Last March in South Africa I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Baird, an Englishman born in Zambia, living in Holland. He was playing percussion with some fellow musicians around a campfire during a braai, celebrating the birthday of a friend. Our meeting was a pleasant surprise as I had reviewed one of the CD’s which Michael releases through his label SWP Records, ‘Lesotho Calling -lesiba & sekhankula music’ (SWP 033). See my post Sounds & Basotho songs from Lesotho
I became even more fascinated by the fact that Michael also re-releases the famous Hugh Tracey field recordings that are part of the ILAM archives in Grahamstown, South Africa.
So here is an exclusive interview with Michael Baird about his label, his music and his many travels throughout Africa.
Michael Baird & Aaron & 22-06-08
Tell me when you started your label and why?
That was in 1986. I had produced an album’s worth of recordings of my percussion trio Sharp Wood, having spent a lot of time and trouble getting a good sound and performances, and I looked around for a serious label to release it. It was so frustrating – one said “phone back in ten months”, another said “it’s really interesting music, but if only you were the latest thing from New York…..”, yet another said “if you change some things we’ll sell more…..” So I released it myself and we sold the lp ‘Percussion’ at our concerts. In my opinion the existing record business lacked vision.
What is your release policy? You state that SWP releases music that the big companies won’t touch. What makes SWP different from the rest?
SWP stands for Sharp Wood Productions. I release my own music – I am first and foremost a drummer and composer. I want to retain at all times the final artistic responsibility for my music, I don’t want some halfwit money-motivated producer looking over my shoulder telling me what to do! My music is ‘independent’, I think it sounds like nobody else’s. And then there is all the African music I have released: I don’t do it just to make a profit, I do it because I care about the music – and nobody else is releasing it. If SWP doesn’t release this beautiful music, you aren’t going to get to hear it!
Nyeleti Mukkuli – Nchembele Musimbi Wangu (from SWP 036 ‘The Kankobela of the Batonga Vol.1’, recorded by Michael Baird)
You were born in Zambia. Describe your first encounters with the music of that country?
The first encounter was still in my mother’s womb. After that I had a black nanny and she took me down to the compound or village, where singing and dancing is a normal state of affairs, and I’m strapped on her back getting swayed back and forth, you know – music is everywhere in Zambia, because it’s an expression of ‘being together’. I grew up with African music.
What is your most memorable African music experience?
So many. Falling asleep in the evenings as a young kid with drums pounding in the distance. Hearing the magical tinkling of an approaching thumb-piano as the guy accompanies himself while walking through the bush. Sitting-in as a 7-year-old playing the basic patterns with drummers and xylophone players from Zambia’s Western Province. Hearing the thunder of a Rwandan drum ensemble as a 5-year-old. Being totally mesmerized as a 9-year-old by a Chopi xylophone ensemble from Mozambique. All in all, it’s the time patterns, the unity of beat. African music is a communal thing – you can join in if you know the tune or rhythm, but if you mess up you’ll get a clip round the earhole and told to listen!
You describe your style of drumming as ‘voodoo jazz’. Explain
It’s just a name, you know. But it refers to my music as a whole, and not just specifically my drumming. Some German journalist in 1988 wrote a review of a Sharp Wood concert and posed the question: “Is it jazz, or is it voodoo?” Wow, I finally knew what I was doing – I was playing voodoo-jazz! No, I kinda liked it because there is a ritualistic, exorcistic element in my music. Good rhythm is hypnotic, as you know. I try to blend musical concepts from both Africa and Europe into some kind of new music; the tag ‘voodoo-jazz’ will do fine for the time being.
Tell us more about the project The Ritmoloog? How does that fit into your catalogue?
The Ritmoloog Continues – it’s one of my albums, the continuing story of…..Michael Baird. Recorded in 2005, together with guest musicians. I had mixed midi and live playing together already on my cd ‘On Remote Patrol’ in 1996, and I wanted to pursue that. In between I had done other albums – ‘Sirenians’ was distilled from a composition commission for octet and ‘Gongs and Bells’ was all about overtones and sort of buddhists along the Zambesi. But in September I’ll be releasing ‘Ends and Odds’ which is like a continuation of The Ritmoloog concept. The final mixes are just finished, the mastering next week. Now that, folks, is a cd worth checking out! Afro-ambient grooves with weirdness thrown in. I play a lot of instruments on it – kalimbas, keyboards, drums – and again some guest musicians. The new is as old as the world, but I see myself as a ‘modernist’, and all that means is that I am in a position to steal from all over the place. But it definitely is still my soup!
Michael Baird – Heritage Groove (from SWP 029 ‘The Ritmoloog)
Are you working as a musician or cultural anthropologist?
I am a musician. I am a colonial kid. Zambians say to me, well if your umbilical cord is buried in Zambia then you are a Zambian! All my live music experiences were African until the family moved to England when, as a 10-year-old, my parents took me to see a european classical concert. I couldn’t figure out where the fun was – no sweating, no dust, no masks, no drumming. It was Hugh Tracey’s recordings which inspired me to also make field recordings. I am self-taught as a musician and if I am also seen as an ethnomusicologist, then I’m self-taught there as well. I have thoroughly researched a lot of African musics – by now I know quite a lot about African music, even if I say so myself, but I approach it all as a musician and not as an academic. Let me add that by making field recordings, I practice ethnomusicology – the people working in university departments just teach the theory!
