Wally Badarou on his Fusion Legacy and Copyright Advocacy

April 2, 2024

Season 4 | Episode 3

In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, Makhtar Diop revisits the heyday of the late 70’s fusion and electro-pop era with trailblazing keyboardist and synth pioneer Wally Badarou. Wally shares his unique journey from a family of Beninese doctors to his prolific work as a session musician and composer with English groups like Level 42, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, and many others. Reflecting on his upbringing in both Africa and France, Wally discusses his deep-rooted passion for music and technology, along with his ongoing advocacy for the rights of music composers in an era of digital production.

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Makhtar Diop: Welcome to Creative Development with IFC, I am Makhtar Diop, the Managing Director of the International Finance Corporation. My guest today is Mr. Wally Badarou, a distinguished composer, musician, thinker, futurist and producer with roots in France and Benin. He is known for his exceptional talents on keyboards and synthesizers, and his prolific work as a session musician but also as a film composer. He has recorded with English groups like Level 42, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, Manu Dibango, Gregory Isaacs, Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Youssou N’Dour - the list is very, very long. Today Wally continues to create music, and champion the rights of music authors and composers as a board member and advisor for industry organizations. Welcome Wally to Creative Development with IFC.

Wally Badarou: Thank-you.

Makhtar: So, Wally, you are a precursor you started at a time where there are very few Africans in fusion. You’re coming from something also, which is a family of Beninese doctors. And there is a very strong tradition, for those who don't know, of medicine in Benin. Tell us a little bit about that journey. You know, when your parents, like everybody, wanted you to go and study in Europe, to study maybe space and aviation, and you end up playing music and making it a profession?

Wally: My parents had an incredible, incredible journey in life. Because they came from Africa, they came from Benin. At the time it was called Dahomey. My father was among the last in the family. And in his brotherhood, he was the only one going to school. The rest of the family didn't go to school. I mean, the parents only thought of him going to school because it was sort of a brand-new thing. And he managed to succeed at school to the point where he was sent to France to carry on his studies. And he met my mother, they both met in Benin, but then they really sort of got together in Dakar, Senegal, because that's where we would have to go to high school before you would join college. And they both studied medicine in France. And that's how I was born in Paris, France. That makes me French from day one. And that's a very important thing, because it means that my very formative years have been in France. 

I heard about Edith Piaf, and all those French singers before I discovered the musicians from my continent of origin. And that makes a huge difference. Because I was accustomed to not only French pop, but also classical music and all that film music as well. I mean, my parents were very enthused by film music. So, when we traveled back to Africa, because my parents, once they finished studying, they went back to Dahomey to practice and I was aged between seven and 17, so I spent about nine to 10 years in Africa - then I could absorb the African part of things for having lived in Africa, for having lived in my country of origin. But I always felt like I did not really belong. Because even though I was originated from Dahomey, I could barely speak any Dahomeyan language, because my native language was French. That's one aspect of my whole life, which is that I've never belonged to nowhere.

And I always felt alien to anything I was in. In Africa, I was a French. In French, I'm an African. That's the way it is. And this has carried with me, even in the music area.

We went back to France, I started to be become enthused, with anything with aviation, space. You know, those were the years of Apollo 11 landing on the moon and all that. I mean the whole of the space race - I was really, really into it. I could name each and every individual astronaut on the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, you know, I knew them all. And I was into aviation, I was into the DC8, I was into all those engines. I didn't want to become a pilot, but just the idea of engineering, aviation engineering, was really fantastic. This sort of got me into feeling comfortable with the technology. Technology, it never was a problem. For me, it was always something that I was really embracing as a tool to actually go beyond whatever, wherever you were. So I went back to France, I was age 17. But then I was not very good at mathematics. My mathematics were very poor. Unfortunately, that made me, you know, forget about the aviation courses, obviously, because you needed to be good at mathematics. So, I was sort of going to do some literary stuff or law. And I ended up studying law in France, in Nanterre. But gradually, that thing that I had within which is called music sort of took over. And that was it. The rest of it was basically listening to records. Thank God we have records, sound recording, as a technology that will allow these things to be a mentor, you know. I was raised listening to Ray Charles, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Santana - all those people were incredible teachers, just listening to what they did. And probably I had a good ear and a good memory. So, I was kind of trying to decipher things.

