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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."

AAJ: This would have been around 2003 or 2004? What was the process of study like?

RS: That was the first time I went to India. I had no idea about the process and how I would even approach this kind of study. I just went in as a naive 23-year-old musician wannabe, and I ended up in the deep end of tabla boot camp! It was unbelievable, quite intense, and very hard, but immensely inspiring and life-changing.

When I got there, I remember having a conversation very early on with Akram where I asked, "How do we do this? How does this even work? You've clearly got a different way of approaching teaching and learning here." He answered, "Well, we can go the more Western route, where you arrive Wednesdays and Saturdays or something, between the hours of so-and-so and so-and-so, you pay me an amount of money, and that's it. Or, we can decide from this moment on that you have the honor of learning from me, that I have the honor of teaching you, and we base the entire experience on respect for this tradition." Obviously, I said, "Let's do that."

So that was the beginning of this experience. You learn quickly. It's not just the instrument but everything that goes with it, all the other students, the lifestyle, and the way you become a disciple. Your telepathic, intuitive communication with your teacher/guru is a strangely mystifying event. It still puzzles me and amazes me how it takes shape. You have this immense respect for a man who has just taken a part of his culture and tradition to a musical level you've never even imagined. You end up trying your best to conform to that lifestyle in some way. I was only there for three months the first time, and it was a lot for me at that age to try and really grasp it all. Thankfully, I'm a very thick-skinned sponge and I took a lot of it on the chin. There were moments where I played until I bled. It was crazy, but there was also a lot of encouragement from the other students and a lot of "you can do this."

What's also interesting about this way of learning is that it is an oral tradition. You are constantly learning to speak a rhythmic language, all these syllables that come with compositions, and you're not allowed to write them down. You have to retain this information by speaking it and actually memorizing it. With most of what I had to learn in the lessons, I would go home and immediately write everything that I could remember down! Thankfully I now have a book full of information about the compositions I learned. Lessons could go on for hours, which required an unbelievable amount of energy. It would generally start with the beginners, then intermediate students, and then the advanced guys would would go until they dropped.

AAJ: You referenced an Indian ensemble touring South Africa that got things going for you. For many people not familiar with South Africa, that might come as a surprise. Can you talk about the ties between South Africa and India?

RS: India and South Africa have had a history since Ghandi's time. For many political reasons, South Africa has the largest population of Indian people outside of India. More specifically, relating to my first encounter with Akram Khan and the Indian ensemble, this was the beginning of a visionary idea initiated by Nisaar Pangarker. He began with a series of concerts under the name "Inner Circle Entertainment" that would happen once or twice a year to educate Southern African audiences as well as the Indian population of Southern Africa. He wanted to bring Indian classical music of a very high level to South Africa and showcase it in a traditional way. I'm still extremely grateful for his vision and dedication to this world of Indian classical music he has opened.

AAJ: A number of your projects weld together many musical worlds, which seems appropriate given the range of cultures in South Africa. You've spoken about artists like John McLaughlin fusing the East and the West as well as the North and the South, and also spoken of ideas about universal rhythms. How did you begin to navigate bringing the taals [Indian musical meter] into other musical languages?

RS: McLaughlin is an amazing candidate for that kind of work. In fact, he and the kanjira player Selva Ganesh actually released a DVD called The Gateway to Rhythm. It talks about this very thing: a universal rhythm language known as Konnakol. Konnakol is a widely-known rhythmic language that originated in Southern India. It has been applied in India-based rhythmical music right through to jazz and many other genres. For example, Babu (a band I used to play in with Kesivan Naidoo, Shane Cooper, and Reza Khota) used a lot of those ideas. We also use the concept in Ancient Agents, where a rhythmical pattern would be literally rehearsed, with the band getting together to speak the rhythms before it plays them.

It is an amazing tool, a very efficient and incredibly fast way of memorizing rhythm structures. When you learn it that way, you speak the rhythm first, internalizing it in your body, and then you play it. There are all sorts of counting mechanisms that use your hand to mark beats on the nodes of your fingers. A lot of Indian music is based on 16 beats, which is divisible by two, which is eight, which is divisible by two, which is four, et cetera. If you've got a five or seven, you can quickly figure out where it sits. Your hand becomes like a graph, so you can count quickly. With that come the syllables: "Ta, Ta-ka, Ta-ki-ta, Ta-ka-di-mi" and "Da-di-gi-na-dom." Those are the five basic sound patterns used to mix any form of a rhythmical phrase in Konnakol. Then you could put a melody on top, which is really exciting. In fact, I often think of rhythm in melodic form. It's the easiest way to memorize odd meters, I reckon.

