In this episode of Be Your Change Podcast, I talk to Lubiana, a female singer, songwriter, and musician. Originally from Belgian, Lubiana’s roots are in Cameroon, in Central Africa. She has become one of the few women playing a male traditional music instrument, Kora.

How did music come to your life?

The earliest memory I have, I was around eight years old and it’s something that was really important for my mom. She wanted me to just be into arts, any kind of art form. So I started with classical piano lessons when I was eight years old. I was just learning about music theory. And I remember finding it really boring because it was like four or five hours every week. And then three or four hours of musical theory. But it helped me later. It really had a major impact on how I play the piano today and how I see music. But that’s not really when I realized that it was more than just a hobby for me.

When did you realize you wanted to be a professional female singer?

I think I was about 12 or 13 years old. I heard a song by Sarah Vaughan called “In a sentimental mood” that’s a jazz standard. And I remember just finding this song amazing. So beautiful. Her voice, her story and that’s when I said to myself, okay, I want to be a female singer.

Why was it so important to your mother that you studied music and become a female singer?

Well, my mom is an artist. She used to play the violin for like, I think, 12 years. Then she also played piano and now she is a classical female singer. She sings opera music. So she loves it. And I also feel like she just wanted me to be creative. I have a lot of siblings, but for 13 years of my life, I was an only child. So, I think she wanted me to just to invent my own world and not just watch TV all day long. She made sure that I was aware of all the different ways I could express myself.

You mentioned to me that your mother took you on different adventures in the world.

Yes, I traveled a lot. I’m really lucky. My mom made sure that I would see the world, see different cultures, try new things. I learned about acting for like eight years. In my school, there was an option that would allow me also to have a drama class. I used to travel a lot with her. And I used to travel a lot to Cameroon to see my family there. My dad would make sure that every summer for at least a month, I would spend time with my grandfather and my cousins.

Do you want to tell us about Cameroon as a country? I’m sure lots of people don’t really know where it is and what’s the history…

Cameroon, it’s like a completely different world. I remember that. I mean, now it’s changing but when I would go there I would be the only white skin person. I’m pretty light skin and I would always feel kind of like an outsider. The friends of my cousins would really see me as a curiosity. People were not too tough on me, you know because I feel like they were seeing me as a fragile little child.

A country of traditions and ancestors.

The culture in Cameroon is amazing. There is a lot of tradition. And I just love the culture. So my tribe from Africa is called the Bamileke and we have a village that is called “le village de Bongoa”. I would see all the sacred places my ancestor was buried. And the rituals and all the things that would happen, out there. So it was really unique. That’s why I think I’m so connected to my African roots because there is such a deep connection to the spiritual world.

Lubiana’s Spiritual Journey to Become a Female Singer

I’ve always been really into spirituality and I think the older I get, the more I want to.

I want to make sure that I’m feeling right and in tune with who I am as a human being.

It’s a journey and I would say that my mother’s mom is an astrologist. She takes a lot of care about the planet and the astrological signs and everything. So that was already there.

In Cameroon there was a lot of importance about the ancestor and the rituals and how you treat nature and about all the energy around you.

And for me, music is really about giving tributes to where I come from and all those people made it me possible for me to be here today, you know? And I definitely believe that it’s more than just me. It’s more than just us.

It’s really so many years and learning and experience. And in my music, it’s important that I don’t share selfish messages and I try to really share things that are meaningful to me and things that I learn. And definitely, spirituality and also self-love and growth areas something that really matters to me.

Female singer kora player

Can you give us an example of what spirituality looks like a female singer?

Well, there are so many different ways. I tend to the universe a lot when something happens to me. I’m thankful. I made sure to say that to people, you know. For example, I love my siblings and I know a lot of people don’t necessarily tell the people they love, I love you. It’s like, of course, they know that I love them. But for me, I make sure to thank the universe for what I have and to tell the people around me that I’m grateful, that I’m thankful. I also make sure that to acknowledge the fact that I’m not just here solo. There are other people around me and there is another energy. And I also pay attention to how I feel when I’m with people, how I feel when I’m in a certain place, especially with my music.

