Interview: Nadia Washington


Nadia Washington studied at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, and later at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. She noticeably made waves with her debut album Journey in 2010, showcasing her powerful yet silky voice and finesse for songwriting.

1“I remember being 4 years old, tucked away in a corner while my mother (Nelda Washington) would play piano and sing at a nice hotel in Texas. Some days she could not find a baby sitter so she would take me with her. That was the beginning of my musical education,” – she recalls her first musical memories.
Born in Dallas, though currently residing in Brooklyn, New York, it is clearly Nadia’s turn to make her presence felt in the world of music. Here she shares her thoughts with We Be Spirits on the controversy surrounding ‘free’ access to music, the artists she’s into at the moment from the US, and her interpretation of a classic Duke Ellington quote.

Who or what music would you say has influenced you the most creatively-speaking?
My mother, who was also a singer-songwriter and composer. Stevie Wonder, Pat Metheny, Betty Carter, Rosa Passos – just to name a few.

What does music mean to you?
Music is a powerful and spiritual art form that express the human condition!

Are there any individuals or groups in the current music climate in the States that you’re especially excited about? 
Yes there are a few out there: King, Esperanza Spalding, Emily King, Charles Turner III, Jaime Woods, Brianna Thomas, and Charenee Wade. I’m blessed to call many of them friends!

What do you think is required of you on a human level when performing live?
Trust and gratitude; first and foremost to God for giving you the gift. Trust him to use you as a vessel! Trust that you are there for a reason, and that you have done your best to prepare for the performance. Be thankful that you are able to do what you love and that people take the time and spend money to come and listen to you.

What is your opinion on the current industry-wide debate on Spotify, streaming and ‘free’ music in general? 
I hope that soon there will be a way for songwriters to get a chance to see the money that they deserve. Right now it does not serve the creatives, it serves the labels and executives. I love the idea that people have the opportunity to listen for free but something needs to change so that everyone can be accommodated.

Do you have any concrete African musical influences, be they genres or artists?
Yes I do! Khaira Arby, Dimi Mint Abba, Salif Keita, Angelique Kidjo, Lionel Lueke and many more!!

In 1941 (Sir) Duke Ellington said; “I contend that the Negro is the creative voice of America, is creative America, and it was a happy day in America when the first unhappy slave was landed on its shores.” What do you make of this?
Recently, a friend of mine reminded me of a quote: “Necessity is the mother of invention” and creativity is born from anguish! I believe that’s where Duke is coming from. Through the pain of oppression and suppression, Africans in America created beautiful music and art that is the sound of America to this very day!

The word spirit in ‘We Be Spirits’ refers to the way spirits are considered in some parts of the African continent; beings we are connected to and influenced by but who are not necessarily part of the physical realm. What does the word evoke in you and how do you relate to it?
I believe we are all spirits warped in flesh and that whatever we do, how we treat each other, what we say to others and to ourselves affects the spirit world. Therefore we do have the ability to tap into all kinds of spirits, whether good or bad. I do too feel a deep love, appreciation and connection to Africa and I’m full of pride that it is a part of my heritage! I would love to go there one day!

Can you tell me about any current or future projects that you’re involved in, and where we can catch you in the near future?
I’m really excited to be finishing a project in the near future. I’m also anticipating the release of a compilation CD, Supreme Sonacy, on which I wrote and performed along side Ray Angry of the Roots and Kendra Foster of Parliament-Funkadelic and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah.






Interview: Nicolay


Nicolay is one of the most eclectic and innovative music producers around, full stop. His first notable achievement as producer came in 2004 after Connected was released – the debut album of The Foreign Exchange, of which he is half. The album was famously recorded with the “exchange” of electronic files across the Atlantic; the artists meeting only after it had been finished. He has since gone on to cover new and exciting musical ground releasing albums as a solo artist, as well as part of TFE.

Nicolay2-PhotoCredit-ChrisCharles-for-CreativeSilenceJust as comfortable in a studio setting as in live performance, this gifted Dutch musician, who now resides in North Carolina, recently spoke openly to me about topics such as how both Prince and Thundercat inspire him, the special working relationship he shares with Phonte (his partner in The Foreign Exchange), his opinion on the current wave of African electronic music, and how he views spirituality in terms of his creativity. Read on and be enlightened.

What were your main musical influences growing up?
For me one of the first influences was my mother’s record collection, I really credit this for my eclectic taste and for the fact that I have been brought up with different kinds of music. My mother was a very big fan of music as a whole, especially music from the 60s and the 70s, and bought everything from The Beatles, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix to classical music. It wasn’t until I reached my teens that I started developing my own personal taste in music and certain artists; at that point it was really Prince who fully drew me in to becoming a music fan and what that meant, such as buying records and going to shows. To this day I think Prince is one of my biggest influences; musically, as well as the fact that he has always done things his way, even if it hasn’t always been to the best result.

