Marcus Strickland – From Twi-Life To One Life

No music artist likes the constraints of genre-boxes or external expectations. And Marcus Strickland is no exception.

For over 15 years he’s been known and respected as a “jazz” saxophonist and composer – not daring to step outside that box. Until recently.

With his latest creation Nihil Novi, Strickland has moved beyond the expectations of others and opinions of music purists to create the “music” he wanted to create; music that embraces the many different parts of himself and the world around him.

In an interview this week before his upcoming performances at Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2016 Marcus Strickland explained that by doing so he’s been liberated from living his “Twi-Life” to living his one life.

Marcus Strickland

Marcus Strickland

You’re coming back to Australia next month to perform for a second time at Melbourne International Jazz Festival. But this time around as bandleader with Twi-Life, on the heels of your newly-released album Nihil Novi.

MS: Yes this is a very exciting time for me. I did a project that I’d kind of wanted to do for a long time but didn’t really have the means to do it until now. And now that the ball’s going it’s like I can’t stop it. I’m already thinking about the second record for this band.

I’m looking forward to sharing it with the Australian people cause I had such great time before, and I think it will be an even better time this time.

Mantra by Marcus Strickland's Twi-Life - Nihil Novi (2016)

Nihil Novi (2016)

I understand Nihil Novi is a Latin term for “nothing new under the sun”. How does that phrase relate to this body of music?

MS: It’s kind of a realisation that I’ve come to. I think a lot of times as an artist or any kind of creative I think we’re expected to come up with something out of the blue. When actually it doesn’t work that way. It’s always inspired by what’s around us, especially what our environment is. I think that goes for many different things, many different inventions.

It kind of reminded me of something my father taught me a long time ago. He’s very familiar with Latin terms because he’s a lawyer. And also he’s very familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible. I’m not a very religious person. I just think it’s an incredible book.

King Solomon in that book, he said after experiencing many trials and tribulations and basically becoming King of Kings, the most wise kings that all the other kings looked up to. After becoming that and experiencing all he did, he came up with the conclusion that there’s nothing new under the sun. I think that’s a very compelling tale, whether it’s true or not.

So that kind of coincided with how I felt about this record you know. Just coming to that realisation and just saying “hey, this is what’s around me and I’m just gonna create from what’s around me” – instead of thinking of what’s expected, or trying to come up with something out of the blue that is not connected to anything. It set me on the right path to think that way.

People are most familiar with your work as saxophone player but Nihil Novi has a strong beats-focus. Tell us about your beat-making life past, present and going into the future?

MS: It started out as almost like, I called it a hobby. Even though it’s music-based, it seemed like a hobby to me because I didn’t dare mix it with my professional saxophone and composing career until recently.

I could see influences in past records I’ve done but not until now have I totally just embraced that as part of Me, you know, instead of this separate thing. That’s kind of where the title Twi-Life came from for the group because I felt like I was leading a double life almost.

But it’s really all one life now. And I’m really enjoying it. I’m gonna keep going down this path. I really love it. It’s liberating. I’m no longer being scared of the jazz purists, or purists of any other sorts. And it’s just leading me down a very fun path.

So you feel a new-found freedom in your music-making?

MS: Definitely. And I have a feeling it affects everyone too, especially the audience actually. That’s who it’s for. There might be somebody in the audience that was expecting me to play a Gershwin tune. Or there might be someone in the audience who was expecting us to just have a straight-up R&B set.

But I like the fact that several audiences that we’ve had in Europe have already been taken aback. They’re like “Yeah, we have no idea what to expect”. And that’s the great thing about it you know – to go beyond expectations and just do exactly what you want to do. So I really find it amusing to see reactions. I love them all.

There are so many incredible artists who contributed to Nihil NoviMeshell Ndegeocello who produced it, co-wrote and played bass on some tracks; Pino Palladino on bass also, Chris Dave, Robert Glasper, Keyon Harrold – all superb musicians and innovative artists in the world of contemporary R&B, funk and jazz.  

I’d love to hear about your experiences of working with all those artists but I’m most curious to hear about Bob Power – who of course is well known, respected and admired for his prolific contributions to R&B and to hip hop way back since the days of The Native Tongues Collective [incl. The Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest & De La Soul]. 

What did Bob Power bring to Nihil Novi that was unique and what did you take away from the experience of working with him in terms of your own creative development? 

MS: It was incredibly easy to work with him. First of all he’s just a very chilled dude. He’s like the nicest guy in the world and you would never know he is the genius that he is. I think that’s the very telling thing. Even though he’s basically done everything there is to do sonically, he is still open to new things and trying new things and very excited about the unknown. And that’s exactly who should have captured this record.

I really applaud Meshell [Ndegeocello] on choosing him. I had no idea that I would have access to Bob Power. But of course I was working with Meshell, and by working with her it gave me access to the great Bob Power. I really appreciate all of it and I’m glad to have that under my belt. I’m not sure if that’s even possible again but at least I’ve had that experience to work with such a master.

A lot of what went into this record was what I’d thought of sonically in my head. Like I had a very particular idea of what I wanted the bass to sound like. And it just so happens that Kyle Miles started playing the bass line for “Tic Toc”. I think at that time I was taking a nap in the middle of the session when Bob got him to play the bass-line and just lay it down. And I wake up and it’s exactly the kind of bass sound that I’d imagined on that song. He was playing it. And I was like “Ok, he’s hired. Whoever that is, he’s hired”. LOL.

