Farida Amadou recalls the exact moment when she first held an electric bass in her hands. She was 20 years old and had been playing the guitar for a couple of years. But something about the feel of the strings, the way the bass vibrated in her hands and produced this great pulsating and humming sound, just stuck with her.
“I remember, from the first moment I was deeply fascinated by the sound and the way it felt to hold the bass. I always wonder if it might feel the same for cello players: that you feel the vibrations. It’s a very special way of connecting your body to what your hands are doing.“
In any case, that's when the Belgian musician discovered her passion for her instrument. The electric bass has been her main instrument for more than ten years now. And she keeps on reinventing the way she plays it. As a self-taught musician, Farida Amadou elicits the most exciting sounds imaginable from her Fender bass. She is an explorer. Her field of explorations: the known and unknown forms, sound worlds and contexts of her instrument.
Farida Amadou works at the converging points of blues, jazz, hip-hop, ambient sounds, and noise. She is equally at home in all these genres, which makes her one of the most remarkable new European stars of free improvised music.
In the last two years, she has naturally undertaken most of her explorations from home. Since 2020, she is based in Brussels. A relocation with odd timing: just a few weeks before the first lockdown. “Obviously I moved to Brussels to meet new people and play more concerts. At the beginning it was a bit difficult. But honestly looking back now it was really a good time for me. I had a lot of time to work on my solo project. The only thing I really hated were live streaming concerts.”
„I grew up listening to my mom singing over African music cassettes.“
The 32-year-old musician sits on a black sofa at her home and smiles into her computer's camera. It is a week like so many in her life. After a concert is always before a concert. This week two concerts, next week as well, and after that she will be on tour for ten days.
On the wall behind her hangs a wooden African instrument. When asked about it, she immediately takes it down, holds it in her hands and plays a few low chords on it. It is a ngoni – or hoddu, as it is called in the dialect of Farida's family, pronounced: Odou –, a West African guitar with a narrow, boat-shaped body and only three strings. A gift from her mother, she explains. “She brought it from Africa when she travelled back home 20 years ago. My family is from Niger. My dad used to play the ‘Hoddu’ when he was young, before I was born. He also played guitar in different bands. And my mom listened to a lot of West African music when I was a kid – and now still actually. So, I grew up listening to her singing to African music cassettes, she recorded herself back in Niger. With these rhythms that are very specific to West Africa. It’s improvised music, which is really interesting. I never think about it while developing my music. But I guess, in a way it was all already there laid out when I was child. It shaped my musical brain.”
Farida Amadou was born and raised in Huy, a small town 40 km southwest of Liège. Huy is located in the French-speaking part of Belgium, which you can hear in Farida's sentences when she talks about her childhood: The G's are soft, the E's are elongated, and hip hop becomes 'Ip-Op'.
At age 14, she started to play the guitar and moved into a shared flat in Liège after finishing school. At some point, a friend there left his bass behind. And this is how the special moment described at the beginning of this article came about. “It was summer, and I was bored, and I just picked it up and tried it. And … here we are. Now I’m a bass player.”
She is largely self-taught. And this is why her way of playing the bass on stage is both unorthodox and magical. “At the beginning I went to a music school. But only long enough to not get stuck. By that time I had already met people playing improvised music in Liège and I wanted to play with more freedom.”
“I was just curious.“
In 2013, Farida began to play throughout the music scene in Liège. And she played many different genres. She gained her first experiences at jam sessions which featured blues. She improvises as part of the Œil Kollectif and played in the duo Nystagmus with drummer and percussionist Tom Malmendier. She subsequently became the bass player in the hip hop band Le Centième Orkestra and eventually joined the Belgian band Cocaine Piss in 2018. With this quartet she played aggressive female-fronted hardcore punk and recorded an album with legendary rock producer Steve Albini in Chicago: „Passionate and Tragic“
How did this winding musical vita and the many changes of direction come about? Farida laughs. “I was just curious. I listened to everything. And I wanted to play everything. So, when someone asked me to play in a hip hop band of course I said yes. It was the same with Cocaine Piss. I loved the energy on stage that was so intense and physical. It was fun. But I wanted to move on to improvised music. I realized being in a band and playing the same songs every night all over again is not really my thing.”
