist back the master.
Q: That would be a horrible feeling wouldn’t it?
Fortunately for Alpha and Afrobeat aficionados, The Journey masters did see the light of day. Produced with the help of Salif Keita’s guitar player, Ousmane Kouyate, the recordings made at Vancouver’s Mushroom Studios and in Guinea have been massaged into one of Alpha’s most engaging albums to date. From the horn-propelled beats of the opening cry for ‘Freedom’, the listener locked into his signature, unrelenting groove. The Journey captures the hypnotic, trance state that falls over the crowd at any of his live performances.
(after playing a selection from the new disc on air)
Q: While the song was playing, Alpha was actually singing lyrics in Chinese! You certainly are a man of many musical talents. Can we look forward to some Afro-Chinese music?
A: Well, I have very good Chinese friends and in Africa, my father used to work with Chinese all the time … Chinese doctors. There was this lady named Madame Wong who loved children. At the time she gave us Mao Tsi Tung posters and we learned many songs.
Q: (laughs) And you say, every time you sing one of these songs you can get a free meal in a Chinese restaurant? That’s brilliant. Well done! The four languages you do sing in on your albums include Malenke, Sousou, Foulah and French right?
A: Yes, and maybe the next album in Chinese, who knows?
As for the film crew who walked in Alpha’s footsteps from my radio studios to West Africa and back, well, they must have had an inspiring journey themselves. The resulting documentary aired in both English and French on Canada’s CBC and BRAVO networks respectively, providing an insightful looks at the creation of a truly global album and the man behind the music. Later, I had a chance to query Alpha on one of the documentary’s more poignant moments.
Q: A philosophical question for you, Alpha. One of the key moments for me watching that documentary came from a remark made by the sound engineer in Guinea who was recording tracks. He was reflecting that if African music is having an impact on the West, that’s a good thing, but if Western music is having an impact on Africa that’s not a good thing. I thought it was a two way street or is it really a case of keeping the resources pure?
A: (pause) He felt that people in Africa were changing their music a lot, bringing techno material into the music. So instead of bringing a full band of talented musicians into the studio, they program everything, bringing synthesizers resulting in overproduction with machines. Many western hip-hop bands and such record exactly like that. That doesn’t match African music. African music has values that we need to keep, like the pyramids of Egypt. The origins of many kinds of music came from Africa ... they are by-products. If we take rumba, Latin, reggae, hip-hop … it all has African influence. But if we break down the roots, there is nowhere else to take it. The rhythms aren’t written. If I go to a professional musician here in the West and say, “this is in 6/8 and it goes like this …”, they say, “wow, where does that come from?” If we always have that music there, in it’s pure form, then there will always be something there to extract. At the same time, it’s good to change. You know, we are the fruit of our times. The world continues to evolve and we have to evolve with it.
Though we all travel different paths, it would seem that Alpha Yaya Diallo’s journey is our journey too. Personally, I’m glad I have his albums for reference and retreat when I feel the strain of the pace.
Cal Koat is a freelance, world music broadcaster living in Vancouver.
Nene 1994 – “That means ‘Mom’ in Foulah. It was a tribute to my mother who loved to see me play and learn music. She was very supportive.”
Futur 1996 – “A French title. At the time it was the end of Apartheid. Actually, I recorded it a little before the end and I was pondering the future.”
Aduna 1998 – a compilation of the first two albums available only in America
The Message 1999 – Alpha’s first major label release of new material and Juno Award winner
The Journey 2001 – 1/ Freedom 2/Nyalade 3/ Khaniya 4/ Djedjema 5/ Rene 6/ To My Love 7/ N’dare 8/ Masibodji 9/M’Koro
Alpha is 37 years old, born in Conakry, the capitol of Guinea. Guinea was a centre for West African music where people discovered the mbalax style.
He has a brother in Calgary, sisters in Africa. His mother has passed on and his father is 80 years old, a retired doctor.
Alpha studied biology and obtained a university diploma in plant genetics.
Alpha learned to play on acoustic guitar, which he still favors today. He plays a classical Godin guitar. Before that he played a Martin. He also performs with a Fender Stratocaster and Yamaha electrics.
He has always admired George Benson’s clear picked, fast guitar playing style. Mark Knopfler was also a big western influence. Alpha also enjoys flamenco guitar.
Youssou N’Dour has always been Alpha’s favorite singer.