Donné Roberts: Endless Experimentation
5 August 2011 No Comments
By Anya Wassenberg
“I was born in Madagascar, I grew up in Russia, and now I’m in Canada,” begins singer/songwriter and guitarist Donné Roberts. In a nutshell, it describes a journey that’s been both physical and musical. “I was lucky enough to meet people from all over the world. For me, music is like love, there [are] no boundaries. If the love is there, things will work out perfectly.”
Having picked up the guitar at an early age, a wide-ranging lifestyle and an open mind sparked a lifetime love of musical experimentation. “Starting from when I was in Russia,” he explains. “I started mixing Russian music with Madgascar.” He began his musical career in Russia and Western Europe in the 1980s.
After making Toronto his home, Donné quickly developed a reputation for his often lightning fast technique, along with introducing audiences to the beautiful harmonies that exemplify Malagasy music.
In 2004, he was part of the CBC recording project African Guitar Summit that brought together some of the top African guitar players in the country. It united musicians from Guinea, Ghana, Kenya, Burundi and Madagascar, and Donné describes a working process that was cooperative. “With African Guitar Summit, I had them do things on my song – but I didn’t direct them,” he says. Similarly, his additions became part of each of the others’ compositions. The result was a 2005 Juno win for the group, and another nomination in 2007 for the follow up CD African Guitar Summit 2.
In between, Donné released his own CD Rhythm Was Born in 2006, resulting in another series of unique recordings and cross cultural mash ups. “I invited Marc and Dave to play on my first album,” he remembers. On the song “Hira’N'Taolo” , he’s accompanied by well known Aboriginal artists Marc Nadjiwan and David DeLeary. “I started to do things with Aboriginal people,” he says, in his typically low key expression. It’s a collaboration that has fueled a series of live performances in the style he calls “African Pow-Wow” that meld his shimmering guitar work with the insistent rhythm and distinctive harmonics of Marc’s First Nations culture.
Now that it’s come time to hit the studio again, he’s taken the experiment another step. “Now I’m recording a new album, and I’m using female Aboriginal vocalists.” He lists recording artists Jani Lauzon and Cheri Maracle, among others. “It sounds really good.” The upcoming release will also include work with Toronto-based Egyptian singer Maryem Tollar. “She does some of her Arabic stuff, which sounds great too,” he reports.
Even though it’s become something of his stock in trade, blending divergent musical styles and cultures isn’t the easiest way to make music. “It’s still a lot of work,” he says. “You have to know the person. You have to know how they sing. It’s not like, you put an African and an Aboriginal together on stage and you work a miracle.”
The second of his current projects is a case in point. Okavangu, the African Orchestra is a project that began performing earlier this year. Similar to African Guitar Summit, the band unites musicians from all over the African continent, from Madagascar to Senegal, people whose styles wouldn’t meet under typical circumstances. “With African Orchestra, we share the rhythm, but we each do it differently,” he explains, describing a gradual process of working together, each musician adding their own unique element to the mix. “We can actually work it out together,” he laughs.
An upcoming show at Lula Lounge puts the spotlight on yet another ongoing musical concern, the roots music of Madagascar, although the players are different again. “I have totally different people in my band. There’s nobody from Madagascar. I would call it very Canadian,” he jokes.
He’ll be playing an acoustic set with a trio consisting of him on guitar with percussion and vocals. “Traditional Madagasy music is not that well known,” he says. “They’re just beautiful melodies, some sad songs. Not dancey.” The material will include both traditional songs and original compositions in the same vein.
He reports that the new CD will be coming out this fall, and you can also hear him playing his composition “Feo Menga” as the theme song for the show Fresh Air weekends on CBC Radio One.
To learn more about Donné, visit donneroberts.com
See Donné live at the Lula Lounge August 5 www.lula.ca/Events/2011/august/Donne-Roberts