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Lamine Fellah On Finding Peace Through Music


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Do you ever go to the world music section looking for tunes and say to yourself, what does world music really mean? Well, our next guest might be the poster child for what it should mean. He's lived all over the world and, from those travels, has created a sound he rightly calls a global party. His latest album is titled Everyday Salama, meaning every day is a blessing.


LAMINE FELLAH: (Singing) Every day of my (unintelligible). Love, respect all others (unintelligible).

MARTIN: That is Lamine Fellah. He is the creative force behind the project called Sarazino, where he blends reggae, Latin grooves, African funk and hip-hop and Lamine Fellah is with us now from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Welcome to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

FELLAH: Thank you very much for inviting me.

MARTIN: Let me see if I can get all this straight. You were born in Algeria, but your dad was a diplomat, so you, of course, as a family, traveled and lived in Spain, Switzerland, Burundi, Burkina Faso. You attended college at the University of Montreal, but you spent the last 10 years living in Ecuador. Do I have that right?

FELLAH: Yeah, exactly. Perfectly right.

MARTIN: Do you enjoy that? I mean, do you have restless feet?

FELLAH: When you're young, it's a little bit of trauma because you need to leave your friends and everything behind you, but with the time, of course, and when someone is growing, you realize, also, that it's really a huge chance for a young guy to live in so many countries. And, at the same time, learning all those cultures, seeing all those people living and making music. It's always a quest, so it's really important for me to always start again and learning some new cultures and be surrounded by different people.

MARTIN: People who grew up the way you do often fall into one of two camps. Either they don't feel comfortable anywhere or they feel comfortable everywhere.

FELLAH: I think we feel all right almost everywhere in the world because we also learn to respect and to be very open-minded and try to learn the more we can in every place we go. The only difficult part is you never know where your actual home is and it's always a matter of time when you consider that you need to change country, you need to go elsewhere to see how things are going. I try to always create links between the place I'm living and also new places where I can go compose, create, produce and work with other artists.

MARTIN: Your first album was in French. Right?

FELLAH: Exactly.

MARTIN: The songs were all in French and then you switched to Spanish.

FELLAH: Spanish.

MARTIN: You're living in Ecuador now. What language do you think in?

FELLAH: I learned Spanish when I was five years old when I had to live in Spain and all the kids in the school was talking Spanish, so the only way for me to socialize, I would say, was to learn the language. But when I finished my school in Africa, I went to Canada in Montreal. Everybody was speaking French, so I started my new record because I was surrounded by French music, French culture and I did it in French.

And when I had the chance in 2003 to go to finish a record called (unintelligible), I went to Ecuador because I was having good friends over there and I really realized that I was in the middle of a very huge culture, something totally new. And I found it a lot of similarities with Africa.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. Why Ecuador? Because it's not exactly - no disrespect...

FELLAH: No, no.

MARTIN: But it's not exactly considered like a cultural hotbed.

FELLAH: Exactly.

MARTIN: You know, like a center of the music scene, but - so why?

FELLAH: The thing is, I knew Ecuador, really, for coincidence. My brother was there making a practice for the Canadian Embassy and he invited me to visit him because he actually really liked the place. And I discover a small country with a capital surrounded by volcanoes, very beautiful nature and the people there were very kind to me. They really opened their arms. They also offered me some production jobs.

And I was, I had to admit, a little tired of the Canadian winter, which is very hard, so I decided to stay. But the main reason was because I wanted to learn a lot about South American culture and, if you see a map, you can see that Ecuador is really in the heart of South American between Colombia and Peru.

Also, I thought that the infrastructure may be - to record and produce music - wouldn't be easy to find, but I was wrong. We found nice people where they were trying to build some good recording studios and, also, the Ecuadorian musicians and artists, all parts of this new generation of people who wants to mix their own culture, their own folklore music, with some urban and new beats and rhythms.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Lamine Fellah. He is the brainchild behind the music project Sarazino. We're talking about his new CD, "Everyday Salama."


FELLAH: (Singing) (unintelligible) civilization rises up. You have to...

MARTIN: So tell me about "Es Mi Momento."

