Camilla George on Mixing West African Grooves and Folk Tales with London Jazz

Every Saturday when Camilla George was growing up, she’d sit with her dad and listen to his record collection. "That was jazz time," she says. "He’d be like, ‘This is Cannonball, I went to see him, this is what he played and we’re going to listen to it now. This is Sonny Stitt, I prefer him on alto,’ – I don’t have a preference, I think he’s sick on both, but my dad preferred him on alto. We listened to Jackie McLean, it was such an education."

Camilla George. Photo by Benjamin Amure.

After her father passed away, George inherited his vinyl collection, which she keeps in pride of place in his original leather record case in her London apartment. Born in Nigeria, George moved to London as an infant and was obsessed with the saxophone from a young age, waiting impatiently for the chance to get her hands on one.

She’s a protégé of the Tomorrow’s Warriors jazz education programme run by Gary Crosby, completed her Masters at Trinity College of Music, has performed with Jazz Jamaica, Courtney Pine’s Venus Warriors, and toured with Pee Wee Ellis. As part of the BBC’s Jazz 625 television special, she shared the stage with Joshua Redman and Jean Toussaint.

"It was fantastic to be involved in that," she says, "because that was really like going back to the old days of how you learn, older players taking you under their wing, giving you advice. Joshua Redman gave me his email address after that, and we corresponded. I just thought, ‘My gosh, this is Joshua Redman!’ So cool."

George released her debut album Isang in 2016, followed by The People Could Fly two years later. Now she’s working on her third record, Ibio-Ibio, due out in 2021 and backed through the PPL Momentum Music Fun. "It does give you a lot of freedom to do things my own way," says the alto saxophonist, who continues to expand her sound and horizons with every release.

How far along are you with Ibio-Ibio?

I’ve been working on it for quite some time, I actually never got myself together enough to actually complete it. The lockdown gave me that time to go over it and it also gave enough time to properly rehearse it as a band. I’ve been really enjoying it. We started rehearsing in the summer and then it’s gradually become more frequent, we had a rehearsal on Friday, we’re booking in more rehearsals and we’ll be going into the studio mid-December.

What’s the inspiration behind Ibio-Ibio?

It’s basically an homage to where I was born and our tribe, the Ibibio people. It explores things, like our creation myth, that are important to the culture of the Ibibio people. I’ve loved doing the research for it, I’ve learned even more about my roots.

They have the gods Abassi and his wife Atai, it’s quite similar to the Bible in that they created a pair of humans in their own image. Those are stories that I was told when I was young.

How is this filtering into your music?

The People Could Fly

There are some things that are parallel, not similar, to The People Could Fly, with Afrobeat grooves—I’ve been looking into High Life beats. There’s this particular Gahu High Life beat, that’s Ghanaian, it’s got that vibe. There’s one tune that’s quite straight-ahead jazz, I’ve got some stuff that’s more on the hip-hop side.

I have been very lucky to be working with a Birmingham-based rapper called Lady Sanity. We toured together with Pee Wee Ellis, and then we did another thing with Carleen Anderson, and I think she’s amazing. She’s featured on two of the pieces. It’s going to be produced by a drummer who I also met on the Pee Wee Ellis tour, called Daru Jones, who’s done more of the hip-hop stuff.

There’s definitely a hip-hop element, an Afrobeat element, and a jazz vibe, so it’s a mish-mash of styles. But I believe in it, I think it’s going to be an exciting album.

What made Daru Jones the right choice to produce?

I would say I’m producing it as well, it’s like a co- thing, but [Jones is right] definitely for the hip-hop stuff. I’ve been a lifelong hip-hop fan, but it’s a new thing for me in terms of incorporating that into my composition. There are quite a few jazz albums where rap has been introduced with mixed success. It’s one of those things where I’ve asked such a great rapper like Lady Sanity, I want to make sure that the production is right so that it doesn’t sound lame, it’s doing the music justice.

Who’s going to play on the album?

The core band is me, Sarah Tandy, Daniel Casimir, Winston Clifford. Daru will be drumming on one of the tracks, and I have a Kora player Kadialy Kouyate, who will be playing on one track, possibly another. I have Renato Paris who will be doubling up on keys and vocals, and Lady Sanity, and I’ve got a horn section which is me, Sheila Maurice-Grey and Rosie Turton, so it’s massive. We’ve been having so much fun. We had a big rehearsal a few weeks ago and it was such a joy to hear everyone playing the music.

Camilla George Quartet.

You mentioned you’re a lifelong hip-hop fan, is this melding of styles part of what defines the new London jazz scene right now?

I do think there is a part of that which is true. When you talk about London jazz, our scene was created partly by the Warriors. Most of us came up through the Warriors. The Warriors were so appealing for people who come from different backgrounds. When they talk about the London scene having all of this stuff, it’s because of that—because we were in an environment where it was okay to show our African heritage or our Caribbean heritage, or wherever we happened to come from in the world.

That organisation fostered that and I think that’s why there is this melting pot of different influences in the London jazz scene because it’s all the different people that have come through this loving environment, the family that is Tomorrow’s Warriors. Those people on that scene, Nubya [Garcia], Femi [Koleoso], Shabaka [Hutchings], every single one of them came through the Warriors in some shape or form.

Is there a network of graduates?

It’s a family. It sounds really cheesy. I straddle different areas in jazz and throughout my small career, I have been involved in different things, but I really think it’s unique to the jazz scene that there is this family thing. You go somewhere and you see a fellow Warrior, and you know each other because that’s the culture of the Warriors. Obviously, they push you to get good, but there doesn’t seem to be the cutthroat nastiness that I saw at college.

Tomorrow's Warriors on BBC One's "Inside Out"

There’s no cutting someone up musically?

You might get somebody that might do that to you at the Warriors, but they’ll tell you why. What you always have is people taking the time to go over stuff with you. ‘You didn’t get this, I did this because you weren’t playing the changes. Hang back at Southbank, I’m going to go over them with you.’ That’s the vibe.

You’ve studied with Jean Toussaint who played with Art Blakey in the Jazz Messengers. Does hard bop feed into your approach too?

I’m sure Jean would agree, I still have a long way to go with that and it’s something I work on every day in my practice. I think that stuff, bop jazz or hard bop, it’s like a cruel mistress. If you neglect that, it will go. You might retain bits of it, but it’s something you need to keep practicing. He’s somebody that has influenced and informed my playing and I hope will continue to do so because I would like to get to the same level of excellence that he has, he’s a master of his instrument.

You’ve said in the past that when you were young, you’d listen to jazz records and sing the solos. Is that important to you, to play solos that can be sung?

I think it is. I transcribe a lot, it’s something I really enjoy doing, and something that takes me a long time. I like to get really inside solos and one of the main ways you can do that is singing the solo. I don’t know if it was Jean, but I remember one of my teachers saying, ‘If you can’t sing the solo then you can’t really play it.’ So I like to do that, put on my vinyl, stuff that I’ve worked on, and sing through some of my favourite solos.

Photo credit: BlueNote, Beijing

You played at The Blue Note in Beijing, what was that like? Is there a big jazz audience there?

That was great. I have to say, it had been my desire to play just one gig outside of the UK. Love playing in the UK but I really wanted to get on the international touring circuit and that was our first gig. Our agent was like, ‘Right, you’ve got Blue Note in Beijing,’ and when we got there, they were really into it. That’s the first time I’ve been mobbed going into a jazz club. It was great. There seemed to be a really big jazz fanbase. The diversity in age, gender, was huge.

Have you been comfortable with all the attention focussed on the London jazz scene?

