5 Questions with LEAF performers Mande Foly

Photo by Chris Nelson

Leading up to LEAF festival, Xpress is talking to a number of artists from across the country and across musical genres. Local West African folk music outfit Mande Foly incorporates the kamal ngoni, syncopated rhythms and call-and-response singing.

Mountain Xpress: What’s it like to be a West African band in Western North Carolina, versus in West Africa? And does playing music so far away from its home change the music? What sort of WNC influences find their way into the Mande Foly sound?
Mande Foly:
In West Africa, Mandingue musicians grow up with much of the repertoire that Mande Foly plays, and can get together and make music without rehearsal. Because our group is composed of non-Africans as well, we must transmit the music and vocabulary to these musicians. Having diverse musical backgrounds, everyone brings something that influences the outcome and vibe of our music, while retaining that flavor unique to West Africa. WNC and West Africa share something in that they are both hotbeds for folk music. It’s also interesting that the kamel n’goni is related to the modern banjo, an instrument central to both old-time and bluegrass music.

According to the band’s bio, its music is improvisational. How much of that improv is happening in real time on the stage? Is there also an element of rehearsal and writing parts for individual players?

Our songs are arranged through rehearsal mainly, mostly for our beginning and ending breaks, and each player has a part to play in that song. Outside of that … people step forward for a lick or a solo when it feels right. Many ideas might emerge on stage, then we might repeat that idea the next show. But the crowd, the venue, the arrangement of our set list, the weather — everything affects our mood and expression on stage, individually and collectively.

Lyrics are performed in Bambara and French, languages most of your listeners are probably not familiar with. Do you think the message or spirit of the music can still be conveyed? Do you construct the music with this idea of bridging language barriers in mind?
Music plays an important role in transcending the struggles we face in Africa and in the modern world. Most of our songs are about aspects of social consciousness, and we hope this comes across in performance. The melodies are rich with emotion and they are sung and played that way. And, as our English gets better, we’ll explain the meaning of each song more often.

Do you approach indoor/concert hall shows and outdoor/festival shows differently? If so, how?

We adapt to the situation we find ourselves in. If it is an audience sitting down, we might bring a more stripped-down, acoustic instrumentation. If it’s going to be more of a dance party, we bring out the drum set and electric guitars. A festival like LEAF is an ongoing party, before and after the set you play, so it’s very different from playing in a concert hall. We expect it to be quite loose, fun, and we’re bringing the drum set and electric guitars!

What can we expect from your LEAF performance, and (besides playing) what are you most looking forward to at LEAF?<?b>

Expect a maturing and tightening Mande Foly. We have a solid group of musicians, and we’ve been putting a lot of time in together for the last little while, both rehearsing and performing. Plus, we’re bringing dancers! We’re looking forward to hanging out together and being immersed in music for the weekend with friends, old and new.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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