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“Come Play with Us”: Deep South’s attitude towards artistry; an Interview with songwriter Dave Ledbetter and arranger/producer Ronan Skillan

Deep South, a South African duo who spreads wings wide, travels to the deep northern territories of Europe to harvest fiordic acoustic sounds from Swiss, Swedish, and Norwegian colleagues. “We love what you do and we want your voices to grace our stuff,” invites this duo. Their time is limited, but their zest for inclusiveness is great, with eagerness to explore with fellow artists. “Here’s my composition and you know my sound. What can you add, please?” is the ticket for networking longevity. Guitarist/pianist Dave Ledbetter and percussionist/tabla/didgeridoo maestro Ronan Skillan have been CapeTown friends for long, and meld into each other’s works like happy jelly. They play regularly at Capetown’s popular jazz club, Straight No Chaser, (next gig on Wednesday, 10 February – not to be missed!) and include a handful of illustrious local musicians who add their South African and Cape voice to Deep South, particularly in their first album, “A Waiting Land” (2013).

Deep South’s recent launches of their second album, “Heartland” (2015), have spiralled these innovative acoustic wonders into depths of tonality and expression that cut across ethnic, regional, and even spiritual identities. I lamely attempted a review of this eclectic CD: http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2015/11/04/acoustically-tripping-with-deep-souths-skillan-and-ledbetter-in-heartland/ and was sorry to miss their November 2015 launch in Cape Town with fellow European collaborators: ECM artist and co-producer of Heartland, bassist Bjorn Meyer from Sweden, bass clarinettist Jan Galega Bronnimann, trumpeter Samuel Wurgler and percussionist Fredrik Gille.

But even better was to chat with the deep souls of Deep South, while overlooking Kalk Bay’s wistful harbour, and find out what makes them tick!

Dave Ledbedder loves dogs

Dave Ledbetter loves dogs

CM: How have you attracted foreign artists to migrate towards you, as in your recent album?
Dave Ledbetter (DL): At the moment, the music has taken its natural course. I think the fact that our music is out there allows people to have access to it. Our first album was more home-grown here because we wanted a sound that was acoustically Capetonian and South African with local musicians like Mark Fransman (clarinet/flute), Shaun Yohannes (electric bass), and Shane Cooper (acoustic bass) adding their particular voices. When we branched out to the northern hemisphere, to our networks in Switzerland and Sweden, we had a more collaborative relationship. Compositions which I and Ronan had worked on over a period of time received a ringing blessing from fellow Hearts.

Ronan Skillan (RS): In Europe, we got a different sound to our songs, with intonation and precision. With our local musicians, we got more heart and feeling and intimacy, because we all grew up together. I think it’s also the way Dave and I relate that builds our networks. I’ve always loved Dave’s music – he brings the compositions, I don’t. I help orchestrate and engineer the physical hands-on process, and offer arrangements and ideas about sound and production. I have visions of specific people I know who will resonate with the compositions, and approach them, like our good friend and co-producer Bjorn Meyer who loved our first album.

DL: When we went to Europe, and I remember this very well, we had no idea of how or what it was going to sound like – this collaboration – before we got there. Suddenly, we’re sitting down together, and things started just rolling. Here it is! It went forward from there. In comparison, our first album was a laborious process over a long period of time, but we managed to capture all the nuances of my playing and could spend time rolling them out. This couldn’t happen with our second album recorded in Europe with limited time and budget. But the organic and free flow of spirit and innovation allowed the guys to bring us what they could add.

CM: You are eclectic musicians with Arabic, Asian, and other influences. What stimulates you to be like this? For instance, to play an Australian shamanic didgeridoo?
DL: I think it’s the open hearted spirit of generosity, when we say, “come play with us”, wherever we are, and with whomever we meet. This same open hearted interaction underpins everything we do. And that, essentially, is what we’re all about.
RS: I’ve been travelling to India and studying tabla regularly with one leading Indian percussionist. This has exposed me to a variety of methods and meanings of Asian and Arabic instruments, including the healing qualities of the didgeridoo sounds.

