Gabacho Maroc – Photo by Luis Alvarado
“We made jazz but dancing became a necessity”
Franco-Spanish-Moroccan group, Maroconnection, one of the most active and successful projects in the European market, has managed to create in less than two years its own audience and receive rave reviews for its first album Bissara. Catchy melodies, Gnawa rhythms, Afro-Maghrebian percussion, ngoni, chants and choreography, driven by infallible and colorful arrangements make it possible to create music that avoids the clichés of jazz fusion and sends a message of collective enjoyment. They are the group of the moment and that’s why in 2015 the band will tour Spain again, traveling through Morocco, France and other European countries and will later jump to South America and Nepal.
We crossed Cádiz (Andalusia, Spain) from the train station to Plaza del Mentidero, on the way to meet our protagonist. It was a wonderful and warm day despite being winter time. The deep economic crisis that still grips you seems to have a more benevolent face on these streets. Vincent Thomas is a French drummer formed, like much of his previous band (jazz quintet Gabacho Connection), at the Musikene School in San Sebastian, home to a historic European festival which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. Why he ended up settling in a southern Spanish city so small and poorly communicated to anyone traveling as much as he does, makes sense when you look at his face, sitting with his son, enjoying the generous winter sun in a city with a three thousand year history, close to the feel of the Mediterranean, Africa and America.
Two projects that were born in the South. His son and his group. Vincent Thomas, musician, representative of his cause and father. Someone who believes without hesitation that “in a musical project, music is 20% and 80% promotion.” With the data about concert made in a year and a half with Gabacho Maroconnection (GMC), featuring 8 musicians who come from different cities and three countries, Spain, France and Italy, who better than him to offer these percentages results.
Jesús Gonzalo – We met in November 2013. Do you remember the day?
Vincent Thomas – Perfectly, it was two days after my son was born and I was playing at your festival in Jerez de la Frontera with Antonio Lizana.
Thinking about it, it appears that both your son and GMC were gestated simultaneously.
Yes, everything was happening at once. Leo, my son was born the very day we left the studio to record Bissara in Granada. (Smiles)
Vincent holds his child – Photo by Luis Alvarado
I watch Leo fidget in his lap and looked at him. Vincent seems calmer and serene. I ask, on balance, do you feel satisfied with the huge effort made?
I feel good, happy, of course. The effort has paid off. We toured a lot in this time, we had a lot of very good media coverage, the best radio and Spanish media have paid attention to our music, but at the same time I also have a sense of restlessness. In French the meaning of “restlessness” is something other than in Spanish. It is as if you feel somewhat uncomfortable, not about the past but for what is to come. There’s plenty to do and I hope that this year concert expectations are met.
To not stress the great features that have already been discussed, I would like to go into the small details of how this jazz quintet project born in San Sebastian, made a trip south to reach Gnawa music.
It was a coincidence. I shared a flat for two years while I was in Musikene with a drummer from Seville named Nacho Megina. One of the times he traveled south he asked me to go with him to Morocco. So I went with him to Essaouira. We bought records and played Gnawa music. It was 10 amazing days. Then I returned 10 more times, totaling 11 in five years. I like jazz. I played and still play jazz, but I need dancing. Sorry, but I like world music better. I listen to it more in my house than jazz. The rhythm is very important to me. I’m a drummer.
I remember when you only had the master [recording], at a mutual friend’s home, I started dancing when I heard it for the first time and I commented that this music had all the tools to be a success. It was the music needed in a society in crisis …
It’s really not my music, it’s our music. Even if each one composes the music, this is the music of a group.
(He stopped for a moment to think and surprised me with this)
As a musician, I’m sorry, but for something to be successful you have to have 20% music and 80% of management. No matter how good the music is, if you don’t become well known, there is nothing to do … I’m not talking about doing a concert in a jazz club, I’m talking about touring, truly moving the project, of living music, of your dream.
