Interview: Sheila Maurice-Grey on Kokoroko, Nérija & Setting Her Sound Apart

Kokoroko. Photo by Nina Manandhar.
Sheila Maurice-Grey. Photo used with permission from the artist.

"When we started the band, we were looking at the scene and there weren't many people who look like us playing this type of music," says Sheila Maurice-Grey, aka Ms Maurice. A trumpeter, vocalist, and visual artist, Maurice-Grey has brought the sound of West Africa to London, tapping into the spirit of Afrobeat and Highlife with Kokoroko, the band she founded with percussionist Onome Edgeworth.

She's a member of the groups Nérija and SEED Ensemble, leads her own trios and quartets, and is a regular collaborator with other artists on the vibrant London jazz scene including Nubya Garcia and Sarah Tandy, although Maurice-Grey is ambivalent about the label itself.

Each project has its own distinct sound and identity, but they share a common interest in melding a jazz sensibility with different musical styles, whether that's Afrobeat with Kokoroko and Nérija, or Garcia's dub and reggae. That's balanced by Maurice-Grey's admiration for Patrice Rushen, Ambrose Akinmusire, Freddie Hubbard, and Miles Davis, and she was due to perform Davis' Kind of Blue album in concert at London's Jazz Cafe before the latest lockdown.

Like many of her contemporaries, the trumpeter is a graduate of the Tomorrow's Warriors music education programme, which has played a vital role in inspiring the current generation of players and bandleaders. Additionally, she's a former member of Kinetika Bloco, a performance group that blends the Caribbean Carnival tradition with music from New Orleans, South and West Africa, and Brazil.

Perhaps it's no surprise that Maurice-Grey's own music refuses to be bound by categorisation, even as it's all underpinned by a dancefloor-friendly pulse that has helped Kokoroko expand their appeal far beyond the reaches of the regular jazz circuit. We talk below about these various projects and more.

To keep up-to-date on Ms Maurice and all of her work, find her website here. Hear Kokoroko's latest single, "Baba Ayoola" below.

What first drew you to the trumpet?

The most honest answer I can give is I really wanted to play piano, but when I went to my tutor, I was like, "I really want to play piano," she was like, "No, I really want you to play a brass instrument." The school I went to at the time had a really good music department and they had loads of brass instruments, so I had the luxury of going through all the brass instruments. Basically, I picked the trumpet because it was the smallest one and I could make a sound out of it quite easily. That's what drew me to the trumpet—no romantic story!

What music were you listening to at the time?

I grew up in the church, so I was listening to a lot of gospel music, a lot of church music. My mum was quite strict so I didn't necessarily listen to a lot of popular music, I would listen to old records that my mum loved, and my dad loved reggae, so I would listen to reggae at home, and a lot of South African and Zimbabwean music. It wasn't until I went to secondary school that I started playing trumpet. I didn't start off playing classical trumpet—I went straight into playing jazz. I was introduced to South African jazz and from there I got into listening to a lot of Miles Davis and Horace Silver.

Who were the South African artists you were listening to?

Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim in particular. I remember learning the song "Soweto" and learning "The Wedding," which is a really beautiful song. I learned those tunes because of this group called Kinetika Bloco. Essentially the whole idea behind this music collective was that we played music from different parts of the world, but mainly centred around jazz, funk. One year we played a lot of South African jazz and then we played Fela [Kuti] as well. Different years we'd play the music of Parliament, George Duke, music from Brazil, New Orleans—there was a lot of music I got exposed to without even realising, and that really influenced my taste.

How did Miles Davis feed into your playing?

The trumpet teacher I had gave me the Porgy and Bess album. It's a weird album to listen to, especially for a 13-year-old, but I remember really studying it. That same teacher also gave me the Kind of Blue album and the Horace Silver Song For My Father album, I remember listening to both of them a lot at that age. I just loved Miles' sound, as everyone does, and the feelings it makes you feel.

You did a degree in fine art. When did you know music would be your calling?

From a really young age. Even before I started playing trumpet, I'd always been interested in music. Around the age of nine, ten, I was like, yeah, this is what I want to do. I was very certain about it so regardless of me going to art college I always knew that I wanted to be a musician, and art college was just part of the process. I still see myself as a visual artist as well. They're both very much connected to the person I am and am becoming.

