Dig the diverse sounds of Sena Dagadu
Best known as the frontwoman of Hungary’s Irie Maffia ensemble – a favorite at festivals for their energetic melding of reggae, hip-hop, funk, and other genres – Sena Dagadu sings and raps like nobody else in this country. After moving to Budapest from her native Ghana a day before her eighteenth birthday to learn about her maternal roots, Sena found herself in the city’s hip-hop/freestyle scene and soon became locally renowned as a musician overflowing with creativity and positivity. We sat down for a coffee with Sena to ask about her ongoing projects, childhood stories, and favorite Budapest spots.
I moved to Budapest in 2001, a day before my eighteenth birthday. Since then, I lived here with different people in different places in different districts. My mother’s Hungarian roots provided one of the main reasons why I’ve chosen Budapest. I came here to study and to improve my Hungarian.
When I came here, I did nothing for about year and a half. Really, nothing – I was just wandering around the city. I was writing these short lyrics and diary entries, and a friend of mine kept saying that they were good, and they would need some background music. From that time on, we were looking for the kind of music that would go well with my writing. Then my elder sister found a hip-hop party at G-Pont, where the cream of the scene used to hang out. We were having a good time and there was a mic, and somehow I ended up being a part of the freestyle scene. It turned out that the guys have a studio near the Nyugati railway station – Mango (AKA Modul) said that I should drop by, but when I finally went there, a shop underneath the studio was in flames. Fortunately, everything was intact in the studio and I came back the next day, and since then it’s one of my second homes.
Not really. There were some music-theory classes in middle school, but I really hated the teacher. I always had brain freeze when he was speaking, so I didn’t understand anything he was teaching to us. However, I’m always open to new impulses, and luckily, my whole family is really into music. Also, traditional music is everything in Ghana – it’s part of daily life. You can’t even walk down a street without hearing some kind of music. I don’t really play any instruments; sometimes I sit behind the drums, but it’s more like a hobby for me than actually training myself. Actually, I can play a traditional Ghanaian folk song on a bamboo flute, and I compose my solo songs with a keyboard, but most of time, I just follow my instincts and my ears.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A bride, a veterinarian, and sometimes an archeologist. But mainly the second one – there were times when we had 11 cats, and I’d thought that I was there to save them.
Irie Maffia, my own Sena Dagadu solo project, and W.H. – Shakespeare’s Sonnets & Songs. Apart from these, there is a thing I’ve started together with DJ Vadim about eight years ago, and it’s finally shaping up. And there are some collaborations with friends, producers, musicians, and bands. It also happens, that somebody has a thing going on and thinks that I could participate in it – and if I like it, I say yes, or if I don’t like it and/or don’t have the time, I say no. That’s how it works. Luckily, I have friends who ask me to participate in something all around the world, so there is always something special going on. A French friend of mine who plays saxophone has just recorded a song with Tony Allen and asked me to sing over the instrumental track. I also have a friend who has worked with Dead Prez, who asked me to be featured on his upcoming album. These guest appearances are always nice.
I don’t, that’s the problem! But I’m no longer worrying about forgetting anything – my friends warn me about forthcoming rehearsals, concerts, and meetings. They always send me an SMS, like “rehearsal tomorrow afternoon at this place” and I’m fine with it. I’m not too well-organized, but I enjoy doing these things. It was also great to make a second solo album – there was a break after “First One” when I did not write any solo stuff for years. So I was very happy when the second solo album and the band who played on it came together. It was released through a French booking agency, who were already a great help for me, not to mention that they are very well organized; they always know where I need to go and when. But the one, who knows everything is my husband – so I’m basically like “cool, I can go singing again” and that’s all. Of course there are times when the whole thing cracks a bit, but you can’t avoid that.
What inspires you?
It’s always changing. But basically, what keeps me going is that I want to be where things happen, I always want to be a part of the game, play my music, and be real. For example, there is this Canadian friend of mine, and the way she runs her own business – she’s so precise, so determined, and she always thinks about the future. I draw inspiration from her. I learn from people, how they do things, and why is that good. But I also like to travel because it’s both relaxing and inspiring.
First things first, I need time. If I can take time and focus on the thing I’m busy with – well, that’s a good start. We have a small garage-bedroom studio, and lately I’ve been messing around there, crafting beats and working on some new ideas. I have a small keyboard, a mic, and some old Soviet-era loudspeakers, so I can record everything.
What do you think about Budapest? Does it inspire you? Do you like living here?
The whole city is a symbol of freedom for me – I arrived here just before my eighteenth birthday, on February 8. This city is like a blank page in my life. At first, I knew nobody, so I just went ahead and got lost in it, but on the other hand, I’ve learned to be my own boss and I’ve ended up in this underground scene together with many great musicians. Words can’t describe how much this city feels like home now. It’s a city of freedom in which I’m what I wanted to be when I was young, and that fuels my inner peace. I’m happy that it isn’t a big, crowded and aggressive city, like London or Paris – it’s more like a village, actually. During a short trip from Madách Square to Király Street, I usually meet five or more familiar faces, and that’s a great thing! It’s a sunny, multicultural city with green spaces and fountains. The city finally started to open up for everybody, and people from all around the world enjoy staying here.
Is there anything that you don’t really like about Budapest?
When it comes to people, you can’t find a place on Earth where you won’t bump into assholes – you just have to get used to it. But that doesn’t mean that I have any bad experiences. You can see from miles away if somebody is drunk or stoned, and you can simply walk to the other side of the street. I actually live in the suburbs, in the green area, and I travel to the heart of the city two or three times a month, so I don’t really care about the things that I don’t like anymore.
Sometimes I go to Károlyi Garden with my daughter because it’s close to our studio. Csiga Café is close too. But Madách Square is cool too, because a lot of my friends work nearby it, so I know that there is always somebody to hang out with there. And I like to smoke with my girlfriend on her balcony. That’s the best.