(he stopped again briefly to answer to the topic of success and the pursuit of dancing at the same time)
This was a spark … it happened to me at the Valladolid festival in 2013. We were in a very good bill with Bill Evans, Ron Carter and drummer Antonio Sanchez, who gave a great concert the day before our performance. Imagine, people who play a thousand times better than us … And I told myself, this public is going to like us, we’ll have an effect. It was the last concert of the festival. At noon there were about 500 tickets purchased and at the end 800 were sold. Two pieces before the end I was almost angry with the audience. They had not danced yet. They were used to being in a jazz concert like Antonio Sanchez’s. That day I realized what the project’s objective should be. Then you start changing “the [micro]chip“. Change some things, take out some jazz and introduce something more African…
Gabacho Maroconnection – Photo by Luis Alvarado
Was the group that day in Valladolid like today’s, consisting of eight members, the previous quintet plus three?
Yes, yes. The quintet Gabacho Connection came from the period in Musikene and featured Charley Rose (alto sax), Willy Muñoz (keyboards), Eric Oxandaburru (bass) and me on drums. A trombonist left, then we added a tenor sax. Antonio Lizana, the other saxophone player, is also a flamenco singer and sings very well, which served to underline our Mediterranean roots. The problems came with the visas for our three Moroccan musicians. The Spanish consulate canceled them and we had a tour planned with them. So for the second time, having major engagements like the San Sebastian festival and this one in Valladolid, we got in contact with two Essaouira musicians living and working in Europe. Hamid Moumen (vocals, guembri) and Jawad Jadli (percussion, vocals). The third one who filled the slot was Fred Faure, an old French friend of mine who played percussion and ngoni, who had studied in the Congo.
So we had a quintet that wanted to change its horizons and style, which had gone to Morocco and made contact with musicians from there but due to papers, could not count on those musicians and changed to Moroccan musicians from Europe.
Returning to the importance of management that you pointed out, by the number of concerts, by media coverage, you could say that GMC has been the musical event of 2014 in Spain. Aside from the daunting task that I can imagine you’ve had to do to get all this, I’m wondering how you solved the logistical difficulty of having the group members so far away. The eight divided into 5 different capitals and three countries.
Well, first I have to thank the musicians of the group for their effort. I know that not everyone plays their part in the same amount and not surprisingly after so many hours together conflicts arise … This is always complicated, but with this all-terrain band it was possible. They are people who are available, who like to travel and adapt well to the conditions. This is very important because sometimes economic conditions can be very difficult and distances are long… The festivals do their own thing and if they can, they pay less … and you have to look out for the group … (smiles).
Similarly, you said you had to invite the public to dance, to turn the concert into a ritual and away from the individualism of jazz instrumentalist solos. This leads me to see your band not like a group of musicians but as a collective …
That’s true. I know very well my band and this is possible by the personalities that comprise it. I have fought with each of them and I think everyone has quarreled with each other (smiles). The people chosen are hot tempered people. Each one of them… Antonio Lizana communicates well with the auience, everyone says. Charly Rose, also a sax player, has a group of more violent music, metal hardcore, goes crazy backstage … but he can also make an exquisite arrangement for violin. Bassist Eric Oxandaburru has listened to a lot of African music. The “perc” Fred Faure, studied in the Congo. Then there are the two Moroccans, who know their traditional music. Willy, the keyboardist, is into world music and so am I. Each of us musicians has a lot of generosity on stage and that’s what’s transmitted at the end.
Let’s talk about the stage and your album Bissara. An excellent work that accurately reflects the concept and structure of the product. That is the essence of your potential…
Seems more like a pop record than jazz …
Well, there all kinds of stuff …
I mean, the audience can perfectly identify each of the parts, even if you play inside or outside the album, with more improvisation … It’s not a closed concept …
Yes, sure, sure … Sometimes things change, the presentation too. Sometimes when I present I do some tricks… we also play with the theme of surprises.
And the choreography that serves as communication with the audience … How did add the figures. Is this part of who’s coming?
From the Moroccans. From them. It’s going slowly and will go further. The contribution of the Moroccans is still 20% or 30%. We will be adding new items … For example one night Jawad was in Fred’s room with a bendir and made a dance with his feet that came from a lost Moroccan village. We incorporated it the following day.
So you have some ritualistic essence, rhythm, percussion, choreography…
Sure, and they are very catchy. I heard some young girls walking through the streets of Cadiz singing ‘Sonríe Ana’ (Smile Ana) two days after the concert you gave here…
Really? … That’s great … (laughs)
Why do practically all members sing. That is rare in a jazz band…
Melodies and singing… This is very important… We can talk about many things but this is important… How you will not like Stravinski or Miles Davis, why not give rise to instrumental music… I like it, but ultimately singing is what touches people.
