‘No afro-futurist post-humanism militant’: meet Wally Badarou

HE was a space dreamer from an early age who eventually turned his attention away from planes and towards synthesizers. Becoming a superstar session player for Foreigner, Robert Palmer and M, he then joined the Compass Point All-Stars of Island Records as one of a crew of expert musicians adept at adding his parts to serve almost all genres. Later he went on to quietly produce his own under-rated, beautiful work – Massive Attack for one taking notice of his visionary music. Humble yet still opinionated; erudite and humorous: here is a take-down of disco, a hymn to Steve Winwood, the importance of DIY and funk, and when to quietly calm Fela Kuti… …from the philosophical mind of Wally Badarou.

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Flag of the Republic of Dahomey and (later) Benin

Born in 1955, Wally enjoyed a pan-cultural upbringing and education with time spent in the then-French colony of Dahomey [now Benin] and in Paris, France, where his parents settled as paediatricians. His doctor-turned-diplomat father provided his son with both a love of classical music and piano lessons which came to the fore once the young Wally reluctantly veered away from his idealized career of becoming a pilot. After the Badarous had spent nine years in Africa before returning to the French capital in 1971, their teenage son immersed himself in the varied venues of the 20 arrondissements in the 1970s as the worlds of progressive rock, Afro funk, chanson and pop spilled into one another; this would augur well in later life when he had to flit from studio to studio, quickly switching styles and chords.

You returned to Paris from Benin in 1971 aged 16 and joined college bands which played hard rock covers. At the same time you were dancing to Afro-Parisian favourites like Manu Dibango and Fela Kuti whilst enjoying organ wizards like The Nice‘s Keith Emerson and Pink Floyd‘s Nick Wright. How typical were your tastes then as a Parisian?

I was immersed with a bit of everything, from French pop to classical, from rock to jazz, without the acute sense of discrimination I inevitably developed later throughout what ended up being a career. I never really thought of music-making as a career back in those days, even though I’d be enjoying the dance floor quite heavily. Music was still a hobby, a serious one probably, but aviation and space engineering was still my main motivation in life, despite my poor performance in mathematics.

 

I find it interesting that you enjoyed all of these disparate artists at the same time as legendary African-American DJ Kool Herc was honing in on the funky breaks of The Monkees, Babe Ruth and other rockers in New York.

Yes and, yet, it is not so much that I really enjoyed them than the fact that I could not deny – then and now – that they had an influence on me, whether I liked them or not. Till today, I can’t be listening to music, good or bad, without elaborating and building on it mentally, during sleep even, for weeks sometimes. I suppose that is what makes us composers; there is no on/off button for creation.

Did you pay much attention to the music being made in Paris and France at that time, for instance: the BYG label, Triangle or Martin Circus?

And Magma and Ange and Dynasty Crisis, et cetera, of course. The French rock scene was and remained quite prolific, and soon enough I could tell where, in turn, they were getting their influences from.

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Another Afro-Caribbean Parisien musician, Tony Leveille & Ses Challengers Sound, was a figure in your life during the early Seventies when you rehearsed in his studio. Had he already released the excellent Afro-funk trackHello Black Benny’?

I suppose so. He handed us that vinyl one day, asking us to back him on stage for [B side] ‘J’Attends Seul‘. In other words, I didn’t perform on the record itself.

The acquisition of a Hohner piano keyboard propelled you into your recording career. Before that, what were you using?

Those were the Fender Rhodes heyday, putting an end to the electronic organ era, mainly populated with Farfisas, Bontempis, and Hammonds for the richest. The monophonic patchable and no memory-fitted synthesizer was in its infancy, made just for the mad scientists.

Did it take Herbie Hancock‘s Thrust to make you realise keyboards could be at the forefront of a sound, leading the melody? Or had you already learnt that from Stevie Wonder‘s Talking Book and Innervisions?

Like any other instrument, keyboards could be at the forefront of any work, be instrumental or vocal, ever since classical music, even prior to Bach. Pianoforte and harpsichord have the lead on countless pieces. I never had a doubt about it. In my youth, the electronic organ was a massive breakthrough, both in jazz and in rock.