What was your first equipment that you started making music with, and did you make ‘bedroom joints’?
Oh yeah, I am from the generation of bedroom producers for sure. It was groups like Daft Punk in their very beginnings who really showed me that you could make music with just a sampler or a computer. It didn’t necessarily matter so much anymore what you had as long as you used it in a way that was somehow new or original. My first set-up was just a computer and a few instruments. I have always played instruments – I actually studied Musicology back in Amsterdam for 7 years at the University of Amsterdam. I have always played both classical as well as, what they would like to snobbishly refer to as, popular music. I have always played bass, guitar and keys.
Was Cubase the programme you started with?
It was something similar to that. It was something called MODplug which almost nobody has used or heard of, but the people who have swear by it. It was a perfectly random choice, I just started on something and that’s what it was. It was a real basic software programme that would allow you to sequence a few tracks using some rudimentary samples, and it all grew from there.

Can you tell me a little about the City Lights albums, are you trying to capture the vibe of certain places that you’ve been to?
I would say that it grew more specific over time. Looking back you can always make more of something than it really was, and I could tell you that it was all planned out and conceptualized but it wasn’t really like that. I did the first album as a kind of beat tape; a glorified tape of beats and instrumentals that I had lying around that I wasn’t using at the time. I didn’t have a specific geographic area in mind for that one, other than imagining it was a sort of audio walk through a large city, like New York for example. That was more of a hip hop focused project. When I did the second album Shibuya, which came out in 2009 after I had taken a trip to Tokyo, it was more specifically about the city and our experience there, and how it inspired me. The Soweto album is even more precise because it was not only about my experience but also of Phonte’s, my partner in The Foreign Exchange, who worked with me on the record on certain vocal elements. Speaking of African music and black music, whether you call it dance, disco, house or soul, they’re really branches of the same tree. So I wanted to give something back rather than take, that’s why you’re not hearing djembes or kilembes on the album – I really did not want to come off as a tourist.
So it was it more like a tribute?
Exactly, more like ‘this is what this country made me feel, and this is what I want to give back to it’.

When was the last time you heard a track that really moved you and what was it?
It was the day before yesterday, a new Thundercat track that came out, called ‘Dem Changes’ from a new EP that he’s releasing I think. Thundercat is one of those artists, one of the few select people, that I look up to to a point where their music makes me want to re-do my music. It’s on the level where he’s making the music that I would dream to make, not all of it, but a lot of – it’s really that good. So, even if I dislike it, his music always really challenges me in some way.

There’s this fantastic clip on Youtube from 1984 where Herbie Hancock is showing Quincy Jones how to use the latest electronic equipment out at the time, computers, synthesizers, programmes –  it all looks super archaic now. He ends up talking about the fact that electronic instruments are only tools, and that humans still have to manipulate them to make something beautiful out of them – or not.
Still to this day there are many people who are offended by electronic music, favouring more traditional instruments and methods. Why do you think this is?
I think it’s very subjective how you look at that. I think art is human expression, and so Herbie Hancock expressing himself in ‘84 to me is no different to Rembrandt expressing himself in 1700s – I may be out a few centuries – doing The Night Watch, or Vincent Van Gough, or Mozart for that matter using a pen and paper. I think that time always dictates where people go and the good artists, the artists that really push the needle forward, are the ones that are really up on those new developments. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a place for organics, and organic instruments: pianos, guitars, Rhodes and drums etc. But the guys that really do it are guys that are products of both worlds, they’re hybrids, and know how to use the cutting edge technology. They take that with being a musician, with knowing what to play, knowing what instruments to choose, knowing how to record all of that, and make the best of both worlds essentially.
Perhaps people have fear of ‘the new’ in general?
Yeah, there are people who stay off of Facebook out of the same sort of feeling. Personally I feel that as long as people don’t tell me what to do then I am happy that people have their own preference.

There is a brief recurring intro of the first track of all The Foreign Exchange albums so far – albeit with slight differences. What is the idea behind this repetition?
It’s another thing that just started as a happy accident and looking back looks really deliberate. We did the first record and I did an Intro – that’s what I did, and when we did the second one I don’t know what spurred the idea but I brought back that intro sound, although slightly tweaked to reflect the atmosphere of the new album. At that point it almost became a kind of sound logo. We started opening our shows with it and it became a kind of battle call, like the Bat-Signal. If you hear that sound you know that we’re close.

Did or do you ever listen to music from Africa, especially any of the new electronic-based stuff evolving there?
Yeah I started getting into it over the last 2 years and I was specifically South Africa-focused just because I knew we would be going there. There is a South African artist called Black Coffee who stands out, he has a very specific brand of house music and I’ve grown to understand that it’s very South African, in the sense that it’s not necessarily as aggressive as house music that you might hear coming from the States or even Europe, its got a softer feel to it and has a lot of musical and rhythmic content to it. It was actually Phonte who hit me to Black Coffee and after that I got hold of pretty much everything he’d done, and at some point even reached out to him to do a re-mix of one of the tracks on our label. So that was the gateway for me in realising that there’re a lot of African artists that are really quickly getting access to equipment, because that’s incredibly important. What you don’t always realise is that in the States a lot of artists complain that musical technology is becoming as accessible as it is. The other side of the story is of course that in continents like Africa, countries like South Africa – yes their economic situation is improving but its not going as quickly as you’d like – these kids are suddenly getting their hands on stuff, whether they buy a cheap piece of software or whether they download it in an illegal fashion, either way they’re getting their hands on stuff and ultimately it leads to a whole generation of people starting to create stuff that I think is starting to make waves on an international level. Black Coffee for instance is constantly touring in the States and is really bringing out nice crowds. It’s exciting and, because as part of my Musicology studies I’d been familiar with a lot of different types of traditional music from Africa, it’s really interesting to see what is going on now, especially in the electronic music scene.