“Tic Toc” by Marcus Strickland

Mantra by Marcus Strickland's Twi-Life - Nihil Novi (2016)

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A lot of it was very sonically-based so to have someone who was such a wizard at frequencies as Bob Power and have so much….I mean he has an incredible roster of just pure raw experiences. So to have him in there, it made me feel much more comfortable. It didn’t matter what experimentation we were doing, he could handle it you know. So that was great. It was a blessing.

Can you talk about the significance of the track “Mantra”? 

MS: “Mantra” is definitely something I was imagining as the way to deal with any kind of adversity. It doesn’t even matter what level of adversity it is.

I think a lot of times what we as humans do in order to get through difficult situations is to repeat over and over and over again something that motivates us, gets us through. Whether that be prayer or a little voice inside that says “It’s gonna be ok”. Anything like that. So that’s kind of like the meaning behind that song and it’s definitely applied to many of the things that I’ve experienced and many of my friends have experienced as black Americans.

A lot of people think that there’s such thing as post-racism. I don’t think so. I think as long as there’s a human condition there’s gonna be some flaws along with it. And since whenever I can even imagine, people do get treated differently based on how they look. It’s unfortunate. But it happens. Yeah, so I really enjoyed the words that Keyon said.

The genius of Meshell [Ndegeocello] is that she captured the message in a very casual way. She just called up Keyon Harrold out of the blue and said “Hey Keyon, I hope you don’t mind if I record this conversation. I just wanna talk to you for a little bit”. And they started talking. And somewhere in that conversation he said what’s on that track. And it’s the most natural way to communicate it other than writing the speech out or something like that, which is what I was thinking in the beginning. That’s the great thing about having a producer like Meshell – she thinks outside the box.

So Im very happy with how that ended up.

“Mantra” by Marcus Strickland

Mantra by Marcus Strickland's Twi-Life - Nihil Novi (2016)

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I ask you about “Mantra” because you’re amongst other contemporary artists, like D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar, using their musical voices to discuss African-American experiences of oppression, violence and racism in a very frank and (positively) confronting way. What do you think is the ripple-on effect of those voices being expressed and heard?

MS: I think it’s gonna affect the right people in the right way.

There’s definitely a lot of struggle associated with purely how we look. It’s just a fact of life. All you have to do is talk to an African-American parent about the first time that they had to explain to their child why they were treated differently than all the other kids that didn’t look like them. It’s a fact of life. We still have to go through it.

And to pretend like it doesn’t exist or to not even include that in the music, is kind of pretending. There is a saying that “art imitates life” and that’s what we’re doing. We’re just playing our life. We’re singing our life. We’re expressing our life.

I think when music is used as a means of communication, it becomes much more than music. It’s actually speaking to people. It’s almost like a conversation rather just playing some notes and not having any meaning behind them.

One of the people who inspired this record the most is Bazoumana Sissoko. That’s who “Sissoko’s Voyage” was written for. He’s a Malian percussionist and singer. He has the most amazing and powerful voice and the first time I heard his record, I was totally moved. I think I might have got a little misty.

I think the reason for that is because he is what they call in West Africa a “griot”. Griots tell history orally. They don’t write it down. They perform it in front of the people. They’re highly respected. They have a very important role in society. And I think a lot of what inspires African-Americans in America is that we’ve kind of adopted or kept that entity in our being.

I mean when I listen to Kendrick Lamar he sounds like a modern griot to me. He is telling our story. He is telling our relationship with prisons, with drugs, with oppression. I feel the same way with D’Angelo. I feel the same way with anybody who’s regarded as an incredible artist today. David Bowie, I think he was a griot too. He had very important messages in his music. Coltrane too. Even though he was just dealing with more the sonic side. He hardly had any lyrics but when he did have lyrics, they were very meaningful.

I think it’s all the sound and the language of our people. That’s the connection. I don’t think it ever should be broken.

How does Nihil Novi translate in the live performance space?

MS: I think there’s a lot of jazz journalists out there that don’t really understand how to write about this record because I wasn’t even thinking about how we were going to possibly perform it live. I just wanted to do the record that I exactly wanted to do without being hung up on what the possibilities are.

And as a result it has inspired what I feel is a very experimental way of performing. I feel like it’s basically a live production. And I can’t wait to have like maybe a dvd set or something of live performances because live performances take what the record does and multiples it times ten.

Because the musicians I have surrounding me are all producers in their own right. And they’re also very much live performers. They all have a jazz background to some extent. And also they’re familiar with all kinds of other black American music such as hip hop, R&B, soul, gospel, funk, all that stuff. So it all gets displayed all at once.

And because I’m so open to including all that in the performance, I think it’s exciting for them. Because finally they’re not on stage with someone who’s like “We’re an R&B band so just play R&B”; or somebody who’s just like “We’re just jazz so you just better just swing and not do anything else”. They’re on the stage with somebody who’s just like “Look man, be You. Just do this. Let’s have fun. It’s a playground”. It’s very exciting.

Thanks for your time today Marcus. Folks going to your festival shows should be excited to hear you and Twi-Life perform live.

MS: Yeah, it’s gonna be a party. I’m really looking forward to it.

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Marcus Strickland and Twi-Life (Keyon Harrold on trumpet; Mitch Henry on piano; Kyle Miles on bass; Charles Haynes on drums) play four shows at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club on 11 and 12th June 2016. Buy tickets here and check out the complete MIJF program here.

Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2016

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Richard Bona: “Music is The Real School of Life”

If you love the sounds of jazz, blues, funk, West African rhythms, flamenco, salsa, bossa and the other diverse musical flavours of the world and you’re not already well acquainted with the vast body of music of Richard Bona, now is the time.