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Malcolm Cecil’s T.O.N.T.O. system expertly modelled by the equally excellent Gil Scott Heron (left) and Brian Jackson for the album sleeve of ‘1980′.

During the 70’s, as music was taking the centre-stage in my life, I just happened to be witnessing the revolution in sound. Both Hancock’s Thrust and Wonder’s Talking Book, among other luminaries, had brought with their innovative use of synths (with tremendous help from Bob Margouleff and Malcom Cecil’s Tonto system in Stevie’s case) an elegant and lyrical use of the Fender Rhodes, and a funky use of the Hohner Clavinet, each of them [in] his own and very specific way.

At that time did you ever see yourself as a lyricist and/or songwriter?

No, and I’m still struggling with that status. Till today, in a song, the music comes first, always. I only get to write lyrics when time comes to discard the long-beloved mumbo jumbo skat that felt right with the melody, the groove, the mix in the demo, and then I decide to go for the real thing. I never came up with lyrics out of the blue nor do I come up with a title first either, even for instrumental works.

Did you appear on the [contemporary Afro-funk band] Voodoo Family LP?

No, they were just in the mixing process when I joined them. I was really impressed by what they did then, and felt honoured to have to perform it live with them afterwards.

Your on-line biography mentions a couple of gigs early on in your career that were seemingly appreciated by the audiences, but which did not seem to give you the same pleasure. Were you happier in the studio?

The studio has always been home for my artistry, if anything. It took me long to stop feeling guilty about my lack of enthusiasm about live performance and realise, in that, I have always been more of a composer (of the improvising kind) than a live performer. The studio has never been just a tool to capture my creations, it has always been a genuine writing pad from the word go; the blank canvas within which I could paint my landscapes, layer by layer, isolated from the rest of the world and, yet, aiming at impacting the world in a much larger manner than the largest live show could ever achieve. Audio recording is a blessing that the turmoil of the digital era tends to make us forget.

After he completed compulsory military service in and toured regionally with different bands, Wally joined a short-lived band, Pi. 3.14, which signed with Barclay Records. The 45 sank without a trace, but the record company put Wally, his Hohner and his magic hands under a solo contract.

I was still undecided about making a living as a musician. As a matter of fact, I now reckon, things happened to me in an extremely short time bracket: I was out of military service in April ’78, fully determined to return studying in law. My self-determination only lasted a few months as I got signed to Barclay Records by May ’79.

 

The 23 year-old’s first single under his own name was ‘He Was A Rasta In London Town’ from the 1980 album Back To Scales To-Night. It hasn’t dated especially well although the keyboard work hints at Giorgio Moroder whilst the up-tempo production and singing style is reminiscent of English 80s funk outfits like Central Line and Light of the World. The B side ‘Dream On The Sand’ is also akin to Bob James’ work during the same time period and hints at future funkier things. Wally didn’t have to be cajoled into singing but he was far more fixated on ensuring he and his label bosses were pleased with his studio work.

I really wanted to be a singer, but at that time I didn’t realise what it took to be a truly good one. My main concern back then was coming up with a melody good enough to legitimise the so-called ‘backing tracks’ [he was producing], being able to pitch correctly and in the groove. Expressive delivery and meaningful lyrics came second.

Then I thought the organic warmth of my analogue cassette demos could easily be replicated in the final recordings in the full-fledged recording studio. I was highly disappointed though with the poor vocal performance I gave due to studio time pressure, tempo issues with backing tracks, and overall monitoring differences. That is the reason why I’ve distanced myself from the Back To Scales To-night album for decades. I have – almost – reconciled [with it] only recently due to more and more people loving it for reasons still obscure to me.

It’s clear that the resulting kudos gained from having a hit mattered to Wally as with any artist, but his perfectionist nature was key to his eschewing the microphone – and the stage – for a keyboard and a studio.

I don’t know of any artist not willing to [make a] hit, honestly. I was no different, and still ain’t. But if ever that album had managed to hit at that time, well, I guess my whole life would have been quite different.

