Interview: Ezra Collective's Femi Koleoso on Afrobeat Touch and Hip-Hop Swing

"I always saw the drums slightly differently to a lot of other people," says Femi Koleoso. "When I watched a gig, all I cared about was who was on the drums, like, that's obviously what everyone is looking at because that's the coolest thing on stage. I think it changed my approach. Straightaway I thought, 'Of course I should be writing music, I'm a drummer.'"

Whether leading his band Ezra Collective, grooving behind R&B singer Jorja Smith, or playing with the rising stars of London's vibrant jazz scene, like Nubya Garcia and Sarah Tandy, Koleoso has achieved a level of acclaim and recognition that his peers can only regard with envy. He's featured in fashion shoots for Nike and designer Stella McCartney, and starred in a TV commercial for the UEFA Champions League (a huge deal in football-obsessed Britain). But his driving passion remains his music.

He started playing drums in church aged four before joining Tomorrow's Warriors, the music education organisation that has been the training ground for a generation of young London jazz players. Ezra Collective grew out of the Warriors programme—"It's almost like a school project that went quite well," says Koleoso—and the quintet's sound is a high energy blend of jazz, Afrobeat, and hip-hop.

Koleoso's Afrobeat credentials are impeccable; he used to take the overnight bus from London to Paris to study with the legendary Tony Allen. In 2019, Ezra Collective released their first full-length album, You Can't Steal My Joy, and this year they're appearing on the Blue Note Re: Imagined anthology with a bold and groove-heavy arrangement of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints."

How did the Ezra Collective sound develop?

I think it's quite similar to how you learn a language. A baby will start off copying "mama" and "dada"—that will be the first thing they learn. That was us with jazz music, we were trying to imitate things we liked. I was massively into Max Roach, Art Blakey, huge fan of Fela Kuti. We would play these jazz standards but when we got a bit more confident with playing "Footprints" or "The Eye Of The Hurricane", all those hip tunes we love, we started trying to make them our own. It graduated into, I wonder what "On Green Dolphin Street" would sound like if we mixed it up with a Fela Kuti Afrobeat way of playing the changes rather than swinging? And that's where we started to develop our own sound.

You chose "Footprints" for the Blue Note Re: Imagined album, so you've been playing it for a long time?

That's why we picked it. It was one of the very first songs we were playing together as a band trying to discover our sound. We never stopped playing it—it's a banger, man, it's such a good song. It was a real privilege and honour to be asked to do that Blue Note project. Being a jazz lover, a jazz record collector, to have your music archived by Blue Note is a dream for everyone that plays jazz music.

Where did you record "Footprints"?

Livingstone Studios in Wood Green. We kept it North London for that one. I love that studio. First of all, being a drummer, they've got parking and the drum booth opens into the car park, so you can park your car right outside the door and load the drums in one metre. Abbey Road, it's a nightmare getting drums into that building.

That's the first thing, then they've got really good separation. That's really important—separation but eyesight, that's what I'm aiming for in the studio, having isolation for the mixing process but I want the rawness of being able to play together and I need to be able to see people to do that.

Ezra Collective - "Footprints"

What did you record at Abbey Road?

The first two records: Chapter 7, Juan Pablo The Philosopher. I did a gig once and this dude came up to me afterwards. His name's Matt Mysko. He was like, 'Man, I love your drumming, I work in a studio so if you ever need studio time, give me a call.' I was like, 'Yeah man, I'll give you a call this week.' So I called him, he gave me the address of the studio—I didn't know anything about it, I just said to the boys, 'Yo, I think I've got studio time.' They're like, "Cool, we'll be there." We all rolled up, we're stood outside Abbey Road, and they're like, "Are you sure this is the address?" I'm like, "I promise you this is the address he gave me." It turns out he was an engineer at Abbey Road, and he was allowed to give people downtime.

Do you find you play differently in the studio versus live?