Because when you’re in the studio and you create., sometimes it goes really fast. You have to be really connected to your intuition and to how you feel to make good decisions. So I always make sure to be in tune with what I feel. And also just to be aware that there are always both sides to every story. So when I feel about certain things, I always make sure that I’m aware that it’s just my perception and that there is a reason why I feel certain ways. Maybe something happened during my childhood or maybe you know, some insecurities of mine. And so I’m really open to every discussion because I’m aware that there is so much more than just my own vision.

How do you think your upbringing influence your music and you as a female singer?

I am part of two dramatically different cultures and have families around the world. It was a time of inner journey to find myself and learn about my insecurities and understand why I behave in certain ways sometimes. All those things definitely influenced my music, but I also feel like I needed time to digest it first.

When I was 17 I wasn’t mature enough. I had all those questions, but they were just like all around me and it was really blurry. And I think growing up and being in my twenties now, I had time to really relax and understand what was happening and forgiving myself, my parents and the people that sometimes I had felt that they were not understanding me. I just learned to embrace all the experiences I had and now I’m happy to be able to create arts from it.

Feeling Different

I feel like when I was 18, 19 it was too early for me. The feelings where too vivid to be creating something that was meaningful and truthful to me. And I feel like I needed time to be at peace, to just understand what happened. And definitely traveling is beautiful, but it’s also challenging, especially when you have family from different countries and sometimes feeling like an outsider because you look different.
So I had this feeling when I was in Cameroon sometimes to not really belong there but also in Belgium, I had this feeling because I have afro hair because you know, my vision and also spirituality has always been a huge part of me, even when I was younger. It took me some time to see it as a blessing and not occurs and to be like, this is actually amazing that you know, we are also unique and this uniqueness is what’s gonna make me share my story and hopefully help other people.

You are a young female singer but it sounds like you’ve already figured out a lot.

I would not say I have figured it out. I would say that traveling by myself for so many months and not having any friends, not knowing anybody, I took the time to reflect on myself. All my insecurity and fears just felt bigger suddenly because I didn’t have anything else to think about. I think we can all relate to the feelings of we don’t belong somewhere. It can happen to all of us. For me, it was more obvious when I would go to Africa and when I would come back to Belgium. I felt nobody could really understand why I wanted to be a female singer. People didn’t like my voice or people made fun of me. And it’s not just about the different aspects of where I come from. It’s also just who I am as a human being.

You chose the Kora as an instrument. I see a lot of parallels between the instrument Kora, your wisdom, and your personal journey as a female singer.

You said that I choose the Kora, but in my journey,

I really feel like it’s kind of the Kora who found me in a way because I never thought about it. It just happened in my life.

It’s one of the things in my life that I just didn’t choose. It’s just happened. And I’m someone who is really a perfectionist. I like to have control over what I do in my life. But that part really just happened. I started to sing around 12, 13 years old after as I said listening to an In a sentimental mood. I would invite everybody to listen to this song because for me it’s one of the most beautiful jazz songs ever recorded by a female singer.

So that’s how it happened. I would just play music and always in the same style that would reinforce my feeling of really wanting to sing like those women, that jazz, Afro-American female singers. I fell in love with their stories, where they come from, the fact that they had to fight to be there, to be on live television. That really reinforced my love for music.

How did you decide to sing in English rather than in French your mother tongue?

At first, because I wasn’t speaking English at all, I would write songs in French. I would love it. I had fun doing it. But then when I started to study music, I studied jazz music and all the jazz songs are in English, so I would learn all the repertoire. After high school, I went to a music school and the music school was in Dutch because in Belgium you have the French part and you have the Dutch part. But over there I wasn’t really speaking Dutch. I would speak English all day long and I would also just learn about jazz standards and I would sing in English and the technique that comes with it because singing in French and in English is not the same language.

How Lubiana’s knowledge of languages affected her music.

The pronunciation, the position of the tongue and the way you sing are different. So after a while, the words just happened. When I was writing, they were just English words and, at first, I was like kind of forcing it or kind of being like, okay, maybe I should write in French. But then I just stopped putting any pressure on myself and I just said, I’m just going to write what happens and what comes naturally. But it’s really during that transition of studying jazz music, studying music and Afro American music that I, because I was reading English books and writing my thesis and English and everything, it just seemed more natural for me.

