Manjul's life story reads like a picaresque novel: from the colourful multicultural Parisian quarter Barbes he moved to Réunion and Mayotte and eventually settled in Mali. In no time, his sound - a mix of dub, reggae and traditional West-African instruments - created a buzz in reggae town!
Manjul, you were born in the Barbes quarter in Paris. Could you describe that area for those who might not know the city that well?
Manjul: "Barbes is situated in Paris' 18th district. It's a very popular quarter that became very diverse in the sixties when a lot of immigrants came to live there. In a way, that brought together a whole social class, different in provenance but confronted with the same difficulties and hardships in daily life. Those migrants also gave birth to a generation that, like me, grew up in a mixed-race environment where everyone influenced everyone else. Barbes really has a special vibe."
At one point, you decided to migrate to Réunion. What prompted that departure from France?
Manjul: "I felt that Africa was calling me, but at the same time it was painfully clear to me that I wasn't ready yet. I also wanted to bring something with me. Part of my family lived in Réunion, so the isle has kind of served as a buffer between Barbes and Africa. It also gave me the opportunity to find myself before setting foot in Africa."
You even went to live on the island of Mayotte for some time, a place without electricity or running water. How should we imagine your life there?
Manjul: "I really needed to experience that kind of lifestyle. My oldest son was born in that period and I really wanted him to have a different start in life than mine. Not that my childhood had been so bad, but I wanted him to have a life that corresponded more to my ideals. Mayotte is the island of a great brother of mine, Baco Mourchid (born 1967 in Mayotte from a Mahoran father and a Malagasy mother, grew up on the rhythms of the chigoma drums, the biyaya and other traditional rhythms, who formed the true sources of his inspiration. Then, at age 11, he discovered the guitar and starts to nourish his mind with fresh influences, the most important of which would turn out to be reggae. From these two musical sources, one purely traditional, the other more modern, Baco developed his own unique style: zangoma, red.), who taught me the basics of working in a music studio. He gave me that little push I needed to go and explore the island. In the end I stayed there for more than two years. Like you said, on Mayotte there's no electricity and that's what pushed me to move back to Réunion in the end so I could establish my studio. When I look back on my time on that island, it was a real intense period of my life and it provided me with virtually ideal living conditions."
These days you're based in Mali; the end of your travels or just another halting-place in your life journey?
Manjul: "I can't tell you what the future holds, but nonetheless I think I've found a place that really suits me. Both my wife's, who's Malian herself, as my sons' roots are in Mali. The social structure, the collective security and the jahtiguiya - the welcoming the Malians give you (and also the title of Manjul's latest 'Dub To Mali' album, red.) - make for a living climate that is very well suited for a Rastafarian. Anywhere you go in the world, you will find good and bad and there's no such thing as paradise on earth, but that said, I'm really happy with my life there."
The studio you built in Bamako turned out to have a big impact on the whole West-African reggae scene. You already collaborated with upcoming artists from all over the region. Did you expect it would work out so well?
Manjul: "I envisaged continuing what I had started in Réunion. As I already said, I really wanted to bring something to the table. With the colour of sound I produce, I apparently responded to an already existing demand. A lot of African reggae artists didn't really manage to express themselves the way they wanted. You had the existing formats of Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly, but there wasn't really a place for African Rasta music; a creative music borrowing both from reggae and traditional African music. There's no big humanitarian vision in what I do; we just share our talents and help each other out wherever and whenever possible."
Mali is a largely Islamic country. How are you looked upon as a Rastafarian?
Manjul: "Well, for starters, Islam and Christianity both share the Old Testament. Of course there are differences, but it's just as easy to focus on the similarities. The values in Mali and the values in Islam are those of family, respect for work, respect for the other and love, and I really believe they are very similar to those of a Rastafarian. You also have to realise that we (the Europeans, red.) have lost the connection with our roots. Africans are still really rooted in their traditions. That said, there are of course values that exist all over the world; you just have to try to respect the differences of others. Even within Islam, there are a lot of differences, but instead of walking the route of division, we have to strive for unity. It's that sense of unity that forms the strongpoint of a country like Mali. It's a country that unites a lot of peoples and religions. The Dogon for example aren't Muslim at all, they have their own animistic belief. As a Rastafarian you have to try to adapt yourself and share your positive values."
Where did you get your stage name?
Manjul: "It's been my nickname ever since I was in my teens. Feel fry to add your explanation for it to the list, but personally I don't even remember who first called me by that name or why."
On stage here tonight we were able to discover that you aren't a bad singer really. Nonetheless, on your albums your voice is scarcely used.
Manjul: "As the name already indicates, the 'Dub To Mali' project is all about dub. In my studio I record my tracks and afterwards I remix them. Every time I mix a song, the result is different: sometimes I cut the voices, other times I leave an echo or I only leave the voices in the chorus. I try to use the same method in my live shows. Today I cut the horn section and left the voices. That way each night is different. In my studio I also mix live, not digital, so you will never hear the same version twice."
An important part of your sound, the flute and saxophone, are the work of Rico (Eric 'Rico' Gaultier, red.). Can you introduce him shortly?
Manjul: "Rico is a great brother of mine! We got to know each other in the music business without ever meeting each other in the flesh. I did my work in my studio in Réunion and he recorded his parts in a studio in Paris. When we finally met up in a studio somewhere, it was immediately clear to me that we shared a common way of looking at and dealing with the pressures of daily life. Rico also plays in his own band called Faya Dub. They've been touring France and the rest of Europe for a few years now. Our collaboration for the 'Dub To Mali' project was fantastic, so I decided to keep him on board as the leader of the horn section. Sometimes they are four and other times Rico just plays solo."
Today you were here on stage alongside Takana Zion for whom you also produced the album ‘Zion Prophet'. How did you guys meet?
Manjul: "Our first encounter took place on Lassa hill just outside Bamako during one of the Nyahbinghi sessions we hold there every Sabbath. He had just arrived in Mali and Tiken had told him about me so he came to say hello. I instantly felt a certain vibe between us. Takana continued to work with Tiken. They even recorded two albums together but they were never released. Takana often frequented my studio because at that time I still did a lot of work for Tiken Jah. After he decided to stop collaborating with Tiken, he came to see me and I decided to work with him. It's been a rewarding enterprise, because everywhere we come, from Guinea to France, the people are raving about Takana. That really warms my heart. Jah gave him his mission and his only option is to complete it. Because of our difference in age and provenance, our collaboration was even more special."
You're well-settled in Mali now, but being a Rastafarian, can you resist the call of the Promised Land Ethiopia?
Manjul: "I'd like to visit Ethiopia with my sons one day, but I consider Mali to be the Ethiopia of the West. If you take a look at the old maps of Africa, you will notice the entire continent used to be called Ethiopia. If you look at it from that perspective, I'm already there!"