June 13, 2024


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Nubya Garcia: People have been sold a lie that jazz isn’t for them: Video, Photos

Ahead of the Jazz FM Awards, the saxophonist talks about her breakthrough record ‘Source’, the importance of performing at the Proms, and why jazz music is misunderstood.

When saxophonist Nubya Garcia made her Proms debut earlier this year, the significance wasn’t lost on her. As she, her three-piece band and backing vocalists struck up the epic, exploratory dub reggae-flavoured “Source”, she smiled, allowed herself a little dance, then stood centre stage, eyes closed, sax in hand.

This was her moment: as a black woman of Caribbean heritage playing fluid, rhythmic, genre-defying contemporary jazz that breaks with the traditions of the past. Her presence at the Royal Albert Hall wasn’t a career high – it represented a milestone for a flagship cultural event in desperate need of diversity.

“It was a big step forward,” Garcia says. “And to be involved in that step forward is a privilege. And what’s more important, there’s so many people that will be changed by seeing us in that place, seeing that as a possibility for them in the future. If I was a 10-year-old kid seeing that on TV, I’d think: ‘Wow, I want to do that.’ And that’s really special.” It must be quite a thrill to become the person you could have looked up to? “Yeah,” she says, letting the question hang in the air. “That’s so deep, isn’t it?”

Nubya Garcia Saxophonist Credit: Adama_Jalloh Image from https://mediakits.concord.com/p/source/photos.html Provided by joe@baxterpr.com
Saxophonist Nubya Garcia (Photo: Adama Jalloh)

Garcia grew up in London in a musical household: her Guyanian mother and Trinidadian father encouraged her from an early age to play their various instruments around the house, including the violin and piano. But it was jazz that stuck.

While many schoolfriends migrated to Camden’s notorious indie and rock scenes – “I’ll be real with you, indie didn’t really touch me, I just didn’t see myself in it” – Garcia became jazz-obsessed, picking up a saxophone at 10, and attending local music courses to learn her craft.

Now 30, she is an integral part of the capital’s celebrated, progressive new jazz scene that is reshaping how jazz can look and sound in the 21st century.

Her debut album Source, released in 2020, draws on the music of her Caribbean heritage and the wider African diaspora – it was nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize. Tonight, she is up for Best Album at the Jazz FM awards, where she hopes to make it a hat-trick of victories after winning 2018’s Best Breakthrough Act and 2019’s Best UK Jazz Act. “It’s been an incredible progression winning those,” she says.

Garcia is part of a wave of forward-facing British jazz artists that are disregarding the limits of genre – Sons of Kemet, Kamaal Williams, Alfa Mist, Moses Boyd. Among the women changing the scene, Garcia is at the forefront.

“It’s amazing to [work] alongside really powerful, empowering women,” she says. She has collaborated with Sheila Maurice-Grey, Richie Sievwright and Cassie Kinoshi of Kokoroko, and hopes their success is proving the inclusivity of modern jazz. “I’m really glad that we’re even able to do this,” she adds, before correcting herself. “Not that we are even able – but that we are doing this. It’s really important for change.”

Garcia calls Source “me in album form”. It’s a free-flowing, expansive record, which takes as much from calypso, dubstep, soul, reggae and Colombian cumbia as conventional American jazz – and has spawned a new remix album, Source We Move.

Across 60 minutes and nine tracks, it explores themes of identity, grief, collectivism, family, and heritage. “It’s a snapshot of my ideas, my thoughts and feelings, who I am, basically.”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 28: Nubya Garcia performs during the second day of All Points East Festival 2021 at Victoria Park on August 28, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)
Nubya Garcia performing at All Points East festival in London (Photo: Jim Dyson/Getty)

She has been wondering, though, if people attach the conveyed meanings when the music is largely instrumental. “I honestly don’t know,” she says laughing.

“Sometimes I’m like: ‘Well, I guess no one’s going to know the story,’ because really the music is about transcendence, about a kind of feeling that you can’t put into words.” Then she worries whether those meanings are misunderstood. “I don’t know everything about every single song that was written without lyrics. And I have to remind myself that it’s never bothered me.”

Garcia was a shy, bookish child. At first, getting on stage was daunting: she would play only because that’s what everyone else did. “There was deep fear there. I was very hard on myself; it was an internal battle. But I didn’t die at any of these performances. It was character-building for me.”

She persevered, and through the Tomorrow’s Warriors educational programme (alumni include fellow current jazz leaders Shabaka Hutchings and Moses Boyd), found a collective that has formed the bedrock of her career.
Nubya Garcia Saxophonist Credit: Adama_Jalloh Image from https://mediakits.concord.com/p/source/photos.html Provided by joe@baxterpr.com
Nubya Garcia’s album ‘Source’ was nominated for 2021’s Mercury Prize (Photo: Adama Jalloh)

Community – be that musical, family, or societal – is central to her entire worldview. It’s why Source was made with a host of collaborators including Kwes, Ms Maurice, and Akenya; why her heritage plays such a central role in her life and work – “it’s really paramount in Caribbean culture to pass stories down, and it’s incredible to have so much information and knowledge and history from our elders”.

And why she speaks out on social issues, as she did recently when criticising government cuts to arts funding, warning that they risk making the music industry “very elite – even more elite than it already is”.

“It’s how we make change, wherever it may be,” she says of collective action. “We should have learned we can’t do anything alone by now. Humans are stronger together in every way – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Community is paramount to life success.”

Garcia is effusive about the future of jazz. “Things are shifting. It’s really great there’s more blurred lines between genre, because people have been sold a lie that jazz is not for you, or you’ll only like what’s popular. And I think that’s the goal, really – to share music with more and more different types of people.”

Nubya Garcia Saxophonist Credit: Adama_Jalloh Image from https://mediakits.concord.com/p/source/photos.html Provided by joe@baxterpr.com

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