How did the Kora become your instrument of predilection?

Yeah, so I was 21, so it was three of four years ago maybe. I had this dream that happened two times. I would see myself playing like a small harp, but just the way I was playing it, the instrument was in front of me. It was smaller and I couldn’t tell what it was, but it happened twice. And I remember sending a text to my friends saying, okay, I just keep making this weird dream about a small harp. Do you know any small harp? Can you send me pictures? And we still have the conversation. Actually, it’s funny when we look back at it and he would send me some pictures and I would say, no, that’s not that. And then I kind of forget about it. I just went on with my life.

Lubiana‘s early twenties and her journey on finding her identity as a female singer.

I was 21 and becoming a real grown-up person. It was a time where I was questioning my identity. I was a female singer studying music about to graduate but I still felt like I didn’t found my voice. There is one thing I remembered that I’ve never talked about. I told my piano teacher that one day I would love to go to the United States, play music and become a professional female singer. And he said, Oh, Lubiana, you know there are so many people like you over there, you’d like you like everybody else. I remember that was really hard for me. I was like, what’s going on? So my mom and I went to Spain for like a week and I remember we walked in, we went on on top of the heel and I was crying and I said, I’m so tired. You know, I’m so tired of people always judging me, judging my music, telling me that I’m not enough. It’s not enough. It’s not unique. I looked at the sky because we were on top of the heel and I as the universe to give me a sign because I was tired and I was like, I cannot go on feeling like this. And then the next day or the day after, we were still in Spain and I heard the sound of the Kora that is the instrument that actually I’m playing now. And I knew it was the instrument I dreamed of. So I remember just hearing the sound of this instrument and being like, like slow motion. Everything stopped. And I looked around and I said to my mum, where is the sound coming from?

A magical encounter with a mysterious instrument

What’s happening? And then I saw that that man playing the Kora and I filmed him and I was like, okay I’m going to play this instrument. My mom didn’t really believe me. I did two years of guitar, then saxophone. And she was like, whatever.

And then, I was like I’m gonna just find out what’s the story behind this instrument? I had so many questions and that’s when I decided to just check online and I found a Kora teacher who was living like two, three hours from where I was. And for the whole summer, I would just go there, took me the whole day, like three hours to go, two hours a class, two hours to go back home and I would practice and I would practice so much that I would literally spend my days playing, playing, playing, playing, playing six hours straight.

And after six months I was mastering the instrument enough to go on tour by myself and start traveling. So I went first to the UK and then I went to Paris and that’s really how it happened. But I would have thought I would be able to learn how to play this instrument so fast. I played piano for so many years before that. I was never really good at it. But with this instrument, it just happens so fast, it opened so many doors and it helped me to connect with my roots because this instrument is from west Africa and I didn’t know that. And again, I feel like it was all connected and it was all meant to be.

And the kora really made me feel like I had something to say, something different and that I was finally home in a way.

What is the story behind the kora?

It’s made out of a fruit, which is called a calabash cut in half. It’s really organic and it’s an instrument that has been there from centuries to centuries.

And it’s a sacred instrument that is only played by men or generally, traditionally, they are called the griots and they are the storytellers of Africa.

The legend says a woman was playing the kora at first. One day a soldier fell in love with the instrument and stole it. He brought is back to the village. He decided that from now on the instrument would only be played by the griots. So in west Africa, what happens is that depending on your family you are born in, you know what you are going to do basically. So if you are born in a family that works in the field, you’re going to work in the field. If you are born in a rich family, you’re going to be part of the rich people and it’s a special caste. And they are the musician, the storyteller, the wizard. And they are the only ones allowed to play music.

An instrument taught from father to son through generation.

You can not be a farmer and play music. That’s only for the people from the same family. So that’s that. That’s men who found the Kora and fell in love with it. He couldn’t play it because he was a soldier. He didn’t come from the cast of musicians. So he gave the Kora to a griot and said, that’s your instrument. And you will give your Kora to your son and from now on, it will just be from father to son, from generation to generation. And you’ll be the only one who I allowed to play it. I mean, obviously now it has changed, you know, but still, there are only a few women who play the Kora. There’s not that many. And it’s still a really traditional instrument that is mainly played by west African musicians.

