Lamine Sonko. Photo credit: Carl Dziunka
According to Peter Gabriel, “music is a universal language [that] draws people together”. A collective that best embodies this ideal is Lamine Sonko and the African Intelligence. One of this year’s WOMADelaide attractions, Sonko and his group of talented musicians will be bringing their eclectic Afrobeat sounds to the Botanic Park on the 11th and 13th of March. In this exclusive interview, Sonko tells us about his artistic family, and which Australian singer-songwriter he would love to work with.
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Q: Hi Lamine! Could you please tell us a bit about yourself?
A: I come from Senegal, born into a big artistic and griot family. I migrated to Australia twelve years ago, and studied Community Cultural Development at the Victoria College of the Arts. My involvement with music comes from my upbringing in Senegal.
Q: Do you come from a creative and musical family? How have they influenced your career and music style?
A: My parents are artists, dancers, singers, and keepers of our culture. And all my siblings have taken the same path in life; my mum was the first female solo dancer in Senegal, and she toured around the world six times working with President Léopold Sédar Senghor to promote African culture soon after Senegal gained independence from France in 1960.
My dad directed the national drum and dance ensemble of Senegal for 33 years and has taken our traditional music and stories to all corners of the globe. So, yes, they have influenced who I am today as an artist and a community leader as I was always around my parents rehearsing and creating shows for their tours. Their work and leadership as artists inspire me.
Q: What is your musical creative process like? Do you compose the lyrics and the musical arrangement on your own or is it a collaborative process with your band?
A: I write all the lyrics and create most of the arrangements, but am always open to include ideas and suggestions from band members, as most of the time inspiration comes late at night when I am at home playing my acoustic guitar. And then I’ll record the parts I have in mind on my phone and later make an arrangement to introduce to the band.
I organise the rehearsals to jam around the songs, work on a suitable sound and dynamic and then add vocals and start making arrangements. So it’s a very inclusive process in our song writing sessions as a band.
Lamine Sonko. Photo credit: Music on Magnetic
Q: Your tunes have a very distinct Afrobeat and roots sound. Who are your musical influences and how have they shaped your sound?
A: I guess the mix of traditional and modern instruments in the music highlight the Afrobeat and roots sound in our music. And that has a lot to do with the reality I live as a transnational citizen – I have to be active locally to reach a global audience and to do so we have to be open to new sounds and styles.
And we are also mixing many different musical genres, so we are very open to experiment with different sounds. We are influenced by Salif Keita, Yandé Codou Sène, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Youssou N’Dour, Orchestra Baobab, Bembeya Jazz, and many more.
Q: You have such an electric and effervescent energy live onstage, where songs evolve into riffing accompanied by energetic dance moves. How much of that is rehearsed and how much is that improvisation?
A: I was first a dancer before I started playing music, so that always makes me think of dance moves while writing the songs; that’s why in our live show you’ll see us doing a dance routine that goes with the punchy horn lines, and sometimes I invite the audience to join in by showing them some simple movements to do with us, so it feels like the community moving together in the same beat and that is why some of it is rehearsed and some of it improvised as it naturally happens in the community context. It was in this way that our ancestors created music.
Q: Some of your stage performances involve choreography, where you and your musicians participate in co-ordinated movements. Are you or your musicians trained dancers as well as being accomplished musicians?
A: Yes, a few of us in the band are professional dancers and dance teachers, so it feels natural for us to express the way we feel while playing the music and that adds a nice energy into our live shows.
Q: Do you think moving to Melbourne has affected your sound?
A: Yes, in so many ways, it has opened doors to a new journey, giving me the opportunity to collaborate with local and international artists, and the experience has introduced me to a new world of sounds and musical styles.
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Photo credit: Kristian Dowling
Q: Which Australian musician would you like to collaborate with?
A: Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. I really like his voice and history as an indigenous artist and how he mixes traditional and modern music together.
Q: What should Australians know about your home country Senegal?
A: Senegal is a beautiful, multicultural country that is politically safe. Senegal is rich in history, and has a big melting pot of cultures and music. Also, the way we live together in harmony between religions is something I wish the whole world could take a good example.
Q:You have mentioned in interviews that you would like your fans and listeners to find happiness and hope in your music. Do you have a message to individuals out there who feel disenchanted in this time of political and global uncertainty?
A: My message to all the fans and listeners is to stay positive when the going gets tough and to work on our commonalities so we can celebrate our differences and make the world feel good. Love and respect.