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Escape Velocity

Getting To Know Your Neighbours: Zun Zun Egui Interviewed
Simon Jay Catling , October 18th, 2011 08:52

Bella Union's international brigade have come to Britain to blast us with one of the best debuts this year, tell us to respect the elderly and explain why there's no community at Tesco

It's hard to not to view Britain as a particularly dull, grey, despondent place at the moment. A country that, as I write, is collectively sinking further and further into its chair, as it watches the Conservative Party effectively speak of widening the chasm between classes. A country still reeling from and, worryingly, appearing to dismiss the youth riots that took place during high summer. At its worst, it's hard to muster up anything approaching pride about living here.

But listen and speak to Zun Zun Egui and they'll paint you a different picture. Formed after frontman Kushal Gaya and keyboardist Yoshino Shigihara moved at the turn of the millennium to the UK (from Mauritius and Japan respectively), they don't skirt around the issues that have faced them since moving here. Yet through that, they see their adopted homeland as a creatively vibrant place, a fragmented land filled with disparate people who need to be brought back together rather than pushed further apart. There are echoes of this attitude in their debut LP Katang, an album with rock music at its heart, but deflected through an array of hypnotic polyrhythms, pop-up guitars and multilingual vocals. At its bright, colourful best it's as though a carnival's gallivanting through your head, dozens of different touchstones melded together, but done so in a spirit of celebration rather than contemplation. What's striking about Zun Zun Egui is an unspoken belief in this land. They want to re-ignite the fading embers of physical community, and over a video call - once the pleasantries are out of the way – they tell me exactly why.

Apparently there were around a dozen members when you started. Is that true?

Kushal Gaya: It's funny, every time we meet someone they say 'Didn't you guys have, like, 25 members?' and we're like 'Yeah, we had two football teams!' But yeah, probably only about nine.

But now you're a four-piece with Luke [Mosse, bassist] and Matt [Johns, drummer], drawn together from clearly diverse cultural backgrounds. What's the common bond that brings you together?

KG: As people there's plenty - in musical taste alone. Everyone's got different tastes but there's a common ground within that.

Anything specific?

KG: There's a lot of jazz; the free jazz movement - we all enjoy that stuff – things like Mahavishnu Orchestra as well.

Yoshino Shigihara: John Coltrane.

KG: Of course!

Coming over from Mauritius to get into music here, how did you find your first experiences getting involved?

KG: To be honest with you my awareness of rock was pretty basic. I learnt quickly because I was hanging out with a load of people who were putting shows on. When it comes to the rock idiom, that specific kind of music, I learnt it here. Things like the Jesus Lizard and the Boredoms I picked up on late. When I came here my main music was Mauritian traditional music, Iranian trad, some rock I guess – Zeppelin and Sabbath - but that's stuff that's known worldwide.

How aware and into western music is Mauritius as a place growing up? Is there much beyond its own traditional music?

KG: It was what was on the radio. There wasn't this huge culture of sharing that's here; that's happening there now. But when you grow up you hear the pop stuff on the radio, and an awful lot of Bollywood music! The relationship with music there is not as commercialised as it is here, or as widespread.

When you first started in Bristol you also put on a club night called 'How Come…' Was there an ethos behind it?

KG: We just wanted to party, man! But the whole point of them was that we could've made it an intellectual music night, super arty - but we didn't want this. We wanted to get people together and expose them to interesting music, so we've had a huge variety of acts playing there from Sun Araw to Action Beat.

Do you still do them now?

YS: Not when we're on tour, but hopefully when we come back.

Let's move on to your debut album, Katang. Where did the title come from?

KG: It's just something we settled on. 'Katang' is onomatopoeia I guess, it's the sound of energy.

It's such an eclectic listen, with influences being flung at it from seemingly every corner of the world. That goes as far as the lyrics where you swing from English to French, Creole...

KG: I don't pretend to be some kind of great poet or lyricist. Sometimes I like writing lyrics, sometimes the music doesn't need them. Sometimes I just use some Creole sounds but then mess them about and create something unique that still resonates emotionally.

