Dee Dee Bridgewater is first and foremost a groundbreaker, an artist whose projects have traversed the musical kaleidoscope - from traditional vocal jazz to searing scat interpretations. Unafraid and uninhibited, these attributes make her perhaps the most versatile and inspiring artist and producer of her generation. Drawing on a deep font of talent and inspiration, Bridgewater’s new project, "RED EARTH - A Malian Journey", is a journey both forward and back. Melding Malian voices, music and traditional instruments with American Jazz vernacular and penning many of the lyrics, Dee Dee Bridgewater has crafted one of her most important musical statements to date.
Bridgewater explains, the album is “the culmination of my decision to find my African roots. It was an idea I first had when doing Horace Silver’s music, which is so syncopated and rhythmic.” The resulting Grammy® nominated album "love and peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver" solidified her resolve to further investigate African music. With the death of Ella Fitzgerald in 1996 and Dee Dee’s subsequent double Grammy® Award winning tribute Dear Ella, the project was put on hold. Her ensuing projects, Live At Yoshi's, This Is New, and J'ai Deux Amours, incorporated more global sounds and influences and yielded Grammy® nominations for two of the albums.
Elected in 1999 as one of the United Nations’ first Ambassadors for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Bridgewater was granted the unique opportunity to travel to Africa, visiting villages involved with various FAO programs. Over the years, Dee Dee amassed a library of music from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Congo, Benin, South Africa and Madagascar amongst others. As she narrowed her focus, one country’s music came to the fore. “Whenever I heard it, I would get a jolt.” Bridgewater recalls. “In the end of 2003, I started thinking it must be Mali. I had an inexplicable knowledge and ability to scat to and comprehend this rhythm and music.”
However, it was not until August 2004 that Bridgewater decided to make the long-awaited trip to Mali. It was during this first voyage that Dee Dee intensely felt she had found her ancestral home. Her instinctual connection to Malian “blues”, an inexplicable draw to the red earth - the ancient sign of life forces and land of her ancestors - and her amazing resemblance to the Malian tribe called ‘Peul’ all confirmed her suspicions, drawing her in with undeniable spiritual force.
For their first trip to Mali, Bridgewater and co-producer/husband Jean-Marie Durand enlisted the aide of Cheick Tidiane Seck, who had produced jazz pianist Hank Jones‘ 1995 celebrated Verve release Sarala, to serve as their musical chaperone. Seck provided a portal to the country’s brightest musicians and singers and with his involvement the music began to take shape. Cheick Tidiane Seck “is responsible for the involvement of all the Malian musicians on this project, as well as selecting the traditional Malian songs,” says Bridgewater. “We both agreed that the project had to have traditional Malian instruments, as we were fusing traditional Malian music with the traditions of Jazz.” It was during this visit that Seck introduced Bridgewater and Durand to Malian Minister of Culture and filmmaker, Cheick Omar Sissoko, who gave the group use of an official vehicle and driver, allowing them to tour different regions and take in the culture of the country.
During a subsequent visit in August 2006, Mariam Nour, the Malian representative for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, invited Goodwill Ambassadors Bridgewater and Oumou Sangaré to tour villages involved with local FAO programs. One village’s women raise bees for honey, soap, candles and other products and run a cooperative selling these goods near Mali’s capitol, Bamako. In another, a woman was lent the funds to procure livestock with the caveat that they be either sheep or goats. She purchased one sheep and ten ewes, which allowed her to breed animals that could be sold to repay the loan. She then gave a portion of the proceeds to another woman in a different village to continue the program herself. A third village’s women were learning micro-agricultural irrigation practices involving square plots of land from a doctor from Haiti. Bridgewater marveled, "It was a wonderful experience, one that has irrevocably changed my life forever."
The roles and influences of women are intrinsically interwoven in Malian politics and culture. In this vein, Dee Dee wanted to bring the strong feminine aspect of Mali to Red Earth - A Malian Journey. One song, 'Bambo (No More)', composed by Tata ‘Bambo’ Kouyaté, was so powerful that it led the government to abolish forced marriage in the 1960s. In addition to including “Bambo” on the album, Dee Dee made the conscious decision to feature female vocalists like outspoken women’s rights advocate Oumou Sangaré, Ramata Diakité, rising star Mamani Kéita and Fatoumata "Mama" Kouyaté, the “golden voice of Mali.” Bridgewater says, “I felt such a strong sisterhood with all of these dynamic women.” It was important for her to highlight this less explored part of the culture, which she feels has a distinct influence on the people and their music."
Songs “Bani (Bad Spirits)”, “Sakhodougou (The Griots),” and “Massane Cissé (Red Earth)”, which originated in the Twelfth and Thirteenth centuries, are told in the oral tradition of the ‘Griots’. These time-honored storytellers of Malian and family history are charged with carrying the vocal and musical customs forward through the generations. In deference to the importance of these traditions, Bridgewater features lauded ‘Griots’ Kassé Mady Diabaté, up-and-coming talent Kabiné Kouyaté, and musical griots Bassékou Kouyaté, Toumani Diabaté and Baba Sissoko, whom Dee Dee considers her personal “griot.” In working with the 'Griot' songs, as well as some of the other songs, Dee Dee tried to remain faithful to the original story, while at times lending a more updated nuance. This is the case with "Massane Cissé (Red Earth)"and the updated Ségou ‘Griot’ song, “Demissènw (Children Go ‘Round)”. Interspersed are original compositions “Mama Digna Sara Ye (Mama Don't Ever Go Away)” and “Djarabi (Oh My Love).”
“Jean-Marie [Durand] and I worked with Bassékou Kouyaté in setting up jam sessions at his house. I improvised rhythms and lyrics. ”Children Go ‘Round” came out of that.” Four n’goni players, two percussionists and Bassékou’s wife, Ami Sacko improvised with Dee Dee. At Bassékou’s urging, Bridgewater’s youngest child, son Gabriel Durand, was invited to sit in on guitar. The organic outgrowth of that experience was so successful that Bridgewater recorded the tune with Bassékou’s group “N’goni Ba” in one room with son Gabriel featured on guitar. “That’s why it has such a different sound. Mixing it was almost impossible because everyone bled together – voices and instruments melded, but that was the original album concept. It would have been quite an undertaking to do the whole album that way, but it was great to get that one song,” says Bridgewater describing the raw and honest quality of the track.
The title of the album Red Earth - A Malian Journey was serendipitous. On the morning of her first day in Mali, Bridgewater was overwhelmed at the view from her hotel room - red earth stretching out before her with the Niger river coursing in the distance. It reminded her of the stories her mother told her of her childhood love of rolling in the red earth of Memphis. Dee Dee pensively offers, “I’m just trying to find my voice and my reason to be. Doing this project I feel that I’ve found something incredible – my African roots and my home, Mali.”
Photo by Philippe Pierangeli