Inside the Globalhead, an Interview with Neil Sparkes of Temple of Sound

To celebrate the release of Globalhead, the latest gem by world music innovators Temple of Sound, World Music Central interviewed Neil Sparkes one of the brains behind the project. As an additional incentive, Temple of Sound and World Music Central are giving away 3 copies of the latest CD and a free MP3 download. More details here.

Your new album is titled Globalhead. How did you come up with that title?

The title for the album had gone through various stages reflecting the political and social climate, and we were looking for something that would also embrace the range of music Dubulah and myself are into, and that features on the album.

We are both fans of Science Fiction literature and film, and like the way the imagination can be cast into the past, present and future in that genre – Dubulah was a fan of the work of author Bruce Sterling, and he suggested Globalhead from a book of Sterling’s short stories.

As a title it seems to tie up who we are and the music we make.

Globalhead includes Natacha Atlas, among others. What is your relationship with Natacha?

I first worked with Natacha on the TransGlobal Underground track "I, Voyager" in 1992. We’ve worked together now for 15 years.

Together we fronted TransGlobal Underground in the early days, sometimes with only five of us onstage. Natacha features on two of the tracks on Globalhead : City of God and the title track; reminiscent of our duets in the past! While we were both members of TransGlobal we duetted on the tracks "I, Voyager", "Zombie’ites", "International Times", "Topkapi" and the title track of her solo debut Diaspora. Natacha invited me to write the sleeve notes for her debut, and I wrote a short series of poems which became the source for the text.

Natacha‘s been a regular guest of ours live at WOMAD Festivals and Glastonbury in 2005. We produced her cover version of "Man’s World" on Something Dangerous and tracks on Mish Maoul.

There’s a great sense of always moving forward and development in Natacha‘s work, and after such a long and eventful career with her, there’s a good understanding of how she likes to put stuff together to suit her vocal. We always have a good laugh. Her voice is just getting better and better. She’s a star.

Your new album also features Qawwali musicians Rizwan and Muazzam. What led you to invite them?

The experience of making the album People’s Colony No. 1  was incredible; Rizwan and Muazzam so fully embrace the legacy of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and have developed into such fine artists themselves. The experience of then taking the group out on tour performing the album was another amazing journey, they are great to be with and move me profoundly with their voices. They appear on the tracks "Globalhead" and "Garden of Perfume" and when we were working on the title track, it seemed they would be the spirit and energy that would complete the song musically and spiritually.

I really hope we do more together in the future.

Who else appears as a guest on Globalhead?

The album features our Live group of the last few years and includes Brother P aka Pixie who’s one of the best drummers in the world and first worked with us on the tours for "Peoples Colony No.1"; Jamaican/UK vocalist Princess Julianna who has worked with us since 1998; Larry Whelan, Saxophones and Reeds, who was a member of TGU and worked with Natacha Atlas as her MD, and has been a core member of our live band for many years; Abdullah Chhadeh; Ben Baddoo; Junior Delgado; Jah Wobble; Dr Hukwe Zawose; Charles Zawose; Jo Legwabe; Mel Gareh; Adrian Sherwood; Getatchew Mekurya; Teremag Weretow; Nara and Jimi Papazanateas.

What’s new about Globalhead in comparison with previous albums?

The album features our live band, and we had the opportunity to perform and develop some of the tracks on stage. There’s also more of an ensemble feel to the album – and a more textural approach to the rhythms and percussion which I love.

The work on feature films we’ve done over the last few years really developed a lot of our approach to coloring sounds and is best represented by "iZulu (Li Ya Duma" which was composed as title music for the film "Stander". We tried to get voicings and moods to enhance the setting (South Africa) and instrumentation (Penny Whistle etc), and the stunning voice of Jo legwabe. Jo made a Zulu translation of my original lyrics in English, and that whole process was a geat experience.

There’s a sense of movements, sections, in the album; from vocal tracks to instrumental; and also from a gritty more organic World Music feel to a Dub almost Dream-like, more filmic mood towards the end of the album.

What is the musical concept behind Temple of Sound?

We like songs, Dub Reggae, and I love textural percussion and making pictures with sounds.

What does the name Temple of Sound mean?

We think very visually and intuitively when we make music; and after myself and the Count had moved on from TransGlobal Underground we sought to find a name that would be a suitable umbrella to cover the variety of stuff that stimulates us and the flavor of our music.

It signifies the spirit of collaboration and creation that goes into our music – like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Black Ark Studio –hopefully it creates a picture of this huge spiritual, sculptural, collage of friends, spirits, drummers, poets, singers and players that are the sound-track to our lives.

How has the group evolved?

Next year we will be celebrating our 10th anniversary, and it’s intriguing looking back: there are recurring themes and motifs, but also we have now worked with an amazing array of artists on our albums, live, productions and remixes – it really feeds the soul and how we have come to make the new album.

Are there any artists you would like to work with in the future?

Jaramar in Mexico; Omar Puente; Nortec Collective; I would love to work with Jah Wobble on another album collaboration/production; also Los De Abajo who are great friends and allies; There are a number of traditional African players I would love to work with.

Before Temple of Sound, there was TransGlobal Underground. How did you become involved with TransGlobal Underground?

I was working on both the music and poetry scene and was making combinations of spoken word and world music, fusing poetry and percussion; working with jazz musicians such as legendary UK saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith as a poetry and jazz duo, also leading my own groups exploring Jazz, Dub, African, Arabic and World Musics.
In 1991 my poetry and drawings were featured in an anthology titled "Grandchildren of Albion" edited by Michael Horovitz and also featuring text and lyrics by Peter Gabriel. The same year PG invited me after he saw my work to the first Real World Recording Week at his studios to collaborate as a spontaneous lyricist in his studio. The whole experience was like a masterclass, it’s as vivid now as it was then. It made me feel a part of a community of musicians from around the globe, who had no fear in crossing borders; and gave me the confidence to not feel isolated making the music I wanted to explore.

In 1992 I got a call inviting me to go and record vocals on a track by TGU titled "I, Voyager". They had been given my number by the Scottish singer/song writer Lucinda Sieger (I’d played Double Bass in Lucinda’s group; and Temple of Sound later produced tracks for her album "Heart In The Sky"). I guess it was the right call at the right time. (I had been working on lyrics for a track for Leftfield at the time, on what was to become their amazing debut album; but dropped it for TGU.) It was also the recording debut of Natacha Atlas with TGU. I stayed until 1996 and I’m delighted to still be working with Natacha, and extremely proud of the work on her latest album Mish Maoul. I’ve always been lucky to be asked to get involved with some great projects.

What was it that made TransGlobal so creative at the time?

The group came from diverse backgrounds and cultures, and had an amazing experience of different styles of music. All the members had wide ranging experiences of live performance, and the group was very much a live band.

There was a really exciting time in the early 1990’s when the DJ scene collided with live music and within that collision musicians from lots of different styles but with unifying intent were able to join forces to explore combining dance music with their traditions. We were all dabbling with technology and how to play with the notion of using samples/sequences and somehow force a live performance into the thing.

I always enjoyed the combination of live and sequenced (we all listened to a huge array of music, but there were lots of meeting points). Hip Hop/Arabic/African Percussion/Bollywood soundtracks