Farida Amadou: „I am not a big talker, I prefer to play music“
My first encounter with Farida Amadou took place on Bandcamp. It may have been a post by Thurston Moore himself, but maybe someone else (who remembers all those winding paths of cultural curiosity we follow every day). What counts: I ended up listening the whole 36 minutes of its length to „M . A . N.“, the recording of the trio of Farida Amadou, Thurston Moore, and Steve Noble, recorded by Nick Symons at the Summer Bummer Festival in Antwerp in the August of 2019.
The very short self description of the release on the site read like this: „Already when Steve Noble slowly brings his percussive assault into position it is hard to keep track of who is playing what until the distinct features of Farida Amadou’s frenetic bass manipulations and Thurston Moore’s long-toned wails slowly give them away, just long enough until they collectively lift the music into oblivion and back again.“
The way the self-taught Farida Amadou plays her instrument the bass is indeed frenetic, but then again the also with a kind of stubborn concentration and stillness, it seems she is part of her instrument rather than the person behind it. Only when the intensity drops as the song comes to an end does a change of aura become visible. Suddenly the welcoming friendliness and ease that are so much part of this Belgian musician become visible once more.
In her essay for the Monheim Papers (editorials of the Monheim Triennale which I had the pleasure to edit as co-curator of the festival), author Annett Scheffel describes Farida very fittingly as „an explorer“: „Her field of exploration: the known and unknown form sound worlds and the contexts of her instrument. Farida Amadou works at the converging points of blues, jazz, hip-hop, ambient sounds and noise. She is equally at home in all these genres which makes her one of the most remarkable new European stars of free improvised music.“
Farida Amadou was born in the small Belgian city of Huy, located on the outskirts of Liège. Today she lives right now in Brussels. Her family is from Niger, but her mother and father left the country before her birth. Her influences are either through her mother or the African music cassettes and the wooden instruments kept as treasures at the family home. Her father used to play in bands before she was born and her mother is an enthusiastic music fan – it was clearly a musical home to grow up in.
I had the great pleasure to host a talk with Farida during her stay in Monheim for the Monheim Triennale – the following piece is an extract from that very open and funny conversation.
Coming from your outstandingly great performance last night with Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother, I am curious to hear how the two of you connected in the first place and this collaboration came about?
I am really into her music. So I just asked her – and she said „yes“. We had one Zoom call and talked in which she said „I am easy“. And so we met in Monheim. We just talked actually, „do you wanna play more drony stuff?“, „or more hiphop stuff?“ – so we came up with the idea to cut the concert into four parts. Thats it.
Camae is an artist with such a huge range of repertoire. Did you hope for specific aspects out of that or did it not matter at all?
I had no preference. I said „her music“, but it is mostly her voice and her power that I love. It is very important for me to have a role model as a black woman. With the power of her voice, for her it is maybe easy to say things – I am not a big talker, I prefer to play music. I talk with my big bass, but she has this big powerful voice and presence.
Are the narrative and the language of your bass changing with the different people you play with?
I think it is changing. Of course I bring in similar textures, like drones, but then those and everything is changing each time. Also when I play solo, like last year I played a lot solo, and during those performances I realised changes too. I am trying to accept more and more what is coming from my bass, and I am trying to play differently always. Even tho there are difficult to deal with things are coming back, it is about accepting them and play with them. I try to embrace it – even though I don’t like the song itself, „let’s do this“.
The bass is leading you!
For sure. I am a slow finger. I rehearse with myself. I never know what comes from the bass.
That’s nice, that you are able to surprise yourself…
A lot of people ask me if I also play the double bass – no, but I would love to. But for now I am very focused on the electric bass because I feel there are so many things I can discover. I feel like it is just the beginning for me, I wanna dig deep into the electric bass for now.
Watching the performance yesterday, it looked also like you are mixing yourself on stage. Do you prefer it like that? I liked the fact you two were handling this yourselves.
Actually, I started a new solo yesterday with electronics, so I was not really mixing, well, of course I mixed the keyboards with the bass, but not the bass sound.
In the Monheim Papers interview with Annett Scheffel you said that you never know exactly what you’re going to play, coming from the improvisational character of your music. Does that lead to a certain nervousness along before the performance?
Normally not. But yesterday I was really nervous. Because it was the first time I was using the electronics with the bass and someone else. I was nervous that I was not totally able to control the sound of the electronics, also because I admire Camae; also because people said before to me, „it’s going to be really great!“ – „I don’t know?“
So, yes, I was nervous.
Do you have even for an improvisational set a back-up-plan?
My back-up-plan is to run!
No, I don’t have such a plan, if something goes wrong, I am just playing with that, like if a feedback is coming, I try to do something with that. That’s how I learned to improvise. At first I of course built up a certain vocabulary, but there were mistakes, so I was trying to do something with those. I am always in that kind of process when I play, so now, when something goes wrong, let’s deal with it in life.
