Interviewing Bai Kamara Jr

SRM: Thank you for your time, Bai, it is much appreciated. You grew up in Sierra Leone, where you were born, as well as in the UK before establishing yourself in Brussels, Belgium. Is all this travelling and mix of cultures what shaped you into the ‘Urban Gipsy’ of today?

BAI KAMARA JR.: First of all, I should say today that I’m more of a citizen of the world than an Urban Gipsy. People started calling me the Urban Gipsy because I lived in different boroughs of Brussels. Every year and a half I would live in a different borough, and back then I would mostly use public transport to get to my gigs. To answer your question, yes indeed, all this travelling and mixture of cultures played a part in characterizing the name which became the title track of my second album.

SRM: 11 years of conflict, war and the derived terror have castigated the people of Sierra Leone in unimaginable ways and proportions.

You have been visiting your homeland after 15 years of absence and in fact it has been this visit that sparked your inspiration for your work in‘Disposable Society’.

As clear and rotund as the titles and lyrics of this work describe the message that you aim to deliver, would you be so kind as to tell us what were your first impressions in arriving to Sierra Leone after all this time?

Do you think the people there will ever be able to heal completely? What are your views on international intervention of any kind?

BAI KAMARA JR.: My first impressions were of initial shock because the country looked different from when I had left it. Even though I could see the smiles on the faces of people, I could also see the scars of suffering and of pain. And of course certain infrastructures that I had left were nonexistent. For example, certain buildings and roads were destroyed.
I do think they will be healed completely, but it will take some time, maybe a generation. But having said that, what will be a catalyst in this healing process will be if prosperity, political stability, human rights and the rule of law are respected. I can see the healing process being completed in the foreseeable future. As we know, the nature of Sierra Leoneans, we are very forgiving people. We reconcile easily, so this will also help. And as we are a small nation of 5 million people, we can actually turn things around to our advantage for this and the next generation.

If I give any answer now, I don’t think anyone will be satisfied with it, because international intervention is such a delicate issue today. Sovereign nations are always suspicious of outside intervention because they think other nations will use this intervention as a pretext for their own policies. On the other hand, it is clear that in the case of natural disasters it is expected of neighboring nations to pitch in. I guess every country should be looked at on a case by case basis; you can’t have one formula to deal with political unrest, as the dynamics are different in every region of the world.

SRM: Before getting back to your latest album, we’d love to revisit some of your previous work. Right after releasing your first EP, ‘Lay Your Body’, you collaborated with Youssou N’Dour and the Refugee Voices for the ‘Building Bridges’ – UN Refugee Agency project – released in 1998. How did you get involved in this project and what is your best memory from this humanitarian collaborative effort?

BAI KAMARA JR.: I was given a call by one of the organizers who was in Brussels, because someone mentioned that my profile fit the desired image of this special event.

One of my best memories was performing in Geneva with other very talented artists from around the world for the 50th anniversary of the UNHCR, but I must also say meeting Youssou N’Dour was a very special moment because I had always loved his music and when he chose me as one of the musicians to work with him in Senegal, I was totally honored. It was a very special moment for me, going back to Senegal, even though it was not my country, because my country had refugees and was at war, so I felt a certain kind of fulfillment contributing to this project in the best way I knew how.

SRM:  In ‘Living Room/Intrinsic Equilibrium’ you explore the concepts of social and romantic interactions, mental and social equilibrium, power games, social injustice…and your sound mixes effortlessly folk , jazz, melodic, with ballads that are both honest and beautiful such as‘The Wrong Words’.

What were you going through at the time that served you of source of inspiration for the album?

BAI KAMARA JR.: To start off with, ‘Living Room’ was my second album, even though it was released before ‘Urban Gipsy.’ Two years after I had finished recording ‘Urban Gipsy,’ my then-publisher at Universal couldn’t find a label for it. In fact, I wanted to get out of my publishing contract, but my contract stated that i had to do two albums for Universal. I did ‘Urban Gipsy,’ which no one took interest in at first, so my lawyer told me I could just make an acoustic album, without a band or anything, to satisfy the terms of the contrac

At the time I was going through a period where I was absorbing a lot of stuff around me. ‘Living Room’ was a reaction to ‘Urban Gipsy’ because with ‘Urban Gipsy’ I worked with a lot of different musicians that made contributions, so for me ‘Living Room’ was an album that had to stand by the merits of the compositions without the big band around it. ‘Living Room’ was also made at home and it was a personal challenge, in the sense that I was confronting myself without the pressure from others of having to make an album. It was also an album that I could escape with, in the sense that I could put all my thoughts into it without having other people around to do arrangements and so on. I was bearing my soul through my voice and my guitar, so there was nothing contrived about it at all.

The recording was very low key and I would invite a few of my close friends to play on particular songs, for example my longtime friend and guitar player Eric Moens, Nader Hamid, and Thierry Rombeaux.

And the criteria of this record was also not having more than two musicians on one song.

As for inspiration for this album, I was inspired from my everyday life, in the sense that I was not in a studio where I had a fixed schedule.  Because I recorded at home, I did what I normally did at home and recorded when I felt like it, because my recording engineer lived in the same house at the time. This is what really made the difference.

