In Conversation: Awa Sangho and Trina Basu
For the third installment in the Outside (In)dia series at the David Rubenstein Atrium on February 9, members of Brooklyn Raga Massive team up with Awa Sangho, one of the leading voices of West African music, for a collaborative concert built upon the success of their wildly popular Africa/India series.
The Africa/India series was first launched during a residency at Pioneer Works alongside another project, Women's Raga Massive, which was co-founded by BRM member and violinist Trina Basu to give a platform to ensembles led by female-identifying artists. Atrium Programming Manager Meera Dugal caught up with Sangho and Basu before the New Year to reflect on 2017, and to discuss their shared desire to spread a message of unity through music.
Meera Dugal: Trina, we're super pumped to have you back at Lincoln Center. You've performed at the Atrium a few times. And Awa, so happy to finally have you join us for this series. The show in February is going to bring together your Malian musical roots and the Indian classical collaboration that you've been building on in the Brooklyn Raga Massive Africa-India series. Can you tell us how you first started working with BRM?
Awa Sangho: It was Sameer [Gupta], who is a very good friend, who suggested it. Because we are on the same label, he'd been following what I'm doing—just a very good brother and a very good musician. He said, "Okay, Awa, I think we want to do this: India-Africa." So I said, yes, let's go. I love to have adventure. And I love Indian music anyhow. This is all good-vibe music. I think it was two years ago at Pioneer Works. It was amazing, and it was really fun.
MD: And Trina, you've been a key member of Brooklyn Raga Massive since its founding. Can you tell me when you all decided to launch Women's Raga Massive?
Trina Basu:It was at the same time, during our three-month stint at Pioneer Works, which also became a residency dedicated to creating tons of new material for BRM. That's when the Africa-India series came about and a lot of other new projects were born. We thought it would be great to have a night that featured all women-led ensembles, because it felt like that was needed, so we said let's do it. It was an incredible night with music from my band Karavika, Falu, and Camila Celin's ensemble. We also incorporated historical narratives honoring South Asian women and visual projections. It was a beautiful and powerful night.
MD: Very cool. And what was the impetus for you choosing to do that? Would you both agree that traditionally both of your scenes have been dominated by men?
TB:Yeah, I would agree. If you look at instrumental and improvised music, and women composers, we're definitely in the minority, and I think historically we've been left out of the narrative and not given the same opportunities. Our idea behind Women's Raga Massive was to honor the women who came before us and build awareness by telling their stories and exploring their art. We want to build solidarity and create more stages for women to perform and be a part of the movement toward equality in Indian classical music and really in all music. One thing we have coming up in March that we're really proud of us is a festival called "Out of the Woods" featuring female-led ensembles every week as part of BRM's weekly series. It's definitely going to be amazing and worth checking out.
"It's just about doing what we're supposed to do and standing up for ourselves and doing it. So that people know that yes, she's a woman, she's powerful, and she can do this."
MD: Awa, would you agree with that for the West African tradition?
AS: Yeah, we have to stand up for ourselves, as women, because we can do whatever a man can do. It's just about believing in what we are doing and in coming together. It's the same thing everywhere. That's why I've been for some thirty years fighting for women's rights and girls' education. It's not a fight. It's not even a conflict, it's just about doing what we're supposed to do and standing up for ourselves and doing it. So that people know that yes, she's a woman, she's powerful, and she can do this. And through music we spread love. We can show all that through our music and to give it and to spread it today. It's needed I think today more than any other time because 2017 is a crazy world.
MD: 2017 has seen a new direction for the women's rights movement with people coming forward and sharing their horror stories of sexism and misogyny. How has this year inspired you, or not, with your work as you go into 2018?
AS: I think it's amazing what we're doing because standing in any sort of stage in any place around the world, spreading this love, spreading this kindness, and spreading this—you know, we have to be unified, we have to be united to be able to build a better world. And we have to do that for our new generation, our children, so they realize it doesn't matter, girl or boy. I think I've been working on that since I began singing anyway, but this year specifically, 2017, working a lot. And people agree. Men agree! So that's the most important. A lot of men agree.
TB:I completely agree with Awa. Being united together and joining forces with men and with women alike in this mission to spread love and share what we all have to offer is really important. As we continue to hear so many women come out and tell their stories of sexism and abuse, I've felt more motivated to actively advocate for women and girls and realize the importance of having safe creative spaces for us to be free and be whatever we want to be. It's inspiring and enlightening to hear their stories and I think now more than ever we want to connect our art to something bigger.
