Wagadu Grooves

06/02/2024Paris-Based Reissue Label Hot Mule Presents Phenomenal Compilation Of Productions By Soninke Producer Gaye Camara

This here release is, quite unpretentiously, the stuff of legend, actually several legends wrapped into one phenomenal release. Paris-based reissue label Hot Mule has just compiled a heavy collection of productions by Gaye Camara, "one of the great independent music producers of his generation, and a pillar of the Parisian Soninke diaspora." If you are not familiar with the Soninke, they were the founders of the ancient empire of Ghana dating back to the 3rd century AD, a realm they themselves called Wagadu, located in what is now Southeastern Mauritania and Western Mali. Both an ethnicity and a language (September 25th was recently proclaimed International Day of the Soninke Language by UNESCO), the fall of the Soninke empire started with the Muslim invasions of this region in the 10th century AD. Its people were subsequently dispersed throughout West Africa and beyond and its remains incorporated into the new empire of Mali by the 13th century AD. 

There is a founding myth found in the oral tradition of the Soninke, the legend of a "blood pact" made with a seven-headed serpent named Biida – "a providential but cruel protector." Biida lived at the bottom of a well and the Soninke owed their prosperity to him. In return, every year, a virgin was sacrificed to Biida as an offering, a ritual that took place until the empire's fall in the 13th century. Legend has it that one day, Maamadi Sehedunxote's sweetheart Siya Yatabéré was chosen for sacrifice. On the fateful day of the tribute, Maamadi Sehedunxote severed the serpent's seven heads, upon which the latter issued a final curse and the empire's days were numbered: "With my end begins a period of calamity for you and your people. For seven years, seven months and seven days, not a drop of water will fall on Wagadu and your gold will turn to dust." As the release notes further describe, "the murder of Biida symbolises the ethnic group's abandonment of ancestor worship and adoption of Islam."

Fast forward to 1977, when a young Soninke descendant hailing from Mali's Kayes region resettled to France "to found his own empire. Initially selling wax, kola nuts and other goods in his Parisian outlets, Gaye Mody Camara rapidly started distributing cassette tapes and eventually producing a multitude of recordings for his own label: Camara Production." Over the course of the next four decades, Camara "crossed paths and collaborated [...] with legendary artists, griots and industry moguls like Boncana Maïga, Jean-Philippe Rykiel, Ganda Fadiga, Diaby Doua or Ibrahima Sylla,"  thus firmly establishing himself in the music business and ensuring his own legacy. This superb new compilation on Hot Mule was released "in close collaboration with Gaye Camara [himself] and with the assistance of Daouda N'diaye from the Association pour la Promotion de la langue et de la culture Soninké (A.P.S.)" and "aims to shed a light on an intricate culture and its modern music, unjustifiably unknown outside of West Africa and the various diasporas around the world."

"Wagadu Grooves: The Hypnotic Sound of Camara 1987-2016" boasts a total of 14 + 1 tracks, pressed on vinyl for the very first time. The sound spectrum is distinctly West African and – although the productions span almost three decades – uncannily modern, featuring artists such as Mamadou Tangoudia, Halima Kissima Touré, Lassana Hawa Cissokho, Hadja Soumano, Naïny Diabaté, Mah Kouyaté, Ami Traoré, Babáni Koné, Kaniba Oulé Kouyaté, Diaby Doua and Diobo Fode. The latter contributed the catchy conscious reggae track "Yexu", a song produced in 2010 in which the Mauritanian artists "evokes the institution of marriage, exorbitant dowries and the fact that certain human values dear to the Soninko are slowly being forgotten." Prior to that the label had previewed the 2007-released track "Kori" ('Poverty') and accompanying music video by fellow Mauritanian artist Mamadou Tangoudia, in which he "calls on the people of Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia to show solidarity, unite in the fight against poverty and avoid being ostentatious in success." On its Instagram handle, the label had also posted two clips of Malian vocalist Halima Kissima Touré. On "Koolo Fune", a track found on "her eponymous 2016 album, [she] emphasises the fundamental nature of fraternal ties and puts into perspective the conflicts that can arise [between] twins and siblings," while on "Duna" ('Life') she "evokes certain values of Islam, the need to live in accordance with these precepts and reminds her audience that all life will one day come to an end."

Needless to say, this compilation is of a rare depth, sharing a plethora of stories in testament to the Soninke culture and its diaspora. Sonically, these productions have an indescribable warmth to them that is probably best defined by the word 'grooves' in the record's title. Much respect to Camara Production, Gaye Mody Camara and Hot Mule for making these sounds available to a wider audience. Like we said to start with: "Wagadu Grooves" is the stuff of legend.

AUTHOR: Lev Nordstrom