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Ronan Skillen: Telepathic Euphoria

Seton Hawkins By

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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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