Is there something specific or special about the way you and Phonte work and create together?
There definitely is. The main thing is that, in the same way I easily move from style to style, from genre to genre, he is no different, and in a multi-platform way he is incredible. Obviously he is a great rapper and has made a fantastic name doing that, but he is also an incredible singer and songwriter. Looking back, he’s the only person that I can think of who I could have done this with; with somebody who is as bold as I am and who is willing to go places that I think a lot of artists would be afraid to go to. If anything, at this point we just completely trust each other and have found a relationship where, because we have shown and proved so much for such a long time, with and for each other, it’s almost like a second language. It’s exciting because it’s a very easy partnership; it’s never been anything that we had to work at, or struggle with. We’re not like those groups that can’t stand each other. It’s pretty amazing that you find someone in your life that you connect with to a point that you can read and write and create with them, and it all feels natural all the time, it’s quite rare.

Do you think that if you had met each other before Connected it would have been a different album?
That’s an interesting question, yeah I suppose it would have been. I think one thing that we grew comfortable with is that we each create in our own space. Essentially I create the music in my studio, if there’s one person around there’s too many, I really don’t like having people around. Phonte is very much the same. If anything, that has really allowed us to dig deep without thinking that there’s somebody looking over your shoulder, so there’s no inhibitions. Whenever I send new music it already is 100% fully-me, it already has my blood, sweat and tears in it because I wasn’t afraid to just put it all out there. There aren’t ten people saying, ‘yeah that’s great’ or ‘you don’t want to do that’. If anything it has created this space where each of us is like a bubble, and at the end of the process the two bubbles burst into one and that’s the end result.

Culturally and racially speaking there are big differences between The Netherlands and North Carolina, and the States in general, has living there changed any outlooks that you had on music, or the history behind certain music?
The main thing that has changed for me is that I’ve gotten to play with all these people here that have all, in their own way, made me a better musician, made me appreciate different types of music, specific artists and songs. We, as The Foreign Exchange, have a live band and they are all incredible musicians. Just from playing with them night after night has opened up all these worlds that I’d never even sniffed at when I was still in The Netherlands. The level of musicianship over here is truly astonishing to see at times, which has to do with the fact there’re a lot of people playing, so you’ve got to be really really good if you want to do something – there’s a a lot of competition here.

The word spirit in ‘We Be Spirits’ refers to the way spirits are considered in some parts of the African continent; beings we are connected to and influenced by but who are not necessarily part of the physical realm. What does the word evoke in you and how do you relate to it? What does spirit mean to you?
I think I definitely relate to it. When I look at creating music, there are so many times when I just know that something or somebody is feeding me. I just know it.  I know that what I am doing in that moment is not just me fooling around, I’m being given something. I am not necessarily a religious person but I would consider myself a spiritual person because my life’s work is creating, if you will. I do feel incredibly connected to whatever it is that I’ve been fortunate enough to tap into. I don’t take it lightly, I really owe a lot to music, and I owe a lot to whatever this gift is and who’s given it me. I do feel that, whatever you wanna call it, is part of a bigger human conscience or consciousness. Whatever it is I can definitely feel it at times and I know it is not just me coming up with some chords. You know there are sections of entire tracks and entire songs that just come out and that can’t be just be me doing it.

Do you have any new upcoming projects that you can talk about?
Yes but I can’t talk about it! I have something exciting coming up but no, I can’t talk about it.  It’s going to be a really interesting year I will say that; I was very excited to release my album finally because that was a little while in the making. Us as a collective and owning our own label we’re able to figure out our moves and so I’m very excited with what we can do this year, and hopefully they’ll be a lot more music coming.


Interview: Femi Fem


Femi Fem can probably be linked to most of the UK’s recent musical fabric in one way or another. Apart from being part of the celebrated group Young Disciples – some say the pinnacle of the 90’s acid jazz movement – he has DJ’d in clubs throughout the UK and worldwide, produced and remixed for an eclectic range of international artists, and has famously run a variety of successful club nights in London.
Femi was born in the mid 60’s in London, moved with his family to his ancestral Sierra Leone before returning to London again in 1969.
femiHere he shares with us some of his musical influences, explains why parties not clubs are important, and why modern UK music is a result of its evolved ethnicity.

What are your first musical memories?
Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’, ‘Ob-la-di Ob-la-da’ by The Beatles and the first Tighten Up albums on Trojan. Also, my sister loved Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Barry White so I heard them a lot growing up.

DJ, producer, promoter, remixer, writer are only some of the professions that have been designated to you. How would you describe your basic relationship with music?
I’ve always been involved in all of these aspects. I started out as just a dedicated raver – following Steve Walsh, Paul Anderson, George Power and Cleveland Anderson. When I met Norman Jay through my school friend Alec Selby though, it did change my way of thinking. The source of entertainment did seem more tangible and I realised you can try to make a living by just loving music. I also had a substantial moment of musical enlightenment when I went to London’s WAG night-club and heard Barrie Sharpe and Lascelle Lascelles play some James Brown productions. I was likewise inspired by their full range of soul funk rocksteady from the 70’s and select tunes that fitted into that specific sound of the 80’s warehouse party funk scene.