AAJ: The compound kit—which you developed to combine the tabla, didgeridoo, and percussion instruments—is another prominent aspect of your performances. How did you assemble it?

RS: I've always been heavily influenced by Trilok Gurtu. He's another one of those unique guys who has always respected the tabla tradition, and has always said something that resonates with me: that everything in his rhythmic concept emerges from and goes back to the tabla. So if Gurtu can't play it on the tabla, then he can't play it. In a way, I feel similar. Not that I'm anywhere near Trilok, that's not what I'm trying say!

In my playing, I wanted to incorporate some kind of what might be called more "normal" or "usual" sounds that I could switch to, so that the music is not entirely tabla-based. The tabla is quite melodic—the actual drum is pitched—and it can be limiting when you've got an ensemble using different harmonies and changes that are shifting to a key that wouldn't fit with the tabla. I was also interested in other contemporary music and wanted to fuse the two in a way I could comfortably interpret.

I designed a lot of my kit from things that were given to me. I sought out particular pieces and made some of it out of aluminum so that I could travel with it. I'd go into industrial areas and find different lengths of pipe to mold something together. Eventually I had designed this 180-degree frame tapestry around me, with all sorts of gongs, bells, cymbals, drums and percussion attached to it. Since I was sitting cross-legged, I didn't have my feet, which is a problem for any normal drummer. I initially used a frame drum but now I use this old roto tom, which I tune down and put a thick suede skin over. With the right microphone, it gives me this incredibly deep, thick bass drum sound. I use that as a kick with my left hand, much like Trilok. I've also have a snare and all sorts of other paraphernalia that keeps changing. I go through phases of finding new instruments that I want to put in the mix, and then I either don't have enough hands or enough space, so something has to fall away!

AAJ: You say "tapestry." One thing that is striking about a project the duo Tonik is its generative layering of sound and tonal painting. How did that emerge, and how did you start merging live performance with looping techniques?

RS: With Tonik, as a duo we quickly realized that we wanted to either use our sounds by layering them and making the sound tapestry thicker and denser, or to blend in loops and blend them out again. With that idea in mind, we stumbled upon a distinct sound. A lot of the samples we ended up using were sounds from India that I recorded during my travels, and a lot of them were just incorporated naturally. But there is a large element in Tonik that is momentary, so every gig was always unique. We literally used whatever we had and made [it up] on the spot.

We used to play what we called "silent gigs" with headphones. We would often also use atmospheric sounds. When you layer that, it's a weird thing for people to experience the frequency that they're sitting in, but in an amplified way. I always felt Tonik was a really nice mixture of not being enslaved by the loops. Once you're in a rhythmic pattern with the loop, you can get stuck. You have to stay there. Jann Krynauw, the pianist and the guy who operated all the looping and all the electronic parts, had that kind of brain. It was very beautifully executed in a way in which most audience members had no idea what was being looped or not. It was just sound, you know.

AAJ: Can we talk a bit more about the silent gigs? This is similar to your more recent work with the Intone project. In both cases, the performance space itself is an active part of the performance.

RS: The silent gig concept came about because Tonik used to rehearse at Jann's apartment in town. He lived in this one-bedroom flat with neighbors and paper-thin walls. We always rehearsed with headphones. He had a nine-to-five job, so we generally met after five in the evening. We really enjoyed the idea of being so close to the music. The detail was so clear. Every time we played, it was like jamming along to an album. It was really intense listening. At one point during a rehearsal, we both had the same idea in a sort of telepathic euphoria: why don't we try and do this live, but where everybody has headphones? Immediately after that, we realized that this meant we could play pretty much anywhere. Jann used a Nord keyboard so you wouldn't hear him acoustically, except for a little clickety-clackety. My instruments were fairly acoustically manageable in a silent space, meaning we could closely mic everything and really explore what our instruments were supposed to sound like. Both of us had experiences in other live music situations were we were misrepresented or had a horrible experience because of sound issues. For example, I'd try and play a bunch of different tablas and a didgeridoo or something and the sound engineers didn't even know what those instruments were.