With Kokoroko, is it important for you to pay tribute to the legacies of Afrobeat and Highlife, and artists like Fela Kuti, Tony Allen, and Ebo Taylor?

That's always been the goal, for us to honour those greats and keep the music alive. I guess that's where the band orientated from; now we've developed and we write our own music that is inspired by Afrobeat and Highlife but is also inspired by many other things.

We're in the process of completing an album that we just recorded, and it doesn't actually sound like an Afrobeat album—it's not an Afrobeat album—but you can definitely hear the strong Afrobeat, Highlife influences as well as jazz, funk, all of those genres. It's still very much almost like a sketchbook at the moment. It's a sketchbook of the drawings and we're adding all the colouring.

Kokoroko - "Uman" (Brownswood Basement Session)

How does the writing process work in Kokoroko?

Everyone basically brings in a tune and that tune gets developed and we all add in our two cents. Someone will bring in an idea and some tunes come out of people jamming. I don't like to use that word jamming though—it's not necessarily jamming, but essentially there is collective writing. Writing is not necessarily just improvisation. When you say jamming it almost makes it sound unintentional. It's definitely intentional. It's just the lack of a better word. Collectively writing together is definitely part of the process.

Afrobeat and Highlife are dance music, is that an essential part of your approach?

Yeah, in terms of Kokoroko. That's been a big thing for me as an individual. I remember having these conversations when I was at art college, jazz music was initially dance music. Afrobeat is dance music. That element of the music is very important to me and with Kokoroko, 100% it's part of the music—it's part of the culture of Afrobeat and Highlife—and even before Afrobeat and Highlife, a lot of the traditional music from various parts of the continent is accompanied by dancers.

It's not necessarily a bad thing that the music developed in a different way but that element of jazz—improvised music—being dance music is something that was lost and maybe forgotten about.

Have you been surprised by the level of attention the London jazz scene has attracted? Has there been any pressure from that?

Yes, definitely 100% there has been pressure. I feel like Kokoroko is quite separate from the scene itself. We're not a jazz band, where some of the other bands are. There's even been a lot of pressure to put an album out, but I have been surprised by the attention and I don't think many people suspected that would have happened. If you'd asked them a year or two before any of that happened, I don't know if it was expected. I guess that's a good thing. We've all reacted to it very differently.

Has it been helpful?

I think it depends on what one's vision is. I don't know how to answer that question in a way that is positive. In many ways, it felt limiting. This London jazz scene has become a genre in itself and it's not a genre of music that everyone identifies with—I don't identify with that as an individual and I know Kokoroko doesn't identify with it as a band.

I guess there are positives in terms of press but in terms of being labelled as part of the jazz scene, that can feel restrictive, because there's more to individuals than just the London jazz scene. What is the London jazz scene?

One aspect of the London scene seems to be a focus on artists that pull in hip-hop, reggae, and the like, rather than bop players?

Exactly. It just feels limiting essentially. If you're a London jazz musician therefore the music you create is part of the London jazz scene? I don't know. I'm just very tired of the label, London jazz scene, and I hope that the music I create with the bands I'm involved with, in particular Kokoroko and Nérija, we just set ourselves apart from being labelled and we can stand alone.

Nérija - "Unbound" (Live at Total Refreshment Centre)

Outside of the group situations, you perform under your own name with your trio and quartet. Do you have plans to record in that format?

I'm working on new material. Hopefully there will be a release sometime [in 2021], but basically I am working on new music under my own name.

Is it a different sound to Kokoroko?

This is the thing, I feel like a big part of the Kokoroko sound is my sound, so some of the music I've written is quite different, but you can hear my voice in Kokoroko. It's not just my voice in Kokoroko, obviously, because there are seven other people, but some of the music I have, inevitably there will be some similarities there. At the same time, it's very different. That's such a vague answer! I can't say anything until there's music out to show people.

A few years ago, you went to Malawi for a musical collaboration. How was that experience?

