Interview: Azum - Owanj
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Electronic music trio Isla Greenwood, Jemal Toussaint, and Isaac Westmore, spoke to us about the development of their debut album, embracing diverse music cultures and connecting to their precious natural surroundings...
“You can spend a whole life making music, you won’t ever understand it, like you won’t really understand deeper aspects of life in a logical way, it just becomes more mysterious in a sense. Its power is connection.” – Isaac Westmore
Nestled between the rugged mountain ranges of Andalusia and the pristine azure Mediterranean sea, the waves of which break against the golden brown sands as they have done for millennia and will continue to do so, as with every crash they have enraptured generations of humankind in awe of its primal natural power, lies the quaint Spanish town of Albuñol, where three British musicians in early 2020 decided to stay whilst composing their debut album. Since the death of fascist dictator General Francisco Franco, Spain has seen a revival of culture, making it the perfect destination for musical inspiration. With its ever so vibrant music scene making noise across even the sleepiest of villages, all that wondrous cacophony came crashing to a halt in March that year. The decades-long fiesta had to momentarily pause, with the nation’s instruments and sound-systems ordered to power down due to the first Coronavirus lockdown. The three musicians, collectively known as Owanj, found themselves stranded with no obvious path home, and with little external distractions, they instead found a new dawn of creative opportunity fell into their lap; like the earliest humans to fashion a drum out of animal hide or to design a flute out of a bone, their primary motivator became the incomprehensible force of the natural world.
The concept of the album Azum was formulated in a conversation between singer Isla Greenwood, guitarist and pannist Jemal Toussaint, and guitarist Isaac Westmore, whilst sat on a bench basking in the glittering Spanish sunshine. Greenwood recounted to us their conceptual vision for the record: “We started to imagine the album as moving through a place on a day, in a place that we didn’t know or are only just beginning to get to know.”. The band told us that the fictional name for the planet on which this day happened was called Azum, hence the name of the album. This decision felt in-keeping with their perennial inspiration, the natural world. Their interactions with the space around them is embedded in the album itself due to Greenwood spearheading the decision to take lots of field recordings. She found herself inspired by the work of Pauline Oliveros, one of the innovators of the 1960s experimental electronic music scene, who spoke at length about how the way we listen to the sounds around us influence the culture that we live in. “There’s infinite sounds in the world, and we have easy little recording devices so we can play with that… for me it has been so interesting to spend more time listening as part of the practice of making music, and going out into the world and finding rhythms in the way your door closes, and how a chain drops and what you can hear in the water and that kind of thing,” Greenwood explained.
Soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause’s book The Great Animal Orchestra also served as another significant spark behind the creativity of the field recordings on the album. “For all of us, a huge part of our trip to Spain was listening to the world around us and really tuning into that, and listening to where the music was beyond our studio.” The singer continued, “this exploration of sound and music just goes on for ever, and the power of electronic music is that you can record any sound in the world and make it into a kind of instrument.” The band would go on long walks, almost as a daily practice, to try to engage more mindfully with the world around them. Near their studio was a woodland in which the band noticed the dramatic sonic shift in the acoustics that surrounded them. Describing the stark difference between the woodland and a nearby park, Greenwood told us, “it was like the soil felt denser, and the sound was deader, and all the trees were obviously catching sound, so you start to realise how you move through all these incredible soundscapes and everywhere you go is a bit different. It’s very colourful.”
The rich sound of nature is almost inescapable on the album, namely the faint sound of birdsong that permeates through the record at several points. Westmore, who previously had far more experience in sampling tracks than using field recordings, explained that the ever-present sound of chirping was because birds had nestled all around their cabin, which served as their recording studio. According to the guitarist, there was “nature going on” around the central space of the cabin, and thus, was thrust upon them as a constant reminder of their sacred duty to reference the natural world throughout their music. Toussaint, meanwhile, acknowledged that being in such an environment would inevitably impact the work that they made. “It would be weird if we were to make the music that we made there from where we’re living now,” he remarked. “If you’re really locked in with where you’re at, what you’re making will be influenced and be reflective of that.”
Another natural phenomenon had a huge bearing on the group’s work, albeit indirectly. Though the Coronavirus pandemic had, in most respects, a broadly negative impact on everyone’s life in 2020, the shutting down of the outside world enabled the trio take an extra three months to focus on their album. “I think the whole album would have sounded different if that had not had happened, and in a way it gave us more time to immerse”, Westmore reflected. Listening back to the album, Westmore believes that the listener can hear their organic and spontaneous creative process, stating that “it sounds like people working stuff out and exploring, that’s why nothing we make again will sound similar.”
Having met at one of the UK’s cultural hotspots, Bristol, while at university, the gang began producing music together, though they got more serious in their endeavours after graduating in 2018. Whilst living in the South-West of England, one of the key bonding experiences for the group was immersing themselves with the vibrant music scene that the city had to offer. The band attribute their eclectic sound to the variety of music they have been exposed to over the years. Dub music in particular is what the band feel is at the core of what they do, due to its “basis in live instrumentation”, Toussaint theorised. The pannist continued, “the raw feeling of live instruments and electronic [overlapped] take it to another place, and I think dub dances on that line in a way that I haven’t heard anything do quite so comfortably.” Greenwood backed up the group’s credentials as having foundations rooted in dub, by expressing that each of the band members has both “a sound machine that we go to, that you can use without electricity, and then we all have different interests within production”.
That said, Owanj clearly have a wide and varied taste in music, with Westmore even stating that his dream collaboration would be with Tuvan folk ensemble Huun-Huur-Tu who are famed for their throat singing. Although the band cited some key gigs that they had attended throughout their life outside of Bristol, such as a trip to Tokyo in which Greenwood witnessed a great deal of experimental noise music as well as Westmore’s “transcendental” experience watching Paco de Lucía in concert, which fittingly bookends the recording of Azum in Lucía’s native region of Andalusia. Yet, their time in Bristol is where the group learnt many lessons about the power of music. “Spending four years in Bristol and seeing so much music in that time, I realised how essential dancing is, and how much of a part it is of every culture worldwide almost, and to dance you often need music, and I think for me, getting into the full-bodied experience of listening and dancing to music and being with it in every cell really brought it to life,” Greenwood mused. “I’ve had the most amazing experiences whilst on the dancefloor with loads of other people and I’m really excited to start being involved in delivering those kinds of experiences and running with that kind of energy.”
For Toussaint, though he recounts an influential gig from his teenage years seeing dub-reggae legend Jah Shaka in which he describes the sound system as having “waves [that] just picked me up and battered me around”, it was in Bristol where he experienced the deeply spiritual side of live music for the first time. Toussaint reminisced about the time he saw the Twinkle Brothers play at the Trinity Centre, a church converted into a music venue. “This one forced you to have like a religious experience. It is pretty mad. The band itself are ridiculously tight, they have been doing it for so long, it was something else. It felt like it was the first gig they had ever played, but with the experience of those who had been playing for 50 or 60 years, it was very special, I would definitely head back if I had a time-ticket.”
The city has a place in each of their hearts; for Toussaint it is because Bristol was where he first joined a steel pan band at a community centre where he was working. Having grown up with calypso music as a staple of his musical diet, Toussaint came to playing the steel pans seriously rather late in life in comparison to many pannists who began performing at a much younger age. Nonetheless, he was always exposed to an awareness of the power of steel pan music in unifying communities thanks to his family who were instrumental figures in bringing carnival culture to London. Speaking about his mother’s role, who is a music teacher who hails from Dominica in the Caribbean, she, alongside his aunt and his uncle from Guyana “in the early carnivals were organising around getting the floats, getting the first pan groups out there, real hand-to-mouth community organising, where the culture in that way wasn’t really accepting.” This lack of acceptance over the celebration of cultures with unique “diasporic stories” has been a source of grief and pain in the city in which Toussaint honed his skills as a pannist. The St Pauls Carnival in Bristol, a celebration of Afro-Caribbean music and culture, has unfortunately been on the rocks since 2015. Toussaint feels that the lessons he has inherited from his mother about the importance of fighting for acceptance are wholly prescient today, stating that “there are still echoes of the same things going on now”.
