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Ronan Skillen: Telepathic Euphoria

Ronan Skillen: Telepathic Euphoria
Seton Hawkins By

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It's not really a genre that fits in ‘here’ or ‘there.' I like music like that. —Ronan Skillen
When one thinks of South African jazz, the didgeridoo and the tabla don't immediately jump to mind. Nevertheless, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and engineer Ronan Skillen has made them vital additions to a range of South African ensembles.

While acclaimed for his work in the genre-smashing South African ensemble Babu, Skillen has engaged in a wide range of highly influential projects in South Africa and abroad, from the meditative collaboration with Dave Ledbetter, Deep South, to the electronica-infused work of the South African/European ensemble A.Spell. More recently, Skillen launched the new ensemble Ancient Agents, whose debut album saw Skillen's multifaceted talents operating in seamless tandem with fellow South African artists Reza Khota and Schalk Joubert as well as Swedish percussionist Fredrik Gille. The resulting work is a joy to hear, relentlessly melodic music that is endlessly enriching.

All About Jazz: Let's start with your earliest experiences. Though you live in Cape Town, you were born in Northern Ireland and moved to Germany when you were a toddler. You started out on French horn, correct?

Ronan Skillen: I did. I was in three different school orchestras, and I played classical music as a French horn player until I was about 17. It was a great time and a wonderful foundation for music, because it enabled a whole lot of what I still use in music today. Things like harmony, pitch, intuition and rhythm skills came from that experience, and of course playing as part of an ensemble.

AAJ: During this period of your studies, two things jump out: the encouragement you received to explore the world, and your introduction to the didgeridoo.

RS: The didgeridoo actually came first. I think it was my sixteenth birthday, and someone just gave me a didgeridoo. It was this piece of bamboo and I thought, "Okay, this could be fun." I quickly realized I had a knack for it, and it enabled this incredible world of improvisation. There wasn't much music written for it, yet there also wasn't any limitation on what I was "allowed" to play, "should" play, or "had to" play. That was the first real glimpse of realizing, "oh wow, this is about me, about my personality, and what I feel like bringing into the music," rather than just playing what's on the sheet. Essentially the didgeridoo replaced the French horn.

AAJ: That must have been one hell of an embouchure change!

RS: Actually, that French horn technique helped a lot! It is a different way of playing, and the circular breathing technique was obviously the thing I had to learn on the didgeridoo.

Coming from Europe, I was lucky to be able to move around there a lot—which is such a privilege—so early on in my life I was exposed to a number of different cultures. My brother-in-law from Ghana influenced me a lot rhythmically. I went to Ghana twice and picked up a bunch of Northwest African instruments that also played a role. I think that meeting Aboriginal tribes, having a glimpse of that world, and making didgeridoos in Australia with people that you don't meet by chance gave me my first glimpse of mysticism in music. Initially I had never intended to stay in Cape Town, but through a series of fortunate events, I was able to stay there, and that return flight back to Europe just left without me.

AAJ: Did you also begin playing tabla at that time?

RS: That actually happened a bit later. Initially, I was always just "the didge player." I only began seriously exploring the tabla when I was about 23 or 24. I had always been interested in it, though. You know when you have a favorite instrument, or an obsession with an instrument that has a particular sound, and you listen out for that instrument wherever it is? Tabla was one of those instruments for me. Whenever I heard it, I would always try and find more of that music. My dad had introduced me to Shakti when I was 12, and that had a massive impact on me. It was on repeat until, well, I'm still listening to it! The way that John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain fused not just the East and the West but also the North and the South of India was just so unique.

I was sitting in Cape Town one day and the phone rang. It was Dave Williams from SABC [the South African Broadcasting Company], the engineer who works at Studio One. He somehow knew that I was a tabla fanatic and said, "Look, there's a tabla player in my studio and he's absolutely terrifying!" I kind of knew what he meant by that, and I said, "I'm on my way." I ended up going to the studio and met these incredible musicians from India: violinist Kala Ramnath, sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee, and the astounding tabla player Akram Khan. They had been on a tour of South Africa and were looking for jazz musicians to collaborate with on a kind of a fusion project. I ended up adding a few bits and pieces of percussion to one of the songs, which was quite interesting, but that wasn't really my aim. My mission became to home in on this tabla player in order to get a taste of something authentic. I hung around and bugged him, and eventually Akram looked at me, then at my hands, and gave me a quizzical look, telling me "If you're serious and really want to do this, then I'm inviting you to come to Delhi and study with me." I went straight home, booked a flight, called him in the hotel that same evening, and told him "I'm on my way."

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