Interview: Jamie Catto from 1 Giant Leap
To mark two decades after the release of the first 1 Giant Leap film and album, we spoke to co-creator of the project Jamie Catto, filmmaker, musician, and author, to discuss the effort that went into making 1 Giant Leap, its considerable legacy, as well as Catto’s varied and exciting endeavours across his career.
““When you make music you are a passenger… you’re ushering it, you’re stewarding it, so you always feel a little bit embarrassed when people congratulate you on it, because you know you didn’t exactly do it. It is like you listened it in, it is like you listened to something from the other room and wrote it down, yet you get the credit as if you invented it."
Released in 2002, 1 Giant Leap was unique for its time as it integrated an album of songs alongside short films which were attached to them. Unlike a typical music video, these were linked to a philosophical or humanistic theme, and unlike a typical film, it could be watched in any order. The full-length film ran to over two hours, and included interviews from culturally and religiously significant figures from across the globe. However, it was not always destined to be this way. “I'd recently wanted to do an around the world film music project and it was called ‘Worlds Collide’”, Catto explained. However, it was a letter of rejection from an acclaimed musician that prompted a change of tack. “I got a very, very loving refusal from David Byrne from Talking Heads, who had said 'actually, Jamie, filming lots of people going around the world just fugging [sic] at instruments gets quite boring quite quickly.'” Realising that Byrne was right, Catto and his partner in crime Duncan Bridgeman then came up with the idea of “[allocating] a philosophical theme to each one of the tracks”, making the various shorts connected to concepts such as blasphemy, confrontation, death, faith, happiness, inspiration, masks and roles, money, sex, and unity. Recorded and filmed in over 20 countries during a six-month round-the-world trip, joining up visual images with music to form a kind of cinematic poetry, the pair were subconsciously inspired by such films as Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi in their approach, with Catto stating he spent many evenings as a teenager “stoned off [his] face” while watching these types of films in awe.
Before he had the chance to collaborate with artists from across the world music circuit such as Native American trio Ulali, Bollywood legend Asha Bhosle, and New Zealand Māori singer Whirimako Black, Catto was part of a small but passionate group of world music fans who were keen to get others in on the hype. Like many people interested in music from across the globe, Catto was introduced to this scene by the work of Peter Gabriel and WOMAD. Catto’s first venture into music was, as he jokes, as part of one of London’s “two hippie bands” of the 1990s, The Big Truth Band, who donned “big hair [and] purple waistcoats”. He continued, “we were a total misnomer of hippiness, while the rest of the culture were all doing clubbing and wearing sportswear, we would sort of be the ‘70s in the ‘90s.” It was, however, only when he met a Canadian named Vince DeCicco, an accordionist and singer in the other hippie band called Praying For The Rain, that he was introduced to the wondrous array of music that was on show at WOMAD in 1992. “We saw Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in a tent where we were all sitting on hay bales, we saw Papa Wemba, we saw the incredible Bulgarian lap singers with the sawdust on the floor, the ladies that were singing the atonal crazy harmonies, and we saw circles of really talented djembe players.” Catto reflected fondly upon the many flautists he saw, such as Hariprasad Chaurasia, but he claimed it was the “Japanese shakuhachi flute player that set us all into a trance. And when we came back from there, we were changed.” He later elaborated that he felt that after his transformative experience at WOMAD, “the days of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge were over for [him].”
It was this shared interest that sparked his friendship with Duncan Bridgeman. While Catto was living in Brighton on the South East coast of England, his flatmate told him that a friend would be coming to stay in her room while she was out of town. That person was Bridgeman. Catto recounted to us that the two got chatting, and they “just got into this conversation about music that was just immediately, like, totally locked in”. Both were fans of Peter Gabriel’s innovative soundtrack album for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ named Passion, as well as the Brian Eno and David Byrne collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. For Catto, “it was one of those great moments where you meet a real musical kindred spirit”, as it was rare to have met someone else who claimed the Byrne/Eno album to be their favourite album too.
Despite loving music from further afield that did not follow the ordinary Western pop music structure, both Catto and Bridgeman agreed that whilst many of their favourite artists such as Oumou Sangaré, Baaba Maal, and Zakir Hussain were incredible performers, the production of their albums were “a little bit abrasive”. The pair posed themselves the question, “surely there must be a way to make music where you can really hear how fucking incredible these people are?” One such way that the 1 Giant Leap production team felt was a conducive avenue to go down, was to follow the path of musical fusion, as laid down by Paul Simon’s Graceland, as well as Michael Brook’s collaborations with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Hukwe Zawose, and Djivan Gasparyan, all of which “meet you half way”.
