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Kaïssa Doumbé

Every once in a while, it’s interesting, and gratifying, to interview an artist who seems to be on the verge of discovery by the larger listening public. Such a person is Kaïssa Doumbé.

Since she is known professionally and to her devoted listeners as Kaïssa, many people don’t even know her last name. Furthermore, American audiences may not even be able to understand the words she sings. But they do know that she reaches out to embrace universal topics that instinctively touch her them with artistic honesty and with the assistance of irresistible African rhythms from her native country, Cameroon. And beyond.

Since moving to the United States from France in 1996, Kaïssa has built an enthusiastic following in New York. Highly regarded African and American jazz musicians have joined her in the celebratory events that all of her performances become. As Kaïssa herself says, American audiences are ready to appreciate African music to a greater degree than ever before--especially since its percussiveness forms the basis for much of the world’s music, including that from Cuba, Brazil and Jamaica. And including jazz.

JazzReview: Where have you been performing lately?

Kaïssa: I’ve been performing around the city, mainly at the Zinc Bar, Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar, the Schomburg Theater, the African Museum and the Jazz Gallery in New York.

JazzReview: Why don’t you tell me about your group?

Kaïssa: My group is a fusion band with people from all over the world. Maciek Schejbal, the drummer, is Polish. He lived in South Africa for nine years, so he became familiar with African music. David Gilmore, the guitar player, played with Wayne Shorter, Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson. The keyboard player is James Hurt and the bass player, Andre Manga, was the leader of Manu Dibango’s band for many years. So, the band is really international and I enjoy performing with these guys. They’re excellent musicians.

JazzReview: Did you meet all of them in New York?

Kaïssa: Yes, all of them but Andre, whom I met in Paris. We worked together on various recordings and with Manu Dibango.

JazzReview: How do you characterize your music? It is mentioned as world music on your web site (www.kaissa.com).

Kaïssa: Yes. My music is Cameroonian, with influences of West African, South African, Brazilian, jazz and soul music. It’s a fusion of different styles.

JazzReview: When were you born?

Kaïssa: On April 10, in Yaoundé.

JazzReview: Did you hear all of the styles you mention while you were growing up?

Kaïssa: Yes, from jazz with Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to funk and soul with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind & Fire from Bob Marley to Brazilian music and music from the whole African continent. Some of my songs might sound like reggae, but we call them "esewe." Esewe is one of the many rhythms from Cameroon. After all, reggae and much of the South and North American music played today came from Africa! I grew up listening to songs in the villages or in the cities as older people sang them.

JazzReview: What are the reactions of your audiences?

Kaïssa: We have a great following in New York at the Zinc Bar and other clubs where we perform. It’s a growing audience. I would say that people are embracing that music. I believe they are ready for it. I just hope that the record companies, media and the whole music industry will follow and open up to African music too.

JazzReview: And you sing in your native language?

Kaïssa: Yes, I do. I sing in Duala and Ewodi. I sing also in Swahili, which is spoken in a lot of countries in Africa. Now, I’m more comfortable with the English language. I have been preparing a couple of songs in English for my next album.

JazzReview: Will you be singing Stevie Wonder songs?

Kaïssa: [Laughs] I have such respect for Stevie Wonder! Maybe I’ll dare sing one of his songs on my first album. While on tour in South Africa doing back-up vocals for Salif Keita to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s eightieth birthday, I met him. I was in my hotel room when I opened the window and heard Stevie Wonder singing. It was like a dream.

JazzReview: And you didn’t speak much English when you came to the United States.

Kaïssa: No. I learned English in high school in France. But I didn’t really use the language. As a backup vocalist, I had to sing in different languages. I even have sung in Arabic and Portuguese. Also, I speak a couple of languages from Cameroon. We have over 270 languages there.

JazzReview: What is the country’s population?

Kaïssa: Right now, it is fifteen million.

JazzReview: Is there an official language?

Kaïssa: No. I learned English in high school in France. But I didn’t really use the language. As a backup vocalist, I had to sing in different languages. I even have sung in Arabic and Portuguese. Also, I speak a couple of languages from Cameroon. We have over 270 languages there.

JazzReview: How do the languages continue to be fragmented? Doesn’t broadcasting create a common language?

Kaïssa: Colonialists didn’t want Cameroonians to have a common language. That also was why improvised frontiers were created all over Africa. It was in the colonialists’ interests to divide the country in order to dominate it.