Why release the historical recordings of Hugh Tracey?
When I walked into the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in 1996 at Rhodes University, South Africa, where Tracey’s archive is kept, there was nothing available on cd. His original field tapes were literally just sitting on an academic shelf gathering dust, doing no one any good. Such beautiful music should be made available to the world! You see, if a piece of music moves me, I want to let you hear it. It then turned out that the condition of the old reel-to-reel tapes was pretty bad – after playing a tape through, there was a little pile of red dust next to the magnetic head: the goddamn coating was just coming off! No time to lose – after all, Hugh Tracey’s unique collection of recordings constitutes the musical memory of half a continent. Two years later I released my first four albums in what ended up as a 21-cd series ‘Historical Recordings by Hugh Tracey’. That took the best part of eight years of my life.
Rwakanembe – Nyoro Royal Horns (from SWP 008 and also SWP 034, recorded in 1952 by Hugh Tracey)
Why choose traditional tribal music instead of a selection of contemporary popular music from those countries?
That’s not totally accurate, as I have released two compilations with Zambian pop music from the 60s, 70s and 80s. But SWP releases music that no one else does – I never planned to do my Hugh Tracey series, but because no one else apparantly had the vision to do it, it fell to me to do it. Life is like that sometimes! If the music is already out there on the market, that’s fine, then I don’t have to do it. But if I know about some great music that no one else seems to know or either care about – which often I had had the priviledge to have heard as a child – then I reckon I should release it. On top of that, the traditional music is dying out.
In what way do you feel that it is important to preserve the music that you record?
The music I have recorded in Africa – 4 cds released so far and a 5th coming before the end of the year – is dying out. You see, first the missionaries arrived and forbade the devil’s music, then in the colonial era, into which I was born, there was this incredible arrogance that all African music was primitive, then in the post-colonial era the new governments had the idea that everything Western was superior anyway, and nowadays most countries don’t have the means to care for their cultural roots. ‘Music Conservatory’ is an interesting name because it contains the word ‘conserve’ – there are only very few African countries that conserve their musical traditions.
In what way do you see the loss of traditional society vs the modern industrialised society?
Well, it’s all about cultural diversity. We need cultural diversity on this earth, because the alternative is a mono culture – and that’s a sad place to be. Vive les differences! Once you’ve got people eating the same, they’ll soon all be thinking the same. Yeah, macmadness…..plus there is so much musical genius to be found in traditional music – it took centuries to create it for godsakes. We can learn so much musically from this music, so don’t let it just disappear. I am a contemporary person, I’m not a purist, I like to mix things up, but there is a cultural tragedy going on and we should care about it! If some young musicians from Zambia are making ‘new music’, then I want to be able to hear that they are from Zambia, i.e. that they are creating from their own rich musical roots, and not copying hiphop or whatever. MTV is destructive for local creativity. But I just love the Kasai Allstars from Kinshasa and Jagwa Music from Dar-es-Salaam – examples of new music from the cities but coming from their own roots.
What was the biggest challenge for you to record this music? And the biggest reward?
The biggest challenge is financial. Malaria, crocodiles, paranoid policemen, I can deal with – but I can’t continue making field trips to Africa because it costs too much money. Meaning SWP is not selling enough of those cds! And I don’t get any funding, I have to pay out of my own SWP pocket. Funnily enough, finding funds to continue his fieldwork was also Hugh Tracey’s constant worry throughout his life. It’s a pity – there are trips to parts of Mozambique, Zambia, Congo, Central African Republic, that I would like to do. The biggest reward is the music itself – finding it, and then making a technically good recording of a great performance. They are my music colleagues you know!
What is more important to you; the rhythms or the words/poetry? Words that you may not understand, why do they speak to you?
Words are also sounds. Languages are also music. Mwa-bu-ka-bu-ti! Kaf-e-keni-po-mu-kwai! You don’t have to understand the meaning of a lyric to enjoy the organic whole. However, if a song has a real social or spiritual message, you’ll miss out on it if you don’t get the translation. But for example, one time I heard this great drumming and there were a couple of sentences repetitively sung in the groove – turned out all they were singing was “yes we’re all here, if you are not here, then where are you?” I was already enjoying the music okay, but when I heard that, it brought tears to my eyes. Words can detract from music, but they can also add to it.
Why is it important to save traditional African music for the world?
Because it is so beautiful. Also, in African traditional music you find a collectiveness that you will probably find nowhere else in the world: on your own you are nobody, together we are someone. Now that’s a strong philosophical message which us Westerners with all our individualism can learn from! Historically speaking, we are in a crucial fase as far as African music is concerned, many traditions are disappearing as you read this article. But I’m optimistic – I actually think that the future is African.