My first instrument was a flute. Then I had a melodica, then I had some kind of ukulele. I had all kinds of instruments. My parents - because my father was into music as well, but it was just a hobby for him, you know. So, he would bring back sometimes one of those instruments, and I'll be playing those things. And at some point, when we went back to France, my little brother brought back an electric bass at home, and my parents were like, ‘oh my God, you're talking serious stuff What is this? In our home?’ Because all they could see, you know, was like heavy metal, you know, the spliff and all that thing. They knew it was something that you shouldn't get into. So, they sent me to discourage my brother from high school bands. So, I went to one of their rehearsals, and they were doing some Deep Purple kind of thing, you know, and I was like, ‘okay, I want to be your organ player’. We didn’t even have an organ! But that was it.

Makhtar: There is something that is very interesting and common. I have seen so many musicians of our generation, who like you had parents abroad and they were supposed to take a path of studies, which were more formal. I have a couple of friends, good friends that I can mention to you. Someone like Jean Pierre Senghor who ended up playing 20 years with Gilberto Gil. Baba Wally - a guitar player who also ended up in Paris. So, I suppose the same pattern…

Wally: The 70’s were incredible years in terms of how many incredible stuffs were coming out of Africa. We're talking about Fela Kuti, we're talking about you know, Osibisa, we're talking about all those incredible bands. We're talking also about what was happening in America. I mean, those were the incredible years for Stevie Wonder, for instance, I mean, his records of the 70s are like, one of a kind. I mean, he never could duplicate that afterwards. We're talking about Herbie Hancock; we’re talking about Headhunters. We're talking about Weather Report. I mean, all those incredible sounds and great, incredible endeavors. People were not just trying to imitate. People, were trying to push the envelope in terms of what it is that we can do that is going to blow everybody's mind. You know, that's when you listen to ‘Shaft’, you know, Isaac Hayes, it was like, Oh my God! We're talking about symphonic African American music, you know, and it was, wow. And jazz. So, fusion came naturally to me. I mean, it was bound to be because back in those days, music was going to be more electrified by Miles Davis. The synthesizer was still a machine of experience, it could only play one note at a time, didn't have memory.  So, you had to forge the sound at the same time as you were actually creating the pattern that you wanted to play, and you had to perform all that at the same time. I'm talking about my life as a session player. But that's basically what it was. So, we were striving for excellence and singularity. We were not trying to be like the others in the pack, you wanted to be singled out.

Makhtar: You’re so right, I think that 70s needs to be revisited and documented in terms of creativity, I fully agree with every single word you said, everything that had been done in the continent, in Europe, in US - the vibrancy that you had there, the creativity was a kind of a unique period. But yeah, something quite so interesting. A lot of people were, you know, either in France, when they were coming from a French speaking country, or in the UK, while they were coming from Ghana, and from the English speaking. You crossed the channel, you are only the first who jumped and started working with Level 42, Foreigner, Mick Jagger, Gregory Isaacs, etc. So, you spent a lot of time in the UK and absorbed this part of the culture, which was quite also different and unique in terms of fusion from what was happening in France.

