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SA Bassists With Martin Simpson: An Interview with Schalk Joubert

Meet Martin Simpson –

For this month’s interview, I’ve got something a little different for you. Both Chaz Davidson and I interviewed bassist and producer Schalk Joubert – who’s one of Cape Town’s (Africa’s) top musicians. Kick back and relax and enjoy one of the most interesting interviews I’ve been able to bring to you so far. Schalk has also kindly supplied us with a lesson called Finding The Clave.

How long have you been playing music Schalk?

As a kid I just fooled around on different instruments but I have been playing bass since 1995. It can all be blamed on Led Zeppelin’s second album, the bass playing of John Paul Jones on that album made me

realise the sublime power of the instrument. Then I got introduced to Jaco’s playing and Salif Keita’s grooves which led to my love for jazz, world music and a whole life of discoveries on the instrument.

Do you come from a musical family?

Yes, everyone played some instrument or sang in choirs. We were never forced to do music though, I just had a real love for it. I remember quitting formal piano lessons as a kid because the teacher did not want to show me how to play “Great Balls of Fire”. It was all I wanted to learn at 6 or 7!

Before we really bite into this interview, could you give us some idea of what equipment you’re using at the moment (Basses and Amps)?

I have been playing Warwick basses for a long time and have had lots of them over the years. I have a Dolphin Pro1 5-string with Bartolini pickups which I seem to use most of the time nowadays. I use a TC Electronics 450 Rebelhead for amplification and D’Addario EXP Coated Nickel strings. I also have a 4-string fretless Jazz bass that I love playing and a Framus Double-Bass.

Listening to your debut solo album called Kayamandi, that you describe as World Fusion, it sounds like quite an ambitious project, featuring no less than 24 musicians and a big variety of musical styles. How did this come about?

Well, Kayamandi is Xhosa (one of our eleven official languages in South Africa) word that roughly translates to ” A beautiful home”.  After growing up in South Africa and many years of traveling the world as a professional freelance bassist and dealing with a big variety of styles that includes traditional music, jazz, rock, pop and influences from all over, it felt that I actually came to a point where I had something to say musically. With each track during the writing process, I kept some of the great musicians that I have worked with over the years in mind to try and reflect a bit of my life in music and to describe my physical and musical home in this world. I think a lot of musicians feel that they have to re-invent the wheel with their debut albums, and I have to admit that it was a very daunting thing for me as well, especially coming from being the bassist ‘s perspective to suddenly put yourself out as a solo artist. I tried to focus on myself as the composer instead of making an album that focuses on bass playing. This might change in the future but I feel it gave me more scope to grow and diverge as a solo artist by approaching it this way. The bass tends to feature a lot more in live performances with my own group.

In your approach to the bass and compositions one can definitely hear some of the African-meets-European influences, do you think being an African from European descend gives a you a unique perspective on the world?

Absolutely! I always describe myself as an orphan of Europe and an adopted child of Africa. Living in South Africa allows me to experience the fine line between first world luxuries and third world dilemmas co-existing in very close proximity on a daily basis. This gives you a very unique perspective on the world, which I wish to project in my writing and playing. I have had the privilege to play with my band that often consists of musicians from South Africa, Norway, Holland, Sweden, Sri-Lanka and Australia. Everyone brings their own unique cultures and strengths into the band and it creates quite a unique sound which I love.

Some people say that the bass is primarily a rhythm instrument. What is you opinion on this statement?

Well, on the one hand I would have to say absolutely yes but one often forgets that whenever you play in any given ensemble or band, the harmony is defined by the collective of musicians. Like Sting once said in an interview, being the bassist gives you a great amount of control over this situation. The band is only playing G chord if I play a G note on the bass! In that way it is very much a harmony instrument. Again, going back to the European meets African approach, for me it is very fulfilling to combine and compliment the strengths and shortcomings of both worlds. I love the rhythmical complexities of African music combined with the harmonic complexities of jazz music. That way I can have a lot of freedom and expression on the bass. One must also remember that an instrument will do what you tell it to do, as long as it is musical, there really are no rules. For instance I love mimicking marimba and mbira sounds and rhythms by playing in the higher registers with a muted approach. Over the years I think I have created a sound of my own by applying the bass in as many creative ways as possible. I always try to make sure that it compliments the style and music that I am playing though. In that sense I am equally happy to just lock with the drummer and pump out eight root notes to the bar if needed.

On the technical side, by rhythmic complexities I assume you are talking about the polyrhythmic approach many of your compositions have, how do you approach this?

