Interview with Yohan Giaume: The soul play the music for you: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz trumpeter Yohan Giaume. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Yohan Giaume: – I was born in Grenoble, France. I knew from when I was seven years old that I wanted to become a trumpeter, to compose music and to dedicate my life to music. It is as if music has always been part of my spiritual being. I was aware of the power of music and how it has the capacity to completely shape the environment, move the body and soul, and I absolutely wanted to be part of this. I did not grow up in a very rich musical environment, nor did I have any traditional musical background. I mainly discovered music through listening to the radio and on TV, and thanks to my brothers who used to listen to a lot of music. Sometimes, my dad would play the diatonic accordion, I would hear him playing traditional French folk music and sometimes, I would go with him to a folk ball. Playing French folk melodies on a recorder by ear was my first musical experience, but once I saw a picture of a trumpet on a vinyl my parents had, I immediately fell in love with this instrument. It is not an instrument well explored in the popular music I was listening to but I found something magical in it. To me, music was something to do with the movement of the wind, a feeling of freedom and resonance in the air, and this instrument was the perfect tool for that expression.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound? 

YG: – I have always been interested in all kinds of music that ranged from classical to pop, rap, rock, jazz and world music. My passion for and openness to different kinds of music enriched my palette, but I felt unable to find my own musical identity. My formal musical education was at some point very academic, detached from any musical tradition. I mainly learnt music at the conservatoire and to go forward, I felt the need to explore music from its roots, immerse myself in different musical traditions, understand what is hidden behind the notes and find out what tied them together. I was looking for meaning, depth and a certain unity as well as roots from where then I could grow in a deeper manner. This was the beginning of a long and intense journey that continues to this day, delving into many different cultures and countries over several years. I have traveled around the United States, Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Morocco and throughout Europe. By doing these cultural immersions into other cultures my own voice started to reveal by itself. The more I was exploring foreign cultures in a deep way, the more the sound of my music was asserting itself, like a mirror effect. I think every note or rhythm we play comes from somewhere, from our ancestors and there are parts of our DNA everywhere. I always found it more interesting to have conversations with foreigners than with people that are culturally closer to me. It does not only enrich us but it is a way to extend the learning about oneself because even though there are differences, there is always something that we might have in common.. In my case I had to go very far away from where I had come from to start to find a part of my own voice, my own sound.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm? 

YG: – French culture is not very rhythmic. Most of the French people are not very comfortable with rhythm, which was my case. It is a culture that is more focused on developing the brain than the body. French people love to think, (lol) to analyse but rhythm is a physical thing. You cannot think rhythm; you have to be the rhythm. We probably do not dance enough! (haha). Whatever it is, that’s probably one of the many other reasons why I am so attracted to the African diaspora and by the cultures where rhythmics are at the centre of their music. It challenges me, puts me in a zone where I have to let go of my references, get out of my comfort zone. I force myself to go closer to the dance in another world, to a more physical relation to life. This helps me to grow. Generally speaking, I have rarely experienced a musical project where I was completely comfortable. In most of my collaborations with foreign artists, I felt a strong challenge and a good opportunity to learn something. The key of any learning process is to accept to not know in order to be able to receive something. That’s what I try to constantly do.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing? 

YG: – You hopefully cannot avoid disparate influences. Life does not work that way. We are not separate from others and need them to find ourselves. We are many things at the same time. That’s why I have never been comfortable with boxes. That’s why also I do not know what “jazz”, “world music”, “classical music” mean. To me, it is most important to be sincere in what I am doing, be connected with myself in the deepest way and be part of the flow. If something influences me, that’s because something in it called me at some point. And this can be the start of a composition, who knows.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina? 

YG: – I am a very sensitive person which is a good and bad thing. On one side, I think my music reflects this sensibility which can express some beauty, and on the other side, I also have to manage when I am going on stage which is not easy. As a trumpeter I had to change my bad position of embouchure and it took me years to relearn how to play. This affected my confidence and for a long time, I found any excuse to avoid to be one stage and to stay just comfortable in my role of the composer-arranger or ethnomusicologist. But I act differently today as I love so much to be part of the magic that appears in the communication between the audience and us artists. For me to perform is as important as composing, and I feel I have things to say as a performer. Difficulty must not stop you. It must help you to grow. So I am practicing a lot to put my sensibility at the service of the performance and not against it. Then the magic can happen.

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JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album? 