Photo by Michael Pierrard ©

SRM: ‘Urban Gipsy’, another of our favourite albums of yours, gets you touring with Vaya con Dios, with whom you also covered the almost painfully delightful ´Substitute´, one of your most famous songs. What other artists/groups have you admired? What particular album from any other artist has influenced Bai Kamara Jr, in the same way that ‘Urban Gipsy’ can inspire others?

Sade, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Sting, Anita Baker, and Steel Pulse are the artists that first come to mind. ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley’s ‘Exodus’ are the two that really stand out. ‘What’s Going On’ is definitely an album that documents the period that America was going through in the 70s. Basically, it gave a narrative of what was happening at the time with black Americans — their anxieties, financial woes, allegiance to their country, and so on. It was in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and America was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and I think Marvin Gaye documented it extremely well. This album was eye opening for me and also gave me the courage to talk about these kinds of social issues, and showed me that you can talk about these hard socio-political topics while still making a great album.

With ‘Exodus,’ what I admired the most was how Marley balanced beautiful ballads with strong imagery of the Rastafarian movement, and also showed Marley’s skill as a songwriter who could write about the more human side of life – the individual experience – and he struck the right balance between a socially engaged album and an album with love songs.

For example, when you go from a song like ‘Turn the Lights Down Low’ to one like ‘Exodus,’ he shows that a person can be passionate both as a lover and as a revolutionary.

As I grew up partly in Africa, Bob Marley was in a way part of our life there, because his music was really popular in Africa.

He considered himself an African as well, which is why he gave a lot of hope to Africans. This is something I have in common with other Sierra Leoneans, and in a lot of ways, Marley was somehow a part of my childhood memories. If there was a soundtrack to my childhood, Bob Marley would definitely be on it.

SRM: We can definitely see it. Personally, when I was a child, I would spend weeks and weeks playing Bob Marley on repeat when and where nobody else did around me. His music and core message transcend form and connect directly with the substance of the human spirit.

Alongside collaborations, you write and produce for several artists and currently work with Nader Hamid, an electric guitar player and singer-songwriter. Is 15:15 your duo together or is it a parallel permanent collaboration with another artist? What type of love is ‘Stoned Love’?

BAI KAMARA JR.: First of all, I do love to collaborate with different kinds of artists because you always learn something when you work with different people and it sort of gets you out of your own routine, your own habits.

Also, it’s challenging to produce for other people because you have to tailor your work for them, and sometimes you have to compromise, but if you compromise too much, the work loses its personality, so you always have to work with people you can strike a nice balance with.

Nader Hamid is for sure a great friend and I will always work with him on different projects, but as for 15:15 itself, it was just a side project we thought we would have fun with, and I’m glad it got the attention that it did because stylistically it was a departure from what I normally do. We might have had a little too much fun making that record, in fact, since we didn’t really have a defined style and it wasn’t as cohesive as I wanted it to be. Essentially, fun was the whole point, but we learned a lot from making it as well.

In regards to ‘Stoned Love,’ this project was more of an exploration of other styles than a soul searching journey, so you can imagine us relating to the cliché of people who do crazy things when they’re in love.

SRM:  2010 saw you, as we mentioned at the beginning of this interview, releasing your latest and third solo album, ‘Disposable Society’, in which you delve once again in the ever so important subjects of social injustice, the state of political and economic affairs and the environment, as well as interpersonal relationships. We’d love to know about how you envisioned this as the multimedia project that it is and about the making of the great video clip for its single.

First of all, I wanted to document the making of the record:  the rehearsals, the brainstorming of the videos, and so on, and as time goes on we will slowly release these clips online, because when I made the two previous albums, I never had any visual documentation about what I did, but as time went on and with the growth of the Internet, I decided to document all of this stuff and make videos of this album to put online, because as we know today, videos aren’t limited to MTV, for example, where it’s only aired regionally, but you can put material online that gets shown worldwide.

I was very fortunate to find Avalon Studios and record this album there because it’s a multifunctional studio that has compatible audio and video sections, so I would be stupid not to work with them. In fact, we still have footage that just hasn’t been edited yet, sitting in the studio servers, but as I said, we’ll release those too. As for the making of the videos, I’m fortunate to be working with the talented Michael Pierrard, a good friend of mine who directs the videos, and we’ve been working together now for several years.

SRM: Bai, we know, first-hand, that your live sound is formidable, what are your touring plans for 2011? Or are you having a well-deserved break?

BAI KAMARA JR.: We’re definitely working on a project that’s going to incorporate our live sound with images. We’re going to explore new territory as far as visuals, Internet, and even the concert experience goes. This project is the brainchild of Michael Pierrard as well. But I’m not allowed to talk about it that much.  In 2011 I’ll also be working on two different albums, so let’s just say that no, I’m not taking a break.

SRM: Well, we wish you all the very the best with these and any other future projects. Thank you for reminding us that music can serve not only for inspiration and enjoyment but also for education and evolution.

BAI KAMARA JR.: It was a pleasure doing this interview with you and thanks for the genuine interest and support in my work.

SRM: Likewise!