Victor, are you self-taught as a musician or did get some kind of musical education?
Victor Démé: "I was born in a griot family. My grandmother was a well-known singer in Burkina (Faso, red.), as was my mother, but she wasn't involved in the commercial circuit and generally performed at weddings or baptisms. That was really because of my father, he was a religious man and didn't want his wife to be on stage just anywhere. Being raised in a musical family meant that I learned to appreciate music at a very tender age already and I noticed quite early I had a feel for music as well. I only needed to hear a song once to be able to emulate it the next day. More and more often, I was asked by my friends and the girls in the neighbourhood to sing their favourite tune of the moment. One day, I decided to try my luck and audition for the musicians of Super Mande (founded in 1975, by Abdoulaye Diabate in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, over the years this band counted some of the greatest names in West-African music - Salif Keita, Mory Kante, Kante Manfila, Ousmane Kouyate - among its members, red.). You have to realise, though, that at that moment I was just improvising most of what I did. I didn't know the first thing about singing technique. They quickly noticed I was talented enough, but I lacked some technical skill, so they gave me some cassettes with Congolese music to practice with. That's how I slowly discovered how to keep rhythm and stay in key. The first songs I eventually performed with Super Mande were those same Congolese tunes I learned from these cassettes, but soon afterwards I started to work on my own compositions. At a certain stage, I didn't feel at home in Ivory Coast anymore and decided to move back to Burkina, but when I arrived there, there was virtually no musical activity to speak of. In the capital I met the guys of Supreme Comenba and in that same period I entered a number of talent shows of which I won quite a few. I remember quite clearly that at one of them I was awarded a scooter as the first prize winner. (laughs) During that period I got a lot of encouragement and support from my fans, but on the business side of things, it didn't earn me any offers. A lot of false promises were made and gradually I slipped into the cabaret circuit; in local bars and cafes I covered songs of famous artists like Mory Kante or Salif Keita and that earned me just enough money to make a living."
In the west one would probably categorize your music as Mali blues...
Victor Démé: "Yes, and I'm perfectly happy with that. You have to realize that Mali and Burkina Faso are neighbouring countries, so there are a lot of similarities between the two. Everything you find in Burkina, you will also find in Mali and vice versa. On top of that, the village where I was born is at just a few kilometres from the Malian border."
Why is it that Malian music has become quite popular in the west whilst we hardly know any Burkinabe musicians?
Victor Démé: "Musically speaking, things in Burkina are only developing now. We had a few superb musicians, but for too long, being a musician has been regarded as something inferior. Musicians in Burkina weren't respected at all, they were considered good-for-nothings. Fortunately all of that started to change when Thomas Sankara took power (Thomas Sankara was president of Burkina Faso from 1983 until 1987. In august of 1983 he was part of a group of officers who deposed president Ouedraogo and his rightwing supporters. A National Revolutionary Council was established of which Sankara became chairman. In addition he took the posts of state president and minister of the interior. Sankara quickly outed himself as leftwing radical, favouring a Marxist-Leninist course for the country. On August 4 1984, he changed the name of the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, meaning "land of the righteous people". On august 15th 1987, another coup, led by General Blaise Compore, during which Sankara was "accidentally" killed, red.)"
His role should not be underestimated then?
Victor Démé: "No, absolutely not! He played a very very important role! Thanks to him, traditional music in Burkina is now finally getting the respect it deserves. His principal idea was to establish a national Burkinabe identity. The respect we as Burkinabe artists are getting today, we owe in great part to his efforts and for that he has my eternal gratitude. That being said, we still have a long way to go; especially on an international level Burkinabe music is still poorly represented."
We were just talking about the Mali blues, but you called your label Chapa Blues. What is this chapa blues?
Victor Démé: "In Burkina we've got this liquor made of millet called chapalo. It's very popular and everyone drinks it. It being the case that I started out my career in the cabarets where this drink was drunk by the gallon, I decided to use it as the name for my label."
You sing in Dioula...
Victor Démé: "Yes, from the very beginning. I would love to sing in French, but I just can't and the same goes for Bambara."
Now that you're starting to perform in Europe, where people don't understand what you're singing about, what do you do to get your message across anyway?
Victor Démé: "I try to explain the content of each song before I start singing it. I feel obliged to do that, but I have to say that European audiences have given me a lot of encouragement and that has given me the strength to do even better in the future!"
Victor, thanks for doing this interview!
Victor Démé: "It's me who needs to thank you for taking out the time to talk to poor old Démé! (laughs)"