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SA With Martin Simpson: An Interview with Professor Marc Duby

Hi everyone, I’m Martin. Jake, kindly invited me to join the staff here at BMM and have my own column, What I’ll be doing, is interviewing South Africa’s low end fraternity so that, you, the reader, will become aware of some of the incredible talent that resides down here at the tip of the World’s Dark Continent. I sincerely hope you’ll enjoy this section of the magazine and invite your feedback. O.K. That’s enough from me – let’s get started with my first interview.

An Interview with Professor Marc Duby

After being invited by Jake, to join the staff of this wonderful magazine, I sent out mails to five of the top bassists in South Africa, including Marc, the absolutely awesome, Denis Lallouette and ‘Not of this Planet’ Maestro, Carlo Mombelli and spoke to each about the possibility of an interview. All five responded extremely positively and so I prepared question sheets for each individual. Marc was the ‘First Home’ with his answers and it’s really ironic as Marc has taught some of South Africa’s best bassists, including Ex Johnny Clegg bassist, Concord Nkabinde and Sibusiso Masondo, who’ll both be featured in the coming issues. Marc has been teaching at TUT for many years but was given an opportunity to move down south to Rhodes University recently. This is what the good Professor told me in October 2008.

[MS] How long have you been playing Marc?

[Marc] I started playing professionally at age 16 in Cape Town, with the likes of Morris Goldberg, David Bravo, Nol Klinkhamer, Feedback, and others. So that makes it 36 years or so…embarrassingly long, really (laughter)

[MS] You played guitar before you played bass. Was there anything you tried your hand at before the guitar?

[Marc] I had piano lessons at school, and despite my high degree of ineptitude at it, have found my early training really useful for composing (working out voicings, and so on).

[MS] What other instruments do you play?

[Marc] Synthesizers…shock horror, don’t tell any of my colleagues…(more laughter)

[MS] Do you come from a musical family?

[Marc] Yes. My dad played the violin, and my mum, the piano. My sister is a former musicologist, who taught me Harmony and Counterpoint at UCT many years ago.

[MS] Did they play professionally?

[Marc] Apparently only my father, who played in Europe with some orchestras before coming to SA. He had stopped playing by the time I was born, but had a deep love of music. My mother was a very good sight-reader and, when I was a student at UCT, played some quite complex Erik Satie from the book to my great astonishment.

[MS] How did you arrive at the Bass?

[Marc] Well, after the piano lessons I took up guitar, and played a couple of gigs in Cape Town as a youngster. I’d always loved the bass though and when I realized how many better guitarists there were out there it was not such a difficult decision to play bass.

[MS] Who are the musicians that have influenced your career?

[Marc] This could take a while, since it’s a long list, but to spare you and the readers…

As a bass-player: Jack Bruce, John Paul Jones, Paul McCartney, Eberhard Weber, Jaco, Dave Holland, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, Steve Swallow, Charlie Haden

As a composer: Carla Bley, Robert Wyatt, Django Bates, Enrico Rava, Frank Zappa, Steve Lacy, Eberhard again, Coltrane, the Western art greats from Bach to Mozart to Varèse and Steve Reich, and so on

As you see, there are many influences—I’m not sure to what extent they are direct, in the ultimate sense of my trying to sound like myself as a musician and composer, which, if it doesn’t sound too grandiose, is one of my missions in life. I think where they may be well be influential is in pointing out different ways of hearing music, and I’ve found as I get older, I like to leave things out more and more. Eventually perhaps I’ll play one note a month, if I get that lucky…but seriously, space is the place, as Sun Ra said.

My interests as a composer are a weird mixture of quite thoroughly composed music, where there is little departure from the chart, to very open pieces, which may incorporate other sonic elements like sound effects or electronics or improvisation. My PhD was about Walter Thompson’s Soundpainting language for live composition, where you work with an ensemble and create gestures, which steer the music in various directions.

[MS] What instruments have you owned over the years?

[Marc] I started with an el cheapo no name bass, which I sanded down. And then a Fender Jazz, a short scale Gibson bass, a Fender Precision, a Hayman fretless, a Maton fretless, and various 5-strings. And Art Kelly (a dear departed friend) basically gave me an old Kay upright (called Stella) in the 1990s as a swap for a German bass, which was way too big for me (and my car) at the time. I gave up sanding instruments down quite some time ago.

