Electric bass player Farida Amadou is often asked about her imaginative musicianship. The Belgium-based improvisational whiz incorporates a wide range of influences—encompassing rock, jazz, hip-hop, and West African rhythms.
In her experimental oeuvre, she’s also known for mixing crunchy bass lines with distortion. This remains a holdover from her days with the punk band Cocaine Piss.
Moreover, the self-taught Amadou has even played bass with objects. They include a collection of wires from a snare drum or simply strumming the instrument with sticks.
“I still do that,” Amadou tells Pancouver over Zoom. “It’s very important to my set now.”
Part of the reason is she sees her instrument as a piece of wood that makes sounds. She only started playing with a pick after joining the punk band.
“I learned the super-cool technique with my right hand—and it stayed,” Amadou says with a smile. ‘I’m just trying to mix everything.”
Over the years, she has recorded solo albums and collaborated with top-rate musicians, such as Mette Rasmussen, Eve Risser, Chris Pitsiokos, Alex Ward, and Linda Sharrock. All of this helps explain why Amadou is one of the artists in residence at this year’s Vancouver International Jazz Festival, which runs from June 23 to July 2.
She’s particularly proud of a recent double album. M.A.N. – B.A.N., which she recorded with American jazz guitarist Thurston Moore, German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, and British drummer Steve Noble. However, they weren’t able to promote it effectively because of the pandemic.
“It doesn’t have the visibility it deserves,” Amadou insists.
As fascinating as Amadou’s musical path has been, it’s even more interesting hearing about her extraordinary life. Born in Belgium, she traces her family roots to Niger, a landlocked West African nation bordered by Mali, Nigeria, Libya, and four other countries.
Mother’s outlook shapes Amadou
Her father was a very senior political figure in the capital of Niamey, serving as top counsellor to the president in the 1970s. Her parents later settled in a small community outside the Belgian city of Liège.
“When my parents were still together, they were the first Black family in that town,” Amadou recalls.
After her parents separated, her mom raised Amadou and three other children on her own. By that time, according to Amadou, there were perhaps three Black families in the town. But in her classrooms, Amadou was always the only Black student. And racism was a constant concern.
“In the street, there were people yelling at us, like ‘Go back to your country,’ ” she says. “So it was tough.”
Her mother is a devout Muslim but she didn’t impose her beliefs on others. And the way her mom responded to racism inspires Amadou to this day.
“She was, like, ‘Of course, you have to defend yourself, but always be positive,’ ” Amadou reveals. “She explained to us directly that people were not so open to different people—and that we should really not be so angry about this because then it would affect us more.”
Amadou says that her mom was generous-spirited in other ways. For example, she would even make ham sandwiches for the kids’ lunches so they would fit in at school. This was despite ham being haram (forbidden) in Islam.
As a result of her mother’s strong support, Amadou says that she and her siblings never rebelled against her. Furthermore, Amadou maintains that they did not do anything truly stupid as teenagers.
“We would never disrespect her,” she says.
Video: Farida Amadou gives new meaning to experimental jazz.
A voracious reader
Now, when Amadou is performing, she often offers a little prayer to her mother before going on-stage, sending a message that the concert is for her.
In addition, Amadou sometimes records music without any distortion and sends it to her mother, saying it’s also for her.
Furthermore, Amadou always wears a bracelet—a gift from her mother—as a constant reminder of her presence.
But Amadou is much more than just a devoted daughter and electrifying musician. She’s also a voracious reader with a curious mind. This is demonstrated by the large collection of books visible on shelves over her shoulder in the Zoom call.
She confesses a preference for feminist books, as well as poetry and classical French literature.
“I read in English as well,” Amadou adds. “But I take more time.”
Her current favourite author is French punk feminist firebrand Virginie Despentes. Her autobiographical memoir, King Kong Theory, ignited tremendous controversy in France.
“I write from the realms of the ugly, for the ugly, the old, the bull dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckable, the hysterics, the freaks, all those excluded from the great meat market of female flesh,” Despentes writes, according to the English translation by Frank Wynne. “And if I’m starting here it’s because I want to be crystal clear: I’m not here to make excuses, I’m not here to bitch. I wouldn’t swap place with anyone because being Virginie Despentes seems to be a more interesting gig than anything else out there.”
Amadou sees Despentes as an important voice in French feminism. However, the Belgian bassist doesn’t always agree with her perspectives.
“In my regular life, I think about what she says—and I’m questioning myself a lot,” Amadou acknowledges.
Refuses to be pigeonholed
Perhaps something similar could be said for her experimental bass lines. They reveal a musician who asks questions. While the rock and punk influences are there for all to hear, she also enjoys injecting rhythms inspired from her childhood.
While Amadou didn’t think that she was very interested in these tunes at the time, she now feels that these sounds remained in her body. Moreover, she feels that they influence her bass playing.
This is why she’s not comfortable being pigeonholed into a single genre, like “free jazz”. Amadou embodies the meaning of her first name in Arabic—Farida translates into “unique”.
“I really love jazz music and free jazz—and I don’t have anything against this,” Amadou says. “But I also don’t like labelling my music so much.”
The Vancouver International Jazz Festival presents Liturgy with BIG|BRAVE and Farida Amadou at 7 p.m. on June 23 at the Fox Cabaret. Also at the festival, Farida Amadou will play with White People Killed Them at 9 p.m. on June 29 on the Revue Stage. And on July 1 at 11:30 p.m. she will be back on the Revue Stage for Now With Farida Amadou.
In addition, she will join Zoh Amba in a free workshop and discussion, which will be moderated by scholar and percussionist Dylan van der Schyff, at 3 p.m. on June 28 at the Western Front.