When listening to music do you ever do so just to relax, or do you always have on DJ or producer ‘ears’?
I’d say it depends on the moment or my mind set and this is something that can vary a lot with me. Sometimes it can be a conscious thing, when you’re looking for ideas perhaps, but most of the time music is just being enjoyed.

You have a number of club successes tucked under your belt; it is clear that people enjoy getting together to dance. Do you think in these ultra-modern times it’s all about escapism or do you think we still resonate to ancient traditions of communal dance and celebration of life?
Ancient traditions are still with us yes; we love the idea of letting our minds go in a communal setting. Parties serve that part of us well. Note I say parties not clubs, which as you know can be sterile. I’ve always gone for the party atmosphere; something that’s not necessarily hectic, but has a more friendly, down-to-earth and liberating setting – keeping it real and real funky!

Whilst it is undeniable the musical influences of 20th century Black American music across the globe, do you think that Black UK music and musical traits have made similar impressions?
Yes we do share a sensibility with America, as does all of UK culture. The UK in general shares common traits with the US. Where there’s a clear difference is the mix of immigrants into Britain. The way in which the African, West-Indian and Asian cultures influence and are influenced by the UK in general is distinct, not discarding the way these ethnic groups also integrate between themselves. This unique blend comes through in the music.

The word spirit in ‘We Be Spirits’ refers to the way spirits are considered in some parts of the African continent; beings we are connected to and influenced by but who are not necessarily part of the physical realm. What does the word evoke in you and how do you relate to it?
I think this relates to DNA; it’s how we’re connected to our ancestors, and it can maybe help us get an explanation about who we are.

Although over 20 years old now, for many Road to Freedom is a still-relevant landmark creation. Can you tell us a little about the origins and workings of ‘Freedom Suite’, which I think rings out with the wisdom and depth of an Old Spiritual?
From where I’m coming from it’s a song that was specifically about mental freedom. It’s about not taking on the lot of the underdog. That’s what Mandela did; he fought from a position that said I have the right to lead even though the system hardly acknowledged him, or any other black person, as a human being. He deserved more than freedom. That’s what Carleen says to me in this song.

Are there any exciting projects you can share with us coming up in the near future?
I’m mainly Djing at present. But I’m also working with many young producers and artists so watch this space.

Mixcloud Sessions


Interview: Paul Duhaney


Paul Duhaney is originally from Tottenham, North London. Before moving to Liverpool 16 years ago he had already laid down the foundation for his current career organising club nights in the Acid House music era in the capital. Once in Liverpool he trained in Events Management and started a 1-year internship at the Africa Oyé Festival – which eventually led to his role as Artistic Director.

Paul DuhaneyHere he tells us a little about the history of this important and exciting festival that celebrates African music and culture, what he thinks about the way the West views the African continent, and the importance of music in black culture.

Can you tell us a little about the origins and history of the Africa Oyé festival?

After finishing university in Scotland the founder of the festival, Kenny Murray, travelled throughout Africa and fell in love with the music. On returning to the UK he decided to start the festival in Liverpool due to its historic links with Africa. The festival was born out of celebrating the positive images of Africa through its music and culture.

Why is this festival important to you?
The festival is important to me because it’s fully inclusive, which means everyone has the opportunity to witness world class music in a friendly environment,  totally free of charge.

How do you go about choosing which acts and artists will appear at the festival?
By visiting conferences and showcases throughout the UK, mainland Europe and the rest of the World. We also receive around 150 artist submissions every year so the hardest thing is actually choosing the final 10-12 artists.

Is there anything about this year’s festival that differs from previous years?
We now have over 80 traders selling foods, arts and crafts, and clothing from all over the world. We have an active zone which hosts free workshops for all ages. We have a DJ area called Trenchtown featuring a two-day programme of world music, as well as the fantastic live performances on the main stage. But we always try to introduce new elements to the festival every year, such as our AfroBeats Tent this year. In future years we would love to have an acoustic stage and possibly stages at other events and festivals.
As we move forward we move with caution as we have always tried to walk before we can run: one error of judgement could mean the end of the festival.
We have been here for over 20 years and we will hopefully be here for another 20.

Do you think a wider deeper knowledge of African culture would have a positive impact on society, in particular black society, in the Western world?
Yes of course. Because of the negativity which is always shown on television and in the media a lot of people’s perceptions of Africa in the West are normally negative, relating to issues such as poverty, disease and famine. The reality is very different. I think people’s perceptions can only really change when they visit these countries. Having said that, in the last 4 or 5 years there are a lot more documentaries portraying Africa in a positive light.

How important do you think the role of music has been in the survival of black people in the Diaspora since slavery?
I don’t think it’s important as such because music has always played a major part in black culture either through communication, expression or religion. So whether it’s through adversity or celebration, music has and always will be a part of black culture.

In Western media the African continent is often referred to as one distant homogenous nation. Why do you think this is?
Lack of education and awareness, which is rather bizarre considering the tools we have at our disposal to learn with. Often the people who I talk to who refer to Africa as one country are the ones you would least expect to do so. I have also seen countless American films and programmes where people talk of Africa and not the number of countries within it. I think that in history lessons, although we may have learnt about Africa, it was never about its component parts. I know in my school – which was very multi-racial – we only ever focused on European studies and very rarely touched on Africa, Asia and places further afield.

