Souleymane Diamanka and
Kenny Allen intersect music and cultures in Addis Ababa with the new album Etre Humain Autrement

Senegalese rapper/poet Souleymane Diamanka and US-born producer Kenny Allen met in Addis Ababa for a special project that breathes new life into Fulani oral traditions. Diamanka’s father left Senegal for France a week before his birth in the 1970s to find work. As neither of his parents could read or write, they communicated via audiocassettes. After the family reunited in Bordeaux two years later, these sonic love letters, which also feature griots and musicians from his native tribe in the Fouladou region, became a vital source of education and inspiration. Following on from his first album, Diamanka continues to valorize his heritage through his sophomore release, Etre Humain Autrement, with a little help from Allen. Here the duo discuss how they came to collaborate in Ethiopia’s culturally rich capital.
 
 

Kenny Allen: I am a singer/songwriter/producer originally from Washington, DC. I came from a musical family and started playing piano when I was three years old. I wrote my first songs when I was about eight and from teen years onward I was into synthesizers and recording devices. I performed in an acapella group in college, which is when I first picked up the guitar. I started recording in studios and performing with bands and made my first album in the late 1990s. From there, I toured the world backing artists and developing my sound and engineering crafts. I’ve produced dozens of artists and broadened my production scope since moving to Addis Ababa, after a successful performance residency some 10 years prior.

Souleymane Diamanka: I’ve been writing poems since elementary school and as a teenager I was in a rap group named Djangu (meaning ‘study’ in Fulani). I met Les Nubians when I was 20 and I wrote the songs Princess Nubian and What Is The Word Pearl. I then joined Echoes, a collective made up of American and French poets, before releasing my solo album Winter Fulani on Barclay Universal. I’ve since been traveling the globe with my words - performing, developing collaborations and doing workshops.

 

"The concept was clear to me. Make some epic, soulful, rock&soul poetry"

 

KA: I met Souleymane through his wife, Sasha Giest Rubel, during her UNESCO post in Ethiopia. She and I had worked on a project called Women In Africa whereby I produced a score for a poem about Ethiopia’s Empress Taitu. When Souleymane came to Addis she was like, “You have to meet him. I think you guys could make amazing music together”. After seeing videos of his live performances in Paris doing poetry with a live band in front of audiences of 6,000 people, and once introduced to his archive tapes, the concept was clear to me. Make some epic, soulful, rock&soul poetry made for large venues. And so it began.

SD: I had heard about Kenny and his work when I was still in Paris. I loved his personality and his world of music. I told him the concept that I was developing with audiocassettes of my parents, as musical and cultural archives, remixed with modern music. We had a long and wonderful conversation over a good meal. The concept pleased him. The first song that we created, Into Your Hands All The Gold In The World, set the tone and the project got underway.

 
 

KA: The Fulani people at a certain point kept their language from extinction with these type of recordings while migrating to various parts of the world. Instrumentalists, singers and griots would MC and much of the history was passed on. Most of our sessions started with going through a side of a cassette and selecting sung phrases, musical elements, group chants and sound effects to provide the direction of the production. Souleymane would then configure one of his poems, which we addressed more as songs. And on several occasions I provided a vocal hook to emphasise the universal message of the piece. We averaged about a song a day at my East Africa Recording Studio (E.A.R.S.) in Addis Ababa. The record was later mastered in Canada by Bruno Green, a member of the band Detroit, with whom Souleymane had been touring in France. The album happened very effortlessly and naturally.

SD: We spent time listening. We talked about the themes of the songs, the atmosphere and so on. I would translate the songs and sounds that were selected for their musicality and then Kenny would compose around the archives while I worked on the texts. Most of the time we were together during the creative phase. It was always magical to see what the archives inspired in him and the music that was born out of it. It was all the more magical that Kenny speaks neither French nor Fulani but it was as if he felt and understood the words beyond their meaning through their sound.

KA: The intention of the work for me as the producer was to create the platform for Souleymane to perform the poetic songs with a live band. The archival tapes were the guides for this musical journey and the process really opened my ears to combining the old with our collaborative present to create what I hope will be something timeless and new.

SD: Our intention was to revive this misunderstood cultural heritage. Our intention was to create new music with traditional melodies. Our intention was also to mix our respective universes by intersecting our strong musical experiences and our life paths.

Words by Metasebia Yoseph, founder/director of Design Week Addis Ababa and author of A Culture of Coffee book on the Ethiopian coffee ceremony and its global legacy. She is also the founder of Gallery 26, a creative consulting firm and design showroom in Addis Ababa. 
 

 
 

Photography Rudi Geyser
Words by Metasebia Yoseph