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Music – Oxmo Puccino

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A ‘king without a coach’, an eccentric ambassador, a true artist. Oxmo Puccino is all of these. UNICEF France recently named the 39-year-old Bamako-born hip-hop singer an ‘Ambassador’. He has been part of the musical scene for 25 years. Roi sans carrosse (King without a coach) is his sixth album which, a mere 6 months after its release, was awarded a Victoire de la musique (an important French music award) for the best ‘urban music’ album. Just like with his previous work L’Arme de Paix (The weapon of peace). At first glance, Oxmo Puccino may seem more a French artist than an African one. People call him ‘the most Parisian African rapper’ and ‘Black Jacques Brel’ thanks to his musical style.

Despite owing much to rap and hip-hop, Oxmo Puccino doesn’t adhere strictly to these styles. In his albums, he repeatedly takes a revolutionary stance to this musical style. He once said that many young African artists “try to escape” local musical traditions “through modern music, such as rap.” He suggests to “integrate local music trends” in their songs to create “their own universe.” That is exactly what he tries to do in Roi sans carrosse, where he mixes traditions. The first, obviously, is hip-hop, even if only few of the eleven tracks have a rap arrangement.

On the other hand, songs like Pam Pa Nam (a tribute to his adoptive city, Paris) or the title track, remind us of French songwriters (a hint to explain the apparently bizarre comparison between the Bamako-born singer and Belgium’s Jacques Brel). Even when Puccino approaches classic rap themes (such as physical love), the musical rendering is surprisingly innovative: in his highly personal style, strings and guitars are predominant. Finally, the award-winning album, according to its author, was deeply influenced by Brazilian rhythms and culture – it was in fact composed during a trip to that South American country.

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Bossa nova and saudade [a Portuguese word which loosely translates as ‘melancholia’ or ‘homesickness’], this alliance between joy and sadness in life, have greatly influenced me”, Puccino said in a recent interview. “With my latest album – he added – my musical universe becomes more precise. It seems lighter, but this does not mean that it is less dense,” he added. Roi sans carrosse, he pointed out, “is an emotional journey representing a part of my life.” This is also clear when looking at the subjects ‘Black Jacques Brel’ tackles, in a style he once defined “full of African philosophy and Parisian experiences.” Not exactly words one might expect from a rap singer.

Most ‘big names’ of hip-hop sing about the tough street life, a cruel world of violence. In the first track, Le mal que je n’ai pas fait (The evil I haven’t done), Oxmo Puccino takes a different stance: “I’m proud of all the evil things I haven’t done,” he sings.

There is a strong attention for interiority throughout the album: its best example is the introspective song Le vide dans moi (The void in me), while Un an moins le quart (in other words nine months) and Artiste describe more specific moods, which deal respectively with paternity and the ‘dark side’ of the artistic career. The album does not lack political lyrics: in Parfois (Sometimes), a hymn to equality, Puccino refers to Rosa Parks, the late US civil rights activist, and pays homage to “every Spartacus” fighting for freedom.

The African rapper’s latest album is international for both its themes and its rhythms, but Abdoulaye Diarra (Oxmo’s real name) hasn’t forgotten his home continent. “Africa – he told journalists – still offers much poetic matter,” and its most promising musicians have to be encouraged. “There are many talented people, both in Europe and in Africa – he also said – unfortunately they don’t always have enough resources to express their potential. They are the Rois sans carrosse I want to honour.”

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