His very long list of collaborators and fans include Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Bobby McFerrin, Chaka Khan, Tito Puente and Lauryn Hill. And he is respected by they and music appreciators all around the world for his prolific songwriting skills, innovative fusion music creations, honey-sweet vocals and phenomenal abilities on bass, guitar, percussion, balafon and every other instrument he plays now, or might ever decide to play.

Beyond all that Richard Bona shared in our interview this week that he is simply a lover of this beautiful life in which we’re all different but equal – a fact that music helps remind us of, to embrace and celebrate.

Folks in Australia get their chance to celebrate with him at Melbourne International Jazz Festival on 28 and 29 May 2015 – and in Sydney on 30 May. And people everywhere can read on for the full interview with Richard Bona talking about current music projects, his take on fusion of the world’s sounds, human connection in music and musicians embracing technology in a digital age.

Richard Bona

These Musical Days

Beaver: Apart from your upcoming Australian tour what’s going on in the musical world of Richard Bona these days?

Richard Bona: I’m working on two separate projects: a flamenco project with gypsy musicians in Spain – and another project called Mandekan Cubano. It’s me with six Cuban musicians. We’re playing and recording that project here in July in the studio of my Paris house.

Summer time is coming so there’s a lot of touring. I’ve got three shows here before I come to Australia. After that I’m going to Holland and will keep playing until August 7.

In terms of putting the record out, I’ve been with Universal with the last five records and I did two before that with Columbia. So right now I don’t have a record company and I’m planning on finally releasing something on my own, to try something different. So that’s the plan right now. When the record will come out, I don’t know yet. I’m shooting for 2016.

Student of Music

Beaver: Many refer to you as a ‘jazz musician’ but your music incorporates so many different styles of music other than jazz. Do you identify yourself with jazz?

Richard Bona: I don’t identify myself as a jazz musician. Jazz is just one part of my thing that I do. I’m a student of music in general. I just love to learn from other music. Like I did when I went to India and recorded with guys in India – and to Brazil to record with guys there. I just love to embrace or approach music that way. I consider music being a school that never ends.

I don’t like routine – it’s just not in my genes. I want to constantly feel like I’m learning something new cause I get bored quickly if I do the same thing. I like to feel with the music that the more I know, the less I know – cause I know, that I don’t know. That’s the beautiful thing about music.

I’m not afraid of difference. I remember last year when I started this flamenco project, a lot of gypsy musicians were like “What? You never played this music” and this and that. But just give me a few months here and I get to learn the basics and all those things. Its just like a language.

That’s what I’m doing lately, and that’s what I’ve been doing for years. Just trying to embrace new things and incorporate them in my music to make up something new.

Fusion Forever

Beaver: The exchange and fusion of cultures (including music) has been happening for all of history. But with rapid advances in technologies during recent decades, that fusion process has rapidly sped up too. With music from all around the world much more accessible, the sounds which artists can and do blend together when creating new music are almost limitless.What do you think we’ve lost and gained in all of that? Some people might say for example it’s been unhelpful in preserving traditional forms of music.

Richard Bona: It’s a very intriguing question. In any situation you gain and lose. We get to gain for example cause as a kid I didn’t even have any idea how Indian musicians sound. I grew up in a tiny rural area in Africa [Cameroon] with no radio or nothing. The chances for me to hear something that a Pakistani or Egyptian guy is doing would be almost impossible – zero. We have access now to things we didn’t even dream of.

In terms of preserving ‘traditional forms of music’ though, the question is preserve what?

What we talk about preserving was also a fusion already. People were doing fusion since people have been traveling and mixing with each other. When the black people were taken from Africa it was already a fusion right there – a lot of music got created then. We’re talking about 400 years ago. So where does the authenticity start and stop? Where’s the line?

They say “that blues is not authentic” but the blues was already a combination of black rhythms and some of the classical European harmonies you hear today, and melodies, that’s what became jazz music too. They were already mixing things.

The moment you put people from different places together, there’s a fusion. It’s been happening for all of time. But in the past 50 years it’s happened more rapidly than 200 years ago because people are traveling faster, moving faster and get their information faster too.

[B: check out Richard Bona’s reflections on the diversity and influence of blues music with these sample tracks from his 2009 album The Ten Shades of Blues…]

Richard Bona - The Ten Shades of Blues (2009)

‘Sona Moyo’ – Richard Bona – The Ten Shades of Blues

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‘Good Times’ – Richard Bona – The Ten Shades of Blues

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Learn The Technology

“one foot in the past and one foot in the future”

Richard Bona: We have definitely lost a lot in terms of a sound. When I record analogue and digital – the difference is night and day.

I still have my foot in an analogue world where I still do things like I used to do when we used to play as a kid. I used to play with my folks in a church, and I still record like that, because the real essence of music is there. So in my house in France I have an analogue studio.

I also think there’s way too many informations now. I was actually lucky as a kid to grow up in a place where I didn’t have a radio, tv or Facebook. Cause too much information kills the information.

Musicians today have to do so many things around music. They have to go and update their Facebook page, and do things that have nothing to do with the music. That’s a loss right there cause its really hard to find time to play these days.

But we gotta get versatile and learn the technology these days because that’s where the world is going. As a musician today you can’t ignore that. We should have one foot in the past and one foot in the future. So in New York I have a digital studio too.

