Malian Soul: An Interview with Inna Modja

‘Motel Bamako’ is the third album from Malian-French singer and composer Inna Modja. From start to finish, thirteen breathtaking tracks offer motown-soul-R’n’b vibes, mixed with electro and traditional Mali beats. Listening to it, you’ll find yourself travelling the breadth of Africa, with Inna singing in both her mother tongue, Bambara, and English, telling us the colourful, and sometimes brutally honest stories of her country and her natives. ‘Motel Bamako’ offers a glimpse into Inna’s soul as it intertwines traditional African instruments and electronic loops, showing off a huge diversity of natural musical talent and raw emotion. We spoke to the multitalented artist about the roots of her latest album and her efforts to fight for women’s rights across the world with the recent opening of La Maison Des Femmes.

KALTBLUT: So you’re just getting ready for the Reeperbahnfestival, is it your first time in Berlin?
Inna Modja: No, no. I came maybe 10 years ago! (Laughs)

KALTBLUT: Okay, so not visited for a long time then! It’s been almost 3 years since your last album, is that right?
Inna Modja: Actually it’s been 4 years, because the previous one was released in 2011. Time flies!

KALTBLUT: There is also a huge difference, I have a feeling that before it was more pop-folk and now it’s heading into a bit of a motown direction
Inna Modja: Well now it’s more blues and Malian, because the previous album was so vibe and a little bit of pop, but this time I wanted to go back to my roots. I started doing traditional Malian music when I was younger, but now I wanted to bring this modern sound into what I was doing. There is a much larger space for Mali music and in Africa a lot of people like me, my generation, we travel, we have friends on the other side of the world, so we are open. We are modern, we have the internet, we know what is happening out there. So I wanted to incorporate this into my sound, including a little bit of electronic music.

KALTBLUT: You’re already a skilled songwriter and composer, so was it difficult to create this new sound?
Inna Modja: It took me some time to get there because I didn’t know where to start, I didn’t have real example. I just kept thinking, how am I going to mix? It took me almost 2 years to figure out how I’d make this more modern sound, because that’s what I’m not so used to. When I decided I was going to mix hip-hop with it, I used to do it first when I was a younger and well all discovered the music in Mali in the late 90s, we learnt how to bring it into our language and with our own issues. I brought this style into Malian music, and you know, electronic music is made up of loops, so when I finally figured it out it made sense for me.


KALTBLUT: On the album you decided to sing in both English and in Bambara 
Inna Modja: Yeah, it just happened this way because Bambara is my language, but I grew up also speaking French and English so for me it was something that just came naturally. Bambara is important to me, my two previous albums I didn’t the opportunity to write in Bambara so I really wanted it. At first I only wanted it in Bambara but then I started singing some things and thought ah, that sounds a little better in English! So yes, it just happened really. Also, a lot of people don’t speak Bambara so English was a good mix.

KALTBLUT: I also read recently you mentioned that if people actually fully understood the lyrics then they might not be so interested in the music
Inna Modja: Well, some of the topics I write about are important because I’m relating to the war in Mali, issues with African people that we have been facing for a while now and also talking about women and what we have to face. So it’s not very positive, well, it is positive that I bring these issues up, it’s just not very light at all. But that’s what I wanted. I wanted a balance. I still make music but I want to spread the message by also making people feel good. It’s not just about thinking and questioning things, that is a part of it, but it’s also about feeling something.

KALTBLUT: So let’s talk about each track on the album and maybe discuss the message around it

I wanted to write this song about not following the rules and just being a little more dark because we all have that side. For me I wanted to start with this and just to show my darker side. A lot of artists don’t want to show it, but for me it’s like, I’m human. I also have this side.

This was about the war in Mali and everything that’s been going on. We had the first university in Tombouctou, it’s a city of knowledge and it’s very important. I wanted to show that art and culture is a weapon for us. It was tough you know, how the jihadists banned music, they banned television, they banned football, they burned books. It was horrible. They forced women to cover everything, they cut hands. It was very tough. I wanted to use my voice like a weapon. This is why I do the sound with my mouth, like a machine gun. So yes, this place is very important to me. It’s been 4 years and we are still fighting.

This was just something so basic that I wanted to speak about. When I visited my grandmother we had to go and buy water because she didn’t have basic tap water and a lot of people experienced that. I work often with the United Nations and they told me that it’s often the case with women and children are walking up to 6kms to get water. This takes up so much time, and it’s time that could be used for work, for kids to go to school. So it’s more than just walking, even without thinking about how unclean the water is at the end. We don’t think about when we use a tap at home how easily accessible something so basic is to us. It’s crazy. We need more equality in the world.

Speeches Featuring Oxmo Puccino
I already knew Oxmo, he’s a great guy. I love how he writes and he’s a great artist. So I wrote this song about all the lies and the nice words that we normally hear on repeat. Oxmo came in and did something crazy, he was like la vida loca! It was a really fun song. So we kind of made fun of what people say and it’s one of my favourite songs.

I love this song. It was like an anthem of youth coming together from everywhere, no matter where they are. We are all the same. We need the world to see us, because they don’t see us. We are not the generation from before we are Millennials. They don’t see our fashion, our art and when people think about Africa it’s almost all negative. They think of war, poverty, disease, they are just scared. But there is so much going on that is completely the opposite. You go the South or West and you see street art, designers, music. We inspire a lot of people, but we need to be acknowledged more and share these positive experiences.