You stopped actually the conservative way of learning, because your goal was to play the instrument in an idiosyncratic way and not rely on the conventional. With that approach, mistakes are part of the process right?
When I talk about ‘mistakes’, it is more when I play with bands, groups. When I started to play the bass I was playing with a collective of ten people. I had to learn how to take my space. So when I talk about mistakes, I talk about listening to the others and learning to understand the energy of the group – when is the right moment for me to play?
When it comes to inspiration, are you a person that needs a lot of input? Through travels and other people… or are you taking things more from within yourself?
I observe myself. I don’t know where all this is coming from. You know, I don’t even remember what I played yesterday, something is happening in my head, I am in a trance, you know.
Do you go back and re-listen to your concerts?
I used to, but not anymore. At the beginning yes, because I was trying to understand what happened. The first concert of improvised music was in Liege – and I wondered that this is? „It’s weird“ Then I started to play with the group, so I wanted to understand what I can do with the bass. So I listened back to lot of concerts and sessions. But now so much happened and I moved on.
How did you get going in the improvisational music scene? Was it easy? Or did you have to knock hard to get in?
I guess it is never easy. I had the luck to meet some interesting people early on, like Steve Noble and Thurston Moore. Of course I had to work a lot, but I also got lucky.
You come from a musical family, right?
My dad was a musician before he became a politician – which is a change. So I only grew up with my mum, who was no musician, but she was listening to a lot of music from Africa. She was singing over the cassettes. Et voila.
Is she a fan of your music?
You can ask her that. I don’t know, I think she is very proud of me.
She just discovered recently my music on Youtube: „Oh, YouTube!“ – It’s funny to think of my mum typing in my name on YouTube. Maybe she is a fan.
But she is not coming to the concerts?
No, no, she is not. But my sisters and brothers know what I am doing, and my sister comes a lot to my concerts.
Do you have a role model? Not just music wise, also regarding how you handle your musical career in general.
Not really. It is funny, as a kid, as a teenager, I was really in my own bubble. I was not listening to a lot of music. I was reading a lot, watching movies. Also compared to my friends at school who were listening to famous bands – I did not know anything about this, because I lived in a different kind of family, I knew about West African music. I discovered that kind of music really late.
I ask because in a way Moor Mother and you are now role models to a younger generation. It is very empowering to see you on stage. And you participated in this workshop with kids yesterday.
I don’t know if I see myself as a role model. But I hope there will be some young women on stage like me because of things like the workshop. It is not that easy as a woman to be a musician. Things are moving forward but it is still not easy, I hope it will change.
Are you a community person? Is it important to you to cultivate with your community when in Brussels?
I would say, yes, I am a community person. I moved to Brussels two years ago – in Liege I had this mentioned collective, and organised also workshop for kids, I really lived with the people in the city, a bigger city in which I am still new, but I try to built up things again, I try to organise concerts with a collective without having really money.
I would love to build more bridges to the people who live in the parts of the city that are more mixed socially and the theatres and the opera. Because when I go to concerts and performances, I don’t see many of the people I see on the streets within those music places. I think they are maybe just afraid and someone needs to open the door. I remember that I also did not go to concerts and performances as young person –cause my life was different. So I love to say now to others: „Come! Its super cool!“
That’s a good point. That’s why I asked you earlier if it felt kinda easy or not for you to step into this kind of music scene. Often people are interested, but they need an invite.
Right. My big sign came from the people from my collective in Liege. They engaged me to express myself.
Are they coming to Brussels now to visit you? Or are they stuck in their city?
Yes. Belgium is a small country, but weird in many ways.
I saw Camae walking around Monheim the last days. This is something she always does in the city she plays if her schedule allows. Are you also a person who likes to explore the city you are playing?
Here I walked around in the city, I could do that because it is not that big. But usually if I play for example in a church or an industrial place, I try to go there one hour before to feel the vibe. That is really important to me, the energy of the people, the energy of the place.
You studied speech therapy and used to work as a speech therapist until two years ago. Did the decision to concentrate on your music make things easier for you, or do you sometimes feel like „oh man, with the job back then, it was kinda easier cause the pressure on my art was less.”
Hmm. It’s a complicated question. I wanna be very honest with you, I grew up in a kind of poor family, I’m second generation, my mum was a political refugee – there is of course the pressure to built up something for my life, but also making my mum proud of me, because she left the country so my siblings and me can have a good life. That made me reflect, what I want to do with my life. I think it is not that easy to understand for other people who have a different life. I don’t have a heritage, I had to built up everything from zero. And it is still there in my head. Of course I am really happy about the possibilities and what I do, I am very lucky … but it is still there. I think it is important to say that things are not that easy for second generation people from refugee families.
Farida, thanks so much for this very open conversation.
Farida will play at the 2022 edition of Meakusma Festival, scheduled for 1st till 4th of September in Eupen, Belgium. There are many other great artists in the lineup, like Rabih Beaini, Re:ni, Guido Möbius, Infuso Giallo & Fog Puma and YL Hooi – so make sure not too miss that one.