The era of jobbing musicians being formally utilised for their savvy and know-how has ceased to exist in Wally’s eyes however – humble to the last – he doesn’t state that that he was a pre-eminent or a more regularly hired hand than others.

Prior to the sinking of the physical record sales, which triggered the demise of countless recording studios everywhere, there were many more sessions players in general than there are today. Therefore, with the advent of electronic disco, sessions synth players/arrangers were comparatively way more numerous back then, some average, and some very creative, just like in any other domain. All in all, session playing has become an activity of the past, only to be replaced by ‘collective creating’ or ‘collaborating’, with sessions fees generally replaced by royalties, but the ratio in creativity remains the same.

 

 

At the same time as you were starting to become known outside of France, Steve Winwood had been flexing his wings musically with Third World (1973) and then with his solo work such as Arc of a Diver. Did his work make an impression on you?

His songwriting, singing and keyboard playing always impressed me and so did his use of the Linn drum on Arc of a Diver. A couple of years before we met in England, I was commissioned to arrange a French song based on his superb work on Marianne Faithfull’s Ballad of Lucy Jordan. I told him the story, and when he heard what I did on Joe Cocker’s version of Talking Back to the Night’, which sort of replicated what I did on that French song (Jean-Pau Dréau’s J’Veux de la Tendresse for Janic Prévos [later covered both in French and in English by Elton John], he in turn got inspired by my arrangement when doing his own final version. I’m still puzzled by the way we kind of impacted each other’s work.

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BLOWING UP: The infamous bonfire-cum-riot over the popularity of disco at the White Sox stadium, Chicago (1979). Note the subtle flaming of the guy holding up the banner on the right.

I get the impression that you regarded disco as a temporary or less than serious musical genre?

Worse… I used to despise it to put it bluntly. We, the ‘underground’ funk musicians, viewed ‘commercial’ disco, reduced to the domineering bass drum beat coupled with the open hi-hat ubiquitous quavers, as the death of funk as we knew it. We painstakingly tried to improve it, as we celebrated its intricate rhythm sophistication of the highest level from the early James Brown of the 60s to the Head Hunters.

I can’t do that, this is way too disco!” was a shout often heard in studios back then. Therefore nothing could aggravate my feelings deeper than hearing funk being thrown into the same bag as disco on the simple ground that both genres kind of share the same era, disco gradually taking over funk throughout the 70s.

The same used to go for French movie makers of the 60s who ended up being labelled ‘nouvelle vague’ even though they shared neither the aesthetics nor the rationale. Funk masters Earth, Wind and Fire, Kool & The Gang and even Chic’s betrayal of their own ethics by labelling themselves disco does sadden me a big deal. They were fundamentally funk, even though some of them did land into disco at some point in the end for economic survival, undoubtedly. James Brown, the godfather of funk, disappeared with the advent of disco, only to re-emerge with Living In America which, as successful as it was, always sounded like an over-produced pastiche of his gigantic funktitude to my ears.

As the 1980s was ushered in, Wally connected in 1979 with an Englishman called Robin Scott who had just written an ‘explosive’ piece of music. After laying down his part, the keyboardist then saw the newly-christened Pop Muzik track shoot to No.1 in both the UK and US single charts after MCA snapped up both the track and Scott.

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Wally (left) on the Top of the Pops sound stage with M.

Pop Muzik represented a real breakthrough for me, as this was the first time I ever was working with English musicians, the first time I was part of a number one in the UK, the US, Holland and Germany, the first time I was to fly for musical duties, the first time I was to appear on TV [the BBC’s Top of the Pops], to enjoy the Bentley limos, the fancy hotels, etc. In the UK, I was not a session player. I was a rock artist in my own right.

The M connection brought Wally into the orbit of promising English jazz-funk outfit Level 42 who welcomed the Frenchman into their midst, on and off, for several releases at the start of the decade. He earned co-writing credits on the great boogie of (Flying On The) Wings of Love; the upwards boost and EWF-type funk of Chinese Way [which is crying out for a re-edit], and then the enormous pop hit Something About You. Working with them was professionally and personally successful as it ensured he was a key member – albeit an unofficial one – of that group, able to participate in and objectively observe the band’s progression and development.