It’s an instrument that is really meaningful to me. Definitely. I don’t feel that way about any other instrument also because that’s an instrument that you put on your legs or that you put in front of you and you have that kind of connection with it.

The Kora, a unique instrument in so many different ways.

And also because you cannot buy it, you know, you have to ask someone to make it for you. Someone from west Africa most of the time. At first, when I discovered the Kora, I went to every music store possible and asked them if they had this instrument, a lot of them had never seen it. They didn’t know what it was. So actually at the end, after like searching for like a month or two, it’s my Kora teacher who said, you know what? I have five Kora I’ll just give one to you. But it’s also why it’s so special to me because I know that this Kora is unique and I won’t find another one like this.

How do you see your connection as a female singer with this instrument?

I feel like it’s part of me finding myself because I always had this feeling about not really belonging anywhere. Now that I found the Kora or the Kora found me, and now that I’m playing this instrument, I’m kind of bringing back my true culture in a really organic way and I’m really thankful for that. When I started playing the Kora I really didn’t know anything about the culture. I wanted to show respect to the culture and not be that woman would just pop up and play the Kora and who doesn’t know anything about it. So I wrote my thesis about it or my master’s degree in jazz music. I just wrote 60 pages about the instrument and the culture.

Meeting The Master

And I researched it a lot and I reached out to a lot of people. I got invited by Toumani Diabaté who is one of the most famous Kora players to see him performed live with his son whose name is Sidiki Diabaté. I told them about this dream I had and all the stories that happened to me. Toumani said that’s how the Kora appears, she appears through dreams.

And that if I had a dream of the Kora, it means that the Kora chose me. So it really felt good to know that I was doing something right and something that was meant to be and that I wasn’t just coming and stealing the culture and you know, mistreating anything.

So I made sure that’s, you know, I shared that with him and since that day, I only had love from griots, from traditional Kora players. I’ve seen beautiful messages from Kora players who told me that they were really thankful that I was sharing the Kora in a different way because the way I’m playing is different. And I wasn’t just sharing the culture but also being a child from the world. I’m not only from West Africa, but I’m also from Europe. And they were thankful that I could introduce the Kora to a different part of the world.

Toumani Diabaté is like God of the Kora players, one of the most incredible musicians. How did Toumani Diabaté hear about you?

Through my Kora teacher. I had two Kora teachers. I had one who was living two or three hours away. And when the school started, I couldn’t go there because it would take me a day. So I found another teacher, his name is Vincent Wilkin. And he was in his last year of study to become a doctor when he went to Mali. He discovered the Kora and changed his mind. I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore. I wanted to be a Kora player. He stayed I think four years in Mali. He lived with Toumani Diabaté and took some lessons with him even though he was not one of his sons.

Music, an important tradition

Kora players may be really famous but they are still open. They want to share because they genuinely love what they do. I feel like in pop music it’s never possible to just hang out, you know, hang out with Rihanna. but in Africa, you can access the masters. And so Vincent just kept in touch. And when Toumani was performing in Belgium, Vincent asked if he could introduce his student to him. He said, please come to my show and then we’ll have dinner afterward. So that’s how it happened. We went to see him perform with his son and then we had a traditional, I think it, Malian food or Senegalese food, I don’t remember. And then that’s when we really talked and he asked me a lot of questions about my journey and my music. And, that’s when he gave me his blessing.

Connecting generations

He’s just such a lovely person. He really is. And that’s amazing. When you hear him playing, he is such a genius. And the connection, the level of connection he has is unbelievable. And  the fact that he just wants to share is just amazing to me. Some people might be like, you know, that’s my thing. I don’t want to help you with it. But he really gave me his blessing.That’s really special. 

What is your advice for our readers and listeners in finding their voices?

Well, I just want to, leave you on a happy note.

I want people to go home with the fact that in life it’s important to focus on what feels right and make sure we’re in tune with yourself.

And it’s a daily process. It’s not something that just feels good all the time. It’s about being in tune and learning through every experience. I feel like that’s how we met, you know, it’s just happened because we both were in a moment in our life when we were meant to meet each other. And that’s what I think is powerful in life is the connection and the travels and the culture and just being all together.

That’s really what I want to share as an artist. I want to bring us all together, with love.