Our first gig we did was on Jann's roof. We invited a bunch of friends, got an access key from the landlord, and went onto the roof of this tall building in the center of Cape Town around sunset to set up 40 chairs. We had wired headphones at the time. Eventually we switched to wireless ones, which was really cool, and so much easier to manage. Then we got a silent generator from Japan, which meant that we were able to take this into a forest or into a weird canyon. We could have a picnic with everyone and then play music for them in this incredibly open but isolated environment. It was quite something. Using two Neumann condenser microphones, placed in a space that is wide open, you're going to hear more of the birds, you're going to hear more of the elements and the space you are in. Just feeling that was unique in itself.

AAJ: A number of your projects explore this electronic manipulation of sound. A.Spell and your duo work with Maxim Starcke spring to mind.

RS: A.Spell began during an artist residency through the Swiss Arts Council in 2009. I was introduced to a bass clarinetist in Bern called Jan Galega Bronnimann, who had been jamming with singer Nadja Stoller. I had never been to Switzerland, and everything was a bit unknown to me there. During my time there, Jan and Nadja arranged a jam session, and Jan suggested, "why don't you just play along and see if we can develop something?" Very quickly it was evident that we were gelling nicely. It just worked. It was one of those amazing, magical moments where three people meet musically who don't really know each other at all and just go, "Wow, this is great!" We got together a few more times and we started doing a few little shows in Switzerland, and then I had to leave.

But we continued that idea and decided our material was worth pursuing because of its unique sound: Jan playing bass clarinet, Nadja singing and playing accordion, me with all my percussion, and these incredible beats that Jan used to make on the spot. He had these shoe boxes with springs and pickups inside them that would go through a chaos pad, and a weird harmonizing octave pedal hooked up to his contrabass clarinet, which would play the bass line. It just went on and on without limitations.

Funnily enough, something I forgot to mention to you about Tonik, and the same thing with A.Spell, is that I was always playing entirely acoustic. I love being that component when meeting the electronic side, finding a way to make it interesting, and letting it influence me. With A.Spell, we recorded an album and toured Europe with it for four years in a row. We also made another record. On our last tour, which was a year and a half ago, Nadja sadly quit the band. In fact she decided to stop playing music altogether, which was quite a shocker to all of us. I respect her decision and there are no hard feelings, but it's a pity because we were really getting there. That sound was so unique.

AAJ: Comparing it to your work with Maxim Starcke, that particular duo has a much more atmospheric soundscape. How did it come about?

RS: Max and I first played together as a duo at a gig of his that he had organized. At the last minute he said, "Man, you're in town, don't you want to come and play with me? I'd love it if you just want to jam along." I thought, "Oh, okay. I was actually just going to come and hear you play, but sure why not? What do you want me to do?" He told me to bring whatever I wanted, and then asked if I could record it!

So I literally brought all my gear. I have a little studio set up as well. I remember going to The Forge in Kalk Bay, which is why that first album is called Forgery (Self Released, 2013). We took most of the day to set up the space and just pressed "record." The entire performance was a one-off improvised event. Max is not the kind of guy who has ever told me what to play or how. Our only common vision was to make music about the nature surrounding us in this place. That was the inspiration. That first album is an unedited performance of that event, with me going in cold, not knowing what he was going to do, and Max completely trusting what I was going to bring. We released it, and that duo was born.

We don't play much now. It's very rare that I play with Max, maybe twice a year. He has two kids and he is also teaching. So it's one of those passion projects that we revisit whenever we can. I really like it because it is a unique thing when you end up in a space in which you're listening intensely to whatever is required. Landscape music. The electronic side is never pre-programmed. In fact, nothing about it is pre-programmed. It's always live. Everything happens on the spot, which is always great.

AAJ: You made a comment earlier about providing the acoustic components and engaging with the electronic aspects of Tonik and A.Spell. In your solo project Didgi-Taal and its remix album componentVolume 1 -ixRemix (Self Released, 2018), there's a great deal that you set up acoustically that is then drastically altered in the remix. How did those projects emerge?

RS: The acoustic album was a tough thing to get right. I've always gone through phases of loving the didgeridoo and then really not liking it. It's such a difficult instrument to place into a musical context in the world at large, because you'll generally find that people will either associate it as an instrument for meditation—New Age crystals, dolphins, chakras and rainbows—or something for a bunch of people coughing around a fire in an infused state. I've always hated that connotation. For some reason, it's the ultimate "hippie" instrument.