I give you another example of a friend who’s still writing music with a pencil. It takes him a month to write a song, the whole arrangement. His handwriting is perfect. I will never have beautiful handwriting like him, I wish I had. But today you could do the same thing on a computer in one hour. Well, if I have a choice, I will do it one hour. I don’t have one month to sit. But those are the people who never embrace the technology. They look at a computer and just go “Please, No”.

When I come to Australia I’m actually giving classes about that – how modern musicians need to be be connected with technology today.

“Don’t worry…we are live to the bone.”

Today everything is digital, everything is formatted – all the radio, all the tunes, all the singers. When they play live, most of our “super stars” are all in playback, not even singing live.

There are a category of musicians today that just want to sound like they sound on radio. The young people who go to see Beyonce want to hear it exactly how it sounds on the radio. If you change anything, they’re like “Why change it? We heard it like this, just do it like this”. They have to satisfy audience in the masses out there.

That’s a loss right there when people can’t even perform live because they’re so scared to make mistakes. Mistakes are part of that interaction of music. We don’t have to be perfect. That’s what makes music what it is – when we just get to improvise on stage.

But don’t worry – we live. I will never change that when it comes to my performances on stage. We are live to the bone.

Richard Bona

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Connection In Music

Beaver: You agree that music is one of the greatest healing forces in this troubled world of ours?

Richard Bona: Definitely.

Beaver: You were born into a musical family and surrounded by music during a lifetime of playing and composing on your own and collaboratively with phenomenal artists all over the world- ie. a lifetime of blessed music experiences. What’s your take on the goodness of music in people’s lives?

Richard Bona: If our world had the reflection of music then we would probably live in a perfect world. Because music actually has that perfect science.

Music is so rationale. I think it’s even more rationale than mathematics and numbers. If I give you 10 and divide it by 3 for example, you’ll never find the exact number right? But with music, it’s so perfect. You move one finger and get exactly the chord you want. You move another finger and it’s not the same chord anymore. It’s perfect.

For example I will go to India and see someone I never ever met before, and the moment we start playing music we create a bond. It seems like we know each other, are family, instantly.

But you put two politicians together to meet up once year all the time at the U.N. and they barely talk to each other. Or, I just travelled on a plane to Paris. People can sit next to each other on a plane for eight hours and not say a word.

That would never happen in music, never. The moment we play that note right there, boom, we are linked.

Immediately when music comes, you see people dancing together, they don’t even know each other. But if you met that person in the subway or wherever, you might not even say ‘hi’ to them.

Music Transcends Difference

Beaver: What experience do you want audiences at your shows to have?

Richard Bona: I just want my audience to remember the good time they spent when they heard me playing. I want them 20 years from now going “Wow. That was a good moment”. Cause that’s what the music is all about. We should celebrate life, cause this life is beautiful. Music is a tool that helps remind us of that.

And also to remind us that we’re all one in the same boat. That’s what we forget with “I’m from here”, I’m from there”, “Im yellow”, “Im black.” When music starts to kick in, it reminds us that we’re all just humans and we should appreciate this beautiful life.

That’s why I love doing what I’m doing because I get to connect people. And I get to connect myself to people. In music we don’t fear the difference like regular people do. Through music I learn to actually embrace the difference. Cause when you embrace the difference, you become taller.

Where I grew up for example, you wash you hands and you go eat with everyone in the same place. If I stay in my village with the same people, we know the same stories, we eat the same food, we eat the same way. But if I meet a Japanese guy he’s going to tell me “I’m gonna teach you how to eat with chopsticks”. “Oh, wait a second, you don’t eat with your hands? You guys eat with chopsticks”. From there I meet a European guy and he says “I’m gonna teach you how to eat with a fork”. So right there you’re expanding your knowledge, and vice versa. Music is exactly the same way.

Music is the real school of life.

Politicians should use music as a tool actually. But maybe they know the power of music so they don’t want it around them 🙂 .

Beaver: I’m sure you’re right 🙂 . Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today.

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Richard Bona gives a free workshop at Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2015 on 28 May and the Richard Bona Quintet performs two live shows on 29 May. The festival kicks off the night before with a performance by Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea– ending on 7 June with Dee Bridgewater & Irvin Mayfield with The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. In between those opening and closing shows are 100+ live performances, workshops, talks and films by other superb Australian and international artists in various venues throughout Melbourne. Check out the full festival program here.

Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2015

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Myele Manzanza: New Zealand Music Aesthetics

Except for the reformation of Trinity Roots and what a handful of other New Zealand music artists like Myele Manzanza, Fat Freddys Drop, Electric Wire Hustle and Ladi 6 are up to, these days I’m more out of touch with New Zealand’s music scene than I used to be.

Trinity Roots live concert Australia 2015

Trinity Roots: Citizen Tour 2015

The Sound

When I was on the pulse during the past decade and more, I always thought Aotearoa (New Zealand) was a musical gem undiscovered (to their loss) by most of the world beyond Australia.

For small South Pacific islands distant from so much of the world, there seemed to be a disproportionately high number of New Zealand music artists blending flavours of soul, jazz, reggae and beats to create chilled, spacious, smooth, feel-right music with an inexplicably distinctive (and unique) New Zealand sound. I couldn’t work it out except to guess that its stunningly dominant natural environment played some part.

Myele Manzanza on The Sounds

During my recent interview with “afro-elastic soul” artist Myele Manzanza, I asked him about that sound; and to share any home-grown insights into the evolution of New Zealand music throughout his lifetime – which included years of drumming and composing with Electric Wire Hustle and working on numerous solo and collaborative projects with fellow New Zealand (and international) artists.  