Embracing an instrumental solo career was a way to ignore my solo singer one, and I confined my vocal performances to background voices here and there, mainly with Level 42.

[Their] music ended up moving from fusion-jazz to pop, nothing much disturbing about that: the vocal chemistry, the distinct songwriting styles combination, and last but not least the playing, all set the band apart anyway. [As the hits came] the collective-ness of the creative process suffered somewhat, and so did the cohesion; and later some of the friendship too, in the long run, leading to Phil and Boon [Gould]’s departure, among other reasons.

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MUSIQUE MAKERS: Daniel (left) and Thomas Bangalter

Having also worked with the Gibson Brothers and Daniel Bangalter [father of Daft Punk‘s Thomas], he was introduced to the low-key, patrician-like figure of Chris Blackwell, who was looking for a keyboard player for Grace Jones‘ debut album. Having signed on, Wally was asked to up sticks and move to the Bahamas for the recording process. The resulting sessions produced the Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing albums; it also meant that Wally became the resident synth player at the label’s Compass Point studio.

On the Island side of things, Chris Blackwell was looking for a European electronic keyboard player and and a Brit rock guitar player, to be merged with what the Jamaican drum and bass combo Sly & Robbie could offer.

Do you think it was inevitable you would work with Barclay and [later] Island given both record companies’ propensity for working with black artists and music?

Not really. In those days, Barclay had no special interest in black music other than funk and disco that any label was into anyway. The vast majority of their catalogue was mainstream chansons Françoise. Being black was not what landed me the job. And to sum it all up, I never [used] the black card wherever I was. To the contrary, I always treasured remaining un-categorisable.

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TRACK AFTER TRACK: the rear of Strut’s 2008 compilation ‘Funky Nassau’ shows the diverse grooves of the All Stars. A match made in heaven, literally.

It was a creative if occasionally frustrating period in which Wally had to keep his counsel about others’ less than dedicated approach to recording  [see Wally’s website and The Island Years for more on this]. I put it to him that it sounded as if his time in Nassau – his reactions to the ‘slack’ time-keeping and then the subsequent realisation that you have to wait for the music ‘magic’ to appear instead of rushing from job to job – was the bridge between being a gun-for-hire back in Paris and him being able to become an artist in his own right?

I’ve always been an artist in my own right, whether solo, in a duo or in a band. I developed as a composer, a sound designer, a performer, an engineer and a producer simultaneously wherever I was, whoever I worked with and whatever I did. Being a gun-for-hire or for myself, I never saw the difference since, in the end, I had to come up with the parts, the sound and the performance always simultaneously. I always felt responsible for the outcome: the success of the work, my name and reputation were all at stake no matter what. In Paris, London, New York or Nassau, the pace could be different, but I did not change my view on what I was striving for: making music nobody could resist.

Working on songs by Grace Jones, Mick Jagger and James Brown amongst many others at this time, were there any similarities between them with how they were in the studio or in terms of the recording process?

Of course not, each one of them was different obviously. The projects themselves were different, just judging by their respective challenges: Grace Jones was trying to survive the end of the disco era, Mick Jagger was having a sabbatical away from the [Rolling] Stones, and James Brown was desperately looking for a comeback. The only things in common were the recording band as such which we ended up dubbing The Compass Point All Stars and, under Chris Blackwell’s charismatic supervision, the spirit and the pace of the studio itself.

By the middle of the 80s you had been part of different ensembles that made four number ones.

They were three in the US actually: M’s Pop Muzik, Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is, and Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love. I believe Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House topped at 9th in the US charts. Believe it or not, I was not aware of their exact chart performance up until 2002, when I started to build my own website and needed figures to put into it. I knew they were quite successful but did not bother looking at charts. I was too busy making music, the best I could come up with.

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Aside from your pride and happiness, did these events make you further want success but under your own name or was your goal to simply ensure your own music came out whenever and however?

