The Myele Manzanza story

21:00, Feb 08 2012

The opening track of the upcoming solo album by Myele Manzanza is called Drum Intro. It features an open solo with recorded phone messages from neighbours complaining about the hours of noise they've endured from a young Myele practising. It's funny, it grooves, it's very possibly revenge but it also works as a clever way of showing how far Myele has come - in a relatively short time. Well that was my thought anyway; the idea that history is conveyed in that one short piece, in an innovative way, appealed to me.

As soon as I heard that track, and replayed it before moving through the rest of the album, I was sure I wanted to speak to Manzanza; I wanted to get his story. He's been involved with a lot of music, a lot of really great music. There have been some huge triumphs. His is a story of following dreams, of dedication, of working hard - discovering new ideas and being open to new forms of expression. But it's also the story of a guy bashing at the drums, possibly annoying a few neighbours along the way.

Myele Manzanza was born to music, born into music. His father is Sam Manzanza, a musical life-force, a Congolese musician who has kept African music alive in New Zealand since arriving here in the 1980s. Sam's influence on Myele was huge. He had his son joining him on stage; he taught him percussion, traditional rhythms, passed on the musical genealogy. Myele said he really noticed the importance of his African roots when he came to study music, noticing "music has African roots, so much of the music you dance to, the concept of groove, of music your body moves to - it is an African idea". He compares this to the advantage of studying Latin, understanding the root of words before going on to other languages.

But Myele didn't sit down behind a drum-kit until he was 14, not quite a late-bloomer, but far from an overly eager drum-prodigy. He had his hand in, percussively speaking. But the kit was the start of his true musical exploration. He made up for any lost time, practising, studying, applying an open-minded approach to the concepts of rhythm, drawing on the inherent, elaborating by taking his cues from some fine musical masters.

Manzanza is known to many for his work with Electric Wire Hustle. His debut solo album, ONE, will be released next week. It seamlessly traverses jazz, hip-hop, R'n'B, electronica, broken-beat soul and several world musics. It feels like a lifetime of work - and even though its creator is just 23, there is a lifetime of experience already behind this album.

Manzanza, at 14, was "hitting puberty around the time that nu-metal was big". So he was tapped into and tapping along with Korn, Limp Bizkit and Deftones (David Silveria of Korn and Abe Cunningham of Deftones were what he would "slam it out to" in terms of early drumming heroes). An early eureka moment was being at the Big Day Out, moving from Limp Bizkit to "seeing Roni Size and becoming obsessed with drum'n'bass". This was at a time when Myele was rehearsing for Rockquest stardom, "pretty much just getting everything from Around the Fur and White Pony locked down."

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Around this time what became known as "the Welli-dub sound" was influential. Manzanza remembers "Trinity Roots and the Cuba Street Carnival, One Love, an exciting time".

At the age of 16, as percussionist for a high school big band at the Tauranga Jazz Festival, Myele had his eyes and ears opened to "some seriously good players". It was formative. "That turned me on to jazz," Myele explains. "And it got me to take music seriously." Then it was to the musical worlds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, to drummers like Elvin Jones and Art Blakey and Manzanza's attention turned to "jazz school; to the focus required". He spent his final two years of high school practising and after meeting Imon Starr ("one of the huge musical mentors in my life") Manzanza found himself, aged 17, on stage with Olmecha Supreme. Now he was part of the scene he had been following.

"Through Imon I was introduced to his sister, Deva Mahal, and I filled in for Darren Mathiassen as part of her band. That was a dream lineup: there was Lisa Tomlins on backing vocals and Rio Hemopo on bass, the Yeabsleys from Twinset, it was so many of the people I'd grown up seeing and I was there on stage with them." Around this time, a jazz school student, Myele made good on a goal he had set himself, to play with Scribes of Ra within five years. "It was just the one gig," he says, with a soft smile, "but I had managed it within five months."

The next big musical mentor for Myele was Jonathan Crayford, someone Manzanza describes as "a genius, someone on the next level, his concept of music is just far beyond where so many people in New Zealand are at". Between the ages of 18 and 19 Manzanza played a regular slot with Crayford, just the two of them, just drums and keys; "it was improvising within jazz and that really sharpened my sword trying to follow and keep up with Jonathan".

It was on to the Recloose live band - which was "a lesson in the school of funk" - and Recloose main-man Matt Chicoine also introduced Myele to some great house and techno music ("there was a lot of stuff that was cheesy but I learned about some great stuff through the Recloose music") and Manzanza found himself following two other paths - which he still follows to this day; paths that inspired his solo album, ONE.

"Being a drummer has been the aim for a long time, and I am a drummer, but I want to be a producer too, a beat-maker and hip-hop producer." Third, Manzanza wants to "play tracks that DJs could play out". And with ONE he floats between those roles, drummer-as-composer, but he is not concerned that the album be understood as "a solo album by a drummer". To Manzanza, ONE is about him as a composer as much as it is about him as a performer. He brings "his tool-belt of harmony, rhythm and melody as well as technique and ideas". For this he thanks jazz school for a "knowledge of chords, theory and harmony", adding with a chuckle, "even though I hated it at the time".