It was with the British Council. They've done projects across various parts of the world where they take different creatives and get them to collaborate with other musicians in the local area. I'd done that same project the year before with Kokoroko in Columbia, in San Andrés. We were part of a show honouring the heritage of San Andrés, so that was great.

I was invited to go to Malawi to collaborate with different musicians from the continent, so there was a guitarist from Zambia; Kasiva, a percussionist from Kenya; Siya, from South Africa. I wasn't the only person from the UK—I was accompanied by Isobella Burnham, she's originally from Barbados. Basically, they brought us all together and were like, "Okay, you guys make music," and that's what happened. We wrote music, I brought my own composition, and we played on each other's tunes. It was a really nice project.

You played Glastonbury with Kokoroko, was that a career highlight for you?

I guess it is a highlight but it's not the biggest highlight for me. It was a great experience, being on the lineup on that stage in particular, the West Holts stage. I remember being in awe. Roy Ayers was playing, Kamasi Washington, Fatoumata Diawara... To be on the same stage as all the legends like Fatoumata and Roy Ayers, that was amazing. We also had an opportunity to play with Kamasi Washington at a jam session later that evening. That was really cool. It was a sick gig.

Ms Maurice Live @jazzrefreshed 09.08.2018

Do you feel there is a parallel between what you're doing and what Kamasi is doing in terms of revitalising jazz and bringing in younger listeners?

I would say yes. I don't think it's just Kamasi Washington. It all started with Roy Hargrove, that jazz hip-hop album and the work he did with D'Angelo where he basically was crossing those boundaries. It was really hip the way he did it. His music has definitely influenced the way a lot of people play.

You've done music outside of jazz with artists like Little Simz, Kano, and Solange. Was it a challenge to fit your sound into those contexts?

No, because one thing we were always taught by Gary Crosby from Tomorrow's Warriors is that if you learn how to play jazz, then from jazz you can play anything you want to play. Essentially, having those skills to be able to improvise and play jazz, it's transferable. I wouldn't say the gigs have been challenging, they've just been amazing.

You had your first tour with Kokoroko in 2019. Was that your first extended tour?

It wasn't my first tour. Touring as a bandleader is one thing and then touring as part of a band is another thing. Touring in general is very difficult, but the stress of being a bandleader and staying on top of so many different aspects other than just the music, it was a burnout. Covid came at such a perfect time for me personally and I think actually for the band—we needed time to think, we needed a break to prepare for the next year and to reflect on some of the mistakes that we made during our first year of touring. They always say the first year of touring is extremely hard for many reasons. It was very difficult.

What did you learn from that?

There are so many things to learn about how to tour. Financially it's really hard, extremely hard. There are so many things that can come up unexpectedly. The band is eight people and then you have a tour manager, you have a driver, and sometimes we even had a sound engineer, so imagine touring with eleven, twelve people continuously—that comes with its own challenges as well, like you have to manage your own personal energy as well as trying to be mindful of others as well.

You played Ronnie Scott's with Kokoroko. That's a sit-down jazz venue, not somewhere for dancing.

It was definitely a strange gig. It's not the only gig we've done where it was a sit-down gig. Often, we do try to get people off their seats—I think we did that with that gig. The interesting thing about Kokoroko is that essentially we're not an Afrobeat band, we're not a Highlife band, we're playing music that is inspired by Afrobeat and Highlife and inspired by many different genres and the other biggest one is jazz essentially. I feel like some of the audiences we've played to haven't been your typical, young Steam Down crowd. Sometimes we've played to an older crowd, seated venues, and you have to work your way around it.

Is part of the buzz around London the return of improvised music to clubs?

I guess so. It's a great thing because I guess there is a whole different audience listening to jazz. I don't think it's jazz—it's jazz-inspired music, and perhaps that will inspire people to check out some of the greats, I hope. That's a great positive. I feel like music should be for all, it shouldn't be ageist, it shouldn't be restricted to one group of people.

About the author: David West is a London-based writer who has covered everything from East Asian cinema to MMA, and from jazz to death metal. His work has appeared in Rhythm, Jazz Journal, Prog, Metal Hammer, and many more. He’s the author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film.

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