A musician and cultural mediator, Dudù Kouaté has lived in Italy for thirty years. He wanted to go to the United Kingdom and Italy was his plan B. He now sets off from Italy to tread the boards all around the world.

Dudù Kouaté, 55 years of age, a senegalese musician and percussionist, looks at the world with eyes wide open: «In the end, even white people are not as white as they think. They also come in different shades. I still see my future here even if the current situation is not pleasant. I am an optimist. It’s a shame I never applied for citizenship though as going on tour now is not that easy. But I’ll find a way».

This is inevitable for someone like him who, as an inter-cultural mediator, divides his time between Brera’s academy of fine arts in Milan, the Carracci’s academy in Bergamo and stages around the world where he plays as part of various musical projects. Two albums, a solo album
Africation – and a collaboration with Cristiano Calcagnile’s Multikulti Ensemble — The gift of togetherness — have just been released. A third, We are on the edge, a collaboration with Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the groups that has made jazz history for the past 50 years, is due to be released at the end of April.

Dudù Kouaté, how did you end up in Italy?

Actually, I wanted to go to Great Britain. In Dakar I had studied English. I worked as an interpreter and a tour guide. In the end though I had a problem with the visa and I decided to go to Italy where some of my friends lived. You tend to end up where you know people will put you up. But it was my plan B. I knew nothing about Italy.

A foreign country of which you knew nothing about, not even the language…

«To be honest, I did speak a little Italian. I am Senegalese of Griot origins. We are the custodians of tradition and of African music. My grandfather came from Mali and he worked for the colonial adminstration there. My father worked in a bank. Both had travelled the world and they’d also been to Italy. We had many books at home. We even had a little guide book which I used to learn how to say good day and good evening in Italian, the most basic greetings. And I already spoke French and English».

Were you a musician in Senegal?

«I could play the guitar. It was just my passion but I never thought I’d become a professional musician».

Did you find that out in Italy?

«Only later. The first country I went to was Belgium. Then I went on to France and Germany. Finally, I ended up in Sicily. I played with Konsertu, an Italian band that played ethnic-folk and ethnic-folk music. Being on stage with them was an epiphany. I understood that was my world».

Being a Senegalese in Italy at the end of the eighties can’t have been easy…

«It was difficult. But it was different. To get to where we are today we’ve been through different stages. Back then, we didn’t even call it racism. It was merely ignorance. It was the fear of the other, of what you don’t know. Today the situation has got worse. I don’t recognise you any more».

You don’t have Italian citizenship.

«I never applied. I never felt the need to do so. Yet, I feel I am part of the community as I’ve lived here thirty years. In Sicily I was an irregular for one and a half years. When I moved to Bergamo. In the beginning, I worked as a street seller – a “vu cumprà” – during the day and I played in the evenings. I obtained my residence permit at the start of the nineties following the Martelli amnesty. It never occurred to me to apply for Italian citizenship but now I’m having issues as a result of that. I had to go on tour in Japan but I couldn’t get a visa because I don’t have Italian citizenship. I will represent Italy at a music festival in Cape Verde, where I’ll travel to in a few days’ time, but they didn’t pay for my flights because I’m not an Italian citizen. Of course now I’m working on it».

You also teach music as well as playing it, right?

«Yes, I teach in various schools in and around Bergamo. I teach percussion and Djembe. Teaching music to me also means teaching about my culture. I stopped for four years but I’ve recently started again. I’d stopped teaching because I had realised that many people reduced my music to just beating on drums. That’s not enough, that’s not all there is to it».

African music for Italian pupils…

«I’m not against mixing cultures. In my country I was an interpreter and a tour guide. I told tourists about Senegal. Here I work as a cultural mediator as well as a musician. I do guided tours of Brera’s academy of fine arts and of Bergamo’s Carracci Academy. In doing so I find a way of telling people about me and about Africa. It’s like being an explorer standing in front of important discoveries».

How important are your roots? Today, many second generation youths, or new Italians, appear to want to hide their roots thinking they’ll be better accepted that way…

«That’s wrong. You’re giving people the wrong impression. You should instead acknowledge who you are. Living here, I’ve leant to get to know and appreciate my own culture. Living far from my country, the only thing I have is my identity. Although Italy is a Western country, it’s undergone a cultural transformation. As I often say, white people are not as white as they think they are. They also come in different shades. I’ve got to know Africa better living here. There are more books and better access to information. I can see Africa wherever I look».

Do you go back to Africa?

«The last time I was in Senegal was a year ago. Even if I no longer have my parents, I have brothers and sisters. When I don’t know where to go, I go back to Africa».

How can you express your roots through music?

«You can only do so if you’re sincere. The music I play doesn’t have a name. When I’m on stage I just try to be myself. Listening and interacting are essential. If you know who you are, you can say that through music. When I do musical workshops for children, I try to teach them three key concepts: observe, listen and wait. In music, even pauses are important». 

Just describing your artistic projects as music seems reductive. Odwalla is an Italian group exclusively made up of percussion instruments where dance also plays an important part. 

«Movement and sound go hand in hand and also go with singing. I’ve been playing with them for 15 years. Massimo Barbiero composes the music and we interpret it, which does not mean we just play it. We work from a musical skeleton on which we have total freedom of expression and improvisation. The same goes for Cristiano Calcagnile’s Multikulti Ensemble. I make music and that’s like a free spirit. My solo album, Africation, has just been released. That was born of a reflection on my life and everything about me».

Music alone is not enough for you. It was inevitable you would end up playing with the Chicago Art Ensemble, a symbol of the history of jazz over the past fifty years. Costumes, non traditional sounds, there’s a lot in there…

«I don’t see myself just as a musician. The Art Ensemble of Chicago has been able to create a way of being together, of making history together which lasts to this day. Once, I asked one of the group’s leads and co-founders, Roscoe Mitchell, whether they already knew what they were going to play when they went on stage or whether they just improvised. Roscoe told me they knew what they had in mind: they carried a shared history of discrimination, slavery and racism. They played knowing they were living in a country that they loved but that didn’t love them. In Paris, where they stayed for a long time, they didn’t want them. They considered them a subversive and violent group. Music and culture can be more feared than a weapon. Jazz was born out of suffering. When you beat a drum and blow in a saxophone you give voice to your pain». 

How do you see your future, where do you imagine it’ll be?

«I am very optimistic. Even in this country. I know that the situation today is not pleasant but I don’t see that as an insurmountable challenge. Nothing stops me from moving forward. I’m not scared of Matteo Salvini as he just makes his moves based on political considerations. We should be more scared of the people who follow him». 

Traduzione di Costanza de Toma

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