I started teaching the didgeridoo a lot at a festival in Switzerland, which I attended again this year. They've booked me five years in a row to be a Didgeridoo teacher. Every year, I would bring whatever albums that I had been working on with Deep South, Ancient Agents, A.Spell, or whatever I had released. One of the women who had come to this workshop for the fourth time in a row said to me, "You come every year and it's really nice. You always bring new music, but there's never any didgeridoo on it. What's that about?" I thought, "She's got a point!" It's funny that she probably doesn't even know that [her comments] sparked an impulse in me to deal with it. I remember coming home and talking to my wife about it, and she said, "Well, why don't you try to record something and see what happens?"

I remember being in my studio space for about three months, and every time I felt inspired I would put something down, record it, leave it alone, record again, and leave it alone. I'd listen and record, and listen and record. Eventually, I realized that a solo project was happening where I was literally doing everything: all the instruments, all the writing, all the conceptualizing. I think I managed to get an offering of contemporary music right. It's not really a genre that fits in "here" or "there." I like music like that. I just put it out there, and it got a surprisingly good response.

Regarding the ixRemix and the electronic side of this project, a young producer emailed me and said, "I love that solo record you made, and I really want to remix one of the tracks. Would you be open to that?" I thought, "What have I got to lose? Let's give it a shot." He took the tune "Back When," which is the most drum-and-bass type tune on the acoustic album. About three or four months later he came back with this USB stick, and I remember listening to this remix for about an hour-and-a-half on repeat. I just couldn't get enough of it. I thought it was the greatest thing I'd heard in ages. It took me right back to my nostalgic roots of growing up with all that sort of breakbeat Bristol jungle scene. It was brilliant. I said, "Why don't I give you the stems for four more acoustic tracks and see what you can do with them?" We decided on which ones, he took the files and a year later we had this remix of five tracks. I had very little influence there. I mean, I did bounce around ideas with him about arrangements etc. but the sound design was him, which is great. I think it's such a cool marrying of the electronic and the acoustic.

AAJ: I'd like to return to an earlier comment you made about performing while inspired by your surroundings. Two other projects of yours follow that idea: Deep South with Dave Ledbetter, and Intone with James van Minnen. Both of them deeply explore aspects of South African styles.

RS: Regarding Deep South, I've known Dave for almost 20 years. He has probably taught me more about music than any other musician I know. He's an absolute giant in my world of exploring simple and beautiful melodies, understanding groove, and being challenged to the point where you need to deliver a certain standard of playing and have an integrity to the music. It's not about you, it's about the music. The first Deep South album was my debut tryout for recording anything. I had two microphones and I had just gotten some software and a decent sound card. Dave and I had been playing music a lot. We lived next door to each other and, whenever we could, we'd get together to jam. I realized that a lot of his music had never been put out there, he was getting close to 60, and I thought the last thing he'd done was with the Truly Fully Hey Shoo Wow Band 20 years ago.

So I thought, "Let's put this out. It's time!" I realized that Deep South was true to where he was, where he was living, and his feeling of music. He has a very distinctive sound and is a distinct writer. You can immediately hear it's him. It wasn't until the second album, Heartland (2015), that we realized what the sound was about. The first record, A Waiting Land (2013), was very much a layered thing: Dave and I played our parts as a duo and then we would involve Mark Fransman and Darren English and all the other people that played on the record.

With the second album, it's like having a guest from another country arrive in your environment. Only then do you realize where you're living, because you become the tour guide. You experience your environment in a new way. We went to Switzerland to record that second album with Bjorn Meyer. He would often say, "Wow, that's such a new sound. Oh, this is such an interesting feeling I'm getting from this music." The more that resonated, the more we realized how uniquely South African the sound was. I also liked how naked that album was, how real it is. It was literally the three of us playing in one room. We didn't do anything else. Having a Swedish bassist interpreting Dave's composition in a very open approach was unique. Coming home and then launching it here with Marcus Wyatt and Shaun Johannes—people loved the record. It's very close to home for a lot of people.

AAJ: You take on many interesting projects. With the project Intone, it led you into a cave in the Eastern Cape to record lullabies and calming rhythmic patterns for a children's album!

