Pianist-composer David Bontemps heads Afro-Caribbean jazz band Makaya. Formed in 2006 in Montreal, the quintet blends Caribbean rhythms with jazz and Creole. They performed at the Montreal International Jazz Festival 2016 (see my coverage) as well as at Montréal’s Creole Festival.
From the Caribbean to Canada – that is quite a journey! What is about music that inspires you so much do dedicate your life to it?
The work of conservation and transmission of those who bequeathed us this cultural heritage in often difficult circumstances is what inspires us to update this music consistent with our style. This challenge also launches us in a process which urges us to work a style of our own, without repeating what was done before. In this sense, to live in a city like Montreal where musicians of multiple cultures work very hard is further motivation. Yes, in every sense of the word, it is a magnificent journey.
What are some of the challenges you face as a musician?
To be a musician was never easy. Nowadays a musician cannot dedicate himself anymore solely to his art. He is required to be a businessman as well, which is sad. The most difficult aspect for us is to establish a dynamic team around the band, which is eager to promote our work. Otherwise, the challenge is always to surpass ourselves to create something beautiful which is worth being heard and will last.
Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
We blend our musical creole heritage with jazz. We revere the work of those who contributed to bring down partitions in the music, those who dare mixtures. Miles Davis is one of these musicians, because he showed that it was possible to develop a unique creative personality.
Who are some of the musicians you collaborate with the most, and how did these relationships get formed?
As a quintet, we tend to stay constant because our music is composed for the special abilities of each band member. It is very organic. For our recent project Elements, the lineup includes Jude Andre Deslouches who sings and plays the acoustic / classical guitar. Cydric Féréol plays percussion from Guadeloupe, the ka. Both of them have been in Makaya since the very beginning in 2006.
Nicolas Bédard plays upright bass and electric bass and Emmanuel Delly plays congas and traditional Haitian percussion. Nicolas has been with us since 2010 and Emmanuel since 2013. I am very lucky because I met these incredible talents purely by accident. Jude was my neighbour in Port-au-Prince (Haiti) since we were children. In Montreal, we met again by chance and he introduced Cydric to me because they began to play together at the university.
The collaborations come always in a natural way. I may say that the music always commands the collaborations, we have nothing to do for or against it.
What are some of the challenges in interpreting traditional music and forms from the Caribbean with modern instruments and style?
The most exciting and the most difficult challenge is to find the perfect balance between the innovation without betraying tradition, and between the respect for what was bequeathed without the repetition. I believe that it is finally a question of good taste.
How long were you working on the Elements album? What were some of the challenges and exciting moments?
Since 2009, we had some idea of the music we would like to record for our second album which would become Elements. But the final choice of the pieces occurred in a whole year of a quasi-weekly work. It was in trio with Nicolas Bédard (bass), Jude Deslouches (voice and guitar) and myself (piano).
Once we thought we were ready we scheduled 12 weekly rehearsals at the autumn 2013 with the percussion (Cydric Féréol and Emmanuel Delly). We had the chance to practice at Jude’s home studio in his cosy living room. Also, we booked a prestigious venue to play the brand new repertoire for the audience.
It was a benefit concert to record the album, the venue at Place des Arts was packed and the people showed us that we did great work. I have to mention that Emmanuel made a three hours road trip from Quebec city to come to the rehearsals each week in Montreal. It was quite exciting and I always remember these days.
The tracks Ou Popile, Gwog Mwen, and Peze Kafe really jump out! Please let us what these tracks are about, and describe some of the arrangements.
Gwog Mwen (My Grog or My Drink) and Peze Kafe (Ground the Coffee) are two Haitan classics and very popular. While Gwog Mwen is based on a humoristic self-depreciating of a gigolo humiliated by his wife, Peze Kafe tell us the story of a child, arrested by the police on the road to grind the coffee. For Gwog Mwen we wanted to respect the Cuban flavour of the Jazz des Jeunes rendition of the composition of Dupervil, very straight forward.
For Peze Kafe, all the unsaid of what we can imagine is a pretext to improvisation on a profusion of groovy rhythms. Ou Popile, on the other hand, is our original composition. It’s about the popularity of the politicians and their bad habits when they are in power. The tone is quite naive and mocking at the same time, while the chords are sweet and sour.
How are you able to do ‘fusion’ of different styles and instruments without ‘confusion’?
The trick is to keep in mind the common-core syllabus of different styles, various idioms and tones. The polyrhythmic aspect of our music always reminds us of the deep African roots of creole music. It allows us not to get lost, not to scatter in all the directions. This work of synthesis is also an opportunity to have a critical point of view and to stay simple.
What is your next project or album about?
Our last album was only released in February this year. We are not in the process of recording yet, although we are starting to think about some new music and what can be included in a new repertoire. For now, we are trying to bring our music to the largest audience possible and will try to tour in the next 12 months.
Where do you see yourself headed in the next 10-15 years?
Getting old together, growing better as persons and musicians. Touring worldwide.
Which are your favourite musical festivals, and what makes them so special?
Each festival has its own signature, which makes them unique. We really appreciate the festivals of our city Montreal, specially the Jazz Festival because it’s huge but stays friendly. We are eager to discover festivals in other places.
What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
At times when people sing along with the songs, even without the words. Or when, they just stay totally silent to listen. Both are great compliments to our work.
Do you also teach workshops for students/musicians?
Yes we do. Three of us are teachers.
What have been some of your collaborations with musicians from Asia and other parts of the world?
We haven’t done it before. But it would be great and we would welcome the experience whenever it is possible. I personally think it would be a normal chapter of our musical path. I cannot wait to do it.
What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums?
Without being conscious of it, our present work is mainly about resilience and faith in the future, whatever the situation. The first song ‘Complainte Paysanne’ is a prayer of a parent in front of his dying child. ‘Ou Popile’ mockingly describes the bad habits of the politicians in the world, knowing that history will judge them despite their current popularity.
‘Peze Kafe’ is the story of a child arrested by the police when going to grind and sell coffee. Our lightest subject is the single ‘Gwog Mwen’ (My drink, My Grog) in which a gigolo is parasitizing his wife who doesn’t hesitate to humiliate him. Even there, the laugh is a healer.
What is your message to the musicians and artistes of the world in this age of globalisation and also conflict?
Even with the major part of our work, which is instrumental, the main feedback we received since our beginning is that our sound is ‘ZEN’, therapeutic even. I think it’s because we are generally cool in the band. Energetic, but cool like old souls. If you don’t love yourself you cannot love others, if you are not at peace you cannot bring peace to others.
We stand on our roots and because of that we are not afraid to see what is outside and to partake, to share, to blend. And there is no fear of drowning. On the contrary it is this openness to other cultures that helps you to find your own path and makes you unique.
Interviewed by Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz;
Bangalore Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com
Cover photo is taken from David Bontemps’ official website, http://davidbontemps.com. Other photos are taken by Madanmohan Rao