The word spirit in ‘We Be Spirits’ refers to the way spirits are considered in some parts of the African continent; beings we are connected to and influenced by but who are not necessarily part of the physical realm. What does the word evoke in you and how do you relate to it?
Spirit for me is what the festival evokes in people. At other times of the year the people of Liverpool may not necessarily come together and celebrate African music and culture, however during this festival people from all walks of life come together to enjoy amazing music and good company. The audience is one of the things that makes Africa Oyé unique, because of the community feeling it creates. I think this resonates with the influence and connection of the definition of spirit.

Are you involved in any other projects that you want to talk about?
The Arts Council England and Womex invited Africa Oyé to be involved in mentoring projects in South Africa, Uganda, Cape Verde and Colombia, which has been up and running for the last three years. This work is also beneficial for Oyé as we have been able to secure artists from these regions and see them perform first hand. We hope to continue this type of work in the future.


June 20th/21st 2015 – Sefton Park, Liverpool
The Africa Oyé Festival 2015

The Africa Oyé festival guide

Interview: Mtume Gant


Mtume Gant has recently returned to his native city of New York after various years living in places such as Barcelona (Spain), Jamaica and Los Angeles. This man of multiple talents, a true creator, describes his maternal roots as ‘African-American and many different things a long the way’, whilst his paternal heritage lies in the American South. His debut short film as director Spit, which relates the struggles of a New York hip hop artist in point-of-view narrative, has already won an Award of Excellence in the category of New Filmmaker at the San Francisco Film Awards, was in the official selection in the Aspen Shortesfest, and had its World Premiere at BAMCinematek in Brooklyn as a part of the New Voices In Black Cinema Festival.

Photo Mtume Gant ii May 2015This impressive, giant of an artist, talks to me about Hollywood’s relationship with the black community in the States, how being an artist is equivalent to being a medium, and why he believes in sampling – amongst other intriguing things.

How old were you when you first became aware of your interest in the arts/music/performance, and do you recall any early inspirational moments?
I have to credit my mother with connecting me to the arts, well, also my father. My mother because she put me in things like children’s theatre at a very young age. You would have to ask her why, maybe it was to give me something to do, maybe she saw something specific. But I for sure enjoyed it to the maximum and frankly it never left my interest. I started I believe around 5 or 6 years old in children’s theatre and then whenever there was a chance to perform in school or anything related I took it. I was part of a theatre group ran by a woman named Dr. Glory Van Scott, this woman was incredible, legendary. I remember seeing her perform once, I was like 8 or 9 and it blew me away. But I loved movies, loved watching actors. Music didn’t become attractive to me until I was a teen and hip hop came around. People freestyling, writing raps and stuff, that’s what turned me on. I never had a real drive for music before, my father was a musician for a period and always played great music, so I loved it and always admired my dad’s ability to play an instrument. But it was hearing hip hop in my teens that made me want to do it.

You recently finished your first short film Spit which you wrote, directed and starred in. How has the experience affected you?
Whew…the experience has been overwhelming. The writing of it was a very deep purge because it’s very personal and I wrote it coming out of a very dark period. I released a lot into it. Then raising the money via crowdfunding was especially rewarding because the campaign spoke to so many people and the amount of support I received filled me with immense joy. Our shoot was great and post production was lovely. I personally was on a high with it for quite a while and more recently it’s been a mixed journey. Some great happenings like premiering at BAMCinematek, being able to screen somewhere as reputable as Aspen Shortsfest, having audiences come to me and tell me how deeply the film has affected them, especially artists, have been a highlight. I had a woman in her 60’s, a painter, come to me in tears saying that she felt I made a film about her life and her struggle with existence in America, it brought me to tears. That has been the most affirming. And then the reality of making a film about exclusion of artists who have a challenging voice, and seeing that film actually get blocked in some circles has been extremely difficult – having to fight against the exclusion of Black Cinema in the American film market. I’ve made a film that attempts to challenge a lot of things, how black people are portrayed, how our artists are suffering, how our systems are defining, and this actually directly challenges many people who program and curate things like festivals, and let’s be real, many don’t like to be challenged or feel like they are being called out. That’s why when someone actually programs my film it’s a bit extra for me. They didn’t take offense, they took it as art!

How does being creative behind the camera compare to being creative in front of it?
Well, being a director is all about management. When you are an actor your job is pretty singular: relate to the camera, be available to yourself and the other actors. Being the director you are connected to all. You are the medium, the conduit in which the spirit of the piece breathes. It’s all about guidance and vision. So there’s a lot more responsibility. Your job is to empower everyone on set to do the best job they can in their skill set and hopefully, if you are a good enough director, the whole piece reaches a level of symbiosis that is like a well-composed piece of music. I love it. I struggle often with having to carry out other people’s  visions, especially as an actor because I have so many issues with how America envisions itself these days. I constantly find myself in conflict with directors’ ideas and interpretations.