[MS] What are you playing currently?

[Marc] I have an old Ibanez fretless, a Peavey 6 string, and Stella. I play guitar at home, and also use s***th***zers occasionally.

[MS] Are you an endorser of these products?

[Marc] They’ve never asked me …(laughter)

[MS] You recently left Pretoria to take up a position in Grahamstown. What challenges are you facing there?

[Marc] It’s a well established music department in the Western art sphere, so I suppose the challenges are to develop the jazz studies, music education, ethnomusicology, and technology elements of the programme so as to contribute to the musical life of the region. I am also quite involved in examining various elements of jazz curricula, which sounds a bit dry, but I’m really interested in how to improve people’s understanding of improvising, one of the keys to the jazz art.

[MS] What projects have you been involved in over the last five years or so?

[Marc] I spent quite a lot of time writing my PhD, which took me away from the profession for a while. I ran the Standard Bank Youth Band in 2001, which was a tremendous experience. In 2004 I worked with François Jeanneau and Walter Thompson in Paris, doing Soundpainting, which is a very interesting concept for improvising without charts.

I did some playing and arranging on Lydia vom Hagen’s album, “Red.” We’re married, as are quite a few bass players and singers whom I’ve heard of.

Thanks to Alan Webster, the organizer of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing international players over the years, such as Karlheinz Miklin, Gary Wittner, Carl Allen, Mike del Ferro, and Dave O’Higgins, to name a few. Quite recently Sanjoy Bandophadyaye (a great sitarist) and I worked on some Indian classical improvising at the university, and I composed some music for First Physical Theatre Co, in Grahamstown for this year’s festival.

[MS] Are there any cd’s currently available in the cd stores that you’ve played on?

[Marc] I’m not sure, since it’s a fair list. Lydia’s album “Red” should be available, and some tracks I did with Greg Georgiades and Ashish Joshi’s group. There are no solo albums yet, but I’m working on some ideas for the future.

[MS] What are your goals – long term and short term?

[Marc] My long-term goals are to continue teaching, which I really love, and writing for the various ensembles I work with. We have a small group in Grahamstown, which is a great vehicle for arranging and composing. I think writing for big band is really interesting, and I’m learning the craft, a pretty complex one. The aim is somehow to make a big band in the region that plays SA music in the SA context, one that incorporates some free playing maybe as well; something like what Chris McGregor was doing. I really love his writing and the crazy electric energy of that group, with so many great SA musicians featured like Dudu Pukwana and Mongezi Feza, and Chris himself of course.

In the immediate future, I’m lucky to have some time to compose and work with some really good musicians down here. I have a big concert planned for next year, a retrospective kind of thing that Rhodes is hosting, and we have some really interesting visitors planned to start some international projects.

[MS] What advice would you give to a youngster starting out on a music career?

[Marc] I believe that it takes self-belief, and a certain amount of courage and discipline, to persist in music. It’s a hugely rewarding career choice and nowadays there are many opportunities in the studio, the production side, not to mention performing. Steve Lacy speaks of “appetite,” and I think he means curiosity about the field and what other people are exploring. Curiosity keeps your mind open, which is good for us all, I believe.

It helps if you have certain skills to begin with, and then it’s up to you to respect and develop them. If you know how to ask questions and develop that sense of curiosity about music, you may have the opportunity to build really worthwhile relationships with other musicians as equals or mentors or whatever.

A cheerful demeanour and a clear head may be beneficial in the long run as well. It’s really about being committed to something far greater than oneself, something hugely interesting, in an area where the fewer times your ego comes to the party, so to speak, the more you may be free to create opportunities to affect people positively. It seems to me that not taking oneself too seriously is healthy. A bit of good luck doesn’t hurt either.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jan Henkins

    April 2, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    A comment for Martin Simpson:

    Hello Martin,

    Hunt down a South African bassist called Leon Ecroignard for an interview (if you haven’t already done so). Like all bassists, he is a colourful character with a fascinating story to tell.

    One good place to start:

    http://www.myspace.com/leonecroignard

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