It really depends on if I want the song to sound live or if I want the song to sound like it's in a studio. There's a magic with a lot of jazz records where you close your eyes and you feel like you're in a room, in a club, in a gig, watching these people, and that's one beautiful sound.

You wouldn't say that about Kind Of Blue, you might say that about A Love Supreme, which is far more of a live experience captured on tape. Kind Of Blue is a studio masterclass, the way I hear it anyway. Some songs, I want that rawness and realness; a song like "Enter The Jungle" on our first record, I was definitely going for that live, aggressive, interactive sound, but say a song like "Reason In Disguise," with Jorja Smith, which is more of a neo-soul approach towards jazz, I was definitely thinking more in terms of the studio sound.

What adjustments do you make?

It's in every single aspect. Primarily it's the playing that changes. If I'm going for that studio sound, I'm less likely to aggressively react to something that's improvised. I'm more likely to leave it alone. If I'm going for that studio, locked-in sound, I'm more likely to really focus on the groove. I don't want it to be loose. There's a chance I might even use a click to get that really rigid sound.

If it's a live sound and I'm going to be going at the cymbals a lot more, we'll have some microphones further back to catch the ambience of the whole drum kit and we mix that in. If I'm going for a J Dilla studio sound, then there will be times I'll layer the snare drum with some claps or tambourines to thicken that studio sound. The whole process changes.

On "Footprints," your drums sound like they're just behind the beat?

One of my biggest influences is a musician called Karriem Riggins—he plays the drums on a lot of J Dilla records. It's basically making a straight hip-hop beat swing, almost like a shuffle. That's how I interpret it, it sounds like if it was a hip-hop groove done with that super-laidback Art Blakey shuffle.

I think a lot about the way that Led Zeppelin's music kind of swings. That's what I was going for with that drumbeat. Musicians that do it incredibly well alongside Karriem Riggins would be Chris Dave, Clever Austin, the drummer for Hiatus Kaiyote. One of the biggest influences on that "Footprints" version is Robert Glasper's version of "Afro Blue," which influenced my approach towards this project.

Femi Koleoso's tribute show to Tony Allen for Boiler Room.

What was a drum lesson with Tony Allen like?

It was a drum kit opposite a drum kit, we'd sit down and then he would just lay down a beat and I'd join in. We'd sit on that groove for hours and I would copy everything he did and then he would explain some of the differences between the grooves.

It was almost more like an African drum circle—you sit down and you're given a bell and you sit there until you work out what your bell is meant to do and then you play it and afterwards you reason about the groove.

For me, those are the best kind of drum lessons. That's what I would envisage was happening when a young Tony Williams was sitting behind Roy Haynes in a club.

Those Fela Kuti records groove so hard, but Tony Allen had such a light touch?

When we were doing lessons, he smiled and one of the first things he said was, "Why is everything so aggressive?" I was like, "What do you mean? This is drums!" He's like, "No, you barely have to move."

"I can play the beats, but it's the sound and the groove that he could get, that's the life's work."

What's crazy was how he could get such a big sound out of barely moving, and that is a lot of what he was trying to put into me and what I'm still working on. A lot of people ask, "Did you get the Afrobeat thing with Tony Allen?" Yeah, I can play the beats, but it's the sound and the groove that he could get, that's the life's work.

It's almost like he was playing brushes sometimes, he's barely touching them. He's up against eighteen other instruments on some of those Fela Kuti stages, but the drums are powerfully prominent the whole time.

In modern music the drums are always upfront in the mix. Does that affect your approach?

I think it's the sound of people trying to get jazz music acceptable in mainstream clubbing scenarios, which makes people think of it more on the drum-heavy end. When I'm writing Ezra Collective music and I'm thinking about the context and scenarios I'd love to hear the music played, in a club where people are dancing is definitely one of the places where I could see the mix thriving. It affects the way you write.

