David La Rosa caught up with Idris Rahman (IR) and Robin Hopcraft (RH) of the UK Jazz/Afrobeat/Dub band Soothsayers to talk about their past, where they see themselves in the future, and their 2009 album, ‘One More Reason’.
So tell me, who are the Soothsayers – What are you guys all about?
IR: Soothsayers is, firstly, Robin and I. We started the band quite a long time ago, and since then we’ve worked with a lot of different musicians, artists, vocalists, over the years. We now have a regular band of 7 or 8 musicians, but we still have a lot of guest artists and musicians on our albums as it’s become a bit of a tradition.
What made you choose the name ‘Soothsayers‘?
RH: Because there’s a message in the music, and I think that we’re also quite forward thinking, so that kind of applies to Soothsayers, you know. Thinking about what is going to happen down the road, as it were. I wouldn’t say we are prophets, mind you, but we do like to consider what will happen in the future.
Were there any people or bands that influenced you guys?
RH: Yeah – quite a lot. When we started off we were influenced by people like Abdullah Ibrahim, who is very well known South African jazz composer and pianist, and we play quite a lot of south African influenced music now, because of people like Hugh Masecala. Also, when we started out, we played more jazzy stuff than we do now really, and that would be American Jazz musicians like Don Cherry, Miles Davis, loads of others. We also have influences from reggae bands like The Skatalites, and great musicians like Bob Marley, who is bound to be an influence for anyone who likes reggae. It’s a never ending list. If you look on our myspace there’s no influences at all, because it would take too long to write them down! But there’s obviously loads.
How did you come to play music that fuses so many genres, and draws influences from so many people?
IR: Well, it doesn’t necessary fuse loads of genres – It’s influenced by Jazz, Dub and Reggae obviously, and also Fela Kuti is a main influence in our more recent work. But we just play music that we like playing really, we try to do fat groves, and music that people can dance to and is as soulful as possible, and that is it really – That’s our criteria.
RH: There’s an element of freedom in all those genres as well, when it comes to self-expression – and that’s important to us as well.
What do you think is so appealing to so many people that keeps them coming back to your shows?
IR: Well we like to be quite accessible. We don’t really like to give people anything too ‘intellectually challenging’, or too dark or depressing. The music is uplifting, you can dance to it, have a really good time, sing along to the tunes, but there’s also a message in the tunes as well so if you want to listen to the lyrics more carefully then you can get into them much deeper.
Do you have any songs which have a particularly prominent message in it?
RH: We have one called blinded souls, which is about not being materialistic, but most of our songs are about trying to not work… That’s kind of a common theme that runs though, and i just noticed that in the set and thought, most of our songs are about trying to avoid work. But in all seriousness, the underlying thing is trying not to be dragged into the consumer culture really, because i think that’s probably one of the things that annoys a lot of us, and also trying to stick to what you want to do in life. Sticking to your dreams is an important element in some of our songs as well, lyrically, because it’s hard to do that now. There’s a lot of things going round that make it hard for people to be themselves and there’s a lot of brainwashing going on the the media, so we’re trying to challenge that with our music.
Are there any artists right now that you like the sound of?
RH: I went to see Grace Jones the other night, she has a new album out as well, and it’s very good! It’s quite dubby, and has Sly & Robbie on it as well. There’s loads of people out there that I like, too many to mention.
IR: I like Damien Marley, Sean Kuti & Femi Kuti – They’re keeping the afrobeat tradition alive in a very interesting way! There’s loads of people out there, and some of them are very good.
You did a gig at the North Sea Jazz Festival what was that like?
IR: It was an amazing event – Ten different amazing bands playing in different rooms of this huge aircraft hanger type venue with about 20,000 people squashed into it. It was a really amazing experience, and it was great to be part of it.
RH: There was an amazing jam session afterwards, with Wynton Marsalis and Marcus Miller who played all night. It was really amazing, just playing standards in this little room in the hotel.
Did you guys join in?
RH: We were a bit too drunk… But some of the people in our band joined in. Our drummer was playing and Marcus Miller seemed really into it! And one of our singers got up and started singing. I think she actually interjected into one of wynton marsalis’ trumpet solos, which he found really surprising.
So you have a new album out, what’s it called, and how did it come about?
RH: It’s called ‘One More Reason’.
IR: It came about because we wanted to do something a bit more dub/reggae slanted, and we wanted to work with reggae artists like Michael Prophet, so we basically phoned them up and started trying out stuff with them and just trying to merge our styles together.
What was it like working with reggae legends like Michael Prophet and Johnny Clarke on your last album?
IR: It was really good, really interesting actually. They’ve all got their different characters and different working methods and personalities, but it was great to work with people who have been ‘in the business’ for such a long time.
So, what does the future hold for the soothsayers?
IR: Just more… More of the same.
RH: More writing, more tunes, more vinyl, and we’ll be playing a lot of gigs, and carrying on in that way.
Click over to the next page to see a video of The Soothsayers in action: