Senegalese Visual Artist Aly Kourouma On His Lifelong Journey From Dakar To Los Angeles

Senegalese multimedia artist Aly Kourouma speaks with Benjamin Lebrave of Akwaaba about his life, influences and his artistic journey.

You’ve mentioned to me in the past that music was very, very important in your house in Dakar.

One thing I definitely remember, from a very young age, and I feel very lucky about that, is that my uncle was really, really into music. I grew up with a more diverse realm of music than most. We had everything going from African pop albums, to French hits, to American soul, we even had early 1970s electronic music, opera, and Hector Berlioz. We were listening to all kinds of stuff at home!

Senegal is like any other country in Africa, you hear music everywhere, in cabs, in weddings, in the middle of the street, music was pretty much everywhere. There wasn’t as much variety as there is now, only one TV channel, very few radio stations. So there were shows I used to listen to religiously. They were the only way for me to have access to stuff from foreign countries, soul music, stuff like that.

Stream selections from the musicians Ally Kourouma mentions in this playlist above.

Whatever was available musically was very diverse though. Senegal was a former French colony, so there was this influx of French music, I grew up listening to Claude François, Charles Aznavour. Senegal is also a Muslim country, close to Morocco, so there is a lot of Arabic music, not only religious. Also some really interesting sub genres, which may seem surprising to hear in Africa. Bollywood music was HUGE in Senegal in the 1970s. There would be Bollywood singing contests on TV, Senegalese just have this affinity with pop Indian stuff. So Bollywood on top of Arabic music, and influence from France. Besides American soul, and rap, and all of that.

The other genre which had a big impact on me was Cuban music: it was HUGE when I grew up in Senegal. I remember seeing Cuban orchestras touring in Senegal when I was a kid, it’s a vivid memory. I remember seeing Orchestra Aragon performing on New Year’s Eve. I feel I am really lucky to have grown exposed to so much music — even though I HATED Cuban music as a kid.

Out of all of those, what stands out as the soundtrack to my childhood, was Jean-Michel Jarre. My dad LOVED Oxygène and Equinox. The day he bought Oxygène, he actually forgot to pick us up from school. I was also a big fan of Charles Aznavour, I used to love that stuff, and of course a lot of soul music in general. I discovered Michael Jackson when I was twelve, and that was a big deal. I remember, I must’ve been around 13, a friend gave me a random unmarked tape. I played that tape, I’d say pretty much every day for a full year without knowing what was on that tape. Years later I realized it was Afrika Bambataa and Soul Sonic Force! That changed my whole perception of music, I became a B Boy. That was probably around '81, there was no internet to find out anything, somebody would go to the States or to France, and would bring something to the neighbors, and that tape would go around, everybody would borrow it, that’s how music spread.

Also, around that time, some friends brought back episodes of Soul Train. I would watch those religiously, it was the shit. Music was a big deal, and really influenced me. Art, music and comic books. It really affected my output today.

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