« I bring sounds to grow national happiness »

Winston McAnuff interviewed by Caroline Trouillet

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After the success of Paris Rockin’, Winston McAnuff and Fixi came back in September with their new album A New Day, a medley of influences where Fixi’s accordion and piano nicely match Winston’s reggae flow. While they invited a wide range of friends-artists to record the album, they played with a beat-boxer on stage. On tour, soon playing at La Cigale on 29 april, we met Winston McAnuff, whose « electric dreads » look now familiar to French stages. He tells us about his intimate link with accordion, and about his long way to record his first album with the label Makasound in 2004.

You’ve already worked with Fixi on the album Paris Rockin’ in 2006. But the mix between accordion and reggae still surprises some people. Yet this instrument is part of your Jamaican cultural heritage, isn’t it?
Well, not for every-one in Jamaica but for me personally it is. My father used to play the instrument and I was used to sing with him in the church. This instrument was really helpful, it was used to replace the organ in church. It was a good alternative for people who couldn’t afford to buy an organ. While my father was working on the farm, I always took his accordion. I was trying to play reggae sounds but I couldn’t get any sound from it. I couldn’t understand how the instrument worked. My grand-father came from Scotland and I know my father was playing long before I was born. But I saw his instrument for the first time when I was 10. I couldn’t understand because I had never seen him learning how to play it. So meeting Fixi was like destiny. When he asked me to do Paris Rockin’, I didn’t feel like I was doing something strange. I said to myself, maybe there is a link or a message to do some work with accordion. If you should travel to some remote places, the instrument you’re most likely to find is accordion.

What common energy brought you and Fixi from Paris Rockin’ to A new day?
The success of Paris Rockin’. We were trying to work with a wider musical spectrum, like trying maloya. It’s an original music which has been suppressed. It is the same with afro-beat; apart from Fela Kuti and some others most of the people neglected this music.

Reggae is not so present in the album, expect in the song « I’m a rebel ». However, we can hear a lot of different influences: maloya, soul, blues, funk and jazz, cha-cha-cha. How did you shape together this multicolor collaboration?
It’s just like putting water in different containers; the water takes the shape of the container. I never prejudice against different forms of music. The important thing for me is the message, and it doesn’t matter if it’s rock music or some folk or jazz music or musette. What matters is just music as sound, and what you put to it. On A New Day, there is a similar message thanks to different genres. Just like I used to do with the reggae. We don’t ask each other to change, I didn’t ask Fixi to try to do some reggae. What we try to do is allowing Fixi to be himself as a French man, and if I find some way I can enter his world, I do it with the same positive vibes when I’m singing a reggae song. It’s like putting water and oil in the same container. They are in the same container but the separation is maintained.

For example, did Fixi bring his different influences, like maloya so that you can find your way with your voice? How did you work together?
I did some work before with maloya, with a guy called Ti’Fock, a great Réunion singer. Also, when we were doing the album, Fixi was working with a group from the Reunion Island called Lindigo. (read article on Africultures). He produced their album. We wanted to search as extreme as we can to find a proper middle ground. Musically, Fixi was allowed to bring in whatever he wanted musically as long as it was not repetitive. I didn’t want to do just afrobeat or just some reggae. There are different people living in the same planet so we have to create something many people can be satisfied with instead of just making sounds for one group of people.

You’re said to be « the most Francophile » Jamaican rastaman, and you’ve been working in France for more than 10 years now. Could you tell us more about the way your relationship with France and the label Makasound?
It started even long before that. 20 years ago I was in Bordeaux with a friend called Jean Philippe Isoletta, a musician who still lives there. I met the first French reggae band when I was in Bordeaux. We were doing some shows together. Then I left and I didn’t come back to France for a while. Later I was in England with my friend Earl Sixteen. He went to Germany to do some shows but he had some problems to keep his child at home. I told him I could stay with the children because the tree boys loved me. One day I stayed while he was gone and Patate Records called. They said they were doing a show with Altan Ellis, Rod Taylor and Earl Sixteen, and they asked me if I wanted to come. So I say yeah, and the next morning I heard knocking at the door. It was Romain and Nicolas from Makasound. And we’ve been working together since then. It’s like family, it’s deeper than people you just work with. At that time they were journalists, and I had an album I was trying to get some deal with for twenty years. I met these guys, I made them listening to it and I asked them if they could find some distribution for this album I had for 20 years. They said « You’re giving up too easily. You’ve been trying for 20 years so you can try for two more months ». Later they say « ok we’ll find a solution, we’re gonna start a compilation, to release your songs ». And that was the birth of the label Makasound. So you can’t give up on your dreams. Sometimes things don’t just happen overnight, you have to be ready for a long road…