FELLAH: Oh, "Es Mi Momento" has a really beautiful story too. It's a song I was, I just started to work on it in Quito like one year ago. Walking to the studio, I found the guy over there who was rapping in a very strange English. And this guy is Niyo Pumpin and his English was actually what he called Pidgin English, which is the English they talk in Nigeria. And my African roots and always this need I have to always include some African parts on my song, I invited him to sing this song with me.

The song speaks about - "Es Mi Momento" means, in Spanish, it's my moment, which means that wherever you go, wherever you are in this planet - you can be in Africa, you can be in Cairo, whatever - it's your moment, it's your time. You can go cross the frontiers, cross the borders and meet yourself with the other countries, with the other people and at the same time meet yourself in this new countries. I mean the experience of living in Africa also teach me a lot about myself.


FELLAH: (Singing) Es Mi Momento, yeah yah. You got to back it up. Use you my voice to back it up. Es Mi Momento, yeah, yah (Foreign language spoken). Es Mi Momento, yeah, yah. (Unintelligible). Es Mi Momento, yeah, yah. (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: Tell me about "Sarazino." That actually has a meaning too, right?

FELLAH: Yes. "Sarazino" is a way for me to never forget where I come from. Actually, you have a big migration Algerians in France and the French people were calling us Sarazinos, the same way Spanish people from Spain call Latinos sulakas(ph). I think...

MARTIN: Is that a slur? Is that meant to be mean?

FELLAH: At the beginning it was something very mean. But with time I think also with the integration of all those people who are working, who are producing in the arts...

MARTIN: OK, but in the U.S. it wouldn't be the N word, would it?


MARTIN: Is that rude? It's not that rude.

FELLAH: No it's not really. Absolutely not.

MARTIN: OK. It's more descriptive, not mean.

FELLAH: Exactly. Exactly.

MARTIN: Oh. OK. Forgive me. I hate to bring up a sad thing, but I understand...


MARTIN: ...that this is a part of your life - that you're...

FELLAH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: You know, we mentioned that one of the reasons that you've lived, traveled so widely is your father was a diplomat and he was murdered.

FELLAH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And in Algeria, right?

FELLAH: In Algeria. Yes. And in the '90s, started the very strong civil war in Algeria between the government and radical Islamists and they were fighting for the election. There was the population of Algeria was the first victim and they were trying to kill all the intellectuals. And my father was, of course, a target for those people. So in '93, my father was murdered and my mother was living there actually, had to leave for Canada and all the family, we joined each other over there in Canada. And yeah, it was actually the worst experience I had in my life because you feel a huge feeling of injustice and you don't really understand why and it's difficult, it's difficult to accept that kind of situation.

This event had a big impact on my music in a way that I'm trying to keep alive the legacy of my father who was very democratic, very conscious of - that women and men needs to have the same rights, and you know that in Algeria it's not always easy. And I'm trying today to preach tolerance also in the same way he did: tolerance, freedom, liberty and also not to be afraid to see, visit and live with other peoples, because at the end of the day we are just all humans.

Of course, at the beginning it wasn't so easy but at the end I think today I live in peace with that. And so...

MARTIN: I was going to ask about that. Do you feel - forgive me.


MARTIN: It's none of my business but I just wanted to ask...


MARTIN: ...if you - can you forgive the people who did this to your father? As, you know, as you know, of course, we've lived through this experience ourselves in the United States.

FELLAH: Yes. Of course.

MARTIN: I mean with 9/11, where as the country and as, of course, many families feel that they are - no, they were, you know, victimized by this kind of fundamental hatred.

FELLAH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And I guess like what is the challenge, I guess, not become the very thing you hate, right?

FELLAH: Exactly.

MARTIN: Or not to become the thing that hates you, right?

FELLAH: Exactly.

MARTIN: So I don't know. I was just sort of wondering did you, how you came to peace with it, or if indeed, you can.

FELLAH: It's very hard to use the word to forgive. But we try to live in peace preaching finally, exactly the opposite of what those people are doing. It's a wound you cannot just take out from you. But through my music and the music was a little bit therapy for me...