JazzReview: Wouldn’t the lack of a common language cause political challenges? A comparable example would be the speaking of French in Quebec.

Kaïssa: Thank God, no. Somehow, all of the differences create a balance.

JazzReview: You sing about war and injustice. Do those themes result from your experiences?

Kaïssa: Definitely. Lots of people disappeared when I was growing up in Cameroon. No one would hear from them again. My own father had been sent to jail for political reasons. He was a member of the government, but he spoke out. He never got a job after he went to jail. I grew up exposed to that. All over Africa--in fact, all over the world--there are governments that pretend they were working for the people, but actually they abuse them. I am very concerned about that, and it is something I want to address always in my songs. I sing also about beauty--wherever it may be--nature, friendship and love!

JazzReview: Many people may not be aware of those types of human rights abuses that occur elsewhere.

Kaïssa: Oh, yes. It happens everyday. And the abuse of women is a subject that is very, very important to me. It has been happening for centuries around the world, and it still happens.

JazzReview: Where was your father taken when he was detained?

Kaïssa: He was detained in a jail in Yaoundé without even having a trial. I remember this word: They said he had "subversive" ideas. That was the official reason for his imprisonment. He was also a writer of a trilogy of books. But my father is not in this world any more.

JazzReview: So, your mother was left to raise a family by herself.

Kaïssa: Yes.

JazzReview: How old were you at that time?

Kaïssa: I was nine when my father was released.

JazzReview: Do you have any brothers and sisters?

Kaïssa: I have seven brothers and sisters. My elder brother passed away last October. They all have some kind of artistic talent. We sang a lot while we were growing up. In Africa, music is around you constantly. Music is used for all occasions: for births, for weddings. I have two brothers who are very talented bass players. Raymond is Miriam Makeba’s bandleader, and he lives in Paris. Frederic lives in California.

JazzReview: I understand that there is no word for "music" in much of Africa because it’s so interwoven with life there.

Kaïssa: That’s true. Music is the celebration of life. I came from a culture of improvisation that is used for all kinds of occasions.

Once again, I really believe that American people love African music, like the music of Richard Bona and many others. I find that people really embrace that music. American people don’t even need to be able to understand the words. As I mentioned, I sing in Duala. I can sense that the audiences can feel the spirit of the music.

JazzReview: You believe that music creates bridges when the languages that separate people are removed.

Kaïssa: Absolutely. And I don’t believe that politics can heal. There have been so many great artists who have helped build understanding among nations. They’re a great resource for creating community.

JazzReview: Why did you move to France?

Kaïssa: When I was thirteen, I moved to France with my older brothers and one of my sisters to study there. I studied law for two years at Nanterre University. Later on, my parents moved to France too. The first time I worked in music was in my brother’s band. I was testing my singing into his patient ears every day. [Laughs] Raymond said, "You want to sing? Oh yeah? Why don’t you come tomorrow? We have a rehearsal." So, I had my first gig. I rehearsed and learned the lyrics. After that, I started to do some video work and TV shows. It never stopped after that. I toured the world.

JazzReview: And then you left the legal career behind.

Kaïssa: Oh, yes. Whew! I was never thinking about that by then.

JazzReview: How did you meet Salif Keita and Papa Wemba?

Kaïssa: I was recommended by a friend and singer, Aura. Paris has a very rich musical community. It contains people from all over the world, including many African musicians.

JazzReview: And you did commercial work while you performed with Manu Dibango.

Kaïssa: Yes, I did a couple of commercials in France as a model, and then I started doing singing sessions. I’ve done commercials in the U.S. as well, such as for Moet Et Chandon and a few others.

JazzReview: And you were on Oprah Winfrey’s show?

Kaïssa: Yes, that was a great show. I was backing up Diana Ross as one of ten African and African-American singers. We were backing her vocals in Zulu.

I really enjoyed working with Martha Wash. I did some backup vocals for her at the concert at Town Hall in New York and on her album Come. Lots of fine musicians are trying to create bridges. I love Dianne Reeves’ music, and she has done exactly what I would like to achieve. She includes influences from other cultures.

JazzReview: You’re preparing a new CD.

Kaïssa: Yes, I’m very excited. I expect it to be released in spring of 2002.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Kaïssa Doumbé
  • Subtitle: A Universal Language
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