It’s been really good. I’ve enjoyed seeing some of my friends get the recognition that they deserve, and I think the scene as a whole is great. I think the problem when such a focus is put on one part of the scene is that it causes discontent with some of the others. That’s an unfortunate by-product of it, which is a shame.

I don’t think the people writing about this new London scene mean that the rest of UK jazz or London jazz is dead, it’s just what they’re commenting on is the fact that the likes of Nubya and Ashley Henry are doing concerts, and I’ve noticed it with my own band, where the demographic is not just the same old people that used to go to jazz clubs ten years ago.

The fact that they’re able to do gigs in clubs and sell them out is really exciting. With the new stuff, the reason they’re getting more press is because people can go to those clubs and dance, which I don’t think is wrong or going against jazz. When you look at photos from the ‘40s in bop clubs, everyone is dancing.

Camilla George. Photo by Steve Funkyfeet.

How does the dance factor change the sound of your music?

Mainly I wanted to go a bit further into the joyous, infectious rhythms that I’ve been listening to and learning about from West Africa. My dissertation for college was about the clave rhythm in Parker’s phrasing. For me, Charlie Parker’s phrasing is one of the hippest things. The harmony’s great, but the phrasing is even more out there for me.

I think there are links with West African rhythms in his approach, so it makes sense for me and it’s still connected to the jazz that I love. Then again I was born in West Africa so maybe that’s why it seems like a logical progression.

What was the book that inspired The People Could Fly?

It’s a book that my mum used to read to me, moreso when we came over here. I was born in Eket in Nigeria. I think she just wanted me to remember my roots, where I’d come from, and she used to read me these stories.

It wasn’t until after I was quite a bit older that I actually understood what the book was about, because there are all these animals. You have Bruh Rabbit, you have a bear, a lion—it’s like, okay, this is quite pleasant. Then she explained to me that the animals take on the lives of the slaves and slave owners, that’s what the book is about. The People Could Fly is based on the idea that the African people were magical, but they lost this magic when they were enslaved.

One of the magical powers was that they could fly and that was taken away, but then there are these tales of slaves tilling the fields, and maybe they touch a magic hoe and that gave them their wings, or magic words were spoken and that gave them their wings and they could fly away. It’s just such a poignant image. I thought, yeah, that’s something I definitely want to write about.

How do you translate a literary idea like that into musical ideas?

It’s just thinking about the sounds, like with "He Lion" [the song "He Lion, Bruh Bear, Bruh Rabbit"], the melody is quite proud at the beginning because the lion is really proud in the story: ‘I’m the king of the jungle.’ All the other smaller animals are telling him to shut up, he’s not the king of the jungle, and that it’s proudness.

The end of the story is not great, because he ends up getting shot by man, who is the king of the jungle and the slave owner. I wanted the melody to reflect the proud lion prancing about, and then the middle bit to be the unease everyone is feeling because the slave owner was pushing himself to the top of the jungle, where it should really be the lion—but because he has a gun, he’s at the top.

"He Lion, Bruh Bear, Bruh Rabbit" - Camilla George

The album touches on dark subjects, but the music leaves a joyful impression.

That was the intention. I didn’t want people to come away from it feeling despair and sadness, I wanted there to be a hope for mankind. There was one publication, it was the only bad review I got, saying that I had made light of such a serious subject, but I think they didn’t understand why it was like that.

I didn’t want to take on a subject like that and just focus on all the awful things that had happened. I wanted to portray a sense of hope, the things that we’re seeing as maybe the result of BLM—that hopefully some things have changed.

When you perform that music now, do you think of the stories behind the songs?

Usually I’ll tell the audience something about the tune, otherwise it’s just tune after tune. I do like thinking about the stories behind it. You have to be able to connect with the audience on that level.

From being in the audience, you might get a sense this is a sad song, but if they told you the real story behind it, then you yourself, as well as the musicians, can get that image while the music is being played. What’s beautiful about what we do is we can put all this stuff in our music.

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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