Name: Christine Salem
Nationality: Réunionnaise / French
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current Release: Christine Salem's Mersi is out now on Blue Fanal.
Book: Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch;
Painting: The works of the street artist Jace;
Song: Véli by Danyèl Waro and Titi Robin

If you enjoyed this interview with Christine Salem and would like to find out more about her and her work, visit her excellent official website. She is also on Facebook and Instagram.

When did you start writing your own music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I remember singing since I was a little girl, but I wrote my first song when I was 9 or 10, in English. It was never released on an album. My first musical influences were gospel and blues.

When I discovered the traditional music of our ancestors, maloya, I started to write songs in Creole and in the language of our ancestors.  

My first album Waliwa, Live à Saint-Nazaire was released in 2001. It was a live album produced in collaboration with the French festival Les Escales de Saint-Nazaire.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

At school, we were not taught the history of my island, Reunion, and we were not told about slavery. So when I discovered the history of my ancestors, something clicked and I wanted to find out about my history. That's when I discovered maloya and it inspired me.

It is the music of slaves and its origins are Malagasy, African and Comorian. It is a music played during ceremonies, where the ancestors are honoured and trance is invoked (when someone is inhabited by a spirit).

Lo Rwa Kaf, Danyèl Waro, Granmoun Lélé, etc. are influential artists of traditional maloya who inspired me.

These artists are fighters because maloya was frowned upon, even banned. Maloya was not considered as music and was not valued. The force of the Catholic Church made it something evil, like witchcraft. Artists, musicians and writers have changed this mentality.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I am inspired by the history of my island and its traditional music: maloya. I often say that maloya came to me. When I became aware of this music, I wanted to perform it and when I sing it, it is as if I am inhabited by a spirit. I can sing in languages that I have never learnt.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

My first challenge was to make maloya visible and valued. In 2011, I was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (a French honorary decoration from the Ministry of Culture, which rewards "persons who have distinguished themselves by their creation in the artistic or literary field or by the contribution they have made to the influence of arts and letters in France and in the world".) I then travelled with my music all over the world.  

When I was working on my album Larg Pa Lo Kor, I let go of the protest aspect to integrate the music I love into my work. I "mixed" maloya with blues and rock by keeping the rhythms of maloya but adding a guitar for example.

When starting out, many artists want to "change the world" with their work. What was this like for you? What were some of your early ambitions and in which way were you able to realise them?

As I said before, my first ambition was to make maloya visible. Today, the fight for the recognition of maloya is not over, but I want to integrate music that I like and which has inspired me in my compositions. By travelling and playing my music all over the world, I think I have contributed in a small way to the popularisation of maloya.   

In which way do you feel as though music can bring about change and lead to tangible improvements?

Music is an essential element in society. I have always considered music as a cure, a medicine. I played music just for me in the beginning, it was a way to heal the soul and to do myself good.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?

During my collaborations, it is often other artists who take the initiative to contact me to work together or, when we bump into each other, we discuss the idea of a collaboration. When I do collaborations, it's the human side that comes first, the feeling. The artistic side is not too important, if it works on a human level, everything works.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I get up quite late, do my usual activities like cleaning, cooking and then at some point I feel the need to sit down to write and sing. With me, inspiration is spontaneous and can happen at any time. In my life, I don't create barriers between my activities, I don't calculate the hours devoted to music, or those devoted to my personal life. It all blends together.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

I think the most significant event in my career was the creation of my label in 2013: Blue Fanal. At some point I decided to stop doing other work to focus on my music. So I went on training courses to learn about the different activities in the music industry because I wanted to understand how everything worked before starting my own business.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

In my case, the music and lyrics come to me spontaneously. I can be inspired by a personal event or current events in the news. The creation can follow a positive event or, on the contrary, a negative one. These events will inspire me and push me to write. When that happens, I sit down at the piano with a pen and paper.  

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

I think music heals, that's for sure, but to hurt, I don't know ...

Yes, it can happen that lyrics and music make us think of sad events, like flashbacks, but I don't remember any music that hurt me. There are also songs that speak to us even if we don't understand the language of the lyrics. There are vibrational connections in music that make us feel good or bad: it's a feeling, a personal sensation. Some songs can help to unblock situations and give us the strength to make decisions, for example.

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

For me, music is a shared experience where everyone does what they want, as they feel it. There are no barriers in music.

I am perhaps more sceptical about cover versions. I rarely do covers because you have to be sure of your intentions to be as "authentic" as the original.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses like seeing, smelling and touching. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses?

I can't remember a song that evoked a specific memory like a smell or an image. But it's true that some songs bring back memories like places, people or moments in life.

Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I have always wondered if being an artist is a profession?

I think that everyone is born artistic and the more curious people will develop the ability to create. I see artistic creation as a 6th sense, more developed in artists.

What can music express about life and death which other forms of art may not?

All the arts express life and death but in different ways. As in any artistic practice, in music, when you write a song, each person who listens to it will interpret it in a different way. In an even different way than the original intention of the author because the interpretation is personal.