Though they had plenty of ideas and enthusiasm, it was a chance meeting at his daughter’s second birthday party that gave them the opportunity to establish themselves as a professional duo. Bridgeman and Catto had been in the recording studio earlier in the day, playing around with different sounds that Catto had brought back with him from his tour with Faithless in South Africa. At the party, seeking some respite from the “fucking house full of little children and toddlers and mothers and nappies”, he took a friend of his into his room to show her the cassette of his day’s work. Meanwhile, another woman entered the room to change her child’s nappy, who overheard the sounds they had run from the desk, and excitedly revealed that she was the chief commissioning editor for Sky TV, who was looking for music akin to what Catto was playing, for a TV show she was working on. One thing led to another, with serendipitous happenstance involving Robbie Williams’ management company putting them in touch with Chris Blackwell from Island Records, who loved the 1 Giant Leap concept; the rest, as they say, is history. After six months pre-production, they then set off around the world for another six months, recording the music and filming the interviews and sessions. When asked about how much of it was rigorously structured in pre-production, he replied that “half of it was according to plan, half of it was the space in between where the magic happens.”
Whilst the reception of the film-album was generally positive, so much so that in 2009 a sequel named What About Me? was released, the nature of the project left itself open to criticisms surrounding cultural appropriation, inauthenticity, and orientalism. Catto is aware of these, but rejects the bulk of these charges. “Of course, there's no question that being a white privileged person allowed me to have the confidence… but at the same time, I think our hearts were genuinely in the right place. I can't help that I'm white or Jewish or whatever you want to say, you know, I could carry shame and guilt about all the privileges I've had, or I can use those privileges to do good shit.” He argues that while perhaps some of these criticisms have some truth, none of it came from a place of malice nor a desire to exploit the other cultures, and he argues that good things came from the project. “I think we gave a platform to a lot of people. 1 Giant Leap was a massive showcase of people that wouldn't have got that much exposure. That's not why we did it. I mean, we did do it, but it was more selfish than that,” he chuckled.
Catto likened it to sharing the joy of music that one loves. “So, this is the selfishness of 'have you heard Baaba Maal? Fuck! Have you heard how much he loves Allah when he fucking sings? Oh my God, listen to this!' It was that enjoyment of showing everyone how great these people were. We didn't go out with a really worthy, 'we need to expose the poor people of the world’ and us, in our lovely magnanimous white rich way, we were much more childish than that.” Or, as he put it more succinctly, it came out of a philosophy of “[doing] good shit selfishly”. Whatever your views on the project and the music, when speaking to Catto, he comes across as a sincerely authentic person whose work is based on integrity. These accusations of cultural appropriation were charged not only by some viewers of the film, but also by potential participants within it, particularly the Māori. Meeting some resistance from a proportion of the Māori performers they approached, the pair explained that they are artists building a project based on showing the “beauty of everything so that more and more people can experience the beauty”. Some Māori decided to participate, others chose not to.
Despite an overarching philosophy guiding 1 Giant Leap, Catto alleges the project was “artistic”, and it “wasn’t political”. In a knowing and self-effacing manner, he told us “you never think that you're doing anything that's gonna fucking change the world, you know? Like, we're realistic about that. If fucking John Lennon hasn’t managed to do it, what chance have I got?!” Catto was also very open with us about the many people that they were unable to get for the project, joking that he would send a list of all those star-studded names who turned him down. He mentioned to us that Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and David Bowie all rejected the offer, and uncharacteristically, so did the godfather of the world music scene, Peter Gabriel. Catto and Gabriel did eventually work together, however, as after the release of 1 Giant Leap, Gabriel invited Catto and Bridgeman to have lunch at Real World Records studios, and then they worked on production for Kenyan nyatiti maestro, Ayub Ogada. Despite their earlier rejection, the two remained starstruck and awed by the great man’s presence, with Catto telling us “we were like ‘we are your beautiful offspring!’” One big name they were able to score was Michael Stipe from R.E.M., a person of whom Catto spoke very highly. He felt that Stipe brought a level of credibility to the project that meant others were then motivated to join. However, it was not just his immense status that aided Catto, but rather his characteristics as a human being, and the friendship that then grew. “He didn’t just make a mark on me musically, he made a mark on me as a human being, he really touched me deeply and made me feel I had the permission to be this sort of misfit. He upheld me being as I was.”
Stipe, who famously has little regard for what is perhaps R.E.M.’s most famous tune, Shiny Happy People, gave Catto a piece of advice regarding writing popular songs that capture the imagination of the public at large, but that the songwriters themselves may not regard so highly. Catto could have followed a path of creating huge hits as he did in the 1990s with Faithless, whose song Insomnia went down a storm in the UK and across Europe. Catto choses not to bite the hand that fed him, as he stated that he never felt as strongly against his former band’s biggest hit as Stipe feels about his, though he did admit that after the song’s success, the band would play the track early in their live shows to get it out of the way. His lack of contempt for the song is also rooted in the fact that it was almost not a hit. Insomnia was released to little fanfare, and almost disappeared off the charts before being picked up by the “wonderful gay people of Munich”, who decided it would be the “theme tune” of their Pride Parade. “From there [it] spread, number one in Germany, it spread around the world.”
