Rescued From The Fire: Romare on Jimi Hendrix

An ongoing series in which we ask artists the record they’d risk life and limb to save from a burning inferno

London’s Romare is, above all, a conservator. Last year’s Meditations on Afrocentrism EP on Black Acre was just as much a journey into the forgotten corners of African and Afro-American blues and proto-blues history as it was a forward-thinking glimpse into the rhythmic possibilities afforded by the UK’s current fascination with juke.

Romare’s finely tuned grasp for breathing new life into his raw material is in full effect yet again on the brand new Love Songs: Part One EP. Though stepping away in name from the afrocentrism of his debut project, Romare remains in passionate dialogue with African-American music culture. In advance of its release, Romare shares the album he’d save from the flames as well as some insights into his music-making process.

Your house is on fire, you only have time to rescue one record. Which one would that be?

It would be Jimi Hendrix’s posthumous Blues compilation. It’s one of the few albums that always makes me feel better when I’m down. Not that it’s particularly common for me to feel down, but whenever I do, that record has a kind of medicinal quality to it. I think it has some of the best examples of Jimi’s guitar work and his singing. I’ve been a big fan of Jimi Hendrix ever since I was a kid, and this one just really sticks out for me from the way it is compiled. The first song is acoustic, it’s soft and quiet and then you have jammy, fast, rock-n-roll kind of songs on it, sad and uplifting ones. It’s just so varied, emotionally, and also regarding the genres, because you have jazz, rock, blues, traditional blues, blues rock and avant-gardist, experimental, noisy stuff.

At what age did you discover that record?

That was probably just before my teenage years. A friend of my dad’s gave it to my dad for a present.

Was your taste in music generally shaped a lot by what you discovered through your dad?

Yeah. Ever since I was a kid he would collect CDs, as opposed to records. That was more his period. So a big part of our living room aesthetic, the actual visual part of our living room, has always been the CD shelf. That always took up a big wall where we lived. So just visually it was always a place that I would look at – like if we’re having dinner or we’re just hanging out on the sofa. When I learned how to put a CD on the stereo, I would just try out different stuff. If an album cover looked cool or interesting or was in bright, weird colors or something, I’d just put that on to see what it sounds like. That way I came to grips with the different kinds of music my dad had on the shelf. He always had it nicely categorized, too. He had a world music section and a blues section and an Irish section and a folk section, jazz section, and so forth.

Was blues music his main staple, or was that you gravitating towards that kind of music yourself?

My dad is a very keen guitarist. He practices all the time and has always loved the guitar. He played mostly folk music, British folk, American folk and American blues. His listening collection was also mainly folk and blues. At one point he started getting into jazz and I also got into jazz more. I think recognizing blues as a genre I really liked when I was a kid opened me up to recognizing other genres. It made me really see the connection between jazz, blues, hip hop and made me curious to explore music, find connections between the genres, and the dates when certain albums came out. It interests me to see the evolution of genres – in particular African-American ones.

That gravitation certainly also manifests itself in your own music. Was that kind of a natural process when you first started working with samples?

Yeah, I didn’t start off making music with samples. I started as a singer/songwriter in a band. I had guitar lessons when I was 11 or 12 for a few years. Then I taught myself to play the drums when I was in school and joined another band. When I got back into guitar, I used it mainly as a tool to compose. I also played a bit of bass and incorporated some other things. But it was mainly the guitar where I learned how to make music.

I discovered sampling in university. I bought a MIDI keyboard and it came with Ableton. I found that I could take existing vocals from jazz vocalists and put them to my own chords, my own melodies. Not only that, but I could mix them with other voices and other melodies. So I could mix Ray Charles’ piano with Billie Holiday’s voice, and combine them by pitching things up or pitching things down. There was just such a huge area to explore with taking samples and putting them together – in terms of exploring relationships in music and similarities in music. And I started thinking that I could do more than just make something sound nice, but I could put samples together where the source of the samples used would have a relationship with each other. So I could start building relationships and start saying something about the history of certain genres. I thought that hadn’t really been done before, so I had a go at it.

You seem to be quite conscious about the difficulty of approaching African-Amercian music from a white perspective. Is that something you put a lot of thought into?

I studied up on African-American culture a lot while I was in university. I did my dissertation on Miles Davis, comparing Kind of Blue to Bitches Brew and did plenty of research into African-American music and the evolution of jazz. That’s also how I came across the collagist and painter Romare Bearden, who I named my project after – but that’s another discussion. I felt that through my research and the knowledge I got from the courses I did, I could validate my sampling and validate my desire to make statements about African-American music. Because I had read into it but also because I just love it. I have an actual fondness for it. The music I listen to that gives me a kick, that makes me react, is often African-American music.

I source my samples the way that in an essay you would source your criticism, your arguments.

It’s almost like trying to make a musical essay, as in that I source my samples the way that in an essay you would source your criticism, your arguments. I wanted to kind of do that in my music, so that you hear certain things that are similar because they exist in other arguments. And I try to set them in African-American formats, like two of the tracks on the last EP are juke/footwork tracks, which is a very African-American genre. I just look at it as if I’m trying to say something about music and it just happens to be African-American music, but I’d also love to do one on Debussy and classical music and say something about another genre and another demographic of music. I also don’t necessarily want to be labeled as someone who only samples African or African-American music. I just want to use samples to say something as well as make something sound decent.

Romare Bearden - Empress

And again you’re oftentimes also using old and overlooked music and putting it into a different context so that it really sounds new.

Yeah, I have an undying respect for musicians that didn’t get the respect they deserved in their own lifetime. The amount of talent in the last century that has gone unheard is baffling to me, and being able to showcase it in a different light is appealing. I like finding rare stuff that hasn’t necessarily been heard too many times. That’s a great feeling, finding something that hasn’t been heard that’s really good. But whether the sample is well-known or not is really not a priority. My priority is finding something that fits well. I tend to want to use samples that no one uses or knows, but as long as it’s not modern, I don’t mind.

By Anthony Obst on March 20, 2013

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