What resonates is that despite all these different elements and clearly predetermined intricacies, it never feels like a hard listen. It's quite pop, there's little to scratch your beard to.

KG: Ha, brilliant!

How hard has it been to distil all of this into something cohesive and fluid?

KG: We've had to review our processes of songwriting many times. It was hard to be honest.

YS: We used to have 30 minute songs.

KG: Before this album we'd done three experimental EPs, but with Katang we said, 'We're going to sit down and listen to it ourselves, and have it as an experience.' Many have had this idea before of course. I listened to an interview with Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood where they said it's interesting to listen to your music with a lot of distance. So we sat down and listened to our songs and just decided whether we liked it or not. If we didn't then something had to change. We didn't do anything that was forced, or wasn't gelling.

We wanted to push boundaries, but [then] we also wanted to make some cool fucking songs. We aren't trying to be clever all the time and artists can be quite pretentious sometimes, in the sense that they believe the public or the listener has to make all the effort. For me, in terms of art, music is about communication.

Returning to the bilingual aspect of the album: what fascinates is that it's within songs, and even within lines, that you're swapping languages. Certainly some are used for phonetic sounds and their aural benefits, but do the different languages allow for listeners to take layered meanings from just one song?

KG: Well, sort of. But I'll give you the meaning of one song. 'Mr Brown' is about old people. I'm concerned about equality and injustice so the song is really about the way old people are treated, because we are in a society now which has valued the young and invincible for so long.

There is a long-running sense of 'We must think to the future', which tends to largely ignore the people that are actually around now.

KG: Well, yeah. And the reason we're in such a social crisis in the UK is partly because the young people don't have anyone to go and get advice from. There are no communities, you miss out on knowledge that used to be passed down through people. I'm not saying old people are good or bad, but I'm talking about ancestral knowledge. And being from Mauritius and coming to live in England, I saw this big gap between people and their ancestors compared to how I dealt with mine. I feel that I have my feet on the ground and feel stable, because I know I have this link with my ancestors.

I don't know if it's a simple as an erosion of respect between youth and elders, but the West moves so quickly now in terms of social and technological advances that elder people and younger people have absolutely no similarities in their lives anymore.

KG: Definitely.

YS: In Japan I'll visit my Grandma and she lives near my parents' house, grandchildren will see their grandfathers almost daily. That doesn't happen here.

KG: It sounds a little esoteric and mythical, but when you have this regular contact you can go about thinking about your existence in a different way, in terms of how you deal with life. [pauses] There's no one to teach you how to deal with pressure or communication. All you have is yourself and your emotions - and they aren't always the best thing to go with.

Nevertheless, it seems that rather than dwell on these issues negatively, your goal is in fact to look for the best in things. The album comes across as a great tapestry of bright colours, almost celebratory.

YS: Well, we don't want to make miserable music.

KG: It's important to make music with energy. Zun Zun is definitely about this and we really want to take people at our shows on a trip with us. We don't want to be divisive at this moment in time, our music does mess with people's minds a little, but ultimately we want to link people together. Someone doing it so well at the moment is Merrill Garbus and her band tUnE-yArDs. She effortlessly brings people together and changes people's state of mind so brilliantly. In these times that we're living in it's great to have this kind of stuff.

That's refreshing to hear at a time when music is reverting more and more, both in listening and creation, to the bedroom.

KG: There is an introverted part of us but we've definitely got extroversion as well. We've had people coming to us after our show saying, 'I'm going to be feeling great all week now.' I know it's just a standard stupid thing someone might say to you after a show, but the sentiment of it is a good thing.

YS: We played Roskilde Festival this year and it was really busy and there was dancing and it was incredible. We connected!

K: That's it! Connection. When you go to Tesco you're not connecting to people. Where is that here? Where is the community? And we're not talking about cheesy, 'Hey, let's dance together!' We're talking about just general feelings. That's what we want to bring.