Do you see any link between the release of recent films that have dealt with black people’s history in the States, for example Selma and 12 Years a Slave, and the current mood in the black community there?
Hmmm…. that’s a very difficult thing to answer. I will say yes, but that’s not a yes in the positive. I think films like Selma and 12 Years A Slave represent how much America is still stuck in certain visions of the past and is still not willing to deepen the lens even more and go beyond the surface or really deal with what’s happening in the here and now. Both those films got passed through because they are familiar, it still fits the paradigm that Hollywood allows Black Americans to use when talking about our issues. And what’s gotten even more…interesting..for lack of a better word is that now we as blacks are mostly only looking to regurgitate the same stories about ourselves. The conditioning is massive. That’s also why I made Spit.

What database of information do you reach from when you are improvising, be it whilst rapping or acting?
Everything within me. I just trust. I try to be internally present but externally aware. Improv is a juggle of being balanced internally to receive but then have all senses working that you transfer through yourself, you vessel the energy of the moment. It’s all about balance. So, to answer your question, it’s the database of the subconscious.

When you listen to a (hip hop) track how do you assimilate the experience in terms of beats and production, versus lyrics and lyrical style?
I actually don’t anymore. I listen to hip hop as a total experience now. So if the writing is nice but the music is not moving me it finishes for me very quickly, and the opposite is also true, if the music is strong but the writing is not working for me it ends, or I go for an instrumental version of the album, ha! It has to feel symbiotic for me to get into it nowadays.

I consider that the (potentially-phenomenal) way an emcee approaches the juxtaposition of phonetic flow against an instrumental, to be closely related to the polyrhythmic feature so prevalent in many African music traditions. What musical elements within the world of emceeing and hip hop stand out to you?
What stands out to me the most is the shamanistic element that can arise. When rapping feels like incantation. When a breaker looses themselves so much in the dance that it becomes an out-of-body experience. When the DJ reaches that level when they are scratching from inside first and it’s second nature. Hip hop (at its best) is truly a spiritual form, we take all that has been and reinvent. That’s why I believe in sampling so much, it’s the equivalent to rituals of raising old spirits by using their objects as talismans. It revives the dead and gives new life.

In socio-musical terms do you think Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp a Butterfly will turn out to be a landmark?
I wouldn’t have the answer to that. That’s for the generation under me. I’ve already had my landmarks. You would have to ask someone younger and more involved with mainstream culture since it’s made for them. It’s a good album but I spend little time paying attention to pop culture these days so I really wouldn’t know. My landmarks are all personal now since my quest for art is personal.

The word spirit in ‘We Be Spirits’ refers to the way spirits are considered in some parts of the African continent; beings we are connected to and influenced by but who are not necessarily part of the physical realm. What does the word evoke in you and how do you relate to it?
That we are just mediums, well that’s what we are meant to be as artists: listen to the spirits within us and relay their messages. I truly believe that an artist’s work should be Shaman work. We are the magicians, the healers, the seers. That’s who we are and our gift is that we are connected to the currents in all realms and we each have unique visions. We do everything from time travel to spell-casting. We just have to open.

What will the remainder of 2015 see you doing?
Looking for ways to keep Spit getting programmed and screened. Reading the tea-leaves on what is going to be the best way for the film to reach people and seen by them in a theatrical setting.  Writing another script and hopefully shooting another film at the end of this year, and just listening to the wind.

Photo Mtume Gant May 2015
Spit website

Interview: Yinka Esi Graves


Born in London to Ghanaian and Jamaican parents, Yinka started taking dance classes at the age of 5. Currently based in Seville in Spain, she has lived in Madrid, Brighton, Santiago de Cuba and, as a child, Guadeloupe and Nicaragua. She began dancing flamenco at the age of 21 and has not looked back.

This elegant and serene dancer talks to me about her journey so far as a flamenco dancer, how dancing lets her spirit speak, and the similarities between blues and flamenco – amongst many other things.

Why do you dance?
I think it’s something beyond my conscious understanding. My deeper self has drawn me towards dancing since I was a child. Apparently when I was 4 in Nicaragua we went to a Carnival in Bluefields where a large majority of the black Nicaraguans live and when I got home I repeated each and every dance I’d seen to my parents. From that day they put me in dance classes. When I was 17 in Cuba I had gone with the idea of shooting a documentary out there, and in the end I found myself dancing with an Afro Cuban troupe! Now that I have accepted my need to dance (it has taken a long time), I think it’s because I feel a deep sense of joy. I also feel it’s an amazing form of expression for me, a release.

If you had to sum up flamenco in 5 words, what would they be?
Truth, community, beauty, vastness, communication.

Can you recall your first encounter with flamenco culture?
The first time I saw flamenco I was about 12, my father took me to see Paco Peña at Sadlers Wells in London, I really enjoyed it but I don’t recall thinking that I wanted to do that at all! It was when I started taking classes at university that I got hooked…. that was the beginning of the end.

