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Pressing the reset button with drummer/beatmaker Myele Manzanza

PAM spoke to the New Zealand born drummer now based in London about his early grounding in rhythm care of his Congolese father and making diversity his superpower.

Myele Manzanza lets me know he’ll be a few minutes late for our Zoom as he needs to grab a coffee for a little “pep” before the interview which he’s really excited to get into. Nonetheless he still gets there before me illustrating that, when it comes to keeping time, this affable drummer is on point.  

Resident in London since 2019, we speak as he prepares to release the 2nd album in a volume of five, timely titled Crisis And Opportunity. As inspired by African folkloric music as hip hop and the wonky beats of the late J Dilla – the new album out November 19th on Deep Matter features dizzying solos, township tinged trumpet and the perfect “pocket” of Manzanza’s groove throughout. 

To better understand how the drummer perfected his craft I begin by asking about his first contact with rhythm. 

What did your early musical education or initiation look like?

Well, my father is from The Democratic Republic of Congo and he met my Mum who is from New Zealand in Kinshasa when she was at the tail end of her early overseas experience and they got married and decided to have me in New Zealand. In Africa my father ran a bar / restaurant / music venue and performed fairly regularly so he was an active musician but when he moved to New Zealand he really came into his own in that regard because there were barely any African people in New Zealand, let alone musicians, so it was quite a unique proposition for a lot of people. 

A good healthy percentage of New Zealand musicians would have played in his band at one time or another and he’s had a pretty constant rotating cast of musicians for over 30 years now. So music was never something that was forced upon me, it wasn’t like: “You must take up this instrument and you must practice eight hours a day!” It was more just like a thing in my life in the same way that I imagine for an average British kid football would be a thing. It was part of my dad. My dad did it and it was around me and I was allowed to join in. He would take me along to these African drumming classes so there was definitely a lot of learning through osmosis just by being there (because you know, there was no babysitter!)

How did you graduate to the drum set? And how did you meet jazz?

When I was 14 I got some formal drum lessons, which is relatively late for a professional musician but I guess I had been raised around music so I understood how rhythm worked prior to actually starting to play the drums so it was just a matter of learning the technique and the coordination. Then around 16 I was asked to be the percussionist in my high school Jazz Big Band and we went to this national high school jazz competition and that was my first exposure to jazz music. There were lots of other musicians around the country my age who were better than me, and I was like “Oh wow! I thought I was good. But now if I really want to make music my thing, I’m going to have to start getting a bit serious practicing.

So I set my intentions towards going to The New Zealand School of Music which is the most prestigious jazz school in the country and is also in my city of Wellington. At the same time, I was actively playing with a lot of musicians in the scene, who were older and (musically) fitter than me and more established. I started doing random pickup gigs with groups like Fat Freddie’s Drop or gigs at local bars because I was available.

How did you go from jazz to beatmaking? 

In 2010 I got into The Red Bull Music Academy which was in London that year and that was a pretty formative experience when it came to the world of music production.  I had lecturers like Flying Lotus who taught me quite a bit about electronic drum programming which was really useful. I did quite a bit of work with Hudson Mohawke too so it was pretty good exposure into electronic music production after being more of a formal jazz student. And then after that I spent some time in New York getting my ass kicked in jam sessions and kind of realizing how far I had to go as a musician, and then after that, I was in Berlin.

Myele Manzanza – The People’s Changes (Official Audio)

What brought you to London and what inspires you about the city and the scene?

The reason I moved to London in 2017 was I had got to play an event at Total Refreshment Center which was a prominent underground jazz and all sorts of music kind of venue. I was playing with a great friend and collaborator of mine called Ross McHenry, it was his tour and his show. We were on at midnight, so like peak club hour, and there was a full room of three or four hundred people and people were just running at high energy. We were playing music that normally gets played in a jazz club where people sit, listen and appreciate and this was my first time performing music more in a club setup, and having the audience’s energy come with us the whole way. 