Why did you want to go to England?
I had a brother kept in a football team who left for England when I was just born. He wanted to stay 5 years there. But when he arrived the life was very hard. In Jamaica what is important is food, clothes and shelter. In England the order was reverse, shelter was the most important. He had to get a 25 years loan to buy a house. So his life was almost gone for a house. You see how the system robs your life. So when I was about 20 I went to England to meet my brother because I had never seen him. I brought some of the records I did in Jamaica; it was not really professional records. As I was going to Italy, I stopped to France on my way and stayed with my friend Jean Philippe Isoletta in Bordeaux. I remember I had only 30 pounds to live. And it was the time when the things musically started in France. We were planting a seed. It was in 1984-1985, we had a band in Bordeaux and we were doing some shows. We started at first in a festival in Grand Park in Bordeaux, long before reggae sounds ska. It was 20 years ahead at that time because the album « What a Man a Deal With » and « Diary of the Silent Years » started at Makasound in 2004. Roman and Nicolas were only 8 and 9, we had to wait until they grew.

For ten years you’ve been working with different French artists like Camille Bazbaz, Mathieu Chedid, Cyril Atef and of course Fixi. Do you find some special inspiration with these artists to bring your voice, to blossom your style?
We are creating a new genre with these connections. It’s a new sound that comes out. We still have the reggae sound, we still have the best reggae musicians but I’m giving space as well for some other singers, trying to bring something new for people and for myself too, instead of eating the same food every day. Variety is the spice of life.

A lots of these artists collaborated on the album A new Day, like Cyril Atef.
Yes, he already played on the first album Paris Rockin’, as well as Camille Ballon and Fixi‘s brother. Fixi asked Cyril Atef to do the afro-beat and he also played some Columbian beat on « Garden of Love ». We played with Tony Allen for the first time on « A New Day ». And all guitars are played by Mathieu Chedid in the album, especially on Johnny.

And there is a surprise during your shows…you play with Markus the beat-boxer.
I had some drummers who told me: « Winston, don’t you think it’s time to get a drummer on stage now? » I said no, it’s a different thing that people want to see. In 90 % of the concerts there is a drummer playing. The beat-boxer is a big idea. It’s challenging. There is a body of knowledge behind it. This is different, so you want to watch it, to check it.

When you sing « A new day » on a soul beat, you seem to be giving a message to youth. Is it also a kind of tribute to your son Matthew (1)?
Yes, we dedicated the entire album to Matthew, and especially this song. When I was recording he was alive you know. He heard the album and he said « Dad what a nice album! » When the album was coming I thought the best thing I could do was to dedicate it to Matthew. I can’t sing to give him things anymore, so I sing as a memory for him.

Would you say that in a way you’re settled in France?
Well I’m a nowhereman. If there is something positive happening it doesn’t matter where it is. I spent many years in England, I came to France to work, against all I had, and the language and everything. But see, I still make it work. I bring sounds to grow national happiness.
But to get the thing this far is a lot of sacrifices. You have to make a name, to work on it, to cultivate a character. You have to live far from family for a long time, it’s not really easy. It’s a militant thing.

Tour dates : https://www.facebook.com/winstonmcanuff?sk=app_123966167614127&app_data

(1) Winston McAnuff son, Matthew McAnuff, who was also a reggae artist, was killed in Jamaica in august 2012. He was 26.///Article N° : 12153

Les images de l'article
© Anglade Amédée
© Anglade Amédée
© Anglade Amédée

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