Also, the things that are influencing jazz music now will be more bottom-heavy than the things that were influencing them back then. If you think of the big influences on jazz in the '50s, that would have been Dizzy Gillespie's Afro Cuban influence, Horace Silver's Baptist church sound, and Art Blakey's West African drumming influence with records like Ping Pong and Africaine. Now some of the big influences on jazz music would be hip-hop, dub and reggae, Afrobeat. Those types of music are far more bottom heavy and produced than that Afro Cuban, Baptist church stuff, and that's affected where things are put in the mix.

Femi Koleoso backs Jorja Smith for her 2018 Tiny Desk Concert.

What about when you're drumming behind Jorja Smith?

I love that because for me one of the best things that can happen to you for your own individual creativity is to have a scenario where you're playing other people's music. I think it's really good to learn from it. That's a very R&B gig for me. It doesn't have the ten-minute solos of an Ezra gig and it doesn't have me improvising the whole way through and going at it in a trumpet solo. It's a very different energy and I love that difference in my playing.

You bounce back and forth between Ezra and Jorja. How do you juggle your schedule and adapt your sound?

It's absolutely mental. I'm really fortunate that Ezra Collective's booking agent and Jorja Smith's booking agent work together to make sure I can make all of the shows. Jorja will do the Friday at Glastonbury and Ezra will do the Saturday—that kind of thing happens throughout my summer. What's great is I have two drum kits. I have one that I see as my Jorja kit and it's built slightly differently from the one I see as my Ezra kit.

Ludwig Classic Maple kit. Photo by CymbalFusion.

With Jorja, I'm playing with a backing track first of all. I've got a click in my ear, I'm not just playing with electric bass, I'm also playing with synth basses, and it's more of a produced sound. I'm looking for a bass drum that is slightly more bottom heavy that can deal with that sound, that produced 808 sound, so my kit for Jorja is a 20" Ludwig Keystone, I've got an 18" floor tom, a 16" floor tom, and a 12" high tom.

Then my Ezra kit is a Ludwig Maple Classic and that's an 18" kit that's modelled on bebop drum kits. I want the sensitivity for my solos to ring out when I'm going really quiet and delicate, but also something aggressive enough when I really go and force against it.

On an Ezra gig I'm far more likely to mess about with the tuning mid-gig, but for Jorja I want the tuning to hold firm for the whole gig. One thing I do with my jazz kick is I put quite thick double-ply skins on it, so it's got that beefy stadium sound when I've got a Glastonbury gig with Ezra or something like that.

When you take a drum solo with Ezra, is that purely improvised or do you have a plan beforehand?

It's completely improvised. All I pre-prepare is I have specific ways of cueing the band back in, so certain drum fills let them know, Alright, he's ending the drum solo here. One of the rules I make for myself is to never have any set idea for how I start the solo. The start of the solo is always directly influenced by the thing that has just happened, so whoever took the solo before. I try to keep it as improvised as possible because when you're playing thirty dates and you've got a solo every night, by the tenth show you won't be soloing, you'll be regurgitating.

You did an advert for the UEFA Champions League. How was that experience?

That was crazy, man. I'm a huge football fan, so to get asked to do that was the dream come true. They flew me to Madrid where they filmed it. Initially I recorded the audio in London and then I had to play the audio, but do it live for the camera. We had to wait for the sun to go down and we started filming about 11 pm. I played that drum solo from 11 pm to about 5 am, just over and over again.

It was one of the hardest gigs in my life, my fingers were knackered, and they had a make-up team to stop me looking tired. I was excited to begin with so I was really going for it and then towards 3 am I was like, "Guys, you must have it by now." They filmed it from about seventy different camera angles, doing it with a drone, it was crazy.

The best thing was at 4 am they said to me, "This is so not allowed but you will never get the opportunity again so when we finish just take the ball and start playing football." When they said "Time's up," I got up, started kicking the ball across the pitch, I had all the pitch guards screaming their heads off, and then I lifted the Champions League trophy at the end. It was one of the best days of my life.

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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