Dee Dee Bridgewater: A jazz diva discovers her African roots in Mali

Time is not an issue when interviewing Dee Dee Bridgewater, as is often the case with other celebrities. The conversation can run on for hours, and it is always impassioned. With a personal and confessional tone, the legendary singer becomes electrified when she’s discussing the music industry today or anything to do with politics. The 57-year-old jazz diva – one of the few remaining singers in the class of Nina Simone, Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan – is a woman with political insight and a social conscience; and she doesn’t mince her words. The occasion for Kathimerini’s interview with Bridgewater was two upcoming performances in Greece. She will be performing at Athens’s Lycabettus Theater on July 25 and at Sani in Halkidiki on July 27, presenting selections from her latest album, «Red Earth: A Malian Journey.» The album was recorded almost exclusively in the land of red earth, Mali, where Bridgewater worked with some of the most lauded girots, or wandering poets and singers, of West Africa. What led her to Africa? «The need to find my roots,» she told Kathimerini. «I began researching my family tree, which led me nowhere in particular, so I decided to let the music guide me. Listening to music from various African countries, and especially West Africa, I realized that the musical tradition of Mali spoke to me; it touched me deeply. So, in 2004, I took my first trip there. I began meeting musicians, traveling around the country, and I realized that this is where I belong. I promptly decided to focus on creating an album with Malian music. I have gone back three times since then and feel that I have found my home. I met everyone from simple folk to the president, I worked with great pleasure and am very proud of the result. Anyway, it is the first album on which I have written many of the lyrics.» Bridgewater stayed in Mali for a total of three months, getting to know all the different sides of the country and its people. «I saw poverty but also kindness. Open hearts and sad eyes. Corruption. Uneducated people, but kind, dignified and happy. Men, women and children who need clean water, electricity, medicine, schools. The local musicians who worked with me cannot read or write, so they didn’t want to sign a contract. Not, of course, that contracts mean anything to them. Now I am certain that in Mali I found two things: my voice and my purpose in life. «I know that one artist cannot change a world seeped in corruption, where everything is about money. There are very few people who have a real conscience, who look around, beyond their gilded world, and care about what is going on. I learned to care about others as a little girl. «If I had not followed the path of singing, I would have become a human rights lawyer. But, even in music you have a duty to send a message, whatever you think is important. But you have to say something. We can’t keep singing about love and roses.» In recent years the West has shown an interest in African matters. Tributes – such as this year’s Venice Biennale – to African artists, literature prizes such as the Orange and Booker, awarded to Nigerian authors, are helping bring Africa back to the forefront. Is this genuine interest or a way for the West to wash away its guilt? «It’s a combination of both,» says Bridgewater. «The intense interest we have seen these past few years is because Western countries have realized they have done very little for Africa. They took advantage of it as much as they could, something China is also doing now, making deals with African countries. Maybe that’s why the West suddenly woke up. If the leaders of the developed world really cared, they would go there to build schools and hospitals. Thankfully there are afew, isolated cases, humanitarian groups that have been very effective in many parts of Africa. These are people who have been there, seen with their own eyes, were touched and became motivated.» Bridgewater grew up in a house where jazz was a staple; either coming from her father, a trumpet player and teacher, or from records of Ella Fitzgerald, one of her mother’s favorites. Bridgewater’s vocal skills led her to jazz, but she is not one to stick to a single genre. She has sung everything from Horace Silver and Kurt Weill to French ballads, while musical theater has also played a significant role in her history. «The music inside me is always what leads me. That is the criterion for me to sing something, whatever it is. And the reason I decided to create my own label was so that I could enjoy complete artistic freedom. I was sick of having a record company telling me what I can and cannot sing. I have stopped playing their game, by their rules. I have made my own now. It never was, and still isn’t easy, but the simple ease of being to explore new fields makes me very happy. I think of ways to support other musicians and singers. To provide new sources of inspiration. There’s nothing good about being stuck with the Porters or Gershwins throughout your entire career.» As far as the future is concerned: «I will continue my research in this direction. I’m not done with Africa. Of course, I’m nearly 60 and making all these plans seems a bit silly. Not that life ends at 60, but I want to enjoy the present, enjoy my children and grandson. And laugh.»

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