Behind the scenes with the Kamaal Williams Ensemble – Madrid, Fundación Teléfonica, May 2017

Just before their first concert in Madrid, we met Henry Wu and the Kamaal Williams Ensemble at the Fundación Telefónica. The guys received us with an amazing openness and we spent the very last minutes before they went on stage chatting about their music, their impression of the Peckham scene and simply about life. We discovered that some of the guys are already dads and the three had already known each other for many years before starting this new project together: The Kamaal Ensemble with MckNasty on the drums, Tom Driessler on the bass, and last but not least, Henry Wu aka Kamaal Williams on the keyboard and synths. Yet, the Ensemble is open to collaborations with other musicians, like Tenderlonius joining them for some of their gigs in London.

 

W.I.M.: Hey guys, it’s a pleasure to have you here in Madrid. First of all, are we going to see the Ensemble playing together in the near future?

MckNasty: Yeah… Because this guy (Henry) has a crazy energy; we both have it in common. I actually wouldn’t say that I was the most skilled drummer – but my strong point is my energy, and playing with Mr. Wu-kid, he’s got the energy, we see eye to eye with the energy. We throw the energy forth and back between each other, it’s a great synergy, it’s undeniable I think.

Do you work a lot with improvisation or does one of you guys write and compose the music?

Henry Wu: The whole idea of playing live is that it’s always good to have an idea of what you are gonna play – but you have en

ough space to be able to travel onto new paths, to new heights, bring the mood up and down. Having that space allows you to have much fun and the whole thing is about for us to be communicating on stage. Once we can translate that on stage, everyone can get down with us!

Nasty: It’s the world of the unseen and the unknown. Everybody who comes to see us is expecting something, but this communication just brings everybody on the same page.

Henry: Everybody is on the stage!

They are with us, they see everything, even if there is a mistake it is part of the interaction between the audience and us, it’s real, not all polished…

Nasty: Once the energy is in sync, everything else flows. You get a different experience, and the show is about that. The people can identify with the tunes but experience them in a different way. That’s what this environment creates.

Are you interpreting the tracks you produced with the Yussef Kamaal Trio (Black focus published on Brownswood Recordings)?

Henry: I wrote all the music for the Black Focus album. I tried to bring that music to a new place with Nasty, explore it with new rhythms, new bass structures. It’s about playing with our hearts; we’re just a bunch of guys from London and bring the kind of energy from London.

Is it actually the first time you play in Spain?

Henry: It’s the first time I play this music in Spain. I’ve played as a DJ before and with another band at the Sonar in Barcelona… But it’s one of the first times we play at such a small venue, I think it’s gonna be great, it seems all laid-back and intimate…

Nasty: It’s an amazing scene over here, it has got an own vibe, that kind of antique, luxury…

Henry: Madrid has got a very special quality to the lifestyle, of life… it’s a little bit more classy. I would love to come back – I love Madrid!

Since when are you doing this thing together? Since you are not playing with Yussef anymore…

Henry: It was not really a split up with Yussef. Music is about continuing the exploration of what it started off… Nothing has really ended; it travelled into something new and fresh now, obviously inspired by things we have done in the last couple of years. Even if we do the Yussef Kamaal stuff, everything is fresh everyday.

Nasty: This energy of Henry Wu, there is an infinite kind of thing to it; it could be me one day, or any guy another day…There is a certain heartbeat to it. It is just an extension of how he sees and uses the keyboards, the rhodes and the synths. He doesn’t use them in an orthodox way, but kind of outside of the comfort zone of a normal keyboard player.

Henry: I see the piano as a drum, for me it’s a percussion instrument. That’s why playing with the drums is such a key foundation of our music, the two rhythms, a melodic rhythm and the percussive rhythm together. In my productions, you also hear those together. Drums are my first instrument, but if you got a guy like Nasty, there is no chance that you get in there. I had to find an instrument that no one was playing, Piano was old-fashioned, and I thought: “I’ll give that one a go!“

We love your collaboration with K15, can we see something new with him soon?

