Arouna Diarra is a n’goni and balafon player from Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso in West Africa. He’s been in Asheville for nearly five years and has fronted West African groups Mande Foly and now The AZA Band with multi-instrumentalist Biko Cassini and percussionist Jessie Lehmann. He also builds and sells n’gonis for those interested in the instrument. Arouna Diarra & The AZA Band performed at LEAF last weekend.
Xpress: You worked with the LEAF Youth performers as well played your own set.
Biko Cassini: I’ve done it before with another project [Arouna and] Jessie have as well. This was our first time doing it together as The AZA Band.
Arouna Diarra: It’s a lot of fun. You learn a lot of things from them, too, like their mood. Every day, when we play with then, it’s different.
Do you work with kids outside of LEAF Schools & Streets?
Diarra: We do it individually and we do it as a group.
Jessie Lehmann: With this type of music it’s important [to have an educational component] and it’s fun. A lot of people don’t know where the music is coming from or much about West Africa or the music of West Africa or, in Arouna’s case, Burkina Faso. Or the instruments — they look really different. I find it fun to do show and tell with the instruments and allow [students] to think of questions for Arouna or for us about our experiences in Africa.
Cassini: Arouna is from Burkina Faso and the musical style there is very unique. In the States, you have between, I’d say, 70 and 90 percent of the African music from Guinea, Mali or Senegal. It is important to explain to people where the music is coming from so they get an understanding of this very different style that originates in Arouna’s country.
What are your thoughts on performing music in a language that many listeners aren’t familiar with?
Diarra: The way we do it is to explain the meaning of the songs, what the song is about, and then we start singing it.
Cassini: But translating it word for word isn’t necessary. They’re deep translations and they’re rich, when you get them, but I think it’s more just the basic meaning of the song. [While] teaching the meaning of the song is part of the educational component, the music does stand on its own. You don’t have to know where it’s from or what’s being said to feel it.
Arouna, what brought you to Asheville?
Diarra: I moved to Asheville in 2012. I started a project called Mande Foley. We played for two or three years, and then me and Biko started this project together.
And the two of you have also toured with Rising Appalachia.
Diarra: We open for Rising Appalachia.
Cassini: Then I tour with them full time, and we’re bringing Arouna on as a musical member more and more.
You play the n’goni. Can you explain the difference between it and the kora, another African harplike instrument?
Diarra: The n’goni is in the pentatonic scale and the kora is in the diatonic scale. But you can find each note on the other. The n’goni has fewer strings — 14 — and the kora has about 21.
Have you been surprised by ways that West African music and American roots music work together?
Diarra: If you listen to each kind of music, it’s [different], but sometimes you find a grove. I used to listen to different styles of music and then find which music had the same groove as my music. When I first moved here, I’d listen to Rising Appalachia and think, “I can play that, and I don’t even know them at all. I think we can play together.” It’s all by ear.
Cassini: Sometimes Arouna will be listening to a song on the radio and he’ll say, “This one is in the Mande scale.” That’s a diatonic scale. If he can hear that scale in that song, he can play the music inside.
Biko, I was curious about your own musical trajectory. You were formerly in local funk band STRUT — were you experimenting with African music at that time?
Cassini: I had a great love of African music from the time that I was a teenager. Before STRUT, I had studied with Papa Ladji Camara in New York City. That lit my fire to play more African music and traditional music. I left STRUT to travel to Burkina Faso to study the music Arouna plays. Then I came back and joined Rising Appalachia because there was space for the African music inside of it. There were some African tunes and I felt like I could really play the music. Now, playing music with Arouna, it’s very, very different because it’s the music that [I] love most in [my] heart and [I] feel that music come out when [I’m] playing. It’s kind of like a vitamin for my soul.
How does the experience of playing differ from listening?
Cassini: It’s like when you speak a language and you’re trying to have a conversation and the other person doesn’t speak your language, you can only go so far. But when you speak a musical language, like the three of us do, we can have a really fun, deep, poetic conversation in that language. But when you’re listening, you don’t have to speak the language at all. You can just listen and feel.
What is the process like for composing songs?
Diarra: If I have songs that I wrote, at practice we talk about them and then we pick the best songs.
Cassini: We help arrange because a lot of things that are really instinctual for Arouna take practice for us. Sometimes we have to organize it in a way that our brains can get, and so we help figure out what’s going to help us lock into it. Traditionally, the form has a lot of openness. We need things to be slightly more even for our Western brains to get sometimes. But Arouna is the source of the songs and the source of the melodies. We’re backing up and adding on top of.
Will The AZA Band put out a recording?
Diarra: We’re trying to come up with a new album soon.
Cassini: We actually have all the music, we just need to book the studio time.