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Instrumentalist jazz band Kefaya’s members Al Macsween and Giuliano Modarelli spoke to Kritika Dua about their protest inspired music
We have heard about protest music alright. But have you heard of guerrilla jazz? Well, it’s another form of free expression through rhythm and beats and venting sentiments in an open space. And music, as they say, is beyond territoriality. “Guerrilla jazz lets us voice our political statements. We preach freedom of movement in terms of cultures, traditions, radical ideas and creative liberty as musicians. We don’t believe in borders and nationalism,” emphasised Kefaya band member Al Macsween.
All co-musicians of this London-based group are immigrants with a spirit of internationalism. Their music is inspired by protest movements, ranging from the Israeli–Palestinian conflict to the anti-austerity movement in Spain, and many more. They call themselves Kefaya, which in Arabic means “enough.” Having had enough of world politics, they are currently in the country, having performed at the Piano Man’s jazz festival a day ago.
Interestingly, the group released a song in India last year, which was titled Nirbhaya (inspired by the 2012 Delhi gang rape case), and its proceeds went to Kranti, a women’s rights organisation in Mumbai. Added Macsween, “Music can lend support to progressive movements by influencing a large group of people. If we look at the past, we can’t say that musical movements have changed the world. However, they have contributed to the transformation of political identities. Thus, artistes’ role can’t be neglected.” They gave them anthems, songs and helped activists and peaceniks spread the message across.
Composing tracks inspired by movements comes with its own set of challenges. Bandmate Guliano Modarelli agreed: “The biggest challenge is to do justice to it while moulding the theme according to our musical style. We don’t want to be pastiche, so we work towards finding a common language of music. It begins with having a deep understanding of the cause that leads to an organic way of mixing styles. Then, adapting the notes to key musical elements of the diverse genres we work in, we figure out the meeting points of styles that may seem disconnected.”
The band’s improvisation on stage was a sheer treat for the audience, which was witnessed at the third edition of the celebrated Giants of Jazz festival at The Piano Man Jazz Club. The arena resonated with awe-inspiring powerful notes of protest music. Macsween divulged details, saying, “There are certain parts of the set that we compose and arrange. Namely, there is a starting and an end point but sometimes we don’t necessarily know how we will reach from one to the other. It’s exciting for us as a band to keep on experimenting in whichever way possible. And we like to keep an element of surprise for our audience.” This makes for spontaneity as they interact and exchange vibes with the crowd.
So how did they manage to herd together? It all started when Al Macsween, Guliano Modarelli and Joost Hendrickx met at Leeds College of music, London. What started as an avocation during college soon turned into a colossal dream with a name. The lineup kept on changing with time. However, the current lineup — Al Macsween (keyboard), Giuliano Modarelli (acoustic guitar), Joost Hendrickx (drums) and Domenico Angarano (bass guitar) is five years old. Their inclination towards protest music brought them together. The band is influenced by the works of a diverse range of artists including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Zakir Hussain and Aphex Twin.
Kefaya’s versatility and extensive knowledge of musical traditions led to collaborations with Internationally acclaimed artistes, such as Italian saxophonist Daniele Sepe, British vocalist Nicki Wells, Cuban jazz violinist Omar Puente, Afghan singer Elaha Soroor, Italian folk singer Alessia Tondo, flamenco singer Chico Perez and many others.
Asked how do collaborations like these enrich their craft, Modarelli noted, “I think it exposes us to varied styles and different approaches to music, which ultimately leads to a creative exchange. We learn different artforms and genres along the way. There is a limit to what one can learn from records but working with accomplished as well as new artistes opens creative avenues. It’s inspiring to see people work at that level of musicality.”
Macsween and Modarelli have collaborated with our own maestro Shankar Mahadevan on various projects. Sharing their experience, Macsween said, “He’s a phenomenal musician, great improviser and a powerful vocalist.” The London-based band will be travelling to Kolkata to collaborate with vocalist Debashish Bhattacharya.
Modarelli is deeply influenced by Indian classical and folk music around the globe. He was introduced to music through blues as an eight-year-old and was deeply affected by jazz piano. Being jazz artists, they are not restricted to only this particular form of art as they got exposed to an array of genres such as flamenco, reggae, free jazz, Arabic music, Cuban music et al.
When asked how jazz changed their lives, Modarelli was quick to respond, “It opened doors to improvisations and different styles of music such as folk traditions which incorporate it. It got me inquisitive about other performance genres as well. Jazz was the first genre I came across musically and I feel that it allows one to express oneself in a certain way. It provides and creates music on the spot.”
Angarano’s father brought him an album by John Coldrey when he was a teen and it was, in his words, mind-blasting. “It got me hooked to jazz. It taught me to raise a political voice and support the causes I believe in as an artist. Especially as an instrumental musician. Consider a musician like John Coldrey, who was deeply political throughout his career without really composing lyrics. He still found ways as an instrumentalist to express non-musical beliefs.”
Said Hendrickx, “Guerrilla jazz helped me find a community, people with whom I share a similar ideology. This genre allows creative freedom through experimentation and improvisation on stage.” Macsween concluded, “Once you do jazz, you can’t go back.” Their impact was closely felt as the audience tapped feet to a plethora of instrumentalist songs — Terrhal, Indignados, Intifada, Raag Mala, Malestani, Passport and so on.
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