Every jazz musician around the world looks to New York as the mecca of jazz music and it still is the mecca of jazz music, but it was an eye opening experience to see that there’s more places in the world where I could find my tribe, so to speak. And over the next few years one thing led to another and I made the move over. 

London is one of those cities where you can find the whole world. You’ve got so many people from the African diaspora and I think that’s what’s made a lot of London jazz so exciting and dynamic. It’s not totally tethered to the American jazz tradition. It draws from that but also from a Nigerian musical schematic and the UK born and bred drum and bass, garage and grime in terms of the rhythmic and harmonic choices that are in the mix. That’s why London made a lot of sense to me.  It’s a community that really resonates with the aspirations I have and hopefully I will be able to contribute something to that. 

One thing that also became apparent when I moved here was that there’s a really high level of musicianship here. There is so much talent but it’s totally uncompetitive! It’s been really good for me to like to be in a community with that kind of appreciation. Jazz is still relatively niche music but there’s an audience that’s here for it and that helps to foster a scene, fosters careers, and fosters artistic development. 

So London has been spectacularly good to me – despite the lockdown!  I’ve never been met with anyone who was like: “Who is this foreigner trying to hang with us?”  It has been a very welcoming scene and I’ve been able to take my career to the next step here. I remind myself that this is a dream to make your own music, find an audience and build it into a viable career.  Especially having been from New Zealand where it’s a lot harder to do that just by virtue of the size of the population.

Can you speak to the process and the vision of making the five albums that will make up Crisis and Opportunity?

In 2020 all of my gigs disappeared but out of the crisis came an opportunity to reset my creative energy and direction and clarify what it is I want to do musically. I didn’t want to shy away from my love for a wide array of music and wide array of methods of making music so I thought I’ll just accept that diversity is part of what makes me who I am and one way I could be better with that diversity is by honing in on each style within one body of work rather than try and cram that all into one album. 

So the idea of making five records is that I could make one that is a London-centric jazz record that is influenced by the time and place I’m in now. I can make another (volume two Crisis And Opportunity: Vol 2 – Peaks) that is an amalgamation of live instrumentation and a beat-makers aesthetic in terms of picking good loops and editing them. I can then make another album that is more leaning into house and will be more of a producer’s record. Then there’s another which will be a piano trio and a modern jazz record-  less trying to be the intersection of jazz and dance music, and then the fifth one will be a pure solo record. Just me and the drums and my muse or whatnot.

Where was Crisis And Opportunity: Vol 2 – Peaks made?

The record was primarily recorded with a crew of New Zealand expats based in Europe. We had a concert booked in Poland and when there was a lift of the lockdown last year to travel  we knew it was now or never. Because one of the band members lives in Helsinki and another one lives in Berlin – Berlin became the most logical place to rehearse, convene and record the album. In terms of the music I’d initially written five or six tunes with that band in mind but I was getting a bit of writer’s block.  Then after a while I thought “I’m not going to overthink this – I’m going to allow time for the four of us to just play. I might give a little music direction like start in A minor – Play! and then something might happen in the last 15 seconds before a jam evolves off.” 

I was listening to a lot of J Dilla and Madlib beat tapes where it’s just idea after idea and then onto the next one, short and sweet and it just keeps coming. So this album was a product of the organic process of playing and just letting the music happen and then the editing process of trying to get the most concise and clean idea. So the aesthetic was about finding a middle ground between live instrumentation and the beatmaker editing quest of trying to find the best loop possible and refining it.

Listen to “The People’s Changes” in our Songs of the Week playlist on Spotify and Deezer.

Crisis And Opportunity Vol.2 , out on November 19th on Deep Matter.

Myele Manzanza wil be on tour:

  • 16th Nov – London –  Spice Of Life (part of the London Jazz Festival)
  • 19th Nov – London – Fox & Firkin
  • 20th Nov – Nottingham – Peggy’s Skylight
  • 21st Nov – Leeds – The Wardrobe
  • 23rd Nov – Manchester – The Blues Kitchen
  • 24th Nov – London – Ronnie Scott’s (Late Night Residency)

Tickets will be via his website.