And in terms of his influences, DJs, producers and beat-makers are just as important as drummers - in fact some of the biggest influences for Myele, drum-wise, have come from DJ-based albums. He mentions Endtroducing... and while he'll mention great modern drummers like Chris "Daddy" Dave, he suggests that Timbaland is one of the most important innovators for drums, drummers and drum-sounds across the last two decades.

Moving between player and composer requires different skills. Manzanza sums it up well by saying that as a player "you make one minute of music in one minute's time, you live in the moment and move to the next note". But as a producer, composer, beat-maker, "one minute in music can be worked on for four hours, or four days". Manzanza says he imagines it "like a painter really, you draw a line and then you erase it, re-draw it, adjust it, you can be a bit finicky", whereas "live playing is about not thinking too hard beyond what you're doing at that time".

Manzanza then paraphrases Erykah Badu's thoughts on the matter, saying "she said it best really, 'performing is creating a moment, composing and recording is perfecting a moment', I can't really improve on that. That's it right there."

There might be a point for Myele Manzanza where he has to choose one path but for now he's open to exploring all three. And he aims to continue mixing solo production and playing ideas with Electric Wire Hustle work; the band has a new album on the way. And there will be other collaborations.

Electric Wire Hustle came together in Myele's second year of jazz school; the band first performed in Wellington in 2008. Less than three years later they were on stage at Glastonbury, one of the world's biggest, most revered music festivals. Manzanza: "It was really huge. About 150,000 people; it's a city, basically. And 40,000 people are staff." He says the experience was amazing but there have been other crucial musical experiences, such as winning a place in the Red Bull Music Academy in London in 2010, connecting with Ravi Coltrane's drummer, E.J. Strickland and seeing legend Roy Haynes in New York where he spent three months. He played with Deva Mahal's project, Fredericks Brown and toured with Taj Mahal.

The Myele Manzanza CV reads like someone who is 40 or 50 or 60. And to hear him revisit this series of triumphs is inspiring; it rolls off his tongue effortlessly, with confidence but never with arrogance. It's so clear that as he's made his mark across different musical projects, each experience has been so crucial for him.

He continues to divide time between Berlin, a city he "fell in love with straight away", and New Zealand ("it will always be home"). New York is calling his name, it's somewhere that Manzanza believes he could base himself for a while. A future goal is to create a hip-hop album, make beats for an MC - possibly work with "someone like Mos Def, someone in that style". But before that there will be another Electric Wire Hustle album (at least) and shows around the world with that band. There'll be more New Zealand shows from EWH later this year and Myele Manzanza will show off his new solo record.

ONE was recorded nearly a year ago, the project starting in Berlin. It features some amazing guests - friends and heroes. Ladi6 and Bella Kalolo have guest vocalist roles, and Myele's EWH buddies are in on the solo album too. Mark de Clive-Lowe features too. Manzanza is proud of the contributions from these musicians, praising them all for their support and the colour they have offered to his tunes.

And there is a rather special collaboration with his father, Sam Manzanza. The final track on ONE is called Me I Know Him. Myele explains that it "is a poem that dad has performed for a long time, in a variety of contexts, and when I wrote the piece of music that became Me I Know Him for the album I just wanted him to try to do his spoken piece over that music. It worked. He was staying with me and we recorded it in my kitchen, just him speaking into my Macbook, a sh***y microphone, but I think it works." He says of his father being involved in his musical career, "I think he's definitely proud, for sure."

It's a nice way for the album to close - further acknowledgment of the history that he represents, of what has gone into making him the musician he is today. And from that open drum solo with answerphone accompaniment through to father and son collaborating you will hear vibrant soul and hip-hop, you will hear a jazz that has shed its skin. You will hear music for the mind and for the heart and soul. Music that gets your feet going, music that soaks itself into you. Music that comes from one person (with a little help from his friends); music that aims for a truth; music, finally, that is - for now - the sum of so many valuable experiences, suggesting that there is so much more to come. So much more from this one person juggling bands, ideas, roles, putting it all together to form his experience.

Myele Manzanza will play a launch party for the album in Wellington, tomorrow night, Friday, February 10, at San Francisco Bath House. It is a double album-launch with Olmecha Supreme celebrating the release of their new album also.

Later in the month he will play a show in Auckland at Ponsonby Social Club, February 23.

Click here to hear the track Absent (featuring Bella).

So what do you think of Myele Manzanza? Are you a fan already, or is this something you think you'll check out? Have you heard his playing with Olmecha or EWH or Deva or any of the other acts mentioned or in any other contexts? I think ONE will absolutely be one of my favourite albums of this year; early days of course but I've been living with this album for a while now and it continues to reward with each listen. It's been a very special listening experience for me already.

And Myele Manzanza is a clever guy. I just wanted to share some of his story with you.

Click here to hear some more of Myele's music.

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