Today, all these experiences and sounds merge in her music as if in one big sound space. “I played hip hop, jazz, punk, and a bit of blues. It all was in the air around me at some point of the last ten years. And now it’s all in my body when I play improvised music. Not just as a tool kit, but as a big sphere of inspirations, full of possible paths to follow. A big vibe of everything mixed together.”
Improvisation is especially important in this context. Farida Amadou even goes so far as to say: “Improvised music is really the only way for me to play music. It’s such a sensitive and authentic way to create music. You are you. There’s no mask. The world of improv is more humble and simple in that sense. I always felt that it is so easy for me to connect with people when I’m playing improvised music. You don’t rehearse for hours and hours. You just come with yourself, express whatever it is that you’re feeling and try to create a relationship. I love the simplicity of that.”
Since 2017, the bass player has collaborated all over Europe with renowned artists in jazz, experimental and new improvised music, including Timothée Quost, Julien Desprez, Linda Sharrock, Mette Rasmussen, Balasz Pandi, Eve Risser and Olivier Benoit.
In 2018, she performed as a duo with British drummer Steve Noble, one of London's most fearless and innovative improvisational musicians. Noble is renowned for his super precise, thrusting style, was a member of English post-punk band Rip Rig & Panic in the 1980s and then played with guitarist Derek Bailey. The two of them met at a festival in Antwerp. „It was amazing, since the first meeting. We were just having a drink backstage and talked a lot. The next day he asked me to come to London to play in Café Oto. And of course, I said yes. Steve is so inventive. You’ll never see two concerts of him that sound the same. The whole time in London was amazing. We played all day and then we were drinking vodka and talking about life I loved listening to his stories and experiences.”
To make things even more intense, the pair invited other musicians to join them: jazz clarinettist Alex Ward, sax player Chris Pitsiokis, multi-instrumentalist Yoni Silver, German free jazz pioneer Peter Brötzmann and American guitar virtuoso (and founding member of Sonic Youth) Thurston Moore. With the latter, she played a wild, nervous set in which they constantly drove each other further in a psychedelic tempest. “I am thankful for that time. Because it’s impossible not to learn something just while spending five minutes with musicians like Steve Noble or Thurston Moore”, says Farida and adds with a wink: “Even though Thurston Moore is not a big talker.” Live recordings of the trio's evenings at Café Oto have been released on LP by Dropa Disc and Takuroku.
Apart from the many live performances and collaborations, Farida Amadou has tirelessly worked on her technique and her sound spectrum, spent many hours and days with her instrument and opened up her music to electronic sounds. She now integrates sequencers and synthesizers into her live shows. in 2020, she also released her music on two solo albums: 'Reading Eyes And Facial Expressions' and '00:29:10:02', which has just been reissued on cassette by micro-label Autogenesis. And she is increasingly interested in audio-visual works. She recently exhibited her first sound installation in Brussels. ‘In-Between’ allows visitors to participate in the sound by touching piano strings strung between steel plates. In addition, there are photographs of Farida's train journeys through Europe.
„I never know exactly what I will play.”
For the Monheim Triennale 2022, she has come up with a very special collaboration – both artistically and personally. Farida Amadou improvises together with US musician, spoken work poet and activist Camae Ayewa, better known as Moor Mother. There are many parallels between their works: the genre-transcending approach, the dizzying versatility, the influences from jazz, punk, hip hop and noise, the restlessness and intensity of the music and the relentless radicalism that is expressed in Amadou's sound and in Ayewa's lyrics: Their explicitly political works are understood as loud and active resistance against social power structures and the marginalisation of the Black community.
This project is particularly exciting for Farida Amadou because, as she says, she is exhausted by the male-dominated environments of the music scene and would first of all like to play more with women, and especially with more Black women.
“I feel like I need to reconnect with my roots and to be with more people who are like me: strong black women. In the small town I grew up in my only and best role model was my mom. There were no alternatives. Only people looking at you strangely and saying derogatory things. I don’t know what Camae is going to do lyrically in Monheim. But I feel like all of this collective trauma a lot of her works are about – I’m living that every day. So, I guess it’s already built into in my music. I cannot really express it with words. But she can. We can be stronger together.”
What this will ultimately sound like on stage, is something Farida Amadou doesn't yet know. „I have a few ideas. I want to mix synthesizers and hip hop beats with noise music and drone and rhythms from West Africa. But I never know exactly what I will play.”