Henry: He’s one of my favourite producers. He’s one of the few people who can go from hip-hop to house to broken beat effortlessly with the same mentality. And it was a pleasure to link up with him for that record (K15 published on Eglo Records). Before everything, we are friends, so for sure in the future we will be doing something together.

Because compared to the buzzing energy of live shows, records is what outlives us, for me that’s what makes the world go round. Leaving as much behind as possible as long as we got the energy to do so – and I don’t know hoy many years I can handle this industry. But there are at least a few years more I think 😉 They tell a little story of once upon a time in South-East London…

Where does your name Henry Wu actually come from?

Henry: I’m Henry Wu, that’s really me. Kamaal is my extension to it, my deepest spiritual downside, but the two are one thing, they accompany each other. My parents actually called me all sorts of stuff… and Henry Wu it’s my kind of producer umbrella. Wu Kid, Noodles… Everyone knows that!

How did you, Tom, meet Henry?

Tom: We know each other since ten years, we grew up kind of in the same neighbourhood, South London, and I’ve been in and out of working with Henry for like about 2 years. I’ve played a lot on Henry Wu records and then this project came up, and here I am.

Henry: We already toured together in 2010/11… So we know each other.

Are you guys all from Peckham?

Tom: I grew up in the South of Brixton.

Nasty: I grew up in East London…But I met a wonderful women who changed my life and I decided to move to South London, sometimes you simply got to move … The music scene in East London was different, there was a kind of Hipster vibe… But I didn’t realise what was going on in South London at that time! But when I met Wu-Kid, he changed my life. He brought me back to where I should be musically. Sometimes when you do music that pays the bills, it’s cool, you should be able to sustain your family, but you loose your passion. But being here in this environment, I feel really inspired…

Henry: That’s flattering… It’s an honour to have Nasty… I’ve been looking up to him for years.

When we talk about the Peckham scene, what do you think about it today?

Henry: Peckham has been doing stuff for many years; it’s only lately that people have started to talk about it. There is a kind of a new scene that gentrification and a new wave of incoming students have made popular – but that hasn’t really got anything to do with me. In my opinion, the most important thing for music is authenticity; I don’t know about this new music, I only know that my music is authentic. But there is a new producer, WBeeza, who has been doing this for years (house, broken beat, soul…), an original Peckham guy. Also there are newer artists like Al Dobson Junior, Tenderlonious… It’s just interesting to see the area change. Me personally, I am looking to move elsewhere, but it was my home, always…

Henry, what about your hat?

Henry: I always wear the hat, I love hats. At school, it was all about the top and the bottom of your outfit: you can have the cheap trousers and stuff… but if the trainers are good and the hat is good – all good! The kind of sandwich of the outfit 😉

Are you going somewhere else after tonight?

Henry: Back to London.

Nasty: I just want to make more music – I wish we had everything on the road with us every single time. Just set up and record every single gig like a full studio session, and that’s the record. Because some of the things that come up during a gig can’t be reproduced in a studio, the vibe is unique… When you’re under pressure and there is an audience there – and then something goes wrong you have to fix it immediately, that’s where the magic comes from!

Henry: So to come back to the beginning, that’s what the concept of this music project is all about: Challenging ourselves, we have to make it happen. We have to have the confidence to say this is our expression, and whatever it is, it is from us, we should never worry about it. It comes from us, it’s who we are, and we cannot change who we are. It’s the realest form of being, exposed.

Nasty: Like: “That’s just me, I’m sorry if it’s a bit wrong, I’m happy if you think it’s right, I’m happy that you are enjoying right now, me too!” I think they are not doing music like that anymore today, to go to a show and everybody is experiencing that thing for the first time! Let it just roll on the gig… there is a beauty in that. Nowadays in that new-school time, we are trying to recreate that vibe in the studio, and it works, but it is not real. When I play, I feel like really happy!

Look, I freak out when I have to fly, but this time, I just couldn’t wait to get to the gig: I don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s true love of music, that’s real! When I come home the kids say: “Daddy you look so happy” – and I’m going to say – “I know, I had a great time last night!”

 

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