Check out Myele’s response with sample sounds from some of the players in that musical evolution…

Myele Manzanza & The Eclectic live at WOMADelaide 2015

Myele Manzanza: .

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“New Zealand music out to a wider world audience”

“I think as far as the era of New Zealand music you’re referring to, in order for that to happen, I guess the thing that really broke down the door was Fat Freddys Drop – as far as getting New Zealand music out to a wider world audience. I have to take my hat off to them because of what they did and the level they did it at. I don’t think anyone of that era has gotten to the level of where Fat Freddys Drop got to.

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“a new vanguard”

You could maybe throw in Lorde, who’s stupendously big. She’s of a new vanguard/league/generation. Her success is incredible. There must be some element of influence of what’s happened in New Zealand music over the past 10 years on what Lorde does, but I don’t really bring her into this era of New Zealand music that you’re referring to. Even though it’s beats and soul, its a different thing.

“that sound”

As far as to how Ladi 6, Electric Wire Hustle or Fat Freddys Drop got here and got to that sound…when I was 14 or 15, Trinity Roots and The Black Seeds were coming to prominence (Trinity Roots reached their peak and then disbanded for some time). The Black Seeds and Fat Freddys Drop were still on their scent, but were in the community so I kind of grew up around that sound.

It might also trace back to Che Fu – he had a very big impact.

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Trinity Roots- ‘Egos’ – Home, Land and Sea (2004)

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Fat Freddys Drop- ‘Roady (feat. Ladi 6 & P Digsss)’ – Based On A True Story (2005)

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Ladi 6- ‘Walk Right Up’ – Time Is Not Much (2008)

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Che Fu- ‘Fade-Away’ – Navigator (2002)

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“Once Bob Marley hit…”

There’s obviously a very big reggae thing in New Zealand.

Once Bob Marley hit, and I think he performed in New Zealand in the early 80‘s [1979], that was a big cultural turning point; a. because his influence was so big anyway, but; b. when he came and performed he really got to know the local culture. I think there was a connection for him too because Waitangi Day (the day a treaty of agreement was signed between Maoris and the colonial population) is on 6 February which also happened to be Bob Marley’s birthday.

For whatever reason, and particular Maori and Pacific Island culture in New Zealand, people were very much drawn to Bob Marley, his message and his sound.

Bob Marley & The Wailers - Natural Mystic Vinyl - Tuff Gong Studios, Jamaica

Maybe there’s an ‘island thing’ too where the geography relates to the style. There’s something that can be related there and got taken up. There’s a reggae thing that’s been happening in New Zealand music for decades now. Trinity Roots and Fat Freddys Drop came out of that but they also had their jazz, soul, electro, dub and techno influences.

“the J Dilla-thing in New Zealand music”

It might be fair to say that whilst Electric Wire Hustle had those same influences, [we] were maybe the first to champion the J Dilla-thing in New Zealand music; that rhythmic aesthetic; that sound and style of contemporary left-field hip-hop/soul instrumentals. We latched onto that, and it might have given us a point of difference. Ladi 6 was in there as well. So were a number of other artists. Isaac Aesili –  part of a group now called Sorceress (previously called Funkommunity) was very much in that scene.

It’s interesting thinking about that timeline and the history of that – and will be interesting to see what happens next.

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Electric Wire Hustle- ‘This World (Feat. Georgia Anne Muldrow)’ – Electric Wire Hustle (2009)

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“what happens next”

Obviously Lorde is the now. It’s undeniable that whatever will come after Lorde in mainstream New Zealand music will be largely influenced by her.

But for me I think my next step is maybe taking those influences but maybe going further into the jazz thing. By “jazz” I mean improvised music that’s fluid and can move and shift as performed in the moment in real time, as opposed to pre-programmed drum machine stuff.

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Myele Manzanza- ‘Elvin’s Brew’ – One (2013)

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Even though that’s very much a big part of what I do, what I think I’ll be working on over the next few years of my life will be a synthesis of that – finding my line between the programmed electronic-thing and the improvised jazz/soul, real person, real time-thing and trying to make that my sound.

As far as where the rest of New Zealand music is headed, only time will tell.”

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More of The Sound

Start here if you want to check out more sounds and images of Myele Manzanza, The Eclectic and other Aotearoa New Zealand artists:

Myele Manzanza & The Eclectic (including father Sam Manzanza and Aotearoan soul divas Rachel Fraser & Lisa Tomlins) performing live at WOMADelaide 2015 last month…

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…or click the artist’s name for more live videos, photos and sample tracks by Myele Manzanza, Trinity Roots, Fat Freddys Drop and Electric Wire Hustle.

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…and stay tuned, because there’ll always be more New Zealand music artists added to Beaver’s world.

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Myele Manzanza & The Goodness of Music

Music is one of the best medicines in the world. Agreed? It bring invaluable moments of euphoric goodness that at times can be hard to find in these lives of ours. True?

Like all of us New Zealand artist Myele Manzanza has a lifetime of positive musical experiences that are a part of his cellular memory. He’s been blessed with an entire life (albeit 27-years-short) surrounded by music and musicians, starting from his upbringing around his performing artist father Sam Manzanza – through to 6 years of Electric Wire Hustle gigs around the world – to his time in Red Bull Music Academy – to the production of his debut solo album One – to touring with Theo Parrish – and all the many musical collaborations and gigs in between.

Amongst the plethora of musical stories Myele Manzanza must have, I asked him in our recent interview to share one profoundly-affecting moment or experience which affirmed the fundamental goodness of music in his own life or in the lives of others.

