The Playing for Change project has been the music industry’s feel-good movement of the past decade. Part of the PFC touring band, Mohammed Alidu adds his vibrant talking drum to that inspiring musical tapestry and he is proud of his work with the organization. Yet Alidu (as his friends call him) is quickly establishing himself as an important new singer, songwriter and performer on the international music scene with two albums out and another on the way.
Originally from the town of Tamale in Northern Ghana and now based in Los Angeles, Alidu’s music has one foot in his 1000-year family legacy of earthy and pulsing Bizung rhythms and another in the modern studio sounds heard in the clubs and lounges of New York, London and Paris.
This versatility made him a natural for PFC and he has also played with such diverse artists as Peter Gabriel (on OVO), Baaba Maal, Tinariwen, Michael Franti, Ziggy Marley, Keb Mo’ and countless others in the U.S. and around the world. Recently he’s even hooked up with Benjamin LeBrave of the tastemaker label Akwaaba for a set of remixes. One thing that’s consistent throughout, however, is that he connects with musicians and audiences wherever he goes.
“I think if you open yourself up to others, they will open themselves up to you,” Alidu explains. “What I do I do from my heart, and so far everywhere I’ve traveled people seem to embrace that.”
Building on the traditional drums and vocals of the mesmerizing 2007 debut entitled Asisawa, which honored his family’s legacy, Alidu made a decisive statement of self on 2010’s wholly modern Land of Fire, which is filled with soaring vocals, warm electric and acoustic guitars and playful horns – it’s a broad inclusive aesthetic that recalls the work of such legends as King Sunny Ade, Amadou and Mariam and others.
“Land of Fire was a learning process and I learned every step of the way,” Alidu says. “From where to place the mics to get the sound I wanted to understanding the type of mix and mastering the record needed, it was all so new to me and there was a lot of trial and error. But I loved it! I always loved the technical side but never had the opportunity to get much training in it.”
“I think it’s clear there is an appreciation for my music in the U.S.,” Alidu points out. “I think more and more people are open to it because ultimately it’s based on the blues and rhythms they are all very familiar with—in soul, funk and even country! It’s just presented in a different way.”
Even though Alidu has changed his music and his approach to fit with modern times, he has not forgotten about his homeland or the mission of Playing For Change – he regularly goes back to Tamale, Ghana to work at the Bizung School of Music and Dance, which he founded with help from the Playing For Change Foundation in 2010.
“The way we learned music before doesn’t exist anymore,” Alidu says of his people. “I used to sit at my Father’s feet every night to learn the history of Dagbon and the proverbs, stories and patterns of the talking drum. Our history is not written, it’s all oral and spoken through the music and so the school is the place that can pass along the tradition and history for the younger generation to understand where they come from in order to know where they can go.”
Through his school and performances, Alidu is also leading the charge to modernize the music at home, not simply by added elements of pop, hip-hop, reggae or funk, but by recognizing and then reimagining the Dagbani music already there and celebrating it.
“We have the same traditions as the people in Mali but somehow people in Mali have been better about promoting their traditional music,” Alidu points out. “I hope people will see that we also have something to be proud of.”