And all this useless controversy trailing whether it’s jazz or not, and neither Miles nor Stranvinski, what you want is to communicate, to dance and sing to people… Get something almost tribal connected with Africa.
Yes, Gnawa music comes from the black slaves who came from Niger, Mali, Sudan…
Will GMC continue to drawing from African music for its new album. What’s coming up next?
There will be more singing. And simple and profound pieces at the same time.
You already have that in this album, Bissara…
We can make a better album yet. I have faith in this. We are already composing. I have two pieces, Eric has three, Fred has one. There is material. But we can use more of our Moroccan musicians to compose…
All this is very deep … The white musicians do not know the desert, don’t know Essaouira. I do … We have to dig further into African and Moroccan music. We will have opportunities to do this during tour. Especially during our gig at the Merzouga Festival.
[note from JG, see GMC tour schedule at the end of the interview]
Is that why you made the video with that traditional Gnawa segment, like saying: “we are not only fusion, we are also tradition.”
Yes, of course. The most important thing is that GMC musicians know Moroccan music in depth.
Gabacho Maroconnection, Gnawa, tradition and rhythm – Photo by Luis Alvarado
We know that GMC has toured a lot in a short time. Maybe we are being a little unfair to the jazz scene, because they have been the first festivals and clubs who have supported this proposal.
Yes, but I believe it’s because of our background with Gabacho Connection quintet.
Listen, today I received an email from a guy from Luxembourg or Switzerland or wherever. “Yes, I’ve seen your mail but we are not interested in jazz”. I had listed the subject “GMC afro, gnawa, jazz, Moroccan music”. Okay, so I removed “jazz” and I resent the email … (laughs)
Vincent gives me another copy of Bissara but shows it first to his son as he hums to him the piece Moussaoui, one of the “hits” of the album you which comes with a beautiful video.
Now I’d like you to tell me about yourself … You’re French, you’re a drummer … Tell us about your favorite drummers, and French jazz, which is closely connected with Africa.
When I was 15 I started to play drums. My absolute heroes were Manu Katché, Stewart Copeland and Jeff Porcaro … So I come from Toto, Police and Manu Katché’s drummers, which is also Sting and Peter Gabriel. Then came technique and study … Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta … Sensitivity, jazz.
So if you ask me for a few names of great drummers today, I would say Brian Blade, Jeff Ballard, Manu Katché, Stewart Copeland, Amir Thompson [aka Questlove] from the hip hop group The Roots…
You have to separate things … You cannot say that Steve Gadd or Manu Katché can’t play jazz because they played with Paul Simon and Sting … Their contribution is huge in the art of setting the drums in the studio. It’s incredible (pauses) … Then there is the work of Philip Jo Jones or Tony Williams with Miles Davis, which is formidable, but it has nothing to do with it. We must distinguish what each one does.
Look at Musikene (San Sebastián), I had a teacher named Gillermo Klein. A very reputable guy in jazz who said that John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ holds as much difficulty as a classic piece.
What I mean is that there are no categories … Doing a good take of ‘Like a Virgin’ in a studio with a metronome is just as difficult as playing with Joshua Redman.
And how about French jazz and its connection with Africa…
The fact is that France is Africa. 30% of the population of Paris is black …
No need to go to Barbés… Lots of black people in Paris, a huge population.
And do you know Henry Texier or Louis Sclavis’ drummers, two jazz musicians whose music was inspired by Africa?
Sure, Tony Rabeson is Madagascar, there you go. I played with Francis Lassus on a 12-drum project entitled The Elegant Drums (Les elegant Machines). This guy has played and learned from many people and many are from Africa. He’s a friend of Algerian drummer Karim Ziad … There is a lot of culture in France related to Africa.
It’s like even the great Joe Zawinul, in recent Zawinul Sindicate groups, he used African and French musicians, including Richard Bona.
It is as if all returns to Africa. Zawinul produced Salif Keita and changed concept.
That is dialogue, and that is what has brought us here.
Translated by Angel Romero. [Editor’s note: Gabacho is a word used in Spanish to describe someone from France].