Check out Myele Manzanza’s answer below.

Myele Manzanza

Myele Manzanza…

“There’s been loads of them – more than I can count. But the first thing that came to my head when you asked that was this:

There’s this pianist from New Zealand, a relatively nomadic character who travels a lot and does lots of interesting things. His name is Jonathan Crayford. He’s like the ‘musician’s musician’. Even though he’s never been as famous as lots of other New Zealand musicians, he was always the one everyone in the Wellington music scene knew “he’s the best”. Anyone would probably tell you that as far as pure musicianship goes, Jonathan Crayford is the best thing that came out of New Zealand, maybe ever.

Jonathan Crayford

Jonathan Crayford. Photo by Christopher Mavrič

When I was 19, I was very fortunate in being able to play with Jonathan. I was at music school at the time and we connected and started doing these duo gigs. Jonathan would play rhodes and bass synths and I would play drums, and we would just play. He would kind of improvise compositions as he went. His whole thought process is on an alien level, and his ability to create amazing compositions and improvisation is mind-blowing.

There was this one moment and we were doing a gig with no more than ten people in the room. As the piece went on, if memory serves me it might have been an A-suspended-fourth chord in the right hand and some ascending bass line in the left hand; but the way that he did it, was that the chord stayed there and every four bars or so the bass line kept ascending and ascending in relation to where the chord was. For some reason, the way Jonathan hit it and the way I happened to catch it was like this strange euphoric moment where everything made sense and I felt totally connected to what I was doing.

For maybe two minutes there was nothing that got in the way of this feeling of euphoria.

It was like the film called Limitless where Bradley Cooper’s character takes some magic pill that totally heightened his brain and sensory awareness to where he’s infinitely smarter and can more or less do anything. It kind of felt like that – this in-tune moment – which was just generated from some simple chord and bass line combination, but was something which opened me up to the mysteries of the world and the great profound effect that music can have. It was like a real, direct experience of that.

Even though it was only performing to ten people, it was one of the greatest moments of my life.”

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Catch Myele Manzanza & The Eclectic plus about 50 other global music and dance artists performing live at WOMADelaide 2015 next weekend; and at WOMAD New Zealand the week after. I’m quite sure there will be plenty of those magical, so-so-good-for-us musical moments to be had at the festival.

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Read the rest of my interview with Myele Manzanza and hear sample tracks from his debut solo album One here.

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The Musical Evolution of Myele Manzanza

Myele ManzanzaDelve into the life of New Zealand artist Myele Manzanza and you’ll find that the blend of electro, soul, hip hop, jazz and Afrobeat music on his debut solo album One, makes perfect sense as a balanced reflection of his individual life lived and the various musical influences and experiences within it.

The Life of Myele

The son of Sam Manzanza, a Congolese musician and pioneering force in bringing African music to (and keeping it alive in) Aoetearoa/New Zealand, Myele Manzanza was born into a life surrounded by music and skilled musicians. Later in his life came the drum kit. Later again formal studies in Jazz Performance. All of it in Wellington – a place where many more artists than the wider-world knows about have been creating innovative musical blends of soul, jazz, reggae and electronica for a long time.

After six years drumming and touring the world with New Zealand’s successful electro-soul outfit Electric Wire Hustle, as well as going through the Red Bull Music Academy program, Myele left the trio in 2013 to embark on his solo music career and release his debut album One through BBE.

Myele Manzanza - One (2012)

One (2013)

Get a feel here (as best you can with a compressed mp3 version) for the life and sound of Myele Manzanza with One’s introductory track…

‘Neighbours Intro’ – One (2013) – Myele Manzanza

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Post-One, Pre-WOMADelaide

Consider then all of his musical experiences since the release of One and all-in-all, Myele Manzanza & The Eclectic are a perfect fit in the line-up of WOMADelaide 2015 where a diverse range of phenomenal worldwide artists will be performing.

Amongst those experiences is drumming on tour last year with a super-talented group of musicians and dancers put together by Detroit-based producer/DJ Theo Parrish – including funk legend Amp Fiddler on keys, and ex-Public Enemy guitarist Dumminie Deporres. Then there’s also that long list of prestigious gigs performed in New Zealand and abroad with the Myele Manzanza Trio, Myele Manzanza & The Eclectic, Miguel Atwood Ferguson and a host of other artists.

With less than one month to go until WOMADelaide kicks off in Adelaide, I caught up with Myele Manzanza to chat about his musical evolution up to and post WOMADelaide.

WOMADelaide 2015

Chatting with Myele Manzanza…

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Beaver:  You’ve played before at WOMADelaide – with Electric Wire Hustle right?

Myele Manzanza:  Yeah, we did WOMADelaide maybe 3 or 4 years ago. It was cool. I enjoyed my time there. It’s a beautiful venue and setting, and the programmers at WOMAD know exactly what they’re doing as far as the line-ups that they get. It’s a really interesting and exciting festival for me so I’m happy to be able to bring my own band over and be able to play my music at a festival that’s notoriously great.

Myele Manzanza Solo

Beaver:  Does your time with Electric Wire Hustle feel like a million years ago now, given everything that’s been happening in your life and solo music career since then?

Electric Wire Hustle

Myele Manzanza (L) with Electric Wire Hustle

Myele Manzanza:  It’s the first time I’ve really reflected on that so I’m glad you asked that question. It kind of does in the scheme of things. My last concert with them was about a year and a half ago, maybe a little bit more. In that sense, it hasn’t been that long.

But a lot’s happened and a lot is musically different to how it was 2 or 3 years ago in that era of my life.

