Name: Jembaa Groove
Members: Yannick Nolting, Eric Owusu, Tunde Alibaba, Merav Goldman, Goncalo Mortagua, Moses Yoofee Vester, Nir Sabag
Interviewee: Yannick Nolting
Occupations: Bassist, composer, producer (Yannick Nolting), vocalist, percussionist, songwriter (Eric Owusu)
Nationality: German (Nolting), Ghanian (Owusu)
Current Release: Jembaa Groove's Susuma is slated for release on March 18th 2022 via Agogo.
1. Ikebe Shakedown – See you on the other Side
2. Orchestra Baobab – Mouhamadou Bamba

If you enjoyed this interview with Jembaa Groove, visit the band's official homepage. They're also on Instagram, and bandcamp.  

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

Getting into songwriting and producing was a quite slow and organic process.

While studying Jazz and World Music in Holland and Portugal I had a huge amount of input of different genres and influences. Ranging from Jazz and Soul to African and Latin Music. While studying, the focus was rather on playing other people's music than composing my own. But as a creative person you always try to give your personal touch and interpretation to whatever performance you take part in. I guess in doing so you start developing your own sound and identity.

The step to composing and producing was then gradual for me. It took sometime for me to find my sound identity and actually understand what I want to express with my music. My very early influences come from 90s Hip Hop, which brought me into music making. After spending some time with early DAWs and Beatmaking as a Teenager I picked up the Bass at the age of 18. Cameroonian Bass Player and Composer Richard Bona had a huge impact on me for many years. The list of inluences is quite long and  is definitely closey related to the music from different parts of Africa and US Jazz and Soul Music.

Music to me has always been a form a retreat. A neutral space, where all other matters in life are secondary. I was always drawn to its power of creating emotions and influencing your own and other people's mindset. Besides that music to me it the most profound and universal form of expression and communication. It goes beyond national identities and borders and is a common space for many people from different cultural backgrounds.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

As already mentioned before, developing a musical identity is an ongoing process to me, which is naturally driven by influences from the outside. To me creativity is an interaction between your own ideas and external information. An indirect dialogue between past and present through the differing perspective of the artists themselves. So to me the incorporation of the genius of others was the first step towards finding my own voice in music.

This process was gradual and organic and kind of beyond my own control. At some point I just felt that the time had come to organise my creative output and find my way to present it to the outside world. But the quest for innovation and renewal to me never ends. My eyes and ears are always open observing what my fellow musicians are doing while questioning my own creative process.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

That's a deep one. To me the term identity raises many questions and is often reduced to a nationality or cultural background in combination with a main occupation that dominates our daily lifes. Also a social sourrounding might define to a certain extend an identity.

Personally I have been through many phases of questioning my identity, which is a result of living in a number of countries over quite a long period. It was kind of necessary for me to “reboot” my system and allow other habits and ways of thinking and being, which became part of myself over time. This allowed me to take a kind of outside perpective on my own origins.

The process raised a lot of question and wasn't always easy but more than that allowed my to absorbed the richness of other cultures, which then for my musical identity and creative process became a vital element. ((Coming from there it would be rather the other way around that my creativity inluences my identity.))

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

Apart from what I have already mentioned above and the gradual process of musical growth over time there where also technical aspects involved. How should I structure the song? Which forms makes sense in which context? And how to create different parts that form a whole that makes sense? These were issues I had to solve over time and are still to be solved each time I write a track.

There is a kind of formula me and Eric created that helps us in our creative process. Still, a song might get written in a day or over several weeks or it may even never get finished. The challenge is that the inspiration which I discovered is not a magical moment that just happens out of a sudden. A kind of active work flow and discipline is important to stimulate your creativity, which also doesn't mean that there is a way for me to “force” my creative output.

But I guess this process is different for everybody, as there is a bunch of guys and girls out there that I admire for the endless creative output.

As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?

Yeah. That's very true.

To be honest I'm a minimalist when it comes to gear. I just try to work with what is really necessary. This has been a bit different in the past, when I was into pedals, gear and all kind of stuff. But right now I own only 2 basses and a soprano bass, which I use for composing. Apart from that my Macbook, my UA Apollo Interface, a Midi-Keyboard, a SM 58, a Bass DI and a Midi Interface for my Soprano Bass is all I need to work with.

