Exclusive interview with Mishko M’ba


Mishko M’ba: “Western and Indian Music have Complementary and Crossover Dimensions”

A truly global citizen and musician extraordinaire, Mishko M’ba is a bassist and composer who shuttles between France, Reunion island, and Pondicherry (south India). He has studied Western and Indian classical music as well as jazz and rock. He performs with Reunion band Zishkakan, Paris ensemble Elexir and Indian fusion group Emergence.

When the 25th death anniversary of bass supremo Jaco Pastorius was marked in September this year, none other than Mishko performed a concert in his honour at B-Flat, the premier venue for jazz in Bangalore (see my earlier coverage of B-Flat performances at http://jazzuality.com/jazz-event-report/sas-trio-a-night-of-soulful-funky-jazz-in-bangalore/). Pastorius was noted for his intricate high-note solos as well as the harmonics, chords and poetic ‘singing’ quality he brought to the fretless bass – and Mishko brought many of these alive in his two-hour set with Bangalore jazz musicians.

Mishko is also blazing a trail in Indian fusion jazz (for lack of a better name!), and I have had the good fortune of hearing many of his collaborations with Indian musicians trained in jazz and Indian classical music, such as the group Mystik Vibes. The tall expressive artiste, with his trademark floor-length dreadlocks, joins us in this exclusive interview on jazz trends, the legacy of Jaco Pastorius, and the sheer joy of collaborating across music genres.

Tell us about where you were born, where you grew up, and how you came to India!
I was born in the suburb of Paris where my father was a student; I grew up in south of France in Pamiers. I first came to India to produce “Rimayer”, a CD for a band from the Reunion Island called Ziskakan. We came to Mumbai to record with several musicians. It was my first time in India and suddenly it opened an unseen door in the musical world. And behind this door…

What are your musical activities like in Auroville?
I came to Pondicherry nine years ago without knowing about Auroville. Since then I have been playing regularly with musicians from there and from Aurobindo’s Ashram. We have different projects such as “Emergence” (Indi-pop carnatic) and “Jalshagar” (jazz, Hindustani), involving jazz.

What are your impressions of Indian music and how do you blend it with your musical traditions?
…Behind the door I discovered a new universe. In Paris I have played with musicians from different cultures and genres: Lebanese (Touffic Farouk), Algerian (Khaled), flamenco (Bernardo Sandoval) and so on, but never from India. For the recording I had the chance to stay for many months in Mumbai. I went to some classical concerts like those of violinist Sangeeta Shankar who would record on Rimayer.

Step by step I understood than even with my knowledge and experience, there was a big part of the music that I had still to discover. This part includes the use of the shrutis and a different thinking of time. I would say that we, in Western music, have a vertical thought as compared to a horizontal one in India. A bit as the axes in mathematics, the two ways seem to me complementary although having a lot of crossover. I am here to try to understand those crossovers and am still in the process of building something from that across different musical experiences.


What music influences did your family have?
My mother learned piano as teenager and was in love with music. My father who passed away when I was very young was also a music lover. We used to listen to many kinds of music, from Charles Trenet to Myriam Makeba, from Ray Charles to Frederic Chopin and many others. My elder sister started to learn cello and my brother who is now a guitarist chose the violin. My first instrument has been the clarinet. At that time the choice was only to learn in a Western classical school. But my mother always encouraged us to play music and not just one particular music.

Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
I had the chance to meet many good musicians as well as good sound mixers and producers who have shown me a lot of the things I know. My brother Jam’ba has been one big influence in my musical life along with Mr Delpech, professor of clarinet and Madame Raul who was teaching theory. I am still using their lessons and advice. After that it is very difficult to sort names.

There are some people as Paco Sery who I played with for some time in the eighties but there are also people I just met briefly, like Barbara Hendrix, but who has so much “vibes” in her that it gives lifelong lessons. I have to name trombonist Raul de Souza from Brazil. I can say he taught me a lot of things in music and in life. In India I will name Debiprasad Ghosh, sarod player.

Please share with us the story of how you came to play with Jaco Pastorius! What do you see as his legacy to the world of bass and jazz?
I had the chance to play with Paco Sery when he first met Jaco Pastorius. He brought me to the meeting at a concert in Paris. I assisted in the sound check, the concert and the afterhours in a club: The Sunset. I think I can say Jaco Pastorius is the “God” of the bass players. To me there is no one else at that level. He has changed the way we play and think the electric bass. Being one of the first to play fretless electric bass, he discovered the use of harmonics, chords, melodies – and the way to make the bass an “instrument.” I could say there is the bass before J.P. and the bass after J.P.! Unfortunately he was not in a good shape at that moment. He looked lonely and almost sad among hundreds of people, mainly musicians.