YG: – This first opus pays homage to the birthplace of Gottschalk: New Orleans its culture and its people with an emphasis on Black American culture. During the era of Gottschalk’s time, New Orleans was full of multicultural encounters and interactions, and was the birthplace of so many music that still resonates today worldwide. In this album, I wanted to collaborate with musicians from New Orleans, France and the West Indies who are deeply rooted in their respective cultural heritage whilst being very open to contemporary musical creation. The first musician I wanted to collaborate with on this project was New Orleans based clarinetist Evan Christopher who is not only a good friend and the first musician I met in Nola. Evan has also been a fantastic guide throughout these years who allowed me to better navigate and know the New Orleans culture from within, and to immerse myself in it. Our many conversations about New Orleans music and his knowledge in that specific musical tradition helped to anchor my music in the language of New Orleans music.

The choice of the other New Orleans musicians was obvious. They are the best musicians I could imagine to collaborate with. To be honest, I was a bit nervous about what they would think about my undertaking to compose music inspired by their own musical culture, even if I have spent years to immerse myself in it. But they all responded positively to my invitation. I think they all saw my deep respect to their culture and were interested by my personal creative view of it as an outsider. Regarding the string quartet, I wanted to collaborate with these French artists who are also friends as well as excellent musicians and equally very open for new musical adventures. They know each other very well, which has also helped to get this unique sound. For my composition “Lez African E Là” inspired by the gathering of enslaves on Congo Square park in New Orleans and the Caribbean contribution to the New Orleans musical heritage, I wanted to collaborate with artists from Martinique and Guadeloupe who are the bearer of their musical traditions, the gwoka (Guadeloupe) and the bèlè (Martinitique), two traditions that are tied in many ways to the music the slaves could have played on Congo Square. I also did not want a professional singer to sing the song. I wanted it to sound just like it would be sung by anyone at Congo Square. And the Guadeloupian percussionist Philippe Makaïa was just perfect. To anchor the album in a storytelling dimension and to create a resonance with the strong influence of the poetry on music during the 19e century I wanted to work with spoken word performer Chuck Perkins. Chuck is kind of an cultural ambassador of his New Orleans culture and I was very interested by his own contribution in addition to the pleasure to collaborate with a good friend. For the poem version of “Le Poète Mourant” (which is a bonus track) I wanted a French spoken word performer. When I asked the well-known French actor Didier Sandre, he immediately responded positively to my invitation.

I am so honored and grateful to all of these artists for being part of this project. They each really brought their unique, creative, deep and generous soul and talent to the project. The combination of all these people from the very different cultural worlds is what makes this album so rich I think. But it was also challenging. Not only because of the cultural differences but also because we did not really rehearse before except during the first takes at the studio and my music is not “straight forward”. However, I think something sincere, real and soulful came from that experience.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul? 

YG: – What first must drive a musician or a listener is the soul. I do not want that people think first when they listen to my music and I do not want to do interesting music. I first want to talk to the soul of the people from my soul. But desire is not enough. To study, master his instrument, develop your hear, analyse, explore different approaches are very important. That is the toolbox of the musician that is crucial in the musician development. But then, the question is what you have to say and how you say it and I think to be a good composer and a good performer, you need to forget what you know to let come things in. Even forgot that you are playing and let your soul play the music for you. It is not easy and requires to completly let go. But when this happen, real magic happens and that’s what I am looking for.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want? 

YG: – A concert is a gathering between audience and artists who share a musical experience. That’s an exchange of energy; it is a pro-active relationship from both parts. It is something spiritual to me not a mercantile thing where people who bought a ticket should get something for that price. As a musician, we do not sell our musical soul, we make it resonate with our music and if we are lucky enough that sound will resonate in other souls that are in the audience. I do not think in terms of “what the audience want”. I do not think the audience knows what they want to hear except good music, seeing a great performance and being transported by the music to having a great experience. Of course, sometimes people might have expectations of hearing specific tunes they love. But I think the most important thing for us as musicians is to be in the position of sharing something profound with the audience, and to do so, you need to be at the service of the music, not of any kind of expectations.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

YG: – I remember my recording sessions with Juan Carlos Caceres in Buenos Aires. It was I think in 2006. He was such a character. At the time, he was 74 years old but he has the energy of a Lion. We were recording his album called “Utopia” and I was playing trumpet and doing arrangements for him. For several arrangements it was like that: He arrived at the studio, sat at the piano to show me his new song he had just been writing. I had almost no time to record it that he would ask “Did you get the tune?”. Upstairs, in less than two hours I had to write whole arrangements for brass section, piano, bass, percussions and bandoneon and which we then recorded straight after. If only I had had a chance to get an additional day … I guess I never wrote as fast as at that time! It was a bit crazy but in the end, I enjoyed the challenge and I did learn a lot. I like to take my time to write music however, most of the time, the deadlines are my friend because once you are into the music, if nothing stops me, I could continue forever. I also remember the moment my friend Evan Christopher asked me if I could write two pieces for the Minnesota Orchestra, something like 15/20 min of music. That was in 2010. He was going to play with them in a concert in Minneapolis and they needed a couple more pieces for the program. I had agreed, but then few minutes after I left his house, I said to myself: “are you crazy?” I had never written something for a Symphony orchestra before.  I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it or not since I was going to write for one of the best orchestra in the world. For one month and half, I put up some post-it notes on the piano to remind me to just trust in my ability to do it and of course, I did it. These kinds of challenges really helped me to move forward.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old? 