Nevertheless, I'm always checking for new possibilties but I'm kind of hard to convince. Only every now and then it might happen that I add something to my equipment.

Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?

I wouldn't say so. As I am not lead by contemporary trends or electronic music the way of making music hasn't changed a lot over time for me. Of course there have been improvements in computers, DAW's, interfaces, etc. which facilitated my work progress.

But the musical creation wasn't really influenced that much for me. This is also due to my interest in vintage sounds and astetics.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?

Working with other musicians and creatives is an essential part for me when it comes to music creation. Over the years this has happened in many forms. From completely improvised music to fixed arrangement and verbal exchange. Many great ideas have come from spontanuous jam sessions with other musicians and were later transformed into proper arrangements. This was the case with our first single “Bassa Bassa” for example.

I feel like casual creative sessions without fixed ideas that might limit your creative freedom more likely lead towards something organic and authentic. Sometimes the magic happens in the moment. So you have to leave the space for those moments to come.

On the other hand, pre-defined sketches can also be a productive tool as long as there are clear ideas.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

Well, Eric and me we are both fathers. That means our daily routine is largely definded by our young ones. We both get up very early to get the kids ready for kindergarden. I usually go to my studio then which is quite a bike ride and spend the morning there working on music until I pick up my son in the afternoon. When my son is with his mother, I usually spend some “office hours” in a coworking space in the afternoon to take care of all the organization around our project and music in general.

Depending on the day I often give lessons in the evening afterwards. Besides that routine, there are of course many irregularities as a musician. Rehearsing, recording, touring or just hanging out. I also used to travel quite a lot.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

That's really quite hard to tell. There have been a bunch of beautiful events I took part in. Playing in front of thousands of people or just a handful. For me it never really depended the quantity of people but the music and people I play with. And of course the vibe that comes from the audience. 10 people can have have more positiv energy for you then hundreds.

The 5 years I lived and played in Portugal were really special for me as I had the chance to play with a number of outstanding musicians and personalities. And the Portuguese public to me is just something else!

People are always keen for music and culture no matter the context. That has really influenced me. If I had to mention one specific concert I would probably take the Jembaa Groove debut concert last year. That was really a magic moment for me!

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

Honestly I tend to struggle to control this state of mind. What I can say is that the one thing you really need is time and quiteness. And then there is the work flow that is also important for me. I can't really enter it whenever I want, but once I'm in it, things tend to flow. This is kind of the peak of productivity to me. Another important element is the input for me.

I really need to listen to other people's music and ideas to get my mind flowing and to avoid being stuck in my usual patterns. When I was younger and had more time I used to practice a lot. This was really helpful to develop new ideas and step out of the common patterns.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

Music is so powerful. I can lead your thoughts and emotions. In whatever way!

Depending on the person, the music and the situation, music can be very healing. It has been for me many times and in many ways!

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

This topic is very important to me/us. As I am largly dealing with influences of cultures that are not mine by birth and that I stumbled on throughout my life as a musician, I try to be really careful when it comes to this.

If you take “Afrobeat” for example it has caused a big storm all over the globe. Numerous Afrobeat Ensembles were created, were the actual connection to its essence is not present anymore. This is were elements of “copy/paste” come into place, which raises question of cultural appropriation and the necessity of simply copying something that someone native to it has mastered already before.

This is exactly what we as Jembaa Groove want to avoid. To us authenticity is key. The result has to be organic and “real”. Our rhythmic foundation is without any doubt largely influenced by highlife traditions from Ghana. This is because Eric as my fellow bandleader is one of the key figures in Ghana when it comes to highlife and is probably the most representative percussionist in Ghana for that.

I don't want to say that you cannot play music from cultures that aren't yours, but if you do so you have to really dig deep and be respectful to the source and what people have done before. Really absorbing elements of other cultures takes time and is an organic process as I mentioned before. I met outstanding Brazilian percussionists from Sweden or Semba guitar players (a style from Angola) from Portugal. But those guys really incorporated the specific style over years or even lived in the country, learning from the masters.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I don't really know if I feel like being an artist. I think fully-fledged artists share a certain degree of obession for one specific topic that determines their life. I do feel quite close to that, but also know that art or music can not be everything for me. I have been there thinking it would, but got quite disappointed.

I had to realise that I need also other aspects of life in my daily life to take a healty distance from time to time. But those breaks can definetly not be too long!

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

The real beauty behind it!