A Conversation With Jacob From ZUBA

Hailing from Scotland but blending influences from all over the globe, the infectious rhythms of ZUBA's Bassa Beat made an instant impression on t61 listeners. Alas, Zuba - in the form that t61 listeners have come to know and love them - no longer exists. Jacob from Zuba took the time to talk to MaxBumps about thesixtyone.com, life as Zuba, and the band's direction - past and future.

silkworm: What has your experience been like with thesixtyone.com so far as an artist and as a listener?

Jacob: Woooow! That's a hard one, a lot in your question... sorry; it will have to be a long answer!

First as an artist, I've been doing Zuba promotion on the web on and off for a few years now, and t61 is really unique to me. Its originality partly comes from the fact that the spirit of it is not interested at all, business wise, thanks to James and Sam (big respect!) and devoted entirely to music. You only have listeners and artists, nobody here to "lay down", sell porn or watches. The comments here are about music and only music. The only people that can make money there are the artists, all they have to do is upload music, the rest is already done for them. If your tune is available on the web you have a link coming up to a merchant download site, etc. Saying that, I don't know if a lot of people buy those tracks, because they can listen to them for free on t61 and more than that, I'm not sure they have time to listen to anything else! I know for a fact a few of Zuba listeners bought the album though.

On t61, you're able to have a direct contact with your listeners, test their taste, and you have to try to guess which of your tracks is going to work best with them. I think Zuba were lucky enough to build an audience quickly and because we have quite a unique sound here on t61, people were quite curious first and in a way got drown into our sound. Because some of our tracks were posted [to the homepage] straight away, I got hooked quickly and since I had time to spare at the time, a bit of promotion, cheekiness and nice interacting with some top players did the rest. I guess we had the luck to be noticed by top-ranked (and therefore powerful!) listeners who were really helpful to us... iyzie for example started a topic in the forum -only a few days after we first uploaded- asking for a world music genre section naming Zuba, surely that brought some attention on us.

So, here is the biggest originality of this site: the gaming side of it... and that's where your listener's side/profile comes in! I think you do need to set up a listener's account and start playing to understand t61 world and fully enter it... I guess there different ways of playing it, but if you want to do well you start bumping tracks you wouldn't especially pay attention to out of the game, because you know they're going to work well and give you some points... and you start understanding people do the same with your tracks. It's like being Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde!

So to conclude (at last!), it has been a really interesting and fun experience so far. And of course, we even get to be interviewed!

silkworm: You've mentioned that you're back to work and that ZUBA as we hear it on thesixtyone.com doesn't really exist any more. What caused this decision? Are you working on any musical projects right now? How about the other band members? We're pleased to be able to hear Robin Miller's guitar work on thesixtyone.com.

Jacob: Zuba stayed together for nine years and most of it was fun but we were self produced, self managed, self financed, self everything really... unfortunately there is a lot of crap to go through, sometimes a lot of frustration and it's quite hard to have seven people with the same level of commitment and involvement...

When you are in a band and you get a lot of good feedback and excitement about what you do, you start believing you might get somewhere with your music, start living from it for example (!), but unfortunately music business is a hard one and after a while it becomes quite tiring, especially if you have to work and travel for gigs at the same time... On top of that you always meet people that tell you they're going to take you to the moon and it becomes clear after a while it's just bulls**t...

Robin Miller is preparing a new album and playing covers in venues around his place.

The bass player Woody plays with a rock band for a while now and started working with MATW (man at the window) a Scottish reggae band.

Jerry Boweh, the singer still carries the name Zuba with his new band Zuba Bassa Beat and prepares a new album.

Personally, I had to go back to my home country, France, where I stay now, just before the split, in 2006. For a year and a half I left the music aside and I've just started gigging again with two bands, General Purpose (pop) and Zion Crew (dub/reggae) in Paris.

silkworm: Would you tell us a bit about Jerry's griot lineage and what influence that has had on the storytelling aspect of your music? Does that also inform the politics of some of your songs?

Jacob: Well, I'll try to answer some aspect of this question for Jerry with what he told me over the years.

I know Jerry is from a cast of griots (musicians and story tellers) inside his own tribe, the Bassa people, and that he got initiated as a kid in a village in the bush. For him it was always important to sing in Bassa, when in Liberia you have a lot of people speaking English and even more in the Liberians' communities over the world, the biggest being in the US. He got a lot of feedback from his people saying 'How do you remember all that? How can you still sing in Bassa?" And I think he's really proud to carry his tribe culture further, especially after all those civil war years there, for people to remember where they come from.

I guess when you speak about politics in our songs you refer to Tomayziyi (Let there be no more war), Hail Africa and Election Day. I think those songs are meant to be more philosophical than political... or political but kind of neutral. I guess the role of the griot cast is to tell stories, for people to learn from them and live better in community.

No War is a message carried by many musicians and artists. Jerry says 'When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers' meaning that the wars are always ruled by the powerful of this world but it's always the simple people that get killed. He wrote the two others especially for the first presidential elections in Liberia after Charles Taylor's fall, for all Liberians -not only Bassa people, that's why they are in English- and they carry a message of peace and reconstruction for his country.

