Monday, September 5, 2011

Afia Mala, Royal Princess of Togo

I have been sharing my exploration of various musical genres, from Hawaiian to South African to American blues.

Tonight I am exploring a woman who sang a magnificent song that for a while was my son's favorite song (back when he was about 3 years old). The song remains one that he and I both like and it has a haunting sound that I can never forget. Tonight I decided to learn more about the woman whose amazing voice captivated first my son and then me. Turns out she is a royal princess linking the African nations of Togo and Benin.

Togo and Benin are nations I best know from the educational/philanthropic website Free Rice. They occupy a corner of Africa once part of the "Slave Coast" where many American blacks could, if they ever could find the proper records, trace their ancestry.

According to her website, Afia Mala's background comes from the two royal families of Togo and Benin and she rose to local fame when she won the honor of "Best Togolese singer of the year."

Okay, unlike many of the people I have highlighted in my focus on music for dKos, Afia Mala doesn't in herself interest me that much. Royalty has some passing fascination, but for no really good reason. And winning entertainment awards never really gets my attention.

But my son has always had an ear for interesting music. Very early, around 2 years old, he latched onto Japanese Taiko drums.

One year, around 3 years old, on vacation in California, my son was owed a souvenir. We were at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (a place I practically grew up at) and they had a musical selection you could listen to in their gift shop. My son wanted to have the ear phones put on him. I obliged and he spent a LONG period listening to the selections (pushing the buttons himself) and finally picked a Putumayo CD of African music. He picked it himself, with no input from the rest of us, but it suited my tastes as well.

His favorite song was called "Segne" by a woman from Togo. He loved it so much he had practically memorized the lyrics despite having no idea what they meant:

Same song, different video, perhaps more typical of Afia Mala's personality:

The song has stuck with him since and became rapidly a favorite for me as well. The voice is powerful.

At first I thought, in my ignorance, she was singing in French, but I tracked down lyrics, which I can no longer find, and discovered she was singing in a local language. Wish I understood it better, but bottom line is it is a haunting, wonderful song whatever it means! And I once tracked down lyrics and can't find them anymore.

From the same Putumayo CD are many other great more I always loved is Wassiyé by Habib Koité from Senegal:

But let me return to Afia Mala of the royal families of Togo and Benin. I started exploring her music after discovering Segne, but found many songs that were a tad to "pop" for me. But then I discovered more songs of amazing quality similar to my favorite, Segne.

Here is Ten Homte by Afia Mala: (with better video than the Putomayo stuff, which is great music but not so great video);

Another one: Afima:

When I first explored Afia Mala's background, I was not impressed. I liked her music but saw her as a light weight. But the more I explored her music, beyond some I did not like because they seemed to inane, I started feeling a depth to her I liked and got sucked in more and more to her music. So when I read her website's biography I kind of saw what they meant when they said:

When you first meet Afia, you have the impression that she is a bit delicate, infact almost fragile… don’t be fooled! Behind this beautiful, smiling alluring face hides a dedicated professional driven to perfection, whilst still being able to enjoy life to the full! After being nominated ‘Best African Female Vocalist’ in 1992, Afia took some time off to spend with her family and refocus her career. She believes strongly that music and politics make bad bedmates. Despite this fact her song titled ‘Tout le monde est coupable’ (Everybody is guilty) resulted in much personal criticism as it was perceived as a political statement by many. Her strength of character carried her through this difficult period, and she has calmed even her worst critics.

Afia believes ‘a song must always carry a message, that’s important, and cannot be faked’. The album ‘Prophetie’ won her the Nelson Mandela Prize in Nairobi, Kenya, where she was also honoured with the role of Ambassador for Cultural Affairs for URTNA (Union des Radios et Television Nationales Africaines). She sings in several languages: Lingala, Ewe, French, Adja, English, Spanish, Douala and Swahili.

Bottom line is Segne caught my son and then me. There is something amazing about it. Most of the rest of her music carries a similar enchanting draw. Putumayo introduced me to her as well as to many other wonderful musicians around the world.

One final video...Mi Vida Live by Afia Mala: (Showing again her ability to sing across languages)

Hope folks enjoy this addition to my series of musical selections, particularly as an antidote to foolish "English Only" views that a nation has to be defined by a single language. Throughout the world there are places where multiple languages are the norm and Afia Mala is an example of a kick as woman, a royal princess, who can sing to the world in many languages.

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