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Ronan Skillen: Telepathic Euphoria

Seton Hawkins By

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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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