After releasing an album with Shihad in 2014, Jon began to search for ideas for the second chapter in the critically acclaimed Adults journey, eventually gathering inspiration from his wedding in Khartoum, Sudan and the traditional music, Aghani-Al-Banat, performed as part of the ceremony.
Aghani-Al-Banat literally translates to ‘girls music’ and is one of the only aspects of Sudanese music that deals exclusively with women, their lives and their issues. After completing a recording session in Khartoum with an all-female group of musicians, Jon bought the recordings home to begin structuring an album around them, inviting co-producer Devin Abrams (Pacific Heights/Shapeshifter) to help shape the sound of what would become HAJA. In order to find a title that encompassed what Jon wanted to convey with this album, he looked to the language of Sudan – with the word Haja being a respectful term for an older, more experienced woman in Arabic.
Much like the first Adults album, HAJA features an exciting cast of collaborators, including upcoming New Zealand artists Chelsea Jade, Estère, JessB, Miloux, and Raiza Biza, along with the award-winning Aaradhna and recent breakthrough artist Kings. These contributions help make up the eight tracks that are HAJA, which is one of the freshest sounding, most intriguing records to come out of New Zealand this year.
Jen got the chance to chat to Jon to find out more.
I hope this finds you about to have some well-earned rest after your Aussie tour. Although I just saw you have a couple more shows at home this coming weekend.
How was your Aussie East Coast tour?
It was like starting out in a brand new band again who just happen to be experienced. I love being the underdog as it means you just have to be awesome ever time you walk onstage and I was so lucky in the fact that I had such a talented bunch of musicians to go into battle with. I loved every minute of it.
How did the crowd respond to your new single live?
Awesome. It is pretty different from anything I’ve done before but the source music I wrote the single around which is from Sudan is like organic dance music so it’s pretty hard to hear it and not wanna lose yourself in it.
How many of your on stage and what instruments do they play?
6 people onstage in this version of the Adults. Emily Browning who is this amazing singer/songwriter from Christchurch on guitar and vocals, Estère who is an awesome artist in her own right on vocals and percussion (Rototoms/Maracas/Tamborine), Ben Lemi from NZ band Trinity Roots on drums, Steve Bremner the ex-timpani player from the NZSO on percussion, Razia Biza as MC and I get to play bass (my favourite instrument).
Playing each night does not give you much time off as I guess you spent most of the time travelling during the day. Can you give us a highlight of an experience non-music related?
Any time we get to eat Korean food together. It’s just something we can all agree on.
You are pretty busy studying your Master’s degree. How did you choose your topic of the cultural significance and music of the Northern Sudanese people?
I was married to my Wife Dana, who is Sudanese, in Khartoum Sudan and the musicians you hear on the Haja album are the same musicians who played at our wedding. Like with my Wife, I instantly fell in love with the music was I first encountered it (in this crazy, all-female ceremony which was part of a traditional Sudanese wedding) and I pretty much knew instantly that I had to dig deeper.
How long till you finish your studies? Asking as looking to the future wondering if there is another album or music from your studies! (cheeky seeing you just releasing one!)
I’ve already finished it! I had to write a 13000 word exegesis to accompany the Haja album (which was the actual Masters of fine Arts work) which was more words than I’ve ever written and the really challenging part. I never went to Uni after I completed high school and just went and got myself a job in a music store so it was a bit daunting at first to be doing this. However, the more I read about the history of Sudan and the Aghani Al-Banat music and the lives of the musicians who played it, the more inspired I was to communicate these amazing stories to people in the West. In the end I actually ended up with way too much and had to edit hard to get the exegesis back down to 13000 words. It was a really rewarding experience and definitely gave the album a depth I had never experienced before when completing an album.
After listening I can see the appeal of the unique music. I love how music can mean so many different things to different people. This music is not the music that I listen to, but I can tell how special it could be to others.
Like I said above, it’s basically organic dance music created with traditional drums, hand–claps and vocals. As soon as I heard it at our wedding in Khartoum I connected with it in a really deep way and felt compelled to merge it with the music from the West that I was brought up around and loved. In it I could hear the huge grooves of the music I’d danced to in the Boiler Room at the Big Day Out – Aphex Twin, Primal Scream, M.I.A, Chemical Brothers, Prodigy etc. It also reminded me of the tribal beats British Post-Punk bands like P.I.L., Killing Joke and Adam and the Ants utilized to such great effect around the end of the 70s, a period of music I love in the fact that all these Punk bands were discovering Reggae and Dub music and trying to re-create that themselves, failing and coming up with something new entirely! And even things like later-era Clash and Bid Audio Dynamite where these punk musicians had fallen in love with early hip-hop and electronic dance music and again, created something completely different by mixing with their own sound. I wanted to see if I could do something along these lines with this amazing Aghani Al-Banat music. Purely for myself originally – just out of musical curiosity – as a music fan then once I had experimented I realized it was some of the freshest sounding music I had ever done and just wanted to share it with people as every time I heard it, it made me dance and smile and I thought it could do that to other people too.
You have used the Sudanese language as the title which actually makes sense to me, and the word Haja means being an older woman in Arabic. Was this a sign of respect in regard to studying their music?
Initially It was meant as a sign of respect to the Aghani Al-Banat musicians I recorded with as were all older, more experienced women but beyond that it was also meant as a sign of respect to both the people of Khartoum and my Wife, Dana’s family. On top, the female influence on this album doesn’t stop at the Aghani Al-Banat musicians. The main bulk of the collaborators I used were Female – Chelsea Jade, Aaradhna, Estère, JessB, and Miloux who’s creativity and talent made the album what it is so it’s also a nod to them too.
Your new record has many collaborators and some of them are the newest artists from NZ. How did all these collabs happen?
Once I had the music completed I wanted to work with female artists from my side of the planet to highlight the unifying themes that run through the music from these seemingly completely different cultures. I knew from personal experience that although they sung in a different language the Aghani Al-Banat musicians were still singing about the same things we did – love, life, loss, joy, sorrow – so I thought by using female artists that I thought were doing inspiring and unique work over here that could illustrate that point clearly, in a poestic kinda way. When it came to choosing people to collaborate with I just looked for people who’s work I loved and was doing something different and amazing. I also gravitated towards artists from Hip-Hop and R&B world as that was the music I had been listening to as I was putting the album togther – Kendrick Lamar ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, J.Cole, Goldlink – music that remained magical and mysterious to me that was actually saying something and critiquing the status quo (like rock music used to).
Having so many different inputs has made this album sounding very fresh, would you agree?
Absolutely. I’m usually a massive control freak when it comes to creating but on this album there was a fair amount of submitting to the will of the universe and just putting my trust in the process of collaboration. Because of that, the album for me, is probably the most rewarding record I’ve made as it manages to retain a magical quality when I listen to it even though I was there for most of its creation. It’s like hearing something new every time for me. Which makes it a real blast to perform live!
Thanks Jon for your time.
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