Interviewee: Nicolas Bongrand, Trombone
Occupation: Songwriters, performers
Current release: Balaphonics will celebrate their 10th anniversary as a band with the release of their new album Spicy Boom Boom, out September 17th 2021 via Vlad Productions.
Recommendations: The musical documentary WATTSTAX!
If you enjoyed this interview with Balaphonics, visit them on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Balaphonics is 10 years old now. Some musicians of the band were part of a big band called Balbazar and others had already played in various brass bands. The sousaphone and art designer Matthieu Choinet composed the 10 first tracks that initiated the band.
The original idea was to blend the African sound of the balafon with the jazz funk influences of the band founders and create an original afrobrassband.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
We have different backgrounds. Some were jazz students, others autodidact learners and musicians passionate about reggae, funk, world groove and especially afrobeat.
The project came at a perfect moment for us because each of us wanted to share our energy on stage.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Over the course of 10 years, the crew and composers has evolved. We began with 2 composers on the first album, and today we have more than 5 persons who propose their vision for the band.
It feeds our music with different identities: Ben Moroy, our new balafon player, knows traditional mandingue music. Michael Havard has his own way of mixing ternary patterns with jazz themes. Julien Cordin has evolved as a songwriter culture and mixes this experience with his knowledge of africans percussion … and I have just composed new tracks in which I try to combine a modern groove feeling and arrangement with our big brass band sound. These new elements brings Balaphonics to a new identity that might be audible in 2022.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The main creative challenge is to create some space for the balafon within a band composed of nine musicians, including guitar and percussion that plays on the same spectrum frequencies.
Our first balafonist had learned this instrument at the beginning of the band, and he didn’t have a wide culture on this instrument. Now, with Ben Moroy, who has learned and practiced for months in Guinea, we can really provide the right space for this instrument.
For example sometimes we'll split the balafon parts in 2. The left hand will be played by our sousaphone player, and the right hand goes to the guitarist. This allows Ben to create a new balafon lead part in the middle of theses 2 elements.Then the sound of our rhythm section is locked!
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I work in Ableton to create songs. It’s quite intuitive even if it took me 3 months to understand its potential. I really enjoy this interface to create my personal music, and I have begun to use it for Balaphonics as well.
We are also experimenting with some new sounds on the balafon with a pedal board … Our next investment would be a kit of piezzo microphones to generate a good signal to transform it with delay (slapbacks effect), reverbs and distortion.
For the horn section, I am working on including some effects on my trombone (delay) to explore new sounds on them as well as ambient grooves. Even the sousaphone has brought a pedal board with octaver and distortion to make some bigger and wider sounds.
This is the way that we want to explore now: Balaphonics 2.0!
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
It depends of the context. During our trip to Mali, we composed a new song in 2 days with Moriba Diabate. It was really exciting and we wish that we will find a way to experiment it soon as possible. But most of the time, we create the music, and the featured singers have to adapt his music to ours.
We have also worked with an incredible peul flute player called Dramane Dembélé. The feeling was great and in 2 days we worked on 8 songs: 4 written by Balaphonics and 4 of his own repertoire. We learned a lot by playing under his leadership. We discovered that we were too “European minded” in the way that we composed, mostly about our cycles arrangement habits. With him it was only question and answer, musical phrases brings to a new part, a bridge or a theme … but this call can occur at any moment in the music. We don’t need to count!
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I played 2 years with Blitz The Ambassador, an afro hip hop american band. The show was really strong and explosive. Every song had its own stage choreography, and for a player trombone, it was a really good experience to learn to play and move in different ways as the Jb’s Horns section for example.
These 2 years of big international shows have influenced my way of playing live on stage a lot.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I don’t control my creative state of mind. It depends on my mood or on whether I have a real and clear guideline like: “I need to compose an afrodisco feeling groove” or “I want to create a carribean pattern track with a balafon part”. Constraints create a good dynamic.
But the most exciting thing according to me is collective creation. When differents minds are burning together and reach the point where everybody says: this is it!
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Touring is sometimes very hard for the body! You have to manage your voice, your legs and feet so that you’ll be able to dance, play and sing even if you have slept 4 hours and spent 8 hours in a van. With experience, you learn how to rest between soundcheck and gigs, listening to your body rhythm.
About music as a tool for healing: I strongly think that music heals the soul. I always meet the audience after our shows, and when someone tells you “I have had some big troubles … and this concert made me cry, now I feel better”, or when you play and you can see only shining eyes and smiles, you know that you are not only an entertainer, but also a soul doctor!
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
As white French guys that are playing African influenced music, we are exposed to these critics. We understand that some people want to protect their culture. But some of these people who are always speaking about cultural appropriation behave like new censors. We do not agree with that. Music is sharing, transmission, pedagogy between humans, musicians, and cultures.
We never had these kinds of problems at Bamako where we met Tiken Jah Fakoly who invited us to play in his venue Radio Libre. Same thing in Paris where we met a lot of different musicians coming from Africa: We played and shared together easily. Hilaire Penda, our Camerooneese mentor, who was a great bass player told us that according to him, Balaphonics was a symbol of how French people could learn and understand African music. He was honored about this, and our album Spicy Boom Boom is dedicated to Hilaire.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
It’s more spiritual for me. It is related to your deeper feelings and can make you blow up in a dance trance. It’s the inside and the outside at the same time. So in a way, music is related to the skin … because the skin is the border between us, and others.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I think that every human has an artistic part in him. Artists are not special human beings if you look at children for example. A lot of people can be very creative in their work, studies … or way of life. Of course, some of our most focused creators have developed some abilities. Neurosciences have proven that music practice promotes heightened sensibility, particularly during the creative process, which creates connections between the left and right brain hemisphere.
Creation is also a paradoxical process that can be the consequence of one single mind, but needs cooperation to be realised. Or sometimes it’s an entirely collaborative process. So the way you create is the way you are and you behave … dictatorship does exist in the arts! For the worst and the best.
In my point of view, art is spiritual and each person receives music, or paintings with their own regard. The audience creates the social phenomenon, and the cultural context were you play makes you sometimes realise that what you are doing is more than music.
For example, when I played for people in jail and I understood that we have brought a moment of freedom to their prisoner life … I was crying while playing. “Ok this is the real musical experience. This is what music is all about: Creating spaces of freedom in human minds”.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
As I said music is spiritual more than sensitive. And every feeling can be expressed with it … in a mainly universal language.