Yacouba, with 'Taboussizé', Mamar Kassey returns after a break of about five years. What happened during these "silent" years?
Yacouba Moumouni (vocals, flute): "For starters, one of our musicians (Adamou Daouda, red.) passed away. Two others decided to migrate to the United States, and our bass player and two dancers went on to form their own band. I needed to go in search of a new bunch of able musicians and as I wasn't prepared to play with a band that wasn't ready, I took my time to teach them Mamar Kassey's repertoire. The only remaining original members in the band are Boubacar Souleyman Maiga, who plays the gourd, and me. That being said, I consider Mamar Kassey more as a company with an ever-changing line-up, than as a band with fixed members. I would be great if Mamar Kassey could even continue when I'm not there anymore."
The name of the group is a reference to a legendary Songhai Warrior.
Yacouba Moumouni: "In the Songhai Empire, which stretched from Niger to Senegal, Mamar Kassey (Askia Muhammad I, ca. 1443 - 1538, born Muhammad Toure in Futa Tooro and also known as Askia the Great, was an emperor, military commander, and political reformer of the Songhai Empire in the late 15th century. Askia Muhammad strengthened the Songhai Empire and made it the largest empire in West Africa's history. His policies resulted in a rapid expansion of trade with Europe and Asia, the creation of many schools, and made Islam an integral part of the empire. Due to his efforts, Songhai experienced a cultural revival it had never witnessed before, and the whole land flourished as a centre of all things valuable in learning and trade, red.) managed to bring together different ethnic groups such as the Fulani, the Hausa, the Zarma and the Tuareg. The Nigerien people still consider themselves his descendants and that's why we chose his name as the name of the group. The most important legacy of the Songhai Empire is that the Nigeriens are now a very mixed people preventing ethnic conflicts like there are in other West-African countries. This ethnic mix is also reflected in the band where we use traditional instruments of the different ethnic groups in Niger. On a musical level, Mamar Kassey managed to show the Nigerien people we have a musical identity of our own and shouldn't limit ourselves to simply copying our Senegalese, Congolese or Malinese colleagues."
Compared to Malinese and Senegalese music, Nigerien music is far less known in Europe.
Yacouba Moumouni: "In Niger, Islam has somewhat choked musical development. The interpretation of Islam has become increasingly strict and some Muslims consider music as being haram. As a result, the Nigerien Government shows little interest in the arts. I am the president of the federation of performing artists in Niger and I've been fighting an uphill struggle for more recognition for years now. A nation without culture is a dead nation, so it's an important struggle!"
You can't boast a griot heritage. How did you become a musician?
Yacouba Moumouni: "I come from a family of shepherds and the flute, the instrument I play, is their instrument of choice. I was born in Tondi Goungou, a village located a little more than two hundred kilometres from Niamey. My father died when I was only nine years old and it was around that same time that I decided to leave my village. I started to walk towards the capital and walked for six days straight to get there. If I wanted to survive I had to find a job as soon as possible and I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to work as a "boy" in the troupe of Madame Absatou Danté. I was given a number of chores around the house, and if some time remained after I had finished them, Harouna Marounfo, the flutist of the troupe taught me his instrument. This was my life for a little less than ten years. One day Harouna refused to play and I was able to convince the other musicians to give me a chance. Without them knowing, I'd been slaving over their repertoire for months until I knew it inside out! In 1995 I formed Mamar Kassey and in 1997 we got the chance to play at the Nuits Atypiques festival in Koudougou, Burkina Faso. There I met Patrick Lavaux, director of that same festival in Langon near to Bordeaux, who eventually produced Mamar Kassey's debut album ('Denké-Denké', Daqui, 1999, red.) which was recorded at Ali Farka Toure's Bogolan Studio Bogolan. That's how it all started for Mamar Kassey and the rest, as they say, is history!"
On 'Taboussizé', 'Kountché' is a song meant as a tribute to Seyni Kountché, a former president of Niger. What made him so popular with the Nigerien people?
Yacouba Moumouni: "Seyni Kountché was a president who did not put his own wellbeing before that of his people. When he passed away only 400,000 CFA (600 euro or 800 US dollar, red.) was found on his bank account! He gave his all for the development of the country and fought to unify the country, among other things by organizing the Festival De La Jeunesse which still brings together young people from the four corners of the country. It is thanks to him Niger does not know ethnic conflicts like many other West-African countries do, because virtually everyone has someone belonging to another ethnic group in his family. Thanks to Kountché the Nigeriens are proud of their country, which is also the reason why Nigeriens travel very little. As artists we don't want his name to be forgotten and that's why we recorded this song."
You're also known as 'Denké-Denké'. What's the story behind that name?
Yacouba Moumouni: "The word "denké-denké" has its origins in the hoof prints cattle leave in the mud when they go drink from the river. They leave the ground all muddled up, and if you walk on it, it's quite hard to stay upright. The village women used that as inspiration for a dance they call denké-denké which they perform to welcome back the men who return to the village with the livestock. When I recorded a song about this tradition it became a great hit in Niger and that's why people still call me like that. There are a lot more people who know 'Denké-Denké', than there are who know who Yacouba Moumouni is!"