Dee Dee Bridgewater Discovers Her 'Red Earth' When Bridgewater came up empty after tracing her family tree back more than 100 years, she turned to West African music. After a trip to Mali in 2004, she discovered its complex musical heritage. Hear an interview about the inspiration behind her new album, Red Earth.
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Dee Dee Bridgewater Discovers Her 'Red Earth'

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Dee Dee Bridgewater Discovers Her 'Red Earth'

Dee Dee Bridgewater Discovers Her 'Red Earth'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater calls her new album "Red Earth," her journey home. She recorded it in West Africa in Mali. Dee Dee Bridgewater was born in Memphis, has been a jazz singer for more than 30 years now. She's also the host of the NPR program JazzSet. The new CD mixes her own lyrics with Malian songs, her own jazz combo with Malian musicians and singers. "Red Earth" sprang from her search for her African heritage.

(Soundbite of song "Afro Blue")

Ms. DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER (Jazz Singer): (Singing) Dream of a land mu soul is from.

I was really trying to find my African ancestry. I traced my family through that, about 150 years. And then, I just ran up against a blank wall. And so I started listening to music from all of the different West African countries. And every time I heard music from Mali, it was as if I knew this music.

So finally, after two years of listening to music, you know, I decided I needed to go. And when I did in 2004, accompanied by (unintelligible), the first thing that happened when I got off the plane, I was waiting for my bags, there's an elderly man came over to me, hugging me and kissing me on both cheeks. And this man thought I was his niece, who had been away in Europe for five years. You know, he was convinced that I was his niece. So that was the first time.

(Soundbite of song "Afro Blue")

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Rich as a night. Afro blue.

BLOCK: Did you know much about your African heritage before you started this project?

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: I didn't know anything. And as a matter of fact, to be perfectly honest, I had grown up with very, very negative impressions of Africa. In, you know, schoolbooks where they would talk about Africa, it was always like the Africans were savages. I had no idea that there were African kingdoms, that there were, you know, these deep, cultural roots, you know, the whole, griot oral historians. You know, I didn't know this stuff because we weren't taught that in school.

(Soundbite of song "Mama Digna Sara Ye")

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Mama digna sara ye. Mama don't ever go away. Mama digna sara ye. Mama don't ever go away. Mama digna sara ye. Mama don't ever go away. Mama digna sara ye. Mama don't ever go away. Mama digna sara ye. Mama don't ever go away.

BLOCK: What exactly do you think it was in the music from Mali that you were hearing that sounded so familiar to you?

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: It was the music in general. It just feels familiar, like I knew it. And when I went the first time in 2004, (unintelligible) took me to a lot of clubs, so that I could hear live music. And I just - every time I had a need to fit in with these people, and I never, ever do that. And, I mean, it would be so strong that finally, I mean, I would either ask (unintelligible) to go and ask them. Or sometimes I just get up and start singing with them, either scatting or making a counter-melody and…

BLOCK: And that's not something you do?

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: Never. No. Now that I have been touring basically now for a little over 21 years, the last thing I want to do is fit in with somebody, I mean, truly.

BLOCK: And what was that like when you'd be getting up on stage? And I'm imagining it's a small place in Bamako, in Mali.

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: Yeah. Yeah. It was, you know, Melissa, I have to say it was nothing short of amazing. The musicians were baffled. They have a custom in Mali, when griot singers are performing, people will come up while that griot is singing and put money in their hands. So in some instances, that happened to me. And, I mean, I had a woman give me a sweater. I mean, I - and these, I'm talking about one of the poorest African countries. For someone to give me some money, which maybe the equivalent was $1, but $1 for them is a lot. And you're not supposed to give it back, I found out after I tried to give back the first time this happened, you know, that's an insult because they are, like, giving you a kind of praise.

(Soundbite of song "Mama Digna Sara Ye")

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) (Unintelligible) my own, and my pride and joy. (Unintelligible). I love my mama. Mama digna sara ye. Mama don't ever go away. Mama digna sara ye.

BLOCK: Let's listen together to the title song from the CD This is "Red Earth."

(Soundbite of song "Red Earth")

BLOCK: Now, is this is a song, is this your song? Is this an old Malian song? What is it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: It's an old, griot song, "Massane Cisse." For most of the Malian songs, I've tried to do very simple adaptations lyrically. So in this particular song, I decided to tell my own griot story.

(Soundbite of song "Red Earth")

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) I was born, it made me feel free. But it was so good to me.

And that is how I call my part "Red Earth." And I don't really do it all with Massane Cisse. That is sung by (unintelligible).

BLOCK: So two different narratives going on here?

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: Two completely different narratives.

(Soundbite of song "Red Earth")

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) And make me reveal, the pain(ph) must you make. I want you to take them home.

I've always had a fascination for red earth.

BLOCK: What do you mean?

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: I love red earth. My mother told me, when I was a baby, in Memphis, I would take my clothes off and roll around in this red earth and cover my ear with it. And every day, she said, it was almost like a ritual and she did not understand what that came from. So when I went to Mali, and the first morning, when I opened the curtains in my hotel room, and I saw this deep, deep, red earth, I turned to my husband who co-produced this album with me. And I said, I'm home. I know I'm home. I know it in my heart.

(Soundbite of song "Red Earth")

BLOCK: Well, Dee Dee Bridgewater, thanks so much.

Ms. BRIDGEWATER: You are so welcome, Melissa.

BLOCK: Dee Dee Bridgewater's CD is "Red Earth: A Malian Journey." You can hear Bridgewater in concert at our Web site,

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