Nathan, with the Nathan Daems Quintet you play jazz, with Antwerp Gipsy-Ska Orchestra Balkan music, for Ragini Trio you explore the Indian music tradition and Black Flower is strongly influenced by Ethio-jazz. You seem to like some variation in your work.
Nathan Daems (bandleader/saxophone/flute): "The thing is: musicians of my generation have had the luxury of growing up with an amazing array of musical genres at their disposal. On top of that, I live in Brussels, which is a modern metropolis buzzing with people and cultures from the four corners of the earth."
If you just look at it from a technical perspective, does one genre allow you to express yourself more than the other?
Nathan Daems: "I wouldn't go as far as to say more, but there are differences. In oriental music, melancholic melodies will be more prevalent, while in jazz the melodies will often be more abstract in nature. Where Ethio-jazz and Balkan music are concerned, I gradually found my own path. These days, I feel totally comfortable playing these genres, something that in the beginning definitely wasn't the case yet. I studied both genres intimately; not that that means I necessarily play them the traditional way, but it's knowledge I can always fall back on."
When did the idea for Black Flower first start taking shape?
Nathan Daems: "In all honesty I have to admit I only discovered the Ethio-jazz genre a few years ago. Like most amateurs of Ethiopian music, I stumbled on the music of Mulatu Astatke at one point, and the melodies I heard immediately mesmerized me. In a distant past, I still played reggae for some time and, even though that's totally different from Ethio-jazz, I still love dub music to this day and influences from that can clearly be heard in some of the tracks we perform with Black Flower. I would even go as far as to say that what we do with Black Flower shouldn't be labelled Ethio-jazz; it's our personal synthesis of the genre, that's all. That being said, I would like nothing more than to get the opportunity to work with Mulatu."
You just mentioned you still played reggae at one point. One only needs to add the philosophy of Rastafari to the reggae mix to end up in Ethiopia; exactly being the country where you ended up focusing on with Black Flower. Nathan Daems has come full circle.
Nathan Daems: "You're not too far from the mark there and the funny thing is where Rastafari focuses on emperor Haile Selassie I, for 'Abyssinia Afterlife' we went even further back in Ethiopian history and explored the legend of Prester John (Prester John, was a legendary medieval "king of the Indies", who supposedly reigned over a vast and mighty Christian kingdom located somewhere in the east of Asia. In the era of the crusades the legend of Prester John was taken for fact, even though neither Prester John nor his kingdom have ever existed. The exact origins of the legend remain unclear, but in the fourteenth century the fact the kingdom was located in Abyssinia, present day Ethiopia, began to take hold in Europe, something that could probably be traced back to the delegation emperor Zara Yacob sent to attend the Council of Florence in 1441, red.)."
I know you'd like nothing more than to take Black Flower to Ethiopia, but have you had the chance to visit the country yourself yet?
Nathan Daems: "Not as yet, no. I have to admit I'm not a big fan of visiting a country simply as a tourist, so I'd prefer to go there with a clear project in mind."
jazz is only now gaining popularity in the west, when in Ethiopia the genre is all but forgotten.
Nathan Daems: "I think that evolution is only natural. I also play gipsy music and even though that genre is still appreciated in the Balkans, most people over there listen to the same bland pop music you hear on the radio over here."
Instead of a traditional biography of the band, your website (www.blackflower.be) features a crazy story about a missing saxophone. Was it a conscious decision to do that?
Nathan Daems: "In a way it was, yes. In western society we've gradually forgotten the value a good story can offer. Not everything has to be spelled out or be totally verifiable. Our society focuses on rationality, but myths and legends can often hold as much value as a nice piece of investigative journalism. Those kinds of stories impact people's senses and imagination and we all feel the need to let our dreams take over once in a while."
As a kid you started out playing the violin. Was there a defining moment when you absolutely wanted to switch to the saxophone?
Nathan Daems: "I was still very young when I got my first violin lessons and to be honest I can hardly remember anything about that time anymore; I never briskly switched from one instrument to another though. At the time I started playing with Ionyouth (Belgian reggae band and sound system from the region of Genk, Limburg, red.), I hadn't touched my saxophone in years. It was playing with that band that reignited my passion for music, making me take my instrument serious again and eventually steering me towards the Royal Conservatory in Ghent."
How important would you say an academic formation is for a musician?
Nathan Daems: "When I started at the Royal Conservatory, I was in a period of my life where I was listening to a lot of jazz and wanted to get a deeper understanding of the genre so I could also play it myself. You could compare a musician attending conservatory with a carpenter apprentice taking up apprenticeship with a master to appropriate certain techniques and to be initiated in the secrets of the trade. As a musician, you don't necessarily need to put that into practice, but it's great baggage to fall back on. That being said, it definitely does not make someone a better musician, as the best musicians never stop working on their technique."
For the sleeve design of 'Abyssinia Afterlife' you opted for an artistic design. Who was behind that?
Nathan Daems: "That was done by Kasper Baele (www.kasperbaele.be, red.), an artist from Ghent. He's a really talented young lion I met a couple of years ago. Apart from drawing and painting he also composes his own music, intuitively playing a number of Japanese and Indian flutes. Drawing and painting are absolutely not my forte, forcing me to relinquish control and trust in the capacities and views of others. I knew Kasper would get the vibe and the story behind Black Flower though, and I'm really happy with the design he came up with."