Sillah, over the years the lineup of Heartwash has seen various incarnations. If I say the heart of Heartwash is really Sillah Ishaga, would you agree?
Sillah Ishaga (vocals): "Of course there's some truth to that, but of course no man is an island. I do write the majority of the songs, but I still need people around me to play them."
Bernd Thoné (drums): "The last big changes in the lineup of the band happened in 2013 and since then the band really reinvented itself. Personally I've already been playing with Heartwash since 2008. Back then I was going through a period of my life where I had put my musical career on the backburner, when one day I got a call from Sillah asking me how I would feel about becoming the drummer for Heartwash."
Sillah Ishaga: "I'd met Bernd a few times already at some of the various reggae parties in Antwerp I used to frequent at that time and through the grapevine I'd learned he was a drummer. An earlier incarnation of Heartwash had imploded in 2005 and in the years that followed I mainly focused on solo efforts. At one point I was asked by Choux de Bruxelles to contribute a track for their 'Radio Transit' compilation. That compilation turned out quite successful and generated a lot of gigs, giving a renewed confidence in self and the drive to give Heartwash a second chance."
Were you already involved in music before you came to Europe?
Sillah Ishaga: "Absolutely! I remember wanting to become a deejay ever since I was a little boy, simply because I was mad about music. That was something that was instilled in me by my father, who still played traditional music for a while. Because he wasn't part of the griot caste, he was forced to abandon it though. It was also my father who introduced me to reggae music when he bought me a cassette tape of Bob Marley's 'Rastaman Vibration' album. When I got to know Bob's music it was the very first time I heard someone sing about the plight of the common man; a huge difference with traditional West-African music, where it's mostly historic events and important figures dominating the songs. As a teenager I started spinning records at parties left and right, but I wasn't able to fulfill my true musical ambitions until I arrived in Belgium."
Am I right in saying Belgium was never really your destination of choice?
Sillah Ishaga: "That's correct, yes. In 1997 I boarded a flight in Guinea and ended up in Zaventem. It was really my intention to travel on to Switzerland or the United Kingdom, because in all honesty I didn't know the first thing about Belgium. I claimed to be a refugee from Sierra Leone, my actual place of birth, but a country I was never a resident of as I grew up in Gambia, but to my astonishment immigration services kept claiming I was from Ivory Coast; a bit of a strange discussion for a Mandinka from West-Africa as the concept of borders was really introduced by Europeans and the Wassoulou or Mandinka Empire spanned all the aforementioned countries. In the end I was denied refugee status, but I started working regardless and in 2002 I was one of the lucky ones who benefited from the "regularization" scheme set up by the Belgian government."
During your stay at the Fedasil refugee center in Kapellen, you met Rudi De Bleser. How important would you say that encounter has been for your career in music?
Sillah Ishaga: "Very important and not only for my career in music, as it was also thanks to him and his colleagues that I ended up staying in Belgium. It was with Rudi and Vidal Richards that I put together a music project called Beats Unshackled: I sang, Vidal, a refugee from Sierra Leone, rapped and Rudi was in charge of the technical side of things. I quickly grew hungry for more though and that's how I ended up becoming a vocalist for Sunscape (multicultural dub reggae band from Sint-Niklaas, around brothers Mustafa and Nordine Ketami, red.)."
The song 'Taxi Driver' from your recent 'Tesitoo/Ready To Work' album, is an autobiographical reference to the period you spent driving around Antwerp at the wheel of a cab. It's often said the whole world passes through a taxi sooner or later. How important would you say that job has been in getting to know Belgian society in general and the people of Antwerp in particular?
Sillah Ishaga: "I can't deny that my job as a taxi driver allowed me to get to know Antwerp and its people through and through. I truly enjoyed my time as a cabbie, but because of the hours one has to put in, it's a hard job to combine with family life. These days I'm a bus driver for De Lijn."
Compared to 'Realization', Heartwash's 2008 debut, 'Tesitoo/Ready To Work' counts far more songs in Mandinka.
Sillah Ishaga: "In the end it's just easier to express oneself in one's native tongue and for me that's Mandinka. It's true there's quite a big contrast between 'Realization' and 'Tesitoo/Ready To Work'; our debut album counted but two songs in Mandinka and for 'Tesitoo/Ready To Work' we switched that ratio around."
Bernd, how difficult is it for a bunch of Flemish musicians to work in a language you don't understand?
Bernd Thoné: "That is mostly Bart's (Van Gompel, piano and vocals, red.) forte. He usually analyses Sillah's lyrics and gives them a phonetic reworking. Sillah also always explains more or less what he's on about with a song."
Have you guys never contemplated adding traditional West-African instruments?
Sillah Ishaga: "I have to admit the thought already crossed my mind, but it's not always easy to find musicians that are able to play instruments like the kora or the balafon. Apart from that it also takes some getting used to from the other musicians in the band as not all African instruments use the western scale system (scales in traditional Western music generally consist of seven notes and repeat at the octave, red.)."