How would you describe your musical journey over the years?
It is not easy to describe a musical journey because the music to some extent is nothingness, it just comes and goes, so it keeps changing. I like to play music, not just a kind of music. Of course sometimes I will call it jazz or pop or classical, but just because I think we need some name to help our understanding. Exactly as we keep speaking of “racial” things although we know we all are Homo Sapiens!

Music is a language that touches something else inside us. It does not appear as precisely as the words. That is why I think much more can be said and understood through music, as compared to whatever language one speaks. Music can help us understand each over, so maybe to live better together and therefore to live better with our world.

Nowadays, the material differences are becoming huge between people. I hope music which has any material value will be one of the links that will help us to understand that each of us needs The Other. As musicians, this is something we can experiment with very early, especially as bass player.

What new album video are you working on now?
I played with two bands who have released albums recently. The album “I have Only Eyes for You” with UNK: The Radha Thomas ensemble, a jazz album; and “The Shadow Tree” with Mystik Vibes, a fusion jazz-Carnatic album.

As this year marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Jaco Pastorius, I presented a tribute of his work. One of the next projects I am working on will include some computer music, almost techno music with live music. But it is a bit early to present it. It should be ready for the beginning of 2013.

Where do you see yourself headed as a musician in the coming decades?
Will I be still a part of that universe? If the answer is ‘yes’ I hope I will still be able to play music!  In that case I would want to do a project including all the six continents. One of the purposes of music is to make people happy and I think one can be happy only if everybody is happy. So we have to trust the chance we have to be alive and share it!

What have been your previous highlights and unusual experiences in playing across India?
Over the past nine years, I have had the chance to participate in different projects. Recently I played with Konarak Reddy during the “Utsav Jazz Festival” in Delhi and Pune. Last year with “Emergence,” an Auroville-based band, we played in the J.F. Kennedy Centre in Washington DC during the festival “Maximum India”. We were along with artistes representing India, such as Zakir Hussain, L. Subramaniam and U. Srinivas. On many occasions I played for the I.G.N.C.A. in Delhi with the band Ziskakan and for some performances with the artiste Colette Pounia, where I played the bass alone in some experimental music.

I have to also mention Lucky Ali with whom I have played since 2007. We have just recorded a show for “MTV Unplugged” that has been produced by Ranjit Barot. During these years, I won an award with Ziskakan, the “Cesaires de la Musique,” for an album that I co-produced, called “Banjara”.

An unusual experience I can speak about happened during a tour with the jazz band “Flying Cats” featuring drummer Sangoma Everett and violinist Holger Jetter. We were performing in Mumbai during the cricket World Cup. The crowd started to shout loudly in the middle of a solo. We all thought, “Wahoo, that’s fantastic!” But actually it turned out to be a good piece of cricket action being shown on the TV screen behind us, when the India team was playing!


Do you also teach workshops for students and musicians?
I do not teach on regular basis as I am travelling for a large part of the year. But I do have some short workshops, usually before a concert. I live in India to learn music, and consider myself more like a student than teacher!

What can we expect to hear at your upcoming performances?
Since I play with musicians with different backgrounds, the music should be unexpected. I just try to do my best!

How does the composition process work for you in your very different line-ups, eg. duet, trio, jazz, experimental?
Usually the music which comes in my mind is more or less in one block. I like to think that the music as ideas is everywhere, and that we work as a kind of radio. This is why I like to improvise with different musicians. When it works, I have the feeling that we are “composing” the music which has to be played at a certain moment in a certain place.

What are your comments on the jazz scene in India, and how can it be improved?
At the moment there are a lot of young talented musicians who have arrived on the jazz scene in India. It is a very good thing because they have good knowledge, having been for many years in a music school. They add a lot to the music scene. The audience in India is often composed of people who are music lovers, with a good knowledge of music too.

Numerous venues are opening, especially in Bangalore and Delhi. Even if it is not easy all the time, there are more and more places to perform. Again nowadays the audience likes to see live music. Having said this, an important point is the quality of the concerts. It has always to be improved and as musicians, I think we have to give our best.

What is your message to your audiences?
I don’t have any pretention to give a message other than to love music! And beyond that to love the human being, life and the world.

Mishko M’ba ‘s Discography

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Written by Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz; Bangalore
Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com