Another figure who Catto featured in the documentary, and later went on to profile in his documentary Becoming Nobody, was American spiritual teacher Ram Dass. Having met Ram Dass in a rather unusual fashion during a naked yoga class, he had the opportunity to further connect with him during the making of 1 Giant Leap, and though music was not a principal part of their relationship, he recalls Ram Dass using sacred singing from the kirtan, particularly Krishna Das and his “beautiful bhajans”. However, the primary learnings from his time spent with Ram Dass was connected to ideas surrounding spirituality. This philosophy enhances much of Catto’s worldview, which he has felt he has had since the age of six. He claims this philosophy is one that preaches “realising you are a speck, you are nothing and you are everything and love and being nice to people and realising that they are all fighting a battle, the fucking basics”. For us, the most profound and resonant remark that Catto made, that seems to guide his perspective of musical and spiritual curiosity, was his description of our limitations as human beings. “We are looking through a letterbox, we can’t see further than infrared, we can’t see ultraviolet, we can’t hear beyond a certain decibel, we can’t hear what a dog can hear, our spectrum of perception is incredibly narrow, the idea that we would have the arrogance to see, only what I can see with my crappy Atari Nokia receptor box, that’s the only reality there is, is just fucking stupid.”
Catto feels that he is not expressing anything revolutionary or ground-breaking, but all of his work has been based on the fundamental principles of “human connection and love”. Making his name initially through the immensely successful 1990s electronic outfit Faithless, nowadays Catto has a different focus, with music still playing a fundamental role, though it is filtered through creative workshops, mentorships, and making films. One such example of how music plays an integral role within these activities is the gestalt work that he does with his clients in which they dialogue with their inner child, in what is effectively two-chair work. One record he likes to use in particular is Internal – Music for Dissolving, which he recorded in India with Alex Forster. Catto uses music in these sessions because, in his view, “music can make an environment of potency to support people’s heart, longing and yearning”.
Another work that Catto is similarly proud of was also recorded abroad, again with someone he met through the extraordinary 1 Giant Leap journey. Fulfilling an ambition to record a Lauryn Hill-esque reggae record, Catto collaborated with the South African singer Aluta Lichaba on The Struggle Continues, as he deemed her to be a sound-alike for Hill. A love of reggae seems to run in the family, as his brother Robin joined Manasseh Sound System in the late 1980s, and can be found DJing at any given opportunity, frequenting Sunsplash Festival in Jamaica as regularly as he can. Though Catto does not come from a musical family, the arts are nonetheless in his heritage. His grandfather, Max Catto was a famous author and playwright in the late 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, with some of his works being turned into Hollywood films. Knowing how hard it was to make it in the business, his grandfather banned any of his family from pursuing the arts, though with a twinkle in his eye, Catto told us that once Faithless had achieved success, his grandfather was “suitably pleased that he was proved wrong”. Catto’s daughter Lolly is a musician herself in a band called Sol Vision, and Catto is keen to encourage her musical endeavours. He mentioned to us that his own parents were not artistically inclined, but nonetheless supported him and nurtured his passions.
Catto wistfully recalled a musical awakening he had whilst on holiday to Greece with his parents. He vividly remembers being left to roam around the hotel complex and encountering a big marquee tent where the house band were rehearsing. He recounted to us that he was “transfixed” by the “gleaming blue chrome” of the drum kit. The drummer, a Frenchman named Xavier beckoned him over and placed him on the drum stool. Only teaching him through gestures due to the language barrier, “every day for this three-week holiday, he would give [him] a little drum lesson”. Catto continued, “by the end, I was in love with him and in love with drums, and I thought I found my thing, this is what I am going to do with my life.” Aware of Xavier’s profound influence on his career and life, Catto has been keen to get in touch with him, despite not knowing his full name or exactly how to do so. A decade ago, he made contact with the hotel to try and find out what happened to Xavier in order to thank him. However, it was to no avail. This effort was unsuccessful. Recently, however, he discovered a photo of Xavier, which Catto is thinking of putting up as an advert in a French newspaper to help him in his search. If Xavier or any relatives or friends of his happen to be reading, we will gladly put you in touch to provide a satisfying conclusion to this quixotic tale.
The poetic nature of this wordless musical connection is not lost on Catto nor on us when considering the kind of music that Catto ended up making. The transformational and boundary-breaking nature of music was what drew him to wanting a career in music in the first place. This experience compounded in his mind that music is a “tool for feeling.” Acknowledging the power of music, he explained that “the reason people love music is it makes you feel jubilant when you listen to Coldplay or the Rolling Stones, or it makes you feel sad when you listen to a Chopin sonata, it makes you feel motivated when you listen to the William Tell Overture.” That emotional connection is at the core of all his musical projects.