Being under my name or somebody else’s did not make much difference to me, as the so-called gun for hire I could never just be a performer. I was always a composer of my parts. I’ve always been adamant there’s no arrangers in pop music, only co-composers.

And did this success impact on your wanting to ‘do it all’?

Only [with] my personal work. The success – or failure – of any other collaborative work had nothing to do do with it. With technology allowing me to fully go DIY, I just happened to feel more like a painter when dealing with my solo works, from start to finish, with my pair of ears as my sole reference and only myself to blame if I was unsatisfied. That is precisely what painting is most of the time, a solitary activity.

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You produced Fela Kuti‘s Teacher Don’t Teach Me No Nonsense in 1986. How did that occur?

It came from the late label owner and friend Francis Kertekian, who thought I could be the sort of quiet catalyst Fela needed at that time when he just got released from jail [having been imprisoned [by the-then Major-General and now current Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari].

Reading your biography it sounds as if your time in Lagos was the only time you’ve been star-struck (or not on an equal footing with the artist)?

The triple album was produced in Paris, actually. As a producer, I never saw myself as an alter-ego or competitive force, trying to achieve a duo album of sorts, like most producers tend to do. To the contrary, the less personal imprint I could leave the better. For this was going to be the featured artist’s album at the end of the day, first and foremost. Doing so was to be the only philosophy and trademark I could pursue.

Fela being the larger-than-life self-producer everybody celebrated, I was quite happy to take the back seat, learn from him and let him work the way he felt, and he was grateful I did from day one. This way, I managed to easily win his confidence the following days, whenever needed.

Would you have liked to record and/or produce him earlier in yours and his career?

Not really, for I believe I wouldn’t have done a better job than him or those who helped him, and I wouldn’t have been experienced enough to keep things quietly under control the way most witnesses recall I apparently did during our production. Till today, I just feel privileged I have been one of the very few to be somewhere on his incredible path, regardless of where I stand.

 

 

What is likely to be seen as his leading achievement under his own name, Wally’s album Echoes was released in 1984. ‘Chief Inspector’ was released as a single (and later remixed as a B side to ‘Novela Das Nove (Spider Woman)’ from the film of the Broadway musical).

Officially a second solo album, Echoes the first sign of exactly why Wally had been courted by all and sundry – and what he could do single-handedly. When it first appeared in shops, it would have been put in the ‘world music’ section; nowadays it’s labelled ‘future jazz’ or downtempo. Perhaps one of its key achievements is in being unable to sit innocently and carefully within any of these labels or categories (and why Wally now works on his Unnamed Trilogy, a companion collection to this album) –  and this makes it an un-knowing progenitor of so much of what we take for granted in music today.

It’s the sound of ‘Big Muff’ or another of fellow Island artist John Martyn’s dubbed up wanderings merging with a more playful but just as light, breeze-filled Ryuchi Sakamoto with Simon Jeffes leading the party from conservatory to the pub and then to the beach. It’s a gamelan intersecting with tablas as a thumb piano yelps a percussive twang and the warmest of basslines gently springs forth. It’s joyous and beautiful, as graceful and summery as Gabriel Yared’s score for the film Betty Blue. It’s also indisputably 80s in its choice of instrumentation but not weaker as a result rather stronger due to the loveliness of its melodies.

What was your reaction to ‘Mambo’ [from ‘Echoes’] being sampled by Massive Attack on Daydreaming?

Purely neutral at that time, since they didn’t have a name yet! I just approved the internal sample request which Island Music, our then common publisher, had set between us, and that was it. Little could I expect it to become what it eventually became.

[DISCLAIMER: I deserve to have a million shoes flung at me for not taking the chance to ask about Echoes in any more detail than this. I can only defend myself by hoping you find Wally’s overall musicianship and life as interesting as I do]

Your biography makes frequent mention to the synths you’ve had and lost. I can relate to this regarding vinyl records I’ve sold, lost or given away. 