Some have said that the flamenco community is reserved. What has your experience been as a black British female dancer moving within it?
This is a difficult question to answer. What is the flamenco community as such? Today flamenco is quite institutionalised, there are many places to learn flamenco. Having said that nothing is given away. It’s a long journey, attaining a good understanding, good technique takes a very long time and it can be quite a lonely and confused time if you aren’t lucky enough to find someone to guide you through it. As a black woman, I know that I have judged myself, I started with a very apologetic attitude, almost like I didn’t really believe that I could be a flamenco dancer, somehow internalising what I thought most people thought. More than other people’s, I’ve really had to fight against my own judgement. There is no question that it comes as a shock to people when I present myself as a dancer, particularly when I’m going to work with new people. Sometimes the reactions are positive, on a few occasions they haven’t been, but usually after working together people are encouraging and I choose to hold on to that. I could go on for ever about the stereotype that flamenco in many contexts usually plays on, and there is no question that I don’t fit that stereotype.  And as a black woman and as a foreigner, like most non-Spanish flamenco dancers, I think I have had to go about finding my own opportunities to get on stage. It’s a vicious circle: if you don’t have experience you can’t improve, so you have to create the space to gain that experience to be good enough to one day be ‘acknowledged by the flamenco community’. I do feel though that if you show love and dedication and keep working and improving and keep at it, windows and doors will begin to open.

What is specific about the arrangement of live flamenco performances?
In many ways live flamenco is unique, like jazz there is a lot of improvisation that takes place, but even more so than jazz the very structure and development of the (musical or dance) piece can vary so much. All involved need to be fully present and communicate to such a level that I think the energy that is released to achieve this is partly what makes Flamenco so enthralling to watch. In a tablao setting it’s very common to meet the musicians you’re going to work with 20 minutes before the show, you tell them what you’re going to dance (as in what palo/style), explain a rough structure and take it from there!

Who or what are your references in the world of flamenco and dance in general?
I have taken class with many people and in truth I feel that I have learnt something from each person, but there are a few people who have really marked my understanding and approach and whose classes have felt as much about dance as they have about life. I’m recalling learning with Manuel Reyes, Enrique Pantoja, Carmen Ledesma and in the past few years a pillar for me has been La Lupi, and Yolanda Heredia’s bata de cola classes are pure magic. People that I watch and watch and watch because their quality of movement and expression kills me include Carmen Amaya, Farruco, Manuela Carrasco, Manuela Vargas, Eva Yerbabuena, Joaquin Grilo, La Moneta amongst many others (I’m so grateful to YouTube!). And outside flamenco dance, Desmond Richardson is a huge inspiration. The first time I saw Hope Boykin in Alvin Ailey she stopped my heart beating. Dada Masilo is also a pleasure for me to watch and Hofesh Shechter’s work I find fascinating and two of his dancers in particular: Maëva Berthelot and Yeji Kim. I have to confess though that the more I’ve got into flamenco the less I’ve looked outside it and I really need to change that!

The word spirit in ‘We Be Spirits’ refers to the way spirits are considered in some parts of the African continent; beings we are connected to and influenced by but who are not necessarily part of the physical realm. What does the word evoke in you and how do you relate to it?
For me spirit is my deepest truth, the part of me that knows and observes, the part of me that is connected to everything, the part that communicates with the world beyond my understanding. I wish I only knew how to be more connected to it at times although I feel that dancing is one of the times when, if I allow it to, my spirit speaks.

I have heard flamenco being compared to the blues – and vice-versa; the idea that what is expressed through the music is related to the individual or the community’s – often tragic – experiences. What do you think about this?
There is no doubt that flamenco is very connected to the marginalised communities of Andalucia, this is a form of expression usually recounting experiences and customs of these communities. There is no doubt that some (not all) of the palos speak of suffering, unrequited love, and have even been protest songs (back in the day) perhaps fulfilling a similar role as blues did for the African American communities of the Southern States, a form of release, a cathartic act shared within the community. There is also no doubt that both the blues and flamenco move me to the core. I’d definitely say they come from a similar place.

What are you currently involved, and where can we see you perform in the coming months?
Just about a year ago, I joined forces with Noemi Luz and Magdalena Mannion to create ‘dotdotdot dance’. It’s the most wonderful space within which we are able to express and create flamenco as we feel it. We’ll be returning to the UK with our show ‘No Frills’ for our third tour in July. I’m also involved in a project that means a great deal to me, a real opportunity for a completely new type of expression. This is a collaboration with the wonderful Asha Thomas who is a contemporary dancer and choreographer and the piece we’re creating CLAY is very much an exploration of how we fit into our bodies, what we inherit from genetic memory, where we personally feel we can trace our movements back to. This is still a work in progress, we’re hoping to have it by autumn! Other than that as a solo dancer in a more typical tablao setting I am mostly performing in small venues in Seville and sometimes in Madrid. I’ll be performing at a Peña in Murcia in early June and hopefully more things will pop up for the summer! To keep up to date I have blog on tumblr where I put up information about the things i’m involved in: on pulses that move the soul and heels – by the dancing woodpecker.

LAY (work in progress)
(website still being updated!)
Yinka…Zapateando por la vida





Interview: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble


These seven talented brothers from Chicago were born into a musical household. They were influenced by their immediate family – musicians and singers – and most notably their father, the celebrated trumpeter Phil Cohran, whose musical career reaches back to 1940s St. Louis and who, in 1950s Chicago, spent time playing alongside Sun Ra. The siblings grew up practicing and playing under his guidance.