YG: – First of all, I think the most important thing is to change the perspective. Jazz is word that does not mean much except that it is a marketing box. Yes, when we say “jazz”, we all have images, sounds that come to our mind. But if you look at the history, what we called “jazz” at the time of Louis Armstrong was pop music. Also, they is not much connection between what we called “jazz” in Scandinavian music and in New Orleans. Many musicians, at least in the black community in the US are not so happy to be called “jazzman” especially because of all the negative connotations that are associated with this word. It does not reflect who they are and the music they are playing. What they do is use languages that are tied to a complex and deep history of cultural resistance, that are used to communicate in the moment with others to express what they feel, who they are, respond to the other musicians. It is a very special art form that is very conversational and as with any conversation, the topic versus theme that is used is important but what counts the most is what and how it is said. You can take a tune from two centuries ago and still say something new. But of course, it requires to learn the languages first and to have something in common to discuss. And I think mistakes are very much part of the process because it can allow new avenues for creativity.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life? 

YG: – Hard question… Well I would say to me music is one of the most important food and resonator of our souls. It is magic to see how music impacts our perception of the environment, how it moves our body, how it can change our mood of the day or how it can connect us in the deepest layers of ourselves. It is also my traveling companion on the road we call ‘Life’ since the beginning. From my perspective, Life is like an initiatory journey. I see hardship as opportunities to grow and to get closer to what one calls freedom. Some people prefer to escape the changes and the difficulties that appear in their life.  I personally prefer to face them because I see them as a friend that gives me an opportunity to explore my capacity to become free, whatever happens. I often think of the black slaves during the time of slavery for who I have a deep respect. It is fascinating to me to see how they could resist to such level of oppression and through music make their cultural heritage continue to exist after shifting from place to another and being so much oppressed. If you look at all the powerful music that came from all America and influenced the whole 20th century and that talks deeply to many people, you can realize that most of them came from enslave people. Music is so powerful, we have no idea how powerful it is.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be? 

YG: – That the musicians could live better from their art. The world is currently driven by a mercantile vision of life, by the consumerism.  Except for some pop stars, I think most  musicians are mostly driven by their soul, their love for music and they dedicate a part of all their life to it. I think we are still too often considered as entertainers, and music not as essential. If music can be of course entertaining, and I am happy it can be, it is much than that. And the reality is that most of us cannot survive. The revenue artists can get from the streaming is so low that it is almost insulting us. And with the Covid crisis, without any possibilities to get money from the concerts, we are living in a critical situation. A lot of professional musicians are looking for other jobs to survive. I think a change cannot appear without the support of the audience. But fortunately, I see more and more people that realize that music is important in their life and who support the community of the musicians in different ways.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days? 

YG: – Well, these days I am writing again music, so I do not listen to a lot of music, eventually nothing. But except now, I listen to so many things.. It is impossible to make a list. There are so many artists and kinds of music I love. Old and new recordings.. Sometimes I can be obsessive and listen to a song over and over. It depends. For instance, this happened recently with the interpretation of the song “Mi niña Lola” by Buika. So beautiful.. I think within the last two weeks, I have listen to Carla Bley, Margriet Sjoerdsma and her Odelion Orchestra I just discovered, Brahms, Robert Glasper Experiment feat. Mos Def, Lole y Manuel…  Well many different things.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music? 

YG: – The music must speak for itself. I do not want to bring a specific message even if in every track of my album there are many layers in it.  Every composition is like a musical storytelling that creates a subtle dialogue between different things in terms of cultures, eras, musical gestures and the concepts are omnipresent in the whole album. But the most important thing is to let the listener get what speaks to them. If, in addition to the music, the listener picks up what is behind it, it is even better, but it is not necessary I believe in order to appreciate the music.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

YG: – Haha, I guess the response is inside my project. There are a lot of eras and places I would like to explore. The history is living in us and as a child my imagination led me to travel in many of them. But I guess what I found very interesting in the 19th century is the prolific inventions and creations of music that were born from a transcultural mix between America, Europe and Africa. Come back to roots of this music really helps to get closer to them today, and I found this period of time fascinating even if there are also horrible things that have happened at that time too.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

YG: – Hum. The question to myself would be: After so much work, why are you not taking vacations? My answer would be: Well, the thing is, when I stop, new ideas tends to come and so I quickly have the desire to come back to work to realize them..

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

YG: – By continuing the road trying to be always a  better version of myself.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Yohan Giaume - Official Website

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