Name: Nadjib Ben Bella aka Montparnasse Musique
Current release: Nadjib Ben Bella and South African DJ Aero Manyelo have teamed up for the Montparnasse Musique EP It is out now via Real World X.
Recommendations: 'Back in the Days' by Jamel Shabazz; 'Terry Riley's in C Mali' by Africa Express
If you enjoyed this interview with Nadjib Ben Bella and would like to find out more about him and his productions, visit him on Instagram and twitter. Montparnasse Musique also has its dedicated profiles on Facebook, Instagram, Soundcloud, and twitter.
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?
I started producing music back in 2000. Before that, I was already a DJ, mostly playing hip-hop. I began by collecting french hip-hop records, but my parents had some vinyl from Terry Riley, John Cage, François Verken, Steve Reich ... so at the same time, I was influenced by that kind of spiritual trance music.
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?
During my first years of DJing, I was alone on stage, and I then decided to perform with live musicians/singers. After that, it was also easier to experiment in the studio.
Now that I have more experience, I like also to produce my own projects and keep an eye on the artistic direction, including the visual aspects.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My father was from Algeria, and my mom was from France, so I needed to know my roots during adolescence. I was born in France, but music gave me the chance to visit Algeria for the first time at the age of 20, and since then, I've been back a lot - primarily working with Gnawa brotherhoods.
Interestingly, this music was created by the slaves in the Southern part of Maghreb and played by black people in Arab countries. Since this experience, I have always liked to consider the African continent as one entity, and I consider myself more African than an Algerian descendant.
So for sure, it influenced my sensitivity and my musical research across the sub-Saharan part of Africa (Kenya, Congo, Senegal, Mauritania, South Africa ...)
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
To be original, I guess. The main challenge for a musician is to find his own sound. Working with other musicians really changed my vision over the years, from sampling to composing a track from scratch.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/ equipment over the years?
I was lucky to experience the digital revolution, and 20 years ago I started to produce on a computer with an affordable soundcard.
I would say that my main passion has always been to collect records and instruments. Over the years, I've collected some analog synthesisers (Korg, Moog, Yamaround plugins). Nowadays, with a good laptop, you can change the world!
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
In my early years of production, sound engineering was not my main focus, but I have discovered studios and the importance of the mix over the years. It's tricky because the most important for me is to keep the magic of the track. So I decided to follow two courses with a sound engineer, which changed my vision of making music.
One main thing I learned was the choice of which instrument I have to pick during the composition to be coherent regarding the frequencies. I am very aware of the remarks that a sound engineer can tell me, which always provides an interesting exchange.
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?
Montparnasse Musique is nothing but collaborations. I like to let the universe improvise for a part. We have used many ways in creating: jamming, recording instruments without any guide, file sharing, remixing and talking.
As we all live far from each other, most of the time once the studio sessions finish, Manyelo works on a base that I rework, and we then finalise together. If we're both happy, we're good. We are very flexible regarding the rules; our goal is to find the magic, whatever the method is. It can be in the studio, at the hotel, in a bedroom ... the most important thing is to feel the vibe.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
The creative side of my life can be very intense during some short periods. I will take two weeks, working day and night, to produce an album and come back at it a few months later for the mix. In between, I like to work on some live artistic directions or even visual exhibitions, nothing to do with music.
Combining complementary energy is the key to me. I'm not too fond of daily routines, and I guess that's why I am an artist; free to make whatever I want, anytime and anywhere.
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've had so many life experiences, but if I had to choose one occasion, that would be Steve Coleman and the Five Elements. It really changed my way of approaching music.
All the concepts developed by Coleman are complementary to modern music, but the groove is still there. It brought me to work on and adapt drum scores to scratch music.
We were at the beginning of something back in 2000, so with partners like Grazzhoppa or Aka Moon, we were excited to invent a new musical language.
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?
Unfortunately, I would say chaos.
Personally, the most creative moments that I lived were when I had some troubles or deceptions in my private life. I use music almost like an 'exorcism'. I am very thankful to be able to vent my frustrations and feel like it's a chance to transform negative into positive energy.
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?
To extend on what I said before, even when I do not make music, sometimes I listen to records and dance alone. It makes me feel good.
Sometimes music makes me cry; I know that some harmonies of certain tracks can make me cry anytime, even if I am doing well. It happens on stage sometimes.
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?
Collaborations begin with respect. What I love is our ability to communicate musically together even if we don't speak the same language.
Technically, the limit is that everybody gives his agreement to release a project. There are no borders to me, and that's what is interesting in that process of making music together.
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?
The vibe for sure. With Montparnasse Musique, we want that the music speaks to the body, and I feel like people need it more than ever nowadays. We like to tell a story visually, so the artwork, videos and images are also essential to us. We will create our live set around the music and the imagery.
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?
As an artist, I consider myself as a medium with the chance to give and transmit positive vibes to people. Art is everywhere, it just depends on your vision. I like to compare music and cuisine; both rely on the recipe. You have to train for a long time to get your personal touch and secrets. Then you want to share it with the maximum amount of people you can.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I don't have words to explain it. To me, it is very mystic because it is evident and inexplicable at the same time. It is something that I feel deeply in my soul. Lyrics without music can be read and understood, but if you add sensitivity and harmony, then you are touched.
Yesterday night I was listening to Clandestino' from Manu Chao, and I felt a teardrop on my face because it reminds me of the story of so many people suffering.