Name: Lee-James Edjouma aka James BKS
Occupation: Composer, lyricist, producer, vocalist
Recent release: James BKS' Wolves of Africa is out via Grown Kid.
If you enjoyed this interview with James BKS and would like to find out more about his work, visit his official homepage. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My parents listened to a lot of music when I was young. From Congolese music like Ndumbolo, Soukous, Rumba, to Cameroonian music like Bikutsi, Makossa, Bend skin. But also, International and French pop music. I was naturally influenced by all these musical genres before making my own playlist very influenced by HipHop.
The passion for composition came late, when I moved with my family to the United States. It was like a new beginning for me who was not yet sure of my professional future. My studies in audio recording introduced me to the technical side of music, then composition and artistry took over.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
I don't see shapes or colors when I compose or listen to music, but for music to speak to me, it must give me emotions.
It must, for example, make me travel, make me think, make me nostalgic, make me want to dance or play basketball.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
For a long time, I tried to find my own sound and musical signature. It was essential for me to be identifiable at some point in my career.
I grew up being fascinated by Pete Rock, Timbaland, the Neptunes or Swizz Beats because these people dominated the charts without copying each other and they all had their own identity.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I had to draw from myself, from my history and my roots to reach my goals and be as sincere as possible in my music.
This quest for identity allowed me to get closer to my country of origin, Cameroon, notably through the reunion with my biological father, the late great Manu Dibango. Then I was able to draw from the musical genres of West Africa to create my sound.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
I can't say that I have a particular recipe when I compose my tracks. I do try to be as honest as possible in my approach when I explore local rhythms or South African songs or others.
And I am lucky to be surrounded by musicians from Congo or Cameroon who help me make these bridges between musical genres credible.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I think that we must draw from tradition, study it, respect it while bringing our point of view corresponding to our generation.
The music of the future will always be juggling skillfully between new technologies that make music accessible to all, and traditional music that will never go out of style in my opinion.
Music, like life, is a cycle that repeats itself.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
The balafon often comes back in my production as well as a typical Cameroonian percussion called the Nkoul. I regularly use these two percussions because they give a fresh color to my compositions mixed with Hiphop sounds.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
I wake up around 7 o'clock. After dropping off my child I start my singing exercises, I revise my music scales, then I polish the titles of the part 2 of my album.
I also started my festival tour since last weekend, so it all depends on the tour dates.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
With the little experience I'm starting to get playing live concert, I don't build the tracks of my album in the same way for live.
For my track "Mawakanda" for example, I chose to make it longer by making some references to the track "Soul Makossa". "Soul Makossa" is a song by my biological father Manu Dibango that has been sampled many times over the years.
I explore several tracks that have been used on this record in the form of a medley paying tribute to the father of world music.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I like to compose alone first. I will try many things, many mixes. The magic doesn't always happen immediately, so I need to listen and re-listen to my compositions before I'm sure of the direction I'm taking.
And then I open up and work with the musicians around me.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
I try to convey values and messages that are close to my heart, that are sincere and that sum up 15 years of career and life learning that continues.
I do not try to be moralizing but it is a way for me to transmit what has been transmitted to me.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
Music has always accompanied the defining moments of my life like a soundtrack to a movie.
D'Angelo's "Voodoo" album accompanied my heartaches as a young man, Jay Z's albums played in my CD player when I was playing basketball, Kanye West's “Hurricane” was the song I listened to over and over again when I lost my dad, etc ...
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I like to compare music to great food. I mix the styles like a chef would mix his ingredients.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
Music is as powerful a means of conveying messages as speech is, because for me, music is a kind of soul that expresses itself.
It is the extension of ourselves or a more pictorial way to illustrate our emotions and feelings