CM: Would you compose or take somebody else’s compositions?
DL: I would write for whoever we book to play on the album, like my good friend, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt. I know his stuff and the way he plays, so would include his voice in what we do, and write specifically for that voice. Same for a bass clarinet or sousaphone player. This is a way to enhance your vision. Just invite them.
RS: Regarding who to involve, thankfully the composition are always very strong. A good song is a good song. Period. It doesn’t really matter who plays it.

CM: Take your song, ‘Forest Road’, written about a road in Nairobi, Kenya. What’s that all about?
DL: My parents and their parents were Salvation Army missionaries, and my grandfather died in Nairobi. My own mother was born in China, and has just turned 89 years old. My grandfather died very young from an allergic reaction to bees. One day, he was walking down Forest Road in Nairobi and collapsed from a bee sting and died on the spot. My grandmother would take walks along Forest Road where he was buried in the cemetery, and would allow herself to be attacked by bees until the ripe ole age of 92. That was in 1942. My mother was traumatized by this loss of her young father as she was only 14 years old then. So the event of his sudden death stood out for me, and I tried to imagine what the reaction might have been to his death, given the environment they were living in, being war-time and in Nairobi. In this song, I imagined the Forest Road funeral cortege carrying the coffin with the brass band wailing. The song just came to me, very easily. I was chatting a while back with Mike Meyer’s guitarist who is a white sangoma, and he told me, “Somebody is looking after you. I can see it; he’s an elderly gentleman with red hair and glasses.” I replied that that must be my grandfather. “He’s looking after you,” the sangoma repeated. “He’s making sure you don’t mess up….too badly!”

Ronan Skillen live

Ronan Skillen live

RS: This story was also touching for me. As I was preparing to visit Nairobi for performances with our local band, Babu, I told Dave I would like to visit the gravesite. Dave gave me a rose quartz crystal and said, “Please put this on the grave for me.” I wasn’t sure I would have time in our busy schedule, but one free afternoon allowed me time at the grave. I asked a taxi if he knew where the Forest Road cemetery was. He looked confusedly at me, a white guy with an accent, and asked “Why??” I said I would tell him the story along the way. The grave was hard to find with all the vegetation growth over the decades (from 1942), but I found it. It was a very touching experience for me.

CM: Another song on your Heartland album that moved me considerably was ‘Awagawan’. What influenced this composition?
DL: I was deeply saddened when my good friend and guitarist with Tenanas, Gito Baloyi, was shot and killed in cross fire in Johannesburg. That’s when I wrote this song which has a spiritual bent to it. Ronan and I sat with it, reworked it, and put it aside. When our European trip was being planned, I took the song out again, Ronan and I added some sections, like the didg section, and the oud section. It was good in hindsight that I left those sections to bring them back at a later stage.
RS: I remember thinking that bassist Bjorn would probably find something in the song to resonate with. Sure enough, there’s an additive in there which was written for him. The same for percussionist Fredrik Gille.
DL: That bass clarinet is not suppose to sound like it does on the album in this song. But clarinettist Jan asked if we wanted that breathy sound. We said, YES! For me, such a sound was more pranic, from the inside, and that is what I wanted. I was delighted when Jan broke out of that mold of what some people consider the ‘proper’ sound of the clarinet.

CM: What you’re talking about is the architecture of composition. You start with an idea, a composition, but it’s fused by others.
DL: Well, the composition is already written. How I want it to sound is going to depend on people able to voice that idea. So whoever is contributing, I’ll be hearing their voices to enhance what’s already there. The music sounds must perpetuate an intention from a conscious place, music that makes the light in people’s heads flash, that makes them feel they have stumbled onto a fundamental truth here. It’s about feeling in life, from a very conscious perspective.

These two multi-talented musicians, while displaying their undeniably rich consciousness and pursuit of truth, are flagging other creatives out there to ‘come play with us’. This, in itself, is a great honour.

Deep South perform weekly now in and around Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban. Catch Dave Sunday 7 February 2016 at the Jazz at the Nassau concert (Bookings at 076 401 0008) as he plays piano and guitar with others. Also, Deep South et al play Wednesday 10 February at Straight No Chaser (Bookings at 076 679 2697).

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Filed under CD & Gig Reviews, Interviews with Carol Martin