The Story we wouldn't beleave if we hadn't been there ourselves

This album arose from an unexpected friendship and a dream come true for two young Czech musicians, composers, producers, and perhaps most importantly of all, lovers of African music — Martin Piro and Pavel Šmíd

It all began with a trip to the Festival au Desert and Festival-sur Le-Niger in Mali, hitchhiking down the Niger River on their way to Timbuktu, staying in the homes of renowned musicians, Ali Farka Touré and Salif Keita, meeting with other musicians from this part of the world. And yet, if you had told Pavel and Martin, that years down the line in 2018, they would be making music with these great musicians at the Czech Music Crossroads festival, they would have laughed. But that’s what life’s about, right? Especially for the musician, who waits a lifetime for that moment when the spark ignites and the fire burns on and on, never to be extinguished.

The story continues. One day, the director of Colours of Ostrava festival, Zlata Holušová, was enjoying lunch with Senegalese singer Cheikh Lô at his home in the suburbs of Dakar. By the end of the meal, Cheikh had agreed to come to Ostrava with his band. Little did Zlata know that Martin and Paul would also be there, playing their reggae version of the West African love song, Jarabi. They met Cheikh at the festival in a caravan, which doubled as a mobile recording studio owned by Milan Cimfe from Sono Records, a renowned studio which has David Bowie and A.R. Rahman to its name, as well Tuareg band, Tamikrest, and Glitterbeat Records, whose albums it masters. One thing led to another, and before you know it, they were jamming together. And then this happened: Cheikh Lô, in true breathtaking style, started singing Jah’rabi. He simply smiled, stepped up to the microphone and, while everyone else was stoned, recorded what was perhaps an even more incredible version of the song, ending with a smile and a simple, ‘C’est fini.’

The following day, Cheikh presented this moment to the crowds, confirmation that this had been a truly monumental experience, even for him. This tale served as an example of the extraordinary power of music to connect people from different countries, nationalities and musical cultures, especially in the midst of difficult times, as we see so often today. At the Colors of Ostrava melting pot, Cheikh continued: ‘Music is about meeting, connecting and exchanging ideas. Musicians will forever be drawn to each other and should always come together. You can’t lock yourself away in your corner and ignore everyone else, because we all share one heart. We are one.’

If, by this point, there was the slightest chance of extinguishing the burning fire in Martin and Pavel, the story of Jah’rabi in the caravan put an end to that. A few days later, at the Folkové Prázdniny festival in Náměšť nad Oslavou, right after Trio Da Kali from Mali had performed, Martin and Pavel were chatting to singer Hawa ‘Kassé Mady’ Diabaté and bass ngoni player Mamadou Kouyaté. They invited them to record at their studio, Rustical Records, that night and just like that, Jah’rabi gained yet another phenomenal voice, thanks to Hawa ‘Kassé Mady’ Diabaté. And with Senegalese sabar player Leopold Lô and Moustafa Kouyaté on the ngoni, the puzzle was finally complete.

The idea for an entire, completely authorial album came in October, with the first visit to Womex in Las Palmas, Canary Islands. Having gone with the aim of getting feedback on the single Jah’rabi, they returned bursting with ideas and action plans, and then promptly headed off in two directions: Martin went back to the studio, Pavel headed for Senegal, to new friends — Cheikh Lô and his band members. Spending three weeks on the road with the band, hearts were opened once again. Pavel’s song King Lô, enriched by German guitarist Urs Wagner, speaks to this theme.

In Dakar, Pavel met singer Zeina Ndong, who, in the song Thiamness, tells us about family unity and strife: ‘Don’t put off what you can do today. Life is not as easy as we think. What stops you from taking care of your family? Be strong, support those who need you.’

Martin stumbled across Malian singer Bibby Ssamake by chance on Facebook and sent her the instrumental song KarKar, a tribute to the renowned Bouabacar Traoré they had met at Folkové Prázdniny. But then again, was it chance or was it fate? Perhaps there are no coincidences, even when connecting from afar. Bibby sent it back with her anti-war lyrics, reinforcing the intended humanistic idea of the album: ‘Why do I fear war, broken arms, broken legs, the death of villages and countries destroyed? War is dreadful. Be tolerant. War is not the way.’ The new name, RAW, needs no explanation.

Fortune favours the brave, so when Pavel and Martin invited djembé player Thomas Guei from Côte d’Ivoire to record with them in Prague, and the balafon master Abdoulaye Dembelé from Burkina Faso to join them at their Rustical Records studio, what did they have to lose? Nothing, at least nothing of worth, because that kind of vivacity can’t be suppressed, and so the King’N’Doom album assumed an even greater power.

“Playing with African musicians is undeniably amazing. They have something in them. You give them the song, just once, at most twice, they’re immediately tuned in, excited, they pick up their instrument and they’re off. One go is generally all they need, and that’s that, “say Martin and Pavel. Pavel continues, ‘Working with musicians such as Cheikh Lô, Hawa ‘Kassé Mady’ Diabaté, Leopold Lô and Thomas Guei was a life experience for me and a great lesson: the humility that I witnessed, the experiences I could draw on, and the many new friendships that I gained during the recording are indelible in me, and I realized more than ever that music is an all-encompassing, powerful entity, a universal language that transcends barriers. Those metaphorical boxes such as ‘world music’ or ‘African music’ no longer exist for me. Music is one and of itself and is available for all who want to listen.’

The finishing touches to the album took place at the Rustical Records and Sono Records studios, bringing together a host of home-grown talent. It might come as a surprise, but you’d better believe that here in the Czech Republic, a small country in the middle of Europe, rarely has such a project been brought to life, particularly one involving such great names from the world of African music. In fact, perhaps it has never been done. As Pavel says, they would not have believed if it they hadn’t been there themselves.

‘Working on this album gave me more than I could have imagined.’ says Pavel. What I gained from the experience can’t be underestimated. The feeling that nothing is impossible when you keep ploughing ahead. If someone had told me a few years ago that I would be lucky enough to have this experience whilst recording King’N’Doom, I wouldn’t have believed them. It has always been my dream to travel the world and make music. And suddenly I found myself in the middle of Dakar with a small backpack, empty pockets, but with a song in my bones. It is still unfathomable to me that the song I composed at home on my lap was sung by Cheikh Lô and is now most likely playing on the radio in a dilapidated taxi somewhere in Senegal. Honestly, it blows my mind...’

Jiří Moravčík

Czech world music journalist