The first half of 2015 would be my nomad era. That’s what I said to myself as I packed my bags last January for months on the road with both the Nile Project and my own band. I prepared for epic performances, singing my heart out, squeezing in practices where I could, doing interviews, meeting with press, participating in workshops, student matinees, looking out the window on long drives, and waking up at dawn for those all too early morning departures. In other words, normal life on the road! Most people think of tour as something glamorous, but it’s actually not quite that way. Of course the music is pure joy. That’s for sure. But the travel can be physically gruelling, and you go to many cities, without truly seeing or getting to know many. It’s a strange reality… there are highs and lows, peppered with mundane moments munching on sandwiches backstage.
So towards the end of this particular nomad era, I had a very different experience. One that I will forever be grateful for and that I was genuinely not expecting. The powerhouse Manchester based arts and culture hub Brighter Sound invited me and my band – made up of drummer Lorca Hart and bassist Evan Flory-Barnes – to spend four days with twelve young people, making music together and exploring a collective creativity. We were also looking at concepts of cultural activism, thinking about the way that this group could have an impact on the community around them. Though I had been a part of many residencies like this as a musician, I had never led one. I was a bit nervous, and terribly excited. After all, this town was famous for breeding some of the most impactful bands of the past half century. Who would this group be? What would we become together?
The start: Getting-to-know-you shenanigans, and then a complete and immediate diving in. We split into small groups, with Lorca, Evan and I focusing on one at a time. Right away, songs starting emerging.
That afternoon we had a holistic hang, a kind of gathering pioneered by Evan, allowing folks to talk about what was on their minds and in their hearts, and to think about how issues in the world around them were showing up in their own lives and in their music. It was our way of inviting the big picture in. We all made some realisations.
First, we were an unusual group. According to the participants, groups this diverse did not normally coalesce in Manchester. It just didn’t happen. The age range was 16-29, experience levels ranged from those who had never made music before to veteran local artists, four continents were represented amongst us, eight countries of origin, genres of music as diverse as noise, hip-hop, singer-songwriter, indie rock, soul, jazz and more. We realised that simply by being together as a group, we were making a statement about the society around us. Our existing as a unit meant something.
From that idea, we adopted what I call “a culture of yes.” If someone had a creative musical idea, we said yes to it. We found a place for it. Maybe not in the way originally envisioned, but there was always a place. That is what we would do for each other. We would affirm, and in so doing, allow each unique voice to contribute and to tell its story. And our four days together were magic. We wrote and recorded six songs. Every single person contributed and through their contribution, grew somehow larger in perspective and capacity. It was a mutual rising.
Perhaps most epically, the legendary musician Pee Wee Ellis – longtime musical director for James Brown and innovator of funk – decided to come visit us and be a part of the creative process. I was part of his “African Tribute to James Brown” years ago, and he had guested with me on stage during my Southbank Centre show just the week before. He told us he was genuinely inspired by young people who were passionate about music and learning. That for him was the heart of music. We were over the moon. Completely by chance, the group began working on a funk tune that very first day, and when I told them that Pee Wee Ellis would be joining us for it, their jaws dropped and their eyes shone wide. That funk would be the funkiest!
So this was one of the truest highlights of my nomad era. And it reminds me why I chose this path of music. It constantly teaches you about yourself and your community, allows you to speak passionately with the world around you, and find the meaning that we all live for.
Incidentally, the group is now a band. Big Music. Look out for them. They are superstars.