Världens Band are a truly multicultural musical outfit, with their fourteen members hailing from seven different countries, located in three different continents. They adopt a unique approach to folk and ‘world’ music, combing the native music of their home countries to create something which resembles its component parts, but sounds fresh and exciting. We spoke to Matthew Jones, guitarist with the band, ahead of their free entry show at Band on the Wall in October.
How were you first approached to become part of Varldens Band, and when did the band first come together to play?
There is an organisation called Ethno who, every year, hold music camps all over the world where young people come together to teach each other folk music from their individual countries. One of the biggest and longest running of these camps is Ethno Sweden, where I went for the first time in summer 2008 and learned loads of new music and met amazing musicians from all over the world, including two brothers from Sweden, Arvid and Erik Rask.
A few years later out of the blue I, along with 14 other musicians who had met the Rask brothers at various Ethno events, received an invitation to spend a couple of weeks in Sweden to arrange new music and to give workshops and concerts around Stockholm. This, in September 2012, was the first meeting of Världens Band. Originally, that was meant to be it for Världens Band, but it was so successful that we all wanted to do it again, which we did the following year, then the following year and now, two and a half years later, we are looking forward to a two month European tour this October.
Your biography talks about challenging norms and prejudices with the band’s multicultural makeup; do you see other groups doing anything similar, and are you finding a warm reception for the project?
We see a real benefit in collaborating with people from different cultures. One of the aims of the project to begin with was to see if it could be possible to bring together young people from many different backgrounds to work together and create new music. This has so far worked probably better than we had expected and we have all had a brilliant time learning about where each other comes from and what each other’s music is like etc.
When we perform we don’t shout about multiculturalism, but try to show that it works by playing our best music and having a great time, inviting the audience to join us in our party. And we have received some fantastic responses, usually just from people enjoying our shows but occasionally we have received quite emotional messages thanking us for sharing an important message. Of course there are other bands that have a multicultural makeup, legendary bands like Afro Celt Sound System, Afro Cubism, Salsa Celtica etc. I don’t of many bands with such a mix of nationalities though. We currently have seven countries from three continents represented in the band, and each of the musicians have interests in music from countries other than their own, so we end up with a big mix.
How is writing and arranging shared between the band?
Being such a large band based in various countries and continents, we don’t have the luxury that many bands do of being able to meet up for regular rehearsals. Instead, before any tour, we meet and work really hard for a few days to arrange new music. Being on tour can be very tiring, getting up early to travel all day for a gig at night, finishing late and starting again early the next day. For me, however, this rehearsal time is always the most tiring as we are often trying to fit a year’s worth of rehearsals into just a few days!
We do all keep in touch whilst we’re not together and will share ideas of songs and tunes before meeting to give ourselves a head start. When we come together a member of each country will have prepared a piece of their own to share with the band, which we then arrange as a group. It can become quite a democratic process which, in a band of 14, can mean taking a lot of time to agree on every small detail, so usually the person who has brought the piece of music we are working on will have the final say, which works well as they will be the expert in that particular style of music and so we can all learn from them.
Would you say you and your bandmates have all excelled as musicians under the influence of the other band members? As a British folk musician have you gained knowledge to inform your folk playing?
I would say we have definitely all excelled as musicians and performers by being in this band. Everyone in the band has an interest in learning different types of music and so being in Världens Band gives us each a unique opportunity to learn from some really high quality musicians from different traditions. I have found it fascinating talking to Abdou, for example, about the Senegalese Griot tradition from which he comes and learning from Charu about some of the 72 different scales used in Indian classical music. It’s also been a real privilege for me to perform in a duo with Charu during some concerts and festivals that we have been at and I have learned so much through doing that.
When arranging music as a band we are often in a hurry to get material together, but we do try to spend time learning about each other’s styles both during and outside rehearsals. For example, Anna and Thea, our Swedish fiddle players, have a real interest in Scottish fiddle music so often quiz myself, as someone who plays a bit of fiddle, and Dave Foley, our Scottish flautist, about how to phrase the music, how to use the bow in different ways etc. to get a more Scottish sound. And this is something far harder to do than say as style comes from being totally immersed in a tradition for years, so for these Swedish fiddle players to be learning to play in a Scottish style is a real challenge.
As musicians, a common thread between you all is roots in folk music. Do the band ever dip into the folk repertoire’s of each country of your respective members?
This is what we mainly do. We enjoy learning songs and tunes from each other’s countries and arranging them as a group. It’s fun to see how the West African Harp, or the Kora, played by Abdou will mix with an Indian song brought to the band by Charu, or what a traditional pipe tune from Galicia brought by Cassandre will sound like played on the Melodeon by Dave and the Swedish fiddles of Anna and Thea. And it usually works really well, as most musical traditions around the world share some pretty fundamental characteristics so it’s just a matter of finding ways to fit the styles together.
Is it a compromise to record with musicians based in different locations, or does it allow you to record methodically?
I’ve actually just been listening, for the first time, to the final mixes of our debut studio album this morning, which we will be releasing in the UK at Musicport Festival this October, just before we come to Band on the Wall.
I think most musicians in most bands would say their favourite way to record an album would be to have the whole band together in the same place and spend a week or so recording all the parts. This way, if certain ideas come up in the studio they can be easily added etc. Unfortunately this isn’t always possible and especially not when, like you say, we are based all around the world. So it certainly has been a different process, recording our individual parts at home and sending them to Sweden, where it has been mixed together. I wonder how long this would have taken before the Internet with tools like Dropbox or whether it would even be possible without huge expense of time and money.
I guess it’s fitting with the idea of the band that the recording process for the album has happened around the world and not just in one place, and I think it’s worked really well. I don’t usually like listening to albums that I have played on, but since receiving this one last night I have already listened to it at least three times and am really enjoying it, so hopefully that’s some kind of endorsement for both this process of recording and the album itself!
Band on the Wall recommends Världens Band – with fourteen members from three continents, they create captivating, danceable world music that unites across borders.
Swedish polskas meet Scottish reels, English folk guitar accompanies Indian classical song, Galician pipes play Balkan melodies and the Zimbabwean mbira blends with Colombian rhythms. The result is a unique and exciting blend of culture, personality and musical style – they call it ‘Transglobal Roots Fusion’, and we highly recommend it!
Image by Olof Grind.