Photo by the author Senegalese singer-guitarist ILAM is the new sound of World Music: a soulful, committed voice expressing conscious lyrics, a guitar-heavy aesthetic traversing African, Caribbean and North American traditions and, above all, a hope "that universal and unconditional love will one day win hearts over, and heal the illnesses of our world."
Born in Dakar into a family of scholars and nobles, ILAM (born Karim Tall) was drawn to music early on, and although music was reserved to the ancient Griot caste, he became eager to share his voice with the world. Studying vocals at the Music Conservatory of Senegal's National School of Fine Arts, in 2005 he joined a hip-hop band mixing rap with acoustic, traditional Senegalese music, learning to play the guitar as an autodidact, driven to go out on his own. ILAM arrived in Montreal in 2014. Within a couple of years, the young artist caught the attention not only of music lovers but also festivals and players in the industry. Performing around the city and across Canada, ILAM began earning recognition and awards, including CBC Radio Canada's World Music Revelation for 2016 -2017. His newly released first full-length album, Hope, fuses diverse musical influences; ILAM's soulful voice evokes the depth and power of West African nomads through a contemporary, urban sound, delivering a singular blend of tradition with reggae, blues, folk, pop and rock. Sung in "Wolof ," "Peulh ," French and some English, ILAM's lyrics celebrate love, honor women, and denounce greed, judgment and the allure of power.
Coming off a recent tour in China, including a concert attended by 4,000 people at Beijing's National Center for the Performing Arts, and following an EP released in 2015, ILAM launched Hope at Montreal's Club Soda on November 16th. His stage name—a Peulh word referring to the water collecting after the rainy season, allowing the crops to grow back—is also the inspiration for the album's title. "Without water, nothing can survive," he explained in our interview. "Water is vital. Water is hope for a good harvest."
NOISEY: I hear reggae, rock, folk, even some electronica on the album. What are some of your musical influences?
ILAM: I like exploring musical universes from different genres. I listen to many artists who influence and inspire me—from Youssou Ndour to B.B. King to Janis Joplin. I like everything that is authentic, that is real, that makes my heart tremble.
What made you decide to cover Gilles Vigneault's "J'ai planté un chêne" (I Planted an Oak)?
I wanted to pay tribute to this great Québec poet and also to make a statement about diversity and inclusivity, mixing Québécois culture with my own. The title refers to the fact that oaks take a long time to grow, and are also a symbol of stability. And I wanted to plant a seed of diversity and inter-cultural understanding by covering it.
Tell me about the lyrics of "Money."
The song is about the use of money; everyone needs it, but some just blow it away for self-interest. If you've got money, you've got to stay humble. Money gives you status, but not real wealth. Wealth is in the heart, in how you deal with people and relationships. It's just a means, not an end.
What are some of the other messages you're sharing on the album?
The album is all about hope. My entire life has been about not losing hope. "Faté" is about not forgetting the struggles you went through to get to where you are, not to give up when things get hard. And not forgetting where you came from, or deny your roots, because one needs a strong foundation in order to grow. The best example is the song "African Woman." These women are incredible. They are mothers, they are fighters, they are role models who make countless sacrifices. Humanity should take an example from these brave women. Even though we suffer oppression ("Tiss"), corruption and false friendship ("Ayaya"), we shouldn't stop hoping for a better life. Because hope is the start. Without hope there is no action. It makes everything possible.
* The native language of the Wolof people.
** Language of the Fula/Fulani —a West African ethnic group with the largest nomadic community in the world. Sharonne Cohen is a writer based in Montreal. You can read her past work here.