Boat People Featuring Oumou Sangare
There is a big intro to this song! I perform live with some instruments and we have the video producer on stage. It’s kind of like a treat where we want to take people on this boat. When I wrote this song I was watching the news and there was a boat near Italy that sunk and every person on it drowned. I just thought these poor people all got on this boat without knowing what would happen to them. So that means that they had no hope. They didn’t care if they died trying, they would just try. This is something that you don’t buy. When you have hope, your life doesn’t matter anymore. We need to bring back hope and let people know that they can make something of their lives. Well have the chance to make it.


The Man Across The Street
Yes! I don’t know if you know this band called The Noisettes. The lead singer Shingai Shoniwa is from Zimbabwe and there is the guitarist Dan Smith, they are both my friends, and we went over to his place in Brighton one time where there was this guy on the other side of the street. I thought well he seems nice, drinking tea! To be honest I was being a little creepy (laughs). I was just watching at what he was doing. The creepy side came out. It was just one of the moments where you look at a person and wonder who they are, what they do in life.

My People Featuring Baloji
I invited one of my friends over from Congo and we were talking about everything that’s been going on there and their people. The people there would do anything for each other without any fear. Talking about this it does seem like the album is very dark (laughs)!

This is a full song in Bambara. The name means “love”, and it’s actually a very traditional song that artists often song. I wanted to make something that we could all connect with, and it’s a very popular song where I’m from. In Mali, sharing is so important and people there are so soft and sweet. Even raising a voice when you speak, it’s something that people are not used to. So I wanted to bring this love song into the album, with all of these dark topics surrounding it, like a little bubble of light.

Forgive Yourself
It’s something that I try to do often because in this world you are judging yourself too hard. Sometimes you just need a break from yourself. I believe that we all have different personalities and there is one in me that is very judgemental, so sometimes I just need to accept that I can make mistakes. It’s fine. You learn from it, or not, then you start over again. That’s the way I was raised. We come from a big family with 7 kids and I was number 6! So many people in the house, and at one point we had 3 cousins living with us. All girls and 2 boys. And so, it was important to be independent and do things for yourself, but I started becoming harsh on myself. I wanted things to be perfect, but sometimes they just weren’t. I realised at this point that something inside of me was broken. When I was young, it happened also to my sisters, I lived in Ghana at that time and I went to Mali with my mother. I must have been not even 5 years old and the sister of my grandmother took me and did female genital mutilation. So that is something that I’ve carried as a burden and growing up I felt like I wasn’t like everyone else. There was a part of me that was broken so I wanted to hide that. It’s something very sensitive to me. I didn’t want people to see through so I was always trying to be perfect. When I got older and had an operation it saved my life. I thought I’m finally the same as everyone else. I had the same opportunities. Now that I have the same luggage, I can be fucked up too, it’s okay (laughs)! That’s just me. And so, I need to remind myself that when I’m being too demanding, it’s all okay.

KALTBLUT: You’ve also mentioned fighting for women’s rights, what types of communities are you working with at the moment?
Inna Modja: I work with the United Nations a lot, and three months ago in France we opened La Maison Des Femmes, a house for women who have been raped or faced domestic violence, went through FGM, refugees and just women who need help. I have this friend who is a doctor and she is the head of the maternity. She decided she wanted to build that house and made it happen. She’s such an inspirational woman. So now women come in and they are being guided and taken care of, so now I’m going to start group talks. When you are going through something very difficult, it’s the first step of healing. You know you are in a safe space and you can talk. I want to give them the power and the strength. They’re not just survivors, they’re women that need to gain trust and self esteem again.

KALTBLUT: Is female genital mutilation something that’s very common in Africa?
Inna Modja: In East Africa it’s very common. Places like Egypt, Indonesia maybe 80% of women go through it. So it happens everywhere in the world. The thing to note is that it also happens in Europe within those communities, but we have to protect the girls. We have to do something. It’s not easy. I remember last week I was doing an interview with my doctor friend, who opened La Maison Des Femmes, and we did a Facebook live. The comments were unbelievable. We had men and women insulting us, saying that we have to do this otherwise women are going to be prostitutes, it’s crazy! A guy sent me horrible direct messages, and I’ve been dealing with this type of thing for over 10 years with people who don’t want things to change. And a lot of them are men. The thing is, it has nothing to do with men what I do with my body. But it’s also women doing this to women. Taking little girls and carrying out these procedures. We need to talk to people and explain all the damage that they’re doing the women’s health and their body. It’s very important. But there’s still a long way to go!

KALTBLUT: Did you have the opportunity to talk to your grandmother’s sister at a later time?
Inna Modja: No, she died. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have much to say. She didn’t do it because she wanted to hurt me. My mum told me later that it was out of ignorance. At that time I was nearly 5 and I was speaking English and French, my Bambara was little rough, and she thought, “She doesn’t even speak our language well.” It was kind of way to bring me to her roots. It’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s something so stupid. The reasons why it’s practiced everywhere is different. Some people say it’s to take away the masculinity of women, some people say it’s just to control women so they don’t have needs, it’s crazy. But we have to explain why these reasons are not valid and protect little girls.

Broken Smiles
I believe that things will get better. For me seeing people lose their smiles and worrying all of the time, this is not what life is supposed to be. Life should be light. My boyfriend and I love to travel, we just take our bags and go. Meet new people, find new cultures. I met a lot of broken smiles along the way, but it takes just a little thing to change it. People are just scared to make a change.

Going Home Featuring Kaabi Kouyaté
As someone who left home when they were fairly young to study, to work, to discover the world, it was very important for me to return sometimes. I was alone most of the time, living on campus, working. You have this feeling when you’re far away from home sometimes that you need your family. Now I’m between friends and Mali, it’s a nice feeling. Home is something that you’ll always have.

Interview by Nicolas Simoneau & Nicola Philipps

Motel Bamako is out now via Warner Music

La Maison Des Femmes