RS: Thar was my percussionist friend James van Minnen's idea. When James phones, or if he wants to come round and talk about something specific, it's worth listening to because it's never anything that you've heard or done before. It is something unique. In this case, he said that a lot of his friends who were either about to give birth, recently had a child, or had toddlers or newborn babies in distress would go into a space whenever he played a frame drum, and be influenced by this vibration. It made them extremely calm and put them in a peaceful place. So we started exploring that idea. I think he wanted the concept to be like a meditation, but still musical enough to be something that you could listen to.

Going into a natural space like a cave to record, as a metaphor for being the womb of the earth, was a totally wacky concept for me, and I said, "Definitely, we've got to do it." Listening to that recording, on headphones, you can hear all kinds of weird creatures and birds and the wind. We recorded for three days in that cave. We set up all the gear, and of course it takes a long time in an environment where you were digging out areas to make something level with sand. There was an unimaginable amount of time to get all the gear from the car park down a hill, up a hill, to the cave.

So six-and-a-half hours later we were ready to feel like we had a good sound and then it got dark! We thought, "Shit, are we seriously going to pack all this up now and set it up again tomorrow morning?" It was funny, because we then asked the owner of the farm whether she knew someone who wouldn't mind being a security guard for the night so that we could just cover the gear with some blankets and leave it there. An hour later she came back and said she asked everyone on the farm and on the surrounding farms, and all the people said, "No way in hell would they go anywhere near that cave at night, because there's too many ghosts!" So we thought, "Well, there's security!"

That sparked another discussion with the people that had lived there for so long. There were some Khoisan paintings and bones that had been found in an excavation, which was being done by a group of Belgian archaeologists. They were finding things dating back 60,000 years. So it was a very unique space to be in. One day was very windy, another day incredibly foggy, very still and dense, no reverb at all. The last day was bright, sunny, and sweaty. So it was all three things that we could have had. It was very interesting.

AAJ: On that project, you also had singer and multi-instrumentalist Indwe joining and performing Xhosa music. How did she get involved?

RS: She was a choice by producer Jonny Blundell. He runs an amazing record company here called Rootspring Records. He always wanted to feature her on a recording and decided to introduce her to our concept. We had so many musical revelations during that recording in the cave with Indwe. We were quite spread out, with James on the left, me on the right, and Indwe in the center. It was probably a good seven meters [about seven-and-a-half yards] of distance. She would often start a rhythm on her mouth bow, James and I would look at each other from either end of the cave, and try to figure out the rhythm. Eventually, she would just indicate it by tapping a foot shaker. Both of us would just crack up because it then became so obvious. We had never thought of the groove in that particular way, or even understood the concept of that particular polyrhythmic idea. It was so amazing, and an immense learning experience in a couple of days. There's a video of it on YouTube.

Indwe brought her music and we collaborated with her on those tunes. Indwe is one of those people we were invited to just be in the moment with, to just collaborate with as best we could. I like that as well. It's a very interesting approach and it's absolutely honest. There's no hiding at all. There were moments where Jonny would just hold the space in such a delicate way and say, "Let's try one more, and everyone think of the color red." Eventually, we got to a space where Indwe would say, "We've already played it, I don't see why we should do it again. It's there, it's not going to get any better. It might be different, but it's not gonna' get any better." She was great. What an incredible musician.

AAJ: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned your musical bond with Reza Khota. Let's talk a bit more about your band Babu in terms of its sound and influence.

RS: I've always been influenced by the East, specifically India. The music, culture, philosophy, and the people just inspire me. That whole musical discipline in the culture and the absolutely astounding virtuosity with which they play has always intrigued me. Reza was probably the only guitarist I had ever met in South Africa that had a glimpse of that, where you think, "Wow, okay. That is something I've never heard and I don't think I will ever hear again." He is one of those guys who has checked out classical music, jazz, and Eastern musical philosophy, and managed to make his own sound out of that. It is such a joy to witness and play with him. Reza is way ahead of most musicians that I know, and certainly way ahead of me in terms of an ability to connect the synaptic speed at which he plays in a melodic sense. That's just amazing. To try and match him, especially on the tabla, has always been a really great challenge. We spend time whenever we can, just doing that for fun until we can't play anymore. We've always had a very strong bond, a great friendship and an endless amount of possibility that we know will probably never end. If there's a reason to play, we will find a way to make it work.

