John Wizards in conversation with Owiny Sigoma Band

29.10.13

Owiny Sigoma Band are British musicians Tom Skinner, Sam Lewis, Jesse Hackett and (his brother) Louis Hackett, in collboration with two Kenyan artists, Joseph Nyamungu and Charles Owoko. The project started when the London band intially made the trip to Nairobi to meet Nyamungu and Owoko in 2009, resulting in their self-titled debut album; this year, the Kenyan musicians made the journey over to Britain and the six-piece released their storming follow-up, 'Power Punch', on Brownswood. 

John Wizards, meanwhile, started out as one guy – that's advertisement jingle-writer John Withers – with an unfathomably large imagination and a computer making songs in his bedroom alone in South Africa. With the addition of Rwandan vocalist Emmanuel and four live session musicians, though, and with a jaw-dropping debut album for British label Planet Mu in September this year, the project has now travelled further than probably even Withers himself could have pictured. Next Thursday (7th November), the full six-piece line-up are set to perform their wriggling, explosive synth anthems alongside Owiny Sigoma Band, a group with a similar collaborative spirit and who have, like John, fused the sounds of different cultures and influences to craft something entirely unique.

Before they meet and share the stage, Withers and the Hackett brothers took the opportunity to get to know each other over Skype, touching on everything from the almost electric sound of African instruments to the influence of travel and place on their music. Read on, and find out more about next week's show here.

Could both describe your live set-up?

Withers: “It's fairly different to the recorded one: six musicians, six guitars, two synthesizers, drums, samples, and bass.”

Louis Hackett: “Owiny Sigoma Band bases the live set-up around the two central Kenyan elements of nyatiti and nyudouge drums. Traditional Kenyan Luo styles. We have then built around those elements with Western instruments – bass, kit drums, keys synths, electric guitars, and samplers as of late."

Withers: “I had never heard of the Luo style until I'd read about you.”

Louis Hackett: “Ah, cool – it’s not had so much attention, I guess. To be fair, we knew nothing about it when we first visited Kenya. It was a bit of a revelation.”

Withers: “Yeah, is it a particularly regional style? Or is it quite prevalent throughout Kenya?”

Louis Hackett: “I think the Luo are more based around Lake Victoria, where I think it’s most concentrated. But I think you can find Luo music throughout Kenya.”

Withers: “At this point I imagine that I’m rehashing questions you’ve been asked a thousand times – I’m genuinely interested, though.”

"I love the way that, in Africa, people create acoustic instruments that sound electronic. Pure buzz and noise rattle. Like early Moogs and mono synths made only from wood." – Jesse Hackett

Louis Hackett: “No, that’s the first time I’ve heard that one, actually! The nyatiti (or derivative instruments) have travelled down from Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Uganda.”

Withers: “So its primary instrument is the harp?”

Louis Hackett: “It’s effectively an eight-stringed lyre, and has evolved on its journey. So you find lots of mutant nyatitis around the east coast, all slightly different. But we have also been influenced by the township sounds – Shangaan electro and soweto house.”

Withers: “Yes. So, I can imagine, it has developed in a similar fashion to the mbira in Southern and Central Africa – with changes in tuning systems, as well as physical ones.”

Louis Hackett: “Yeah, exactly. Mbira is also a big influence. Mapfumo and the Congotronics stuff has been on heavy rotation for some time.”

Withers: “I think this is one of the more interesting things about African music. That there's this stylistic flux that seems fairly dynamic and influenced by region – as well as many other things, obviously.”

Jesse Hackett: “Sure. It’s interesting how sounds become mimicked via electronics. I also love the way that, in Africa, people create acoustic instruments that sound electronic. Pure buzz and noise rattle. Like early Moogs and mono synths made only from wood. I heard sounds when I travelled to the Congo that I couldn’t believe where acoustic. Real ingenious creativity, made from just about anything.”

Withers: “Yes. That's one of the amazing things about Shangaan Electro. I think it's a very accessible example of a traditional style being placed in the world of 'electronic music.’”

Jesse Hackett: “Makes a mockery of all the technology we have at our disposal in the West sometimes. Not to mention the ethics of recycling.”

Withers: “That must have been pretty incredible. I've always been very interested in travelling to the Congo. Where did you go?”

Jesse Hackett: “KINSHASA! Heavy.”