Recognition of the bandmembers’ differing roots, as well as strong ties to the multicultural metropolis that is London, also play a big role in creating a sound that is so obviously global. Westmore observed that the band were simply reflective of the UK music scene which acts as “such a melting pot”, pointing out that his heritage lies in Russia, before joking that Greenwood’s is “straight English for 2,000 years or so”. In spite of the singer’s origins being firmly tied to the British Isles, this has not stopped her from gaining curiosity about her own ancestry and how to connect that to her music. “I am really interested in the stories of the Highlands. There is this recurring story on the coast of Scotland of people who are half-seal and half-human, and I am just interested in those kind of stories. There is obviously songs that go with them, what Isaac would call ‘pirate chords’. Last year I spent quite a lot of time playing the guitar in Dadgad, Irish tuning. I am really interested in those songs and those traditions.”
Greenwood, however, was not the only member of the group who sees value in exploring the musical culture of these “very diverse isles”. Toussaint pondered, “within the UK, exploring Celtic traditions is also important, and [from] the various folk traditions across the UK you can learn so much from the places where you are, if things are in place to let that happen.” Toussaint even questioned the notion that there even was such a thing as “straight English”, pointing out that even within just English history, you have Celtic tribes, Romans, Vikings, Normans, and Anglo-Saxons amongst others all influencing the culture in various ways. As a consequence, he implied that the concept that Greenwood’s ancestry is any less diverse than his or Westmore’s might in fact be a fallacy, and as such hers is brimming with rich musical traditions, some of which may have been suppressed like his own. Whilst having been brought up entirely aware of the challenges behind preserving his family’s culture, Toussaint astutely observed, “we have got friends who are Welsh who don’t speak it because it was beaten out of them or the generation above them, and no doubt that affects the songs that you know and get passed down”.
Moreover, the group reached a general consensus that growing up in an environment that is inherently multinational and multilingual served as the perfect breeding ground for gaining curiosity about other musical styles and traditions that would inevitably shape the unique sound of Azum. Westmore acknowledged that in spite of the UK’s problematic past, it has inadvertently left behind a fascinating cultural legacy. “If someone said to me you have to pick something to be proud of about being British, I would pick the music. Overall, it is so representative of the diversity of the people who live here and for that reason it is so unique.” That said, Westmore was quick to note that the electronic music scene is not a “level playing field” partially due to the resources one needs to start out, but also just in terms of the typically “white and male” demographics that dominate the scene. This was not always the case as the sub-genre of house music, for example, which was largely pioneered by people of colour in Detroit and New York City several decades ago, has been appropriated by white people in a similar way to rock, blues, and soul.
He went on to reflect that many marginalised and oppressed peoples "wouldn’t be there in those cities making that music if their ancestors hadn’t been put out on a ship”, in some way appreciative of the uneasy and complicated way in which difficult and painful history can be a catalyst for artistic movements. “That is the crazy thing about all of this, you have all this amazing stuff coming out of this history which is really fucked.” Toussaint echoed the sentiments that history, often nasty and brutal, is to be found within every aspect of our lives due to the forces of colonialism, imperialism and structural racism that have shaped the modern world. “If you go to the shop and you buy some okra and some tomatoes, and some bits and bobs and you are making a meal and there’s a deep history of all of those crops and where they have come from, just in getting to that place there, all of the thousands of years of selection by people in the making them actually plants we can eat, there’s a deep embedded history in something we just do on the daily, in the city, and for me I find that fascinating, and music is the same thing.”