FELLAH: ...because it gave me the chance to talk about it - even with you now - and finally realize and accept what was the situation and this is the world we're living. And I think music makes more sense and the messages of the songs I'm writing makes more sense to me because we're not talking about theories or things, you know, that we read in books or magazines but the real life - and, yeah.

MARTIN: Reviews of your album have been very good.


FELLAH: Thank you.

MARTIN: And one of the things which must be gratifying - you might not read reviews, a lot of artists don't, which, you know...


MARTIN: But one of the things that people have said is it incorporates all these different elements but it's still seamless.

FELLAH: Exactly.

MARTIN: It's like a stew where you can still taste each ingredient. Does that make sense?

FELLAH: Yes. Absolutely. And...

MARTIN: Yeah. How do you think you arrived at that?

FELLAH: Well, it's very important for me to keep the balance of the influences I'm trying to put in the song. It's like making a good dish, trying to make a good dish, and not to be boring also repeating the same thing. I always give a lot of liberty and freedom to create and to interpret with all the artists who are collaborating with me in the record. But at the same time, I try to make it everything well-balanced. It's very, very important for me.

MARTIN: You never studied music, right? You studied actually economics and politics.


FELLAH: No. Yes. I never...

MARTIN: So that's not an easy trick.


FELLAH: No, it's not an easy trick. The thing is when I started in music I was a teenager and I was living in Burkina Faso. And Burkina Faso at that time, there was no music school, there was not even equipments, so we started with what We had and I think all my life I was having melodies with in my mind all the time, you know, pursing. It was even difficult for me to sleep because I was, you know, this really need to create and write songs.

Yes, I studied economics and politics because when I finished this school in Burkina Faso I needed to go to university and I was really interested in understanding the world we are living, all the dynamics that was. And I was all, of course, at the same time making music. I think music for me was really easy to learn to understand. I feel totally in my element with music.

MARTIN: So what's next for you? You, you know, you're living in Ecuador now. You've been living there for about 10 years.


MARTIN: You're now doing your North American tour. You know, a number of artists have run for office in a couple of places, you know.


MARTIN: And the president of Haiti is Sweet Micky Martelly is.

FELLAH: Yes. Exactly.


MARTIN: Youssou N'Dour, Youssou N'Dour run for - ran for office in Senegal...

FELLAH: Youssou N'Dour for president, say, of course.

MARTIN: ...for president of Senegal. So...


MARTIN: ...we haven't had any, you know, rock 'n rollers, you know, in the presidency of the United States but, you know...


FELLAH: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...so I don't know.

FELLAH: But you had an actor. Yes, of course.


MARTIN: What's next for you?

FELLAH: Well, I'm still going to work on music. I love also the production of other artists. I love also the idea that from September, I'm going to start to record my next record, and I'm going to go and seek new collaborations, new artists. So it's a double quest because I'm not only trying to create the best songs I can, but at the same time trying to figure which artists I can collaborate with.

And I will travel for that. This is the wonderful thing of the production and that type of music, it makes you travel, so I will go probably to Columbia. And I was there like three months ago. I met, over there, really great artists who are mixing folklore music, you know, typical music of Columbia, with urban rhythms and they're doing really great, great things and I want to be part of it. I really want to share also my Sarazino experience with those guys and I think we can make a lot of things together. I don't have any political ambition for the moment. But you never know.


MARTIN: But you never know. Well, keep us posted. Well, thank you for speaking with us.

FELLAH: It's really cool for us to know that, in the U.S., there's people who are listening to our music and supporting us.

MARTIN: Absolutely. What track shall we go out on?

FELLAH: I like them all, but...

MARTIN: I know. It's hard. Like picking among your children, but...

FELLAH: Let's go with "Contigo Lola." It's a love song.

MARTIN: It's "Contigo Lola?"


MARTIN: OK. Lamine Fellah is the creative force behind the music project Sarazina. His latest album is called "Everyday Salama." And he spoke with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FELLAH: Thank you.


FELLAH: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: You've been listening to this song "Contigo Lola," by Lamine Fellah. His new album is called "Everyday Salama."

And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our Podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.