When the Babu thing happened, initially the Indian High Commission asked him and Kesivan to play for the celebration of Indian independence at a gig in Pretoria. They also wanted a bassist and a tabla player. I was just back from India and I hadn't met them. I knew Shane but we hadn't played together. It was a meeting of four minds where it was quite inevitable that we would do this. We really loved that first gig. We played Kesivan's composition "Eclipse" and it was about a 25-minute version. I think we also did one Shakti cover. The audience went completely mad for it. We realized we were onto something and then decided to pursue it. Actually, the son of Rashid Lombard,—who used to run the Cape Town Jazz Festival—was at a braai [an outdoor cookout] with us, and we asked, "So what are we going to call this project?" He said, "'Babu,' definitely." That was it. "Babu" is a term of respect for an elder, and it can also mean "brother." It's a positive term of endearment.

I think because of Babu, Reza and I still share a solid musical connection which has remained to this day. We're still all friends with each other, but I haven't played much music with Shane other than a collaboration with Guy Buttery. I haven't played with Kesivan at all since he left the band in in 2012. But with that musical connection with Reza, I suppose we also had this unfinished business. There was so much more to do. Ancient Agents came about from that, about two years ago.

AAJ: When you listen to the two ensembles, you can hear a through line. Can you talk about how Ancient Agents came together, and how the album emerged?

RS: I was in Switzerland. I end up there a lot, at least twice a year. I was staying at Jan's place after A.Spell broke up. We're still great friends. While there, I woke up with a fully-formed idea in my head about the four people that would need to be involved, the name, and a distinct sound. That was Ancient Agents. I phoned the guys in a state of euphoria asking "Would you like to do this?"

They all said, "Sounds great, let's try it." Knowing that Fredrik Gille was from Stockholm, it was kind of crazy, and I was thinking how the hell is that going to work? So I thought, "What have I done? I've got to make this happen. I can't say things like that and not do anything about it. This is a great opportunity!" So I managed to sell this idea to Concerts SA, which is a funding program through SAMRO [South African Music Rights Organization] and the Norwegian Arts Council. They do the "Mobility Fund," where they'll give enough of a grant to hit the road and be able to organize a kind of a mini-tour. It was quite a weird thing, selling a concept that didn't exist to an arts council. We had no material. We had nothing. We didn't even have band photos. We also had to entice people to come and hear it, even though they hadn't ever seen or heard any of it. It was quite crazy.

I remember chatting with some people before the project took shape, who all said, "Man, you've got to have an album to sell. You can't just go out there and not have a product." I realized that's definitely what I didn't want to do. I've fallen into that trap before, scrambling too quickly and doing something just to have something to sell. After the tour, you realize that's when your band is supposed to record, because it sounds like a band by then. So I said, "Nah, we should hit the road and then record the album." There wasn't much more discussion around it. Ultimately, I'm very thankful for sticking to this approach, since once we recorded the sound and the band had developed, and the music and collective sound could be captured in the correct way. Anyway, I put that whole thing together, and Fredrik flew in from Sweden and met the guys. It was a total gamble: maybe they would have hated each other, or nothing would have worked.

Reza brought two tunes, Schalk brought two tunes, I brought a tune, and we collectively wrote two of the pieces together. It all happened very quickly. Then, over ten gigs through South Africa, we developed a sound and developed the personalities in the music with each other. I wanted to approach that recording at the end of the tour in a similar way to what we had done with the Deep South album in Switzerland, with everyone in one room and get an honest, real groovy sound. That's what it is. We did it in three days. In fact, we recorded probably three-quarters of the album in the first day, the rest of the tunes the second day, and mixed it on the third day. There are a couple of overdubs here and there, textures mostly. I play a shaker here and there on top of some things. Other than that, it's very honest and the way it is live. One of the key elements is that I wanted it to be a representation of what it sounds like live.

Selected Discography:

Tonik, Visitor's Book, (Self Released, 2008)
Babu, Up Roots, (Self Released, 2008)
Deep South, A Waiting Land, (Self Released, 2013)
Deep South, Heartland, (Self Released, 2015)
Ronan Skillen, Didgi-Taal, Volume 1, (Self Released, 2016)
A.Spell, The Meaning of Life, (Self Released, 2016)
Intone and Indwe, The Cave Project: Meditations & Lullabies, (Rootspring Music, 2017)
Maxim Starcke + Ronan Skillen, Shapeshifter, (Self Released, 2017)
Ancient Agents, Ancient Agents (Self Released, 2017)

Photo Credit: Stefan Hunter
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