Jerry now runs a charity called AYDAP (African Youth Development Action Project) to help youth in Liberia to get over the war (a lot of child soldiers where used during the war) through music and sport and through the years, Zuba has always been happy to play for charities such as Amnesty, Fair Trade, etc. Just for info, you can now find a translation of Tomayziyi and a few other songs in our photos on t61.

silkworm: Please tell us about the process of creating the ZUBA sound. Did you already know at the beginning what kind of sound you were looking for, or did it take some time for those diverse elements to evolve in to the music we hear now?

Jacob: Zuba was originally formed for a one-off concert in aid of Scottish International Relief back in 1997. The singer Jerry Boweh founded the band in Glasgow. He found himself in Scotland (this damned freezing place as he calls it himself!) after civil war forced him to flee his home country Liberia. Like in most bands, some musicians had to move on with their life and some new ones were grafted, but for nine years Jerry managed to keep on his side Robin Miller, a really talented finger picking guitarist, and Andy "Woody" Wood, at the bass, big fan of The Who.

Up to 2003 Hubert Hove, Jerry's "bro" from Zimbabwe played keyboards and gave a real reggae feel to the sound and we had a backing singer from the Basque country.

In 2001 some new influences came into board, the drummer Alasdair MacDonald with his jazzy feel, Anna Macdonald with her beautiful voice you can appreciate on "Mes Fantômes" and me with my Latin luggage.

Some other keys players stayed with us for a while, Gavin Murray and Greg Barnes, both feature on our last album "Allez!"

To answer your question, there was no real process to create the Zuba sound because there was always a really democratic way of writing songs -which sometimes took a veeeery long time!- and because everybody who wished to bring his/her own influences and background could do it, the Zuba sound was always a result of an interaction between musicians, not really planned but only happening. For example, Zuba recordings have a real strong reggae feel to them before 2003; and that's not because somebody was saying, "yeah, we are a reggae band, we have to write reggae songs" but for the simple reason that Mr Hubert 'Blackman' Hove was in the room, playing his infectious skanks on the keys. The funny thing is though, if you've heard Zuba before, you'll be able to recognize their sound straight away... you might not know how you recognize it, but you will!

I guess not looking for a particular sound has been a problem for us in many situations, because in the music business, people want to be able to describe music, to be able to put it in a precise shelf and sell it... even for gigs, they want to be able to describe your sound to a new audience... they don't like to take risks! A good illustration of that is another Scottish band -great band by the way: Salsa Celtica... they are doing really well... I'll let you guess what they play!

At the end of the day, they don't care if you've never played a gig with nobody dancing even if only 10 people are there, they don't care if your music is enjoyed by people from 2 'till 80 years old, if it brings sunshine in one of the rainiest country...

Never mind! I personally think they missed something!

silkworm: One of our blog contributors was wondering if there has been any Scottish influence on your sound? If not a musical influence, then just the influence of creating and playing music in Scotland - what is it like and does it have an effect on your music?

Jacob: Yes, there is a Scottish influence in the playing, mainly with the lead guitar from Robin. After that you have a song like "Zuba" in 6/8 which finishes with a Scottish jig, even with fiddles on the recording. And yes there is a big Scot influence in the way of thinking I guess, never taking anything too seriously especially yourself, always stay humble. Scottish humour is great: the best sarcasm is when you laugh at yourself before anybody else! Not always well understood, but... nae bother!

Video at the big green gathering

silkworm: What other musicians inspire you? I feel like I can hear elements of King Sunny Ade or Kanda Bongo Man but I'm sure there's so much more going on.

Jacob: To refer to the artists you quoted we do have an overall African music vibe and I would also add Thomas Mapfumo, Lucky Dube (for the early Zuba), Paul Simon's Graceland. But I think the real answer would be: too many to be named, just because every single one from the band would have to answer this question. I can try to give one artist for each:

Jerry: Bob Marley

Robin: Davy Graham

Woody: The Who

Alasdair: Tony Williams

Hubert: Lucky Dube

Anna: Toots

Gavin: Frank Zappa

me: Salif Keita.

That's probably why there's so much going on!!!

silkworm: There are some good videos of ZUBA playng live on your myspace page. Please talk a little bit about what playing live music to an audience means to you.

Video live at the garage

Our last gig together was in the summer 2006... What to say? I think we all miss it. We loved playing for any kind of audience and make them sweat as much as we did! Playing live was our biggest reward for all the work involved in this I guess, I think we were a live band if that makes sense... as well as a big family... but that we still are!

Thank you very much for asking us to do this, the questions were very pertinent and it's an honour to be here.

As a conclusion I will only say:


1 comment:

willie said...

Just got around to reading this. Good work Silkworm. I didn't know Zuba were no more, I had them topping the bill at the first t61 festival (the one I've organized in my mind). I also didn't know they had played the Big Green Gathering, I could have been close to seeing them live.