(Schalk Joubert-Finding the Clave)

I have always preferred the polyrhythmic approach to even meter songs rather than uneven time signatures when it comes to a playing platform. With polyrhythms like the West African and Latin based 6-over-4 feel one can create the most beautiful complicated grooves that one can still easily move your body and dance to without tripping over your own feet! I have written some compositions where the drummer feels it as a 4/4, I would feel and approach it as a 6/8 and the pianist would count it as a 3/4. The beauty about polyrhythms is that it does not really matter, as long as we all meet at the same places at the same time! Recently I have been writing a lot of music where instead of breaking your bars up in equal eights (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8), I would break them up in patterns like 1,2,3 -1,2- 1,2,3 or 1,2,3 – 1,2,3,4,5 like they do in Indian tabla patterns. It still adds up to eight quavers per bar but the chord changes would fall in awkward places. At first I had a great deal of difficulty to get some musicians in my band to play it comfortably but after picking the mind of a great Gnawa musician, he explained to me how one can always find a simple clave behind these strange divisions in order to play an easy groovable part that sounds like a straight 4/4. This has opened up a whole new world for me in rhythms. Whatever you do rhythmically, whether it is in even or uneven time signatures, it is very important to me that it has a relaxed groove and feel to it, otherwise it just becomes an awkward mess.

What would be the best advice you can give to young bass players in order to develop their rhythmic playing.

Apart from listening to as many great players as possible, nothing beats practicing things slowly with a metronome. When music moves at a fast pace it is easier to deceive yourself in believing you have good timing  but when things are slowed sown it really separates the men from the boys. Years ago, I went for a few lessons with a great bassist called Carlo Mombelli who made me put the metronome as slow as possible, around 40bpm and then he made me play just one note on every click for a long time until you hit it perfectly all the time without fail. Only then can you move on to two notes per click and onwards. It sounds really retarded but if you can’t do that you must know that there is something wrong with your timing. I used to have my metronome in my car for years and wherever I drove, I used to tap out rhythms. Very nerdy but it paid off big time!!

It sounds quite Zen! How do you approach practicing nowadays?

I found that you can learn to play anything properly, no matter how challenging it is, by breaking things down in to small portions, practicing it at a slow tempo and then working your way up. In that sense, it is important to have patience with yourself but you need to know where and what you are steering at. That is why listening to the masters still reigns superior. Nowadays I seldom have the luxury of many free hours a day for practicing so I try and optimize my time as much as possible, I often combine a lot of different things I am working on at the same time. The important part is to practice with a goal, otherwise you can sit and noodle for hours on things you know and never make any progress.

You have played on countless records and have also been producing quite a few records for other artists. Which part of the industry do you prefer, being in the studio or touring and live performances?

Well, there is obviously good and bad in both of them. I like the discipline of the studio and the pressure of either coming up with creative and musical parts for songs that you hear for the first time or the interpretation of well written charts. I tend to prefer the sessions where you can add a bit more of your own personality into the playing. Sometimes producers will book you specifically for your sound and style and not just because you can make the notes on the paper come out of an instrument. Those sessions I find really exciting.

The other great thing of course is that you get to sleep at home after a day’s work in the studio and if you did not get along with the artist you don’t have to spend the next few months or weeks in a bus etc with him or her. However, having said that – nothing beats the immediate satisfaction and the feeling of live performances. Despite the thrill of performing, that is when the sum of your life experiences comes to light so I believe that I still have many years ahead of performing before I might retire to the studio or behind-the-scenes activities in music.

Is it as glamorous as everyone likes to make out touring the world in a band?

Maybe if you are in a super famous band with all the extreme luxuries included. Otherwise touring is often hard and it requires great people skills and a lot more than being able to perform the shows well. Sometimes it takes a lot of grinding on your teeth. Due to its size, touring in America is both the most fun and the hardest. Playing the gigs are always great but it involves a lot of schlepp; early flights, long drives in tour vans or cars, constant sound checks, hotel check-ins, rigging, de-rigging and time away from home and your loved ones.

But then again, it gives you the chance to see places and meet people that you would never get around to do otherwise. Also, having the opportunity to play music at a high level to very appreciative crowds is the thing that most musicians strive towards so it really makes it feel like this is where you belong as a musician. The important part for me is to always keep things in perspective. There are many levels of success and many levels of skill so it is important to try and keep things in balance in your life and to use success as an inspiration to work harder at what you do in order to keep on doing better things in music rather than to give yourself a pat on the back and to think that simply because you appear on a stage makes you more important as a human being. You normally find that the best musicians are also the most down-to-earth and humble people.

What are the single most challenging, and the most rewarding things about what you are doing now?

As I said just now, the hardest thing is to keep a check on yourself and to realise that there are many levels of success and to always try and better yourself. Also, to try and appreciate every moment and chance that you get. As a musician there is no certainty that things will continue the way they are. For me it is important to try and walk out on stage every time that I get to perform and to do it with the best of focus and attitude that I can. There will always be people that see you for the first time and it is up to you to respect them and give them all you have.

What do you get up to when you’re having a (well deserved) break from music?

I live on a wine farm outside Stellenbosch, a small town near Cape Town. When I am home I go walking in nature with my dogs, I surf and I spend time with my friends. I love red wine, good coffee and great company!!

Finally, a couple of quick ones:

–         Biggest influence on the bass?

–        Jaco Pastorius, no doubt!

–         Biggest living musical genius in your books?

–        Bobby Mcferrin

–         Biggest musical difference in your record collection?

–        It has to be between System of a Down and the Bach Cello Suites performed by Pablo Casals!

–        When you grow up, who do you want to be?

–         Richard Bona!!

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