Towards the end of the 90s after leaving school, the group made a living busking on the streets of Chicago until heading to New York. Since then they have performed with the likes of Mos Def, Prince and Tony Allen, recorded with Erykah Badu and collaborated with the eclectic group Rocket Juice and the Moon amongst many others. Their track ‘War’ was featured in the 2012 feature film The Hunger Games. They continue to generate sold out shows around the world, and are currently on a European Spring Tour.

This exceptionally spirited band talks to me about the influence of Marcus Garvey, the Ubuntu philosophy, and how one can access ‘true information’…

HBE ii

The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – define please!
Well around the time when the band first formed, we would take our horns to the subways of downtown Chicago and play for the working class commuters. One time in specific, we were playing and a guy in a suit – a professional type – came up to us and told us that he had been entranced by our music for over an hour on that train stop. He said he had been hypnotized. So we started calling our musical style Hypnotic, we figured that it was also a fitting name, so we adopted it as the name of our band. The ‘Brass Ensemble’ part came much later.

‘Marcus Garvey’, ‘War’, ‘Pluto’ and ‘Jupiter’ are just some of the song titles from your collection. What social or political themes can be found in the Ensemble’s music?
Well Marcus Garvey was one of the most influential characters of modern African history. His ideology, borrowed and morphed from Martin Delaney (who we also have an unreleased song dedicated to) influenced men like Elijah Muhammad who was responsible for uplifting so many men of African descent in North America (Malcolm X, Farrakhan and others). Kwame Nkrumah, who was the head of the first independent African nation, was also influenced by the teachings of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, as were countless others during the 20th century. We felt it quite befitting to lend some of our energy to his legacy, being men connected to that lineage ourselves. We try to keep our musical message apolitical though, we might throw a taste of it here and there but for the most part we refrain from containing our music in any purely physical format. We feel that our music transcends all boundaries and speaks to things that existed long before there were the mundane separations of political ideology. Africans of old were not bound by the politics of today’s skewed perceptions of human reality, so to are we unbound by these confinements … We speak to eternity!

Were there any experiences that especially stood out during your latest international tour?
No not really, though every tour does hold a different treasure and story to tell, they are much the same; late nights, long flights and high energy shows!

What advantages or disadvantages have you experienced working as an all-brother band?
The disadvantage of working with 7 brothers would be agreeing on certain things. It can be quite complicated to come to a consensus with someone whom you are so familiar with; you know their inconsistencies, you’ve witnessed their failures and successes. Sometimes these things can stand in the way of unbiased discernment! The advantage is that you have an unquestionable loyalty and this, in my opinion, far out-weighs the disadvantages.

What would you say that live performance requires of you as a musician, and as a human being?
Well, for a Hypnotic show you are going to need a lot of stamina (lol). But aside from that, I’d say confidence is very key. You’ve got to trust yourself and your instincts enough to open up to the crowd. People want to feel connected to the performer and you can’t do that if you closed off from them. It takes a lot of confidence in yourself to open up like that.

Considering the significance of the Great Migration within the evolution of Black American music, if you had to put your music into a geographical context, where in the States would you pinpoint as being especially influential?
Well, the significance of the Great Migration and the evolution of black music would be the increased access to technology and higher quality instruments. I’m not a historian but I can see a correlation there. I don’t know if we could put our music into a geographical context but if you’re talking about our music and not our choice of instruments then I would say Chicago birthed and raised us. But we don’t attach any sort of confinements to our music or our musical approach, we leave room for exploration. I don’t think it’s always necessary to define things in such a way – especially when we’re talking about creativity. Creativity has to be free. I hope this answers the question!

We Be Spirits deals with the word ‘Spirit’ in the sense of a non-visual connection with our ancestors, in this instance our African ancestors. What does it mean to you as African American musicians?
It has been proven that we are ALL descendants of Africans (or melaninated people), some more removed from that culture, frame of thinking, and blood line than others. Some so far removed that they would even deny this connection, but it exists none the less. We all have our beginnings with the People of the Sun. It is today’s encounter with racism and capitalism that has influenced us to begin to think in terms of Africa as a unified continent and this makes Africa stronger and more capable to defend itself against its intruders, but it was never viewed in that way by its original inhabitants until the coming of colonialism. The world itself wasn’t viewed in that way – the people of the sun populated the entire globe and still do, we made distinctions based on culture. We draw from our ancestors’ eternal spirit and this is older than time itself, and cannot be conceptualized by today’s dogmatic approach to human existence. We believe in Ubuntu. We are people of the sun, populating the entire universe. I could make that clearer but it would take a lot more page space (lol).

What, if at all, have you learnt about your ancestry, especially in the musical realm, that has come to you orally as opposed to from books or formal education?
We were taught by our father to access what is inside us through self-exploration in a meditative warm-up called long tones. Some would call this the Akashic records, we just say it is what is inside us. Our creative process involves this to a large extent: it is like reaching into the darkness for something, you don’t know what that something is, but you know when you’ve found it. This is a practice that is as old as the oldest civilization itself. We believe that this is where true information comes from – from within!

Where do you see live, urban music – like yours – going in the next few years?
To the ends of the earth and beyond!!!

Upcoming European dates to note: March 29th at Jamboree – Barcelona, April 11th at Funky Elephant Festival – Helsinki, April 12th at Ronnie Scotts – London

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Tony Allen “Marcus Garvey”. Live at Cargo, London 2009.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble “War”.