Last year I did quite a lot of touring in the U.S. and Europe, Australia as well, which was fantastic. I’ve been steadily working on lots of different musical projects and producing albums for people, and also my own stuff which I’m sure will be gradually coming out over the next couple of years. I feel like I’m a lot different as a drummer, as a musician and an artist. I’ve grown a lot since then. So in that sense yes, it does feel like a long time ago.

I don’t think it will happen, but it would be interesting if I was to play with Electric Wire Hustle again. It would probably be kind of weird having gone in so many different directions since then.

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[B: If you don’t already know and love Electric Wire Hustle’s music, check out this sample Electric Wire Hustle track from their self-titled debut album…]

Electric Wire Hustle (2010)

Electric Wire Hustle (2010)

‘Experience’ – Electric Wire Hustle (2010)

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Musical Independence

Beaver:  How’s it been going for you in becoming the independent master of your own creative path and destiny?

Myele Manzanza:  In one sense it’s been great…because you’re able to set your own terms and define what your sound is, what your music is and what it is that you want to be doing with it.

But on the other side of that coin comes a far greater sense of responsibility because ultimately the buck stops with you and if you want your career to progress then ultimately you’re the one who’s got to put in the work, do all the hustling, be responsible for the art and…for making music that you can only hope at the end of the day resonates with people.

People have gotta relate to the music and reference it from something else that they’ve heard, that’s just natural. But at the same time you gotta make art that’s distinctive and original, find your own sound. While I’ve always been kind of aware of it, in going solo I’ve felt that pressure/challenge in being your own artist.

So it comes with the pros of being able to set your own tone and all of that, but also the greater responsibility and effort in order to make things happen; and with the spotlight being on you, you’ve got to deliver, so it’s just a little bit higher pressure. But it’s cool, the payoff is great.

The Myele Manzanza Supergroup

Beaver:  So with the freedom to create or be a part of any music project, which of any living artists in the world would you choose to put in the line-up of The Myele Manzanza Supergroup?

Myele Manzanza:  Herbie Hancock on rhodes and synths (‘Head Hunters’ 70’s era synths, not that Korg Triton stuff); Pino Palladino on bass; Gretchen Parlato on vocals; Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet; Zakir Hussain on tabla and Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone.

Myele Manzanza

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Theo Parrish Tour

Beaver:  I’m a disciple of Amp Fiddler and Public Enemy  and an appreciator of Theo Parrish. I’m keen to hear about what the experience of playing music live on stage with those artists was like for you, and what you took away from it in terms of your own musicianship?

Myele Manzanza:  That was such a great tour. There were some really amazing shows and really great audiences. It was cool to be on a tour bus with a crew of musicians who were a few more levels above where I’m at now and have been in the game for a little bit longer; and to have been able to learn from them and their processes.

Theo Parrish Tour with Myele Manzanza

“those fundamentals of drumming”

I guess that the Myele Manzanza music that I’m doing and to some extent Electric Wire Hustle before that, drumming wise I was not exactly a jazz drummer, but more fluid. While obviously you’ve still got to hold the beat down and give people that solid thing to dance to, my mind’s eye was orientated more towards colours and textures; different rhythms and interplay; interacting and improvising; stretching, pushing and pulling with what I was doing – as opposed to being strictly the foundational rhythmic pulse that doesn’t move while everything else is built up on top of it.

In playing with Theo I had to go back to those fundamentals of drumming – being the engine room and holding it down for the band, keeping that steady pulse. So I had to go back to that and really push and develop that, figure out my place within it.

We rehearsed for 10-12 hours a day for a week prior to the tour, so it took a little while for everyone to figure out their place in the band and the band’s sound.

“the language of the dance”

There were four dancers that were part of the performance as well, and when we were rehearsing with them that’s when it kind of clicked for me: as opposed to getting too busy and trying to add all these different kinds of spices into it, needing to just be the onions and garlic, hold down the base, be the solid meat and potatoes that kept everything together – particularly for the dancers.

Because when I was watching the dancers I was recognising how they were literally dancing to what I was doing. So by keeping that repetitive thing going and giving them something consistent to work with, it gave them space to be somewhat spontaneous within that; and be able to hear my accents and to form their dances in a way which hit those accents.

For me that was a great learning lesson as well – performing with dancers and recognising how the drums relate to them specifically.

Myele Manzanza - One (2012)

Especially with Theo’s music because he’s a dance music producer and very idiosyncratic, but the way that he puts his rhythm together and his drum production is very specific. In working with the dancers I recognised the greater purpose for that specificity. As opposed to “Okay, that’s just a beat there with some flourishes there, and that’s kind of cool”, recognising that its actually a specific part of the composition and is important and integral to the meaning to that.

So in learning from that process and going into my music-making now, I guess I have a greater understanding of the language of the dance and the way that music (and rhythm in particular) relates to that. I kind of already knew it. It’s one of those truths that’s just there and obvious, but on that tour it kind of hit home for me that this weird, relatively esoteric thing called music has a solid, very real, very pertinent affect on other human beings.

“music…connects with people in some real way”

It’s interesting because music is a thing that you kind of can’t really see or feel or touch, but it connects with people in some real way. That was a first hand experience for me on the Tour and I’ll never let go of that in whatever it is that I’m doing – even if I’m not doing ‘dancing music’.