Withers: “Ah man. Is it really as heavy as people say?”

Jesse Hackett: “It’s amazing. I was lucky enough to travel there in 2007 on a special trip. Got a real insight into downtown Kinshasa. Hung with all the Congotronics guys. It was life-changing. Weird and wonderful, in many ways. Everything seemed very safe, boring, clean, and sterile when I returned. I had a bit of a bumpy comedown readjusting after a week of hard partying in Kinshasa. I went with Damon Albarn, who is the best person on the planet to travel to Africa with, a real musical headbanger." 

“We played our first show in London last night. It's our first tour. We have never played outside of Cape Town, so this is all a bit of a shock." – John Wizards

Withers: “We played our first show in London last night. It's our first tour. We have never played outside of Cape Town, so this is all a bit of a shock.”

Jesse Hackett: “Amazing. Are you doing more shows in London before that? I’m friends with Spoek [Mathambo] and a few other cats from your sides. Cool dude!”

Withers: “We're playing at the Scala with Jagwar Ma next week, I think. Strangely enough, I’ve never met Spoek.”

Jesse Hackett: “Great, I’ll try and come and say hi. Glad this interview finally happened. I’m a technophobe and had problems with Skype three times. Think I’m more into the old wooden synth vibe. Roots.”

Withers: “Should have done this via post.”

Owiny Sigoma Band have been a live six-piece from their inception, but John Wizards is a solo effort that's gradually grown to encompass a six-piece live band. What role did jamming & improvisation play in the creative process for each band?

Withers: “For John Wizards, the creative process was a fairly solitary process. Working with Emmanuel was the only collaboration that happened.”

Jesse Hackett: “Jamming was the beginning of getting to know one another, and we still jam still now. Actually, we’re kind of a jam band, as there’s a lot of spontaneity and improvisation whenever we play. It keeps it interesting for us, and hopefully the audience. We like it loose – not tight and snappy, not loose and flappy, somewhere in between crispy and unclean (also mean).”

Withers: “I'm quite envious of that kind of creative process. Whenever I've worked like that it has been really fun.”

Jesse Hackett: “For us, it’s been the most intuitive way to find a sound together, I think. And always full of surprises.”

Withers: “Yeah, I think one of the things I enjoyed most when I listened to your music was how effortless the collaboration sounded. It seemed as though you'd found a very natural and relaxed way of marrying your musical points of reference. Did that take a while to come together?”

Jesse Hackett: “Thank you. The Kenyan Tusker beer, sunshine, and weed may have helped. And good fish.”

Withers: “Lake Region’s fish!”

Jesse Hackett: “Tilapia, grilled.”

Withers: “I had some incredible fish when I visited Lake Nyasa.”

Jesse Hackett: “Our leader of the band eats the head, says it keeps him brainy. Seems to work.”

Withers: “Haha! You collaborate with two Kenyan guys, right?”

"I love London. It’s my home. But I also like jungle environments, with lots of Amazonian princesses fanning me while I sweat away at my wooden synth xylophone.” – Jesse Hackett

Jesse Hackett: “Yeah, that’s right. Both in their early 60s. Old school Kenyan masters, and both real gentlemen, very magical characters. We love them as real brothers. It’s a very nice dynamic between us, full of laughter and ridiculous chaos – and some great fortune, grace, and compassion.”

Withers: “That's really great.”

You both made your albums across different locations. Where is your favourite place to make music?

Jesse Hackett: “Making music in the sun is nice.”

Withers: “My bedroom, after a long, fulfilling day.”

Jesse Hackett: “But equally, I love London. It’s my home. But anywhere, really. I love travelling and making music internationally. It’s an amazing blessing to be able to do that. I also like jungle environments, with lots of Amazonian princesses fanning me while I sweat away at my wooden synth xylophone.”

How important are travel and a sense of place to your music?

Withers: “I think that it helps to at least have a sense of a place and culture before one starts any sort of collaboration.”

Jesse Hackett: “I think you get a lot of inspiration from your surroundings which yield new inspirations and hopefully new creative possibilities.”

Withers: “My next batch of music will sound like London. I'm kidding.”

Planet Mu released John Wizards's self-titled debut in September 2013. Brownswood released Owiny Sigomas Band's 'Power Punch'  in April 2013. Both will play at London's Jazz Cafe on 7th November as part of Illuminations festival.