Ultimately though, whilst the album is full of influences that one can hear are definitely not native to just one land or culture in particular, the soil upon which they recorded the album was the overarching inspiration. Westmore himself reminisced about one night in which the trio were listening to Aphex Twin under the stars, and felt the connection between electronic music and nature, perhaps more deeply than ever before. “We had it out in the cabin full blast and the moon was up and it just sat in the environment so well and you just thought this isn’t removed from this at all, it is not removed from the earth, it is just a different approach,” he posited. This ties in to Toussaint’s hopes for the album’s reception. What he would love is to be able to put “someone in that kind of space in which they feel like they’re linked in, that there is a bigger natural world around them that they are a part of, and that is open to them, because that is how I felt when I was making it” he said.
Similarly, Greenwood views the album as being in sync with natural processes, and she described to us a conversation in which the structure of the album would become apparent. “Beginning with the track Joy, which is like steel pans kind of bright morning [sic], which is easing into the day coming down into Melicena and Severn which is like different parts of the afternoon and then bringing you into the evening into the night with Are Bones Alive and then into Amanacer which is our sunrise song,” she continued, “It just magically fell into place.” The relaxed and vibrant feel of the album is reflective of the loose, improvisational sessions that went into recording it, where they had little concrete idea of what it would end up like. Thus, while it has a concept that unites it thematically, it feels unconstrained by such boundaries. The concept of the album, though it makes total sense to the listener once you learn about it, it can simply be listened to both passively and actively as a piece of electronic music that evokes a range of sensations and emotions.
One can really hear the ethereal yet natural quality embedded within. Listening to it with fresh ears, one understands that whilst nature is at the forefront, electronic music and production is also prominent, intertwining together in a wonderful manner. The album opens with Joy, rather aptly named after the warm and fuzzy feeling the listener might experience after hearing the soothing vocal harmonies at the end of the track on the backdrop of Toussaint’s hypnotic pans, changing in pace and tempo throughout the course of the track which eventually settles on a reggae beat. Though the natural world can be heard in the background here, the field recordings really come to the fore on Golondrina, with the sounds of crickets that can be heard from the outset. The song reminds us of some of our favourite eléctrica selvática with its sparse inclusion of Greenwood’s gorgeous vocals serving almost as another instrument, floating in and out of the soundscapes like a sonorous swallow in its natural habitat, the bird species the song was named after. This rather Andean feel is similar to that which is evoked later on Severn. The listener is taken on this short voyage from the Caribbean to Latin America in a natural transition, however, they almost manage to hone a meditative South Asian feel on Sandunga, which combines together with Melicena almost as one piece, where Westmore shows off his calming and soulful guitar skills.
The group’s desire to become a live outfit seems to be most prevalent on Are Bones Alive and their most popular track Amanacer. The first of the pair has a more nightmarish feel, in which the listener might feel like they are through a forest in a search for light, whilst Amanecer’s trancey beats at the start lead onto an inescapable sense of freedom after the vocals half way through the track. One can imagine a dancefloor to be a suitable place for the band after hearing this. Though songs like Miel de la Alma serve as a reprise from the intensity of the previous two tracks, it also sounds like the clean up after the peak of an experience, which could signify either the end of the night, or perhaps used as almost a cleansing at the end of a spiritual or psychedelic experience.
The colourful feel of the album fits in with the naming of the group itself. Owanj means orange in Kwéyòl, the creole language spoken in Dominica, and while the band took the name from Toussaint’s orange-coloured steel pans. It is certainly auspicious that, when one considers the group’s relationship with the natural world in their production of the album, the agricultural plot where Azum was recorded was surrounded by orange groves. When asked about their future plans, the band seemed hesitant to put forward any concrete measures into place, perhaps having learnt from their previous experience that was born out of global uncertainty. Whilst Westmore is preparing to study an MA in Music Production, the group are working on a sojourn away from the ambient side of electronic music as they hope to release some danceable singles and perform more as a live outfit. To us, it seems apparent that with the group’s childlike curiosity and wonder towards other music cultures, as well as being constantly receptive and mindful of the world that surrounds them, they are bound to go onto produce a wide variety of interesting projects.