Singer ASHLEY MAHER (her surname, pronounced the real Irish way, rhymes with
star) is an original. Against all odds, she has created and
safeguarded the kind of personal style that seems to elude so many musical
artists - including many of the best in the world - when they take liberties
across genre boundaries, or explore musical traditions into which they have not
Anything but facile, Maher's music approaches the gold standard set by the likes of Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, or Youssou N'Dour for an engagement with world music at once challenging, thoughtful, respectful, and exuberant. Born in Canada to British parents who relocated to Los Angeles when she was five, Maher has, as a performer and songwriter, been truly at home within African popular music traditions for many years, dating back even further than her intense exposure to those traditions through her label-mates Gabriel and N'Dour at Virgin Records in the late 1980's, when she was living in London.
Maher had grown up listening to a wide range of music - American and British rock and pop, classical music, and a variety of Latin and especially Brazilian styles. Having begun formal vocal training at sixteen, she was soon singing jazz, choral music, and medieval music in school. She later concentrated on opera in Italy for an entire year, but although her voice was well-suited to the classical repertoire, she says her soul was not transported by it. Then, while still an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, she happened upon on a class led by C.K. Ladzekpo, a master drummer from Ghana. I felt as though I had been hit by lightening. Every cell in my body lit up like a candle, she remembers. In that doorway, it was an epiphany. I felt I had found my life's path. Maher studied polyrhythms with Ladzekpo for two years, feeling her way into expressing sounds and rhythms that had felt uncannily natural to her from day one.
Upon graduating from Berkeley, Maher embarked upon a pilgrimage to London's flourishing music scene. She joined a pan-African/jazz band called Backlash (formed with members of the iconic Afro-rock band Osibisa), while also collaborating with other resident and touring African musicians. While Maher cites N'Dour, Baaba Maal, Salif Keita, King Sunny Ade, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as artists who have most influenced her own style, Simon, Gabriel, Sting, and Joni Mitchell have also inspired her. Her first demos (recorded with one of London's premier dance and drumming ensembles, Adzido) reflected this creative duality. They featured Ghanaian drums interwoven with her trademark, scat-laced vocals and silky harmonies. These demos led to bids from five labels and she ultimately signed with Virgin. She went on to release a pair of well-received albums for Virgin -"hi" (1990) and "Pomegranate" (1992) - solidifying her reputation as an eclectic, warmly inclusive musical thinker and a singer of rare empathy.
When EMI bought Virgin, Maher left the label and continued to record and perform in Europe. She sang back-up on recordings by Youssou N'Dour, Myriam Mursal, and The Afro-Celt Sound System. Her third, independently-produced CD, "The Blessed Rain" (1997), featured the same roster as "Pomegranate" and kept her fans on notice that hers was a continuing voyage of discovery.
After twelve years in London, Maher relocated to Los Angeles to nurse her mother through her final illness. Since her mother's passing, she has been busy working and performing with the city's bourgeoning community of West African and Latin musicians, dancers, and drummers. Her fourth CD, "Flying Over Bridges" (2006), was produced by Cameroon's Andre Manga and features a stellar assembly of world jazz players from Cameroon, Senegal, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, and the United States.
Maher’s profound artistic involvement with the diverse musical cultures of Senegal was kindled by her decades-old friendship with Youssou N’Dour and but has recently grown into a vital nourishing component of her musical personality. In 2007, N'Dour released a song Maher co-wrote, "Boul Bayekou", on his Nonesuch Records/Warner Music CD "Rokku mi rokka (Give and Take)". As a remarkably accomplished Senegalese sabar dancer, Maher has since shared the stage with N'Dour both in Dakar and at N’Dour’s "Great African Ball" at Paris' Bercy Arena.
Maher calls her new album release, "Amina" (her fifth, also produced by Andre Manga), "my love song to Senegal." It is, by any measure , one of the most graceful attempts ever by a Western musician to enter the Senegalese musical ethos and confront it on its own terms. "Amina" is the work of a mature artist passionate about applying her lyrical gifts (in English) to rhythms, harmonies, and colors inimitably Senegalese in just the perfect ways, and compassionate about the delicacy of the task. This - and her rare skills as a singer and songwriter - allowed her to carry out the task with verve.
Today's popular music in Senegal, known in the Wolof language as mbalax, developed as a blend of the country's traditional griot percussion and praise-singing with the Afro-Cuban arrangements and flavors which made "the return trip" from the Caribbean to West Africa in the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's and have flourished in West Africa ever since. Beginning in the mid-1970's the resulting mix was modernized with a gloss of more complex indigenous Senegalese dance rhythms, roomy and melodic guitar and saxophone solos, chattering talking-drum soliloquies and, on occasion, Sufi-inspired Muslim religious chant. This created a new music which was at turns nostalgic, restrained and stately, or celebratory, explosively syncopated and indescribably funky.
The Ashley Maher of "Amina" is, in all ways that should matter, an important inheritor of the mbalax tradition, even as she is obviously an innovator, extending the tradition beyond any previous boundaries. For years an ardent student of the intricate polyrhythmic vocabularies of Senegalese percussion and dance (both contemporary and traditional), Maher’s dance sensibilities have afforded her a sure hand in the overall composition of "Amina" and producer Manga’s sympathetic touch never overpowers the mbalax heartbeat running through nearly the entire album. Key members of N’Dour's legendary Super Etoile band were on hand for Maher's critical recording sessions in Dakar, including guitarist Jimi Mbaye and three of the Super Etoile percussionists -talking drummer Assane Thiam, bougarabou (sabar) drummer Thio Mbaye, and trap drummer Abdoulaye Lo.
Significantly, the response to Maher's daring effort with "Amina" in Senegal itself (and in the burgeoning worldwide Senegalese Diaspora) has already begun to raise eyebrows and garner for Maher the respect she deserves. Senegalese radio personality Badou Boussou considers "Amina" one of the best mbalax-based albums "in a long, long time," and believes "it is going to be good for mbalax as a whole." Over the past decade, says Boussou, "mbalax has been dominated and plagued by overproduced marimba-filled offerings lacking proper harmony and inspiration. 'Amina' will be a wake-up call for mbalax artists and producers, and they will be compelled to go back to the roots of the music. Mbalax artists used to make ballads like [Maher's] 'Amazing Grace' [the lead track on 'Amina'], with well-arranged percussion parts, like [Youssou N'Dour's] 'Africa Remembers', but now that seems to be passé. I hope 'Amazing Grace' changes that. What 'Amina' does, in addition to being world-open but mbalax-specific, is take mbalax back to its core, although not noting the jazz undertones in 'Amina' would be rather unpardonable."
In addition to her live cameos with Youssou N'Dour, Ashley Maher has performed extensively both in America and internationally and has a long history of playing live. She has opened for Mali's Salif Keita, Senegal's Baaba Maal, Zap Mama, South Africa's Vusi Mahlasela, and Côte d'Ivoire's Dobet Gnahore, among other African music luminaries. A "cult figure for a discerning few," as one British critic has called her, Maher is hoping to see, with the release of "Amina", a swell in the ranks of her fans worldwide, particularly if recognition in Senegal is as forthcoming as the early signs would indicate. Ashley Maher is revealing herself as an artist to watch in African music.
biography by Thomas Rome