I’ll be more aware that whatever sound I’m generating or whatever sound a band is generating, relates to people on a human level; as opposed to like a music theory level or relating to musicians; as opposed to the general public and the different things in different ways that work and how different people think. Because a lot of the time musicians can get caught up in ‘musiciany things’, things that only musicians would really notice. It’s important to be able to step back from yourself and kind of try and figure out the greater affect that your music has on people, and try and think in a broader way.

Post-One Evolution

Beaver:  If One was a reflection of the life of Myele Manzanza lived up until its making, and given everything you’ve done since the release of that album, do you feel that your musical evolution has progressed further still?

Myele Manzanza:  There’s a lot of different tangents to it. I go through phases where I’m into some style of music, or really into drumming and practising a lot and working on being really proficient on the instrument: getting my speed up, or my chops up and articulation; the dynamics; the pure physicality of drumming. I’ll have phases of that. And sometimes I’ll have phases of doing a lot of beat-making and producing and composing.

Myele Manzanza

With the actual music I’m making, it’s still within those same influences, the various styles you were talking about (jazz, Afrobeat etc). I guess what I’m trying to do more and more (and it was something I was doing with One as well but think I’m getting further along the path) is finding a way to unify all of those different influences into one sound which is me –  rather than “now I’m playing Afrobeat”, “now I’m playing jazz”, “now I’m playing electronica” or “now I’m playing hip hop” etc.

As opposed to being able to play in all of the different styles authentically, I’m trying to meld all of them into a single style, which is easier said than done…At the one time I have to be highly aware of wanting and needing to do that, but at the same time I don’t know exactly what the end result would be. You can’t. No one can know. No artist could entirely know beforehand what their actual distinctive sound is. It’s a continual process of taking what’s come before, digesting it and putting it out as a new thing.

I’m more conscious of that process, even though as far as totally defining it, its perhaps impossible; and perhaps not even the point. Perhaps if I’m too concerned about whatever it is I’m doing next musically, it means I’m not concentrating on what it is that I can do musically now, in the present.

Post-WOMADelaide Evolution

Beaver:   Any insights into what’s next on your evolutionary path beyond WOMAD and WOMADelaide? Any new music projects brewing that you want to talk about?

Myele Manzanza:  I’ve got at least two albums backed up which are musically more or less finished. Definitely keep your ear out for some interesting stuff happening in 2015. As far as specifically what that will be, I’ll keep that close to my chest for now.

Myele Manzanza & The Eclectic Live at WOMADelaide 2015

Beaver:  You’re bringing your Dad [Sam Manzanza] and vocalist Rachel Fraser to perform with Myele Manzanza & The Eclectic at WOMADelaide. Which other artists will be joining you?

Sam Manzanza

Sam Manzanza

Myele Manzanza:  Another great singer called Lisa Tomlins. In New Zealand she’s one of the go-to vocalists. She’s performed with everyone like Fat Freddys Drop, Trinity Roots, Shapeshifter and loads of other bands. Lisa’s one of the ‘great’ Greats. She should put out an autobiography with all her stories cause I know she’d have billions of them.

On bass we have Marika Hodgson who plays with Rachel Fraser in a band called Sorceress. She’s a really talented musician from Auckland with a really bright future ahead of her. Daniel Hayles on keys. He’s great; very professional and very, very talented. We went to music school together. Also Daniel Ryland who was one of my teachers at music school. He’s my guitarist now and has a great sound, tone and aesthetic to what he does – very unique. Regardless of the style that he’s playing, he’s able to bring his own thing into it.

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[B: Check out 2 more sample tracks from One which feature Sam Manzanza and Rachel Fraser on vocals. You can buy the hard-copy album through BBE or better yet, get yourself to WOMADelaide 2015 and buy it from the Wo-Shop.]

Myele Manzanza - One (2012)

Myele Manzanza – One (2013)

‘On the Move’ – Myele Manzanza feat. Rachel Fraser

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‘Me I Know Him’ – Myele Manzanza feat. Sam Manzanza

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Live Elasticity

Beaver:  How much ‘elasticity’ can we expect to hear in Myele Manzanza & The Eclectic’s live show at WOMADelaide?

Myele Manzanza:  When I say ‘elastic’ [‘Afro-Elastic Soul Music from the Tradition of the Philosopher Kings’] that’s kind of referring to the improvisational element – which is like you’re in the moment and fluid – and whilst I’ve set the parameters of what the composition is, within those parameters you can take those raw materials of the composition and stretch, push, pull and play off of it – so its ‘elastic’ in that sense.

Then it’s also referring to some of the rhythmic things – that sort of J-Dilla-ish kind of feeling that’s steady but off kilter at the same time, and the rhythm is stretched in some interesting way.

That elasticity definitely comes into play a lot with Myele Manzanza & The Eclectic – even though it’s a bigger band and more of a steady sort of RnB dance thing as opposed to an abstract jazz thing. For me I find it’s a good combination of all of the aspects of music and all of the ways of playing that I’m into.

As we continue to play together we keep on getting better and better…I think the next round of WOMAD and WOMADelaide is going to be a really special time.

Beaver:  Well, different people I’ve spoken to about your live performances have all used the word ‘phenomenal’ to describe them, so I look forward to experiencing it myself.

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Catch Myele Manzanza & The Eclectic live at WOMADelaide 2015 along with the Buena Vista Social Club, Neneh Cherry, Sinead O’ConnorTheo Parrish, Jake Savona with Prince Alla and Randy Valentine – plus about 50 more diverse worldwide artists.

WOMADelaide 2015

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Myele Manzanza also shared some insights into New Zealand’s music aesthetic over recent decades – and the story of one of his life’s many euphoric musical moments…get the details here another day soon.

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