As dedicated as I could be in mastering my machines, to the point where they could become virtual extensions of my mind, I never felt they had something like a soul, as erratic as they could behave sometimes, and I only kept those that I thought were irreplaceable in their sound, ergonomics or features, for as long as I felt I needed those characteristics for my forthcoming music. In that, I do differ from the vast majority of machine-lovers, for I see machines only as tools to achieve the music I have in mind. Music always comes first.

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ANOTHER ISLAND LOVER: Author Clarke in Sri Lanka.

Your biography also states the importance of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.

I did read quite a few others, some of them quite entertaining, but none of which came close to 2001 in being purely sci-fi, I mean, [it’s] totally clear from the love, hate, drama, thriller, horror, passion, tension, suspense, epic, wars, guns, explosions, gratuitous graphic violence, good guys and bad guys – all the collateral ingredients which most sci-fi creators feel they need in order to spice up their primary subject. In that respect, 2001 still remains one of a kind.

You wrote on your website that it ‘shaped your perceptions’ of several important matters, and you mentioned. Did the novel and/or film affirm or go against your religious views?

Certainly not against, to the contrary. In other words, it opened up – and never stopped opening up ever since – countless possibilities upon which I could either reinforce or question my religious views, and turn them into what they should never stop being: religious doubts. Sci-fi is meant to be just a poetic answer to a simple ‘what if’ question, in my view.

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Have you read Kodwo Eshun‘s More Brilliant Than The Sun? I ask as I feel there are parallels with your sonic exploration and African-European identity and with the theories in Eshun’s book.

No I haven’t. I’ll give it a try when time permits, but I must confess, I am no afro-futurist post-humanism militant really…

Do you think your musical output has had the respect and scrutiny it deserves ?

When I distanced myself from the regular ‘diploma leads to career’ path to embrace the precarious life of the artist, my only goal was to be able to make a living and raise a family just out of what I could create. I feel immensely lucky I achieved just that. Whether or not my creations already met proper (or will meet better) recognition than it already did, only you can tell, only time will tell, but to make things easier on my pride, I am my most severe critic. I also learned to be very philosophical about legacies: one can easily be celebrated for things one wished they never got noticed…

You have been and are currently working on The Unnamed Trilogy. How do you think it compares to Echoes and Words of A Mountain in your opinion?

The Trilogy is far from finished. Same old problem to me, each time I enter my studio: am I doing something both original and irresistible enough to hit people durably and worldwide, regardless of the moods and the trends, regardless of who I think I am or who my fans would like me to be, regardless of the flaws my perfectionism can’t tolerate? All my creations tell the same story, this of what freedom of speech can deliver when I, as a creator, stop self-inflicting aesthetic or stylistic censorship.

How did the Tokyo-based label Diskotopia come to release the Unnamed Trilogy 12” in 2017? And when will Island put out a fitting and all-embracing compilation of your work?

They were among the few to agree on a partial and gradual release, volume after volume, which the Trilogy requested. To that, only Island can reply…

Lastly, I’d like to put two propositions to you. The first is that your solo work has been ahead of its time.

It could be both flattering and saddening if ever true. Whatever success my solo work did or did not achieve to the level you might think it deserved, I truly believe I enjoyed a great life so far, so it is all for the better: only God knows what would have happened to my subsequent instrumental creations, should Back To Scales had been a huge success… the story is not over yet.

Secondly, the success and ease with which you’ve crossed continents, countries, genres and artists is down to your identity, upbringing, talent and open-mindedness however those characteristics have meant your work has sometimes suffered from a lack of understanding by others (who might have pigeon-holed you as an African or French artist and therefore a lesser figure).

I didn’t feel it did, honestly. The beauty of instrumentals is that, apart from specialists, most people don’t know who created them. Try googling The Dachstein Angels [his classical single from 1989 with vocals by Laura Weymouth, sister of Talking HeadsTina] and you’ll see how many people were surprised to find out a self-educated African created it. If anything, I never felt I had been victim of any prejudice. One might argue, my philosophical state of mind probably has a lot to do with it…

Visit http://www.wallybadarou.com 

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