MD: Did you always think that this feminist angle was going to be part of your work or is that something that developed as you grew as a musician?
AS: Growing up in West Africa and seeing what was going on there, first of all, before I even knew I would be touring around the world, when I introduced the Ensemble Koteba in Ivory Coast, that was one of my main objectives and points, to say that there is a lot to do. Seeing our mothers and grandmothers, seeing what's happening, it could be a very bad and macho world sometimes with men back home in Africa. And I know it's the same thing almost everywhere, but different levels. But in Africa, growing up where I'm seeing the circumcision for little girls, which is terrible, I thought to myself, I will stand up for that. Because knowing that if you have the right education as a mother, you will never let your little girl go through that. So I said this is something I'm going to be standing and fighting for all my life. Now there's a lot of people like me fighting against it and there is some interdiction, but that was what was my main motivation when I began Ensemble Koteba. I was 14 years old when I said, okay, all my life I'm going to be doing that. And now I'm going to step in, build a school for those girls. Because the men can oblige the women: "If you don’t let your daughter do the circumcision, you're out of my house." If she's right educated, she's independent, she can just go out, and save her little girl probably.
MD: And Trina, what about you?
TB: I grew up in Miami and I didn't necessarily experience discrimination in the same way. It was much more subtle. Later on as I got older and interested in improvised music and exploring my own musical voice, I was much more aware of my surroundings and my environment and I started to realize there were far less women around me, and it made an impact. In music around the world, all the recognized greats are men, so you're always kind of studying male composers and the great male musicians who existed in the past. I think as a woman it's important to me that we bring the stories of women more to the forefront so girls that are coming up behind us can have them as an inspiration too.
"We have a lot of responsibility to build a better universe and to bring in better harmony in this world."
MD: To make the active choice to increase representation of the women musicians and singers out there is important for the next generation. Girls need to see superheroes like you to inspire them to continue this work.
AS: Yes, the world is beautiful only with men and women, because we are a team, we are not enemies. But at the same time, to be able to stand up—it's important for us, as women—like Trina says—to give that to the next generation, to our children, boys and girls.
AS: My project is about girls and boys because it's teamwork. When each of them have the right education—of course for me that's the key of the world. They can do whatever they want in the world and they can go anywhere. It's the only thing to bring a better universe so everybody can feel comfortable. We have a lot of responsibility to build a better universe and to bring in better harmony in this world.
TB: That's beautiful. It's so true.
MD: Who are some female superheroes that have inspired you?
AS: I think my mother—she's not well known, she's not even a singer, but she's one of my heroes, for sure. There's so many names of women who have been fighting for themselves. Miriam Makeba is one of my heroes. Peace on her, she's not here today, but I've been watching and see all the history of what she went through all her life.
TB: My mother has always brought her love of music to my life, and I feel like all the women in my family hold a special place in my mind and my heart whenever I'm being creative. My mother-in-law is a vocalist and she's super inspiring to me. And I've been lucky to have a lot of female music teachers, who have been so encouraging and loving and inspiring, so I want to just shout out to them. And for artists, I would say Alice Coltrane has been a huge influence, and Annapurna Devi as well. Her story is so tragic yet so inspiring and she was such a powerhouse as an Indian classical female instrumentalist. And I love the way Ella Fitzgerald could make her voice sing like an instrument. She was just so free.
Brooklyn Raga Massive co-founder and artistic director Trina Basu is a violinist, teacher, composer, and improviser based in Brooklyn. She also co-leads the raga chamber folk ensemble, Karavika, whose albums Sunrise and Of Earth and Sky feature music inspired by classical and folk traditions from South Asia and America. She has performed with artists around the world, including Urban Bush Women, Mos Def, Gil Scott Heron, Ed Sheeran, Imani Uzuri, Marc Cary, Adam Rudolph's Go: Organic Orchestra, Dr. Mysore Manjunath, and Krishna Bhatt.
Awa Sangho is a proud daughter and shining star of West Africa. Raised in the desert north of Mali, where her stunning voice was first recognized and celebrated, she established herself in Abidjan, the regional capital of music production in the 1980s. There, she sang, danced, acted, and began to travel the world with the legendary Ensemble Koteba as well as the band she co-founded in 1993, Les Go de Koteba. After moving to New York City in 2011, she released her first solo recording, Alataye Tougnaye ("The Truth Belongs to God"), which realizes her long-held goal of presenting a personal musical vision and assuming the role of cultural ambassador to the world.
Meera Dugal is the Programming Manager for the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center.