Q&A: SMOD, Malian Hip Hop Grooves and Manu Chao Sounds

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The offspring of Malian superstars Amadou & Mariam is one of those cases where you can’t help to question at first impression the universal dichotomy of nature vs. nurture. Like many children of world stars such as Sean Lennon, Jakob Dylan, or Frances Bean Cobain, there’s no doubt that Africa’s hip hop groove trio has both; the talent and the hook up — the international, music ambassador Manu Chao produced the band’s self-titled junior album via Nacional Records. The album is beautifully bedecked with an explosive cocktail of Chao’s signature sounds of simple acoustic arrangements, reggae bass riffs, bouncy chiptune tones, and one-tune melodies.

We still had our curiosity for Sam and his friends Monzy, Ousco, and Dromsky (hence the acronym SMOD, minus the departed Monzy), so we checked them out at New York’s GlobalFEST, and I gotta say, that night I walked out of Webster Hall as a converted SMOD fan. Why? It’s the nature. Their lyrical groovy French rhymes plus their eclectic energy hurling out of them made the whole house frolic in a dubby, funk manner. Though French is foreign to me, the music hit home.

Remezcla caught up with the boys and talked about the current state of Africa and music as an alternative means of expression, the role that mom and pops played during the musical evolution, and the teachings of Manu Chao during the recording process of their junior album.

Keep on reading below, and get a free track “Les Dirigeants Africains,” currently banned in African airwaves. Courtesy of Nacional Records — you seriously must have it!

Why have you chosen to meld hip hop, folk and blues genres and when/how did these influences come about in your lives?

We have a very strong relation to traditional music. At home, Sam’s parents were more into blues music. We also listened to a lot of old school US hip hop when we were younger. We mixed all this to create our own words and melodies trying to touch old and young generations.

Why was Keny Arkana chosen to be featured on the track “J’ai Pas Peur Du Micro” ?

We were recording at the same time in the same studio. Kenny liked what she heard, she came and proposed to sing, we agreed. We didn’t know who she was, we didn’t know about her engagement. Lately we discovered all her albums and mix-tapes. It’s a great honor to have her on that track.

What is the new music scene like in Mali?

It has never been so rich. Since the democratic transition started in 1991, freedom of speech is larger even if some of our tracks, like “Les Dirigeants Africains“, are still banned in some radio stations in Africa. Malian youth is more and more present in the mainstream media with very diverse music forms. Thanks to the internet, we know what’s going on in the world and we are able to talk about it, mixing all influences.

(For Sam) What is it like to be the son of world music stars Amadou & Mariam?

What could I say except I thank them for what they are. They never discouraged me in my musical carrier. I am blessed to be part of such a beautiful musical family and SMOD will do his best to perpetuate his musical heritage. They told me they re proud to see me extending malian music to new territories and genres, I am happy about that.

(for Sam) How has your upbringing influenced your work?

My upbringing was the same as many in Mali. I don’t feel different from my friends on that point. We all share a great respect for traditions and family. I just had the great chance to listen to a lot of music from different country since my early age.

How’s it like working with Manu Chao?

Simplicity in music is a common goal that we share. There was never any conflict between us. Manu is very open-mined. He taught us to be more “professional” in our recording. We made great progress thanks to him.

Why have you chosen to write politically conscious lyrics as opposed to personal lyrics?

We would say that our political conscious leads us to the lyrics we write, which are quite personal and political. This is what we sing about: Africa, today. Despite all injustices and suffering we try to bring a message of hope and unity. We are really interested by “bling bling” lyrics.

Why is ‘heritage’ important to you and how has it influenced the music and your lives?

Most young african have a strong relation to tradition. In a modern way we adapt the ancient tradition of the griots. They have been for ages the voice of the people, they were able to criticize the power. That is this tradition we try to pursue humbly and strongly influence by the sound of our generation in which hip hop is included.

What messages are you really trying to get out to the public and what would you like them to take from it to apply in their daily lives?

Hope and Unity.

How is your experience in the U.S. going so far?

Too short! We should come back soon. It was our first gigs in New York, we are thrilled to know more about the U.S.

Do you guys have any specific rituals before hitting up the stage? Taking vitamin packs, energy drinks, have a smoke?

No vitamins packs or artificial energy! Most of the time we just look at each other straight into the eyes this way we can share a spiritual and physical energy.

Who are some of your favorite new artists and why?

We’re a quite into African new artist generation such as Daara J and PBS from SENEGAL or Tata Pound from Bamako, Mali. They usually mix old and new sounds. But we’re still listening a lot Oumou Sangaré, Ali Farka Touré or Salif Keita

What can we expect from SMOD in the future?

European tour, US festivals and next album to be release early 2013.

Free Download of SMOD’s “Les Dirigeants Africains” off the trio’s self-titled. Download the entire album way below on iTunes.