Interview with Moussa Mama Djima Parakou - July 15, 2006,
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Not exactly. I’m a descendant of a long tradition of blacksmiths originating from Okuta, in western Nigeria. My father was a blacksmith and a goldsmith. Before my birth, he had left to Accra to look for work and came back few years later with music - Highlife in particular. He is the man who brought modern music to the region. He formed Orchestre Sinpam, the very first orchestra of northern Benin. Youngsters from the region heard about it and started flocking to my dad’s house to ask for lessons. Sometimes they would stay just few days, sometimes a month, sometimes longer. Then they would go back to their villages and form their own group. So that’s how modern music spread throughout our department. My dad became an important figure here and he was dubbed Moussa “President.”
So you were literally born into music?
I came into this world in 1947. The exact day is unknown since it was a supplementary decision. Even the month might be wrong. The only sure thing is that I was born on a Friday. That’s why I am called Mama Djima - “Djima” is Friday in Arabic. I grew up in the midst of all this music and I was constantly watching people rehearsing. Before I knew it, music had entered my body. There were festivities happening constantly. At first my dad and his band were the ones performing, but with time, they started to look for other musicians. The first musician they brought was Waidi, a guitar player from Togo. The following year in 1962 they brought a musician from Ouidah (west of Cotonou) called Aaron. That was the time when electric guitars started to appear here. I was not really playing the guitar at the that time, but I had learned how to build “native” guitars using brake cables and oil tin.
When did you start playing the guitar?
Well I recall that the following year, the elders had not managed to find an artist to come for the important Ramadan festivities, while all the other neighborhoods were sorted. To avoid embarrassment, I told them that I would play. They asked me, “when did you learn to play?” I told them not to worry and I played and sang the whole night. People couldn’t believe it. I was an introverted child - I didn’t go out that much and people didn’t know what I was doing. So they were wondering if I was a genius or if the devil had taught me to play. That was in 1963 and it’s from there that I started improving bit by bit. The rumor had spread that I was playing well and youngsters from the surrounding villages came to ask me for lessons. We would agree on the price, which would also include accommodation and food. Those who did not have money would pay with bags of millet or meat. Over my whole career, I can say that I taught more then 500 people.
When exactly did you form your first band?
It was in 1964. It was named Alafia Jazz. That was when record players and 7-inch singles started appearing in Benin. The records of Franco et OK Jazz made such a strong impact that we started covering his songs. We excelled to such an extent that fans dubbed me Moussa Mama “Franco.” So, we decided to change the name of the group to OK Jazz. Two years later, we started becoming a very solid band and started questioning ourselves if it was time to find a name that reflects our origins. We thought for a while and came up with the name Super Borgou de Parakou.
Who were the musicians of Super Borgou?
The original members were Ousmane Amoussa on vocal and gon (metal percussion), Sidi Alassane on drums, Sidi “Korea” Seidou on tumba, congas and drums, Soumeila “Yoruba” Karim backing vocals and maracas, Bio “Copa” Gado on bass, Menou Rock - on rhythm guitar and vocals. I was playing lead guitar and the electric piano and I was the main composer of the band. I also sang.
Were all these guys playing with other bands before?
No, there was no other bands in Parakou when we started. Those were all guys from my neighborhood. We all started together and we had been together since the days of Alafia Jazz.
Did you travel to other regions or other countries?
In 1969, we traveled to Niamey, the capital city of Niger, and found a job at a bar called “Congolaise". It belonged to a former military man from Guinea-Conakry who didn’t like the politics of Sékou Touré. They wanted to kill him so he fled with his wife - A Vietnamese woman, They had a daughter called Zoé. With the little money they had, they opened a bar located in an area filled with immigrants from other African countries, so they named their place “La Congolaise.” They were very good people so we dedicated a song to them called “Congolaise Benin Ye"
Did you use your own equipment when performing at the Congolaise?
What were the subjects of your compositions?
Its was about life in general - day to day problems. Love, life, death and social issues. We also composed revolutionary songs based on socialist doctrines, encouraging people to work harder for the development of our country.
Musically speaking, who were your biggest influences?
We listened to a lot of Congolese music - especially Franco - and Guinean music. We also interpreted some Highlife tunes - The Ramblers in particular and some Afro Beat. We were a band of variety, whatever was in fashion at that time, we had to adopt to satisfy the demand. Often we would adopt the beat but then we added lyrics in our local languages, Dendi or Bariba.
Did Super Borgou participate in any contests?
Yes we did a lot of national and regional contests. The first one in 1972. There were two important orchestras here in the Borgou - Anassoua Jazz and Super Borgou. We were often competing to repre- sent the Borgou department at national contests. In 1972, we won and were on our way to Cotonou for the final competition. The band Echos Du Zou represented the Zou department, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou represented the Littoral department and so on. Poly-Rythmo were better then us but they just didn’t follow the rules of the competition. Each group was suppose to compose a tune in the local language and based on a traditional rhythm from their department. The government was planning to send the winner abroad to represent the country, so it was very important that you perform music that nobody else anywhere in the world could perform better then you. Poly-Rythmo performed very well but it was Congolese and Cuban music. As for us, we played modern renditions of our folklore. We won and left for the international music festival in Berlin. We stayed 45 days. On our way back I composed a song called “Festival Berlin 73.”