Wally: I went to the army, French army, I did my military service as a Frenchman, and out of military service, I decided I was going to go back to school, because I didn't think that music was going to be my thing. Even though things were happening to me, I was just too afraid of that very precarious lifestyle. So I went back to school, and then I had a call from Manu Dibango. He heard of me, you know, doing some stuff. And he said ‘just come and play on my record’. I come over, you know, and I do my little thing. So, I signed as a as an artist at Barclay records in France. And one of the executives at Barclay records. One day he called me, he said, all we want is you come over, you play piano, you improvise whatever you want, and we give you 1000 Francs, how about that? And I went for it. And that did me good. Because at that session, I met two musicians. That's the kind of thing that they didn't tell me… I thought I was going to just be by myself. But we ended up being a trio. There was a bass player and the drummer both from England. This was the first time I was working with English musicians. At the end of the session, they came to me and said, “Wally, we love what you do. Please come over we're working on something of our own, you know, which is totally different, of course.” And, boy, I did that one session in Paris. After that one, the first one, right. And that session was Pop Muzik - the single that became huge in England and in America. That's how I crossed the channel because I had to go and promote that single in England and then by doing so, I met another drummer, who would say, ‘Wally, I want you to meet that bass player’. We didn't have a name yet. It became Level 42. But I was still signed to Barclay Records in France, which is the reason why I never joined officially Level 42. And at the same time, that single was huge in America. And at that time, Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, was looking for a keyboard player to do the next Grace Jones album, along with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. And someone said, ‘Oh, you want to hire this guy. He's Wally Badarou, he played on that tune, you know, Pop Muzik? Oh, yeah. Is that so? I need him”. And that's how I met Chris Blackwell. Whether or not I was at the right time at the right place, or the other way around, which is that I was doing the thing that people wanted me to be a part of, because they needed the kind of sound or contribution that I could bring to them, is something for debate. I had a double life. One in England, working with Level 42 and one in Nassau, Bahamas where Chris Blackwell had his Studio, Compass Point. And which, because of the sound that we managed to do, with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and all that, we named the band, the recording band, the Compass Point All Stars. And then we got Joe Cocker, we got James Brown, we got Robert Palmer, we've got the Talking Heads, Mick Jagger, and all that coming over because they loved the sound that we're doing over there.

Makhtar: This is fantastic. People who are following fusion did not understood why you are not a formal member of Level42. Now we understand. But let's turn to something which was quite interesting, as you said, your engineering mind, your technological mind, push you to really push the envelope on everything, which was synthesizer, electronic, and you're able to move the envelope. But also, it brings us to something which is very contemporaneous, which is copyright, and digital rights of musicians. Because this is a world where you create, and it is world where you have blockchain, you have everything happening, artificial intelligence, I think that's very important to think about it very carefully. And I know that you are spending a lot of time thinking about it. I must say that in my own life, when I was in government, I helped to change the copyright law in my country for musicians. But that was a different time, where digital was not as advanced as now. Where are you on this project that you are doing on copyrights?

Wally: It's a constant, evolving situation. And things that were true just five years ago, are different nowadays. My position as a musician, and I would say, as a composer from improvisation, allows me to articulate the very problems that we in contemporary actual music, we are facing, especially in Africa. Musicians start with one riff, one idea, one set of chords. And then gradually, there's something called a groove, or something called a succession of chords, which a melody will stem out of which words will be to put upon. It will rarely be just the other way around, which is like something that you would find in Europe, for instance, or in the Western world, you will have people thinking of something that they want a message that they want to put together, and then they will create a melody to stick to that and then they will bring some musicians and arranger to do things. In Africa, music is first and foremost. So, the reason why I'm talking about this is because of that, I had a very, very from day one precise idea of how to talk and be defending the creator, standing from the improvisation point where you don't know the future of what you're going to be doing. Before the digital world, you would put your idea onto tape, you will have to go to a regular studio to properly record it. And in between, you will have a producer, a publisher, all kinds of things that would help you protect your work. Nowadays, you don't need that anymore. Anybody with a laptop, or even with an iPhone, the incredible music software available to anybody. If you have talent and skills and knowledge, you can put up any music with any tool today, you will do it digitally. And you could instantly have it put on to YouTube or whatever platform around. And if you are not careful enough, your stuff will just go unprotected. And that's the bulk of what's happening in Africa. For instance, in mechanical rights in America, they put up a collecting society called the MLC, which is made Mechanical License Collective, which has about $2 billion of un-distributed royalties, the bulk of which from abroad of America, which is basically Latin music, African music, European music, all those things that have not been properly documented in America, are generating huge amount of money that is sitting there. So basically, our challenge in Africa, I would say, is documentation. The digital world allows documentation. So that whatever you do, would have your signature into it, which will be indelible, and so that wherever it goes, and whatever happens to it, we can still trace who you are so that eventually, if there's money being made, you could get the money that is owed to you. 

Makhtar: The idea is to have a kind of ledger? Like in a blockchain whereby the DAW like sonar or Cakewalk or Cubase, whatever you're using, you play your things. And you will have a marker in the ledger will say Wally Badarou created this melody, and it will go somewhere in the database, whoever wants to use it later on it will have your signature you understand correctly? 

Wally: Absolutely. And as you just described it, you know that it already exists in this or that format, the problem with the existing systems is that they are not, how do you say?

Makhtar: Interoperability?

Wally: Exactly. And also, it will help us solve the bulk of what AI, whatever may happen to AI would produce. In other words, we should be able to find out where that music that AI is feeding from.  AI needs huge data to be doing what it does. We should be able to trace, and it is feasible. People keep on saying it's not feasible. It's too complicated. It's much too much. Sorry, sorry, guys, it is feasible. It's just a matter of convening on one set of protocols that should allow copyright to be embedded into the file itself. And that's feasible. 

Makhtar: So that's a great, great project. Now, I want to hear a little bit about your more recent solo production. There is always space, your passion about space, at an early age, seems to be following you through your career. Am I right or wrong? 

Wally: You're so right. And it's so funny that you should say that because actually, you're talking about…you talking about just not just in the nature of the music that I do, but also in the space in between the releases, I put a lot of space. Basically, I've been privileged enough to be working on songs in the past that generated enough revenue as a composer, that I can take my time and do only the things that I want to do. It's a privilege. I'm not saying that what I'm doing today is better than what I did before. But I like it better, simply because I have better control on it. And I can have the time to think, sit and look at it and let it rest. And if years later, it's still standing to me and say, I could say yes, that's something that I'd like to put out. Whereas before I wouldn't be able to do that because time is money and all that, and you had to provide and all that. Which is good, because I managed to do stuff that people today believe are great stuff. But honestly, when I look at what I did, and I don't want to downplay anything, it's just that I know there are things that I could have done better. Not that they would have been more successful. But I would have had the intellectual satisfaction of having reached the thing that I was looking for, if only I had spent just a bit more time. Now, talking about my own thing, compared to my collaboration. Collaborating with people means that you have an audience with you. Music is always live, as soon as there's one person in the room, it only takes one person in the room other than yourself to be live. And that's our problem in the studio. That's the problem with collaborating, which is that you you're not the sole judge of what you're doing. And in other words, it is much faster. And quite good things can come out of it, because it was the first take. It was fresh, and you didn't have to over-intellectualize it. But there's another side of yourself who thinks, Well, me? Yeah, maybe yeah, I understand. But I would actually, I shouldn't have left that one note that annoys me, you know, and is going to stick for years from now on, because it's recorded, it's printed. It’s good, you know what I mean? So my solo effort takes much longer than any other stuff. Not that they are better, but they are the one that you are just wanting to rely on myself, and being the first and last judge of what comes out of my studio. Once it's out of my studio, it's different. I mean, it belongs to people, you know, there's nothing much you can do about it. But for as long as it is in my studio, I like to make sure that it really fits exactly what I wanted.

Makhtar: Wally, I could spend hours with you. But I want to say that it's such an enlightening conversation. Brilliant mind that you are, a lot of humility and being a citizen of the world. And I think that is something that today resonates a lot in this world, which is a bit troubled. And I really thank you for being the precursor of bringing what you have brought to the music of the world, not the music of Africa, not the music of Europe, the music of UK, but to the world. And but also thinking about the challenge of today or tomorrow. And it's been a huge honor to have you today and thank you so very much for your fantastic contribution to music of the world, not ‘world music’ not the music of the world.

Wally: Thank you so much for saying that. Music of the world. Yes, thank you, man. It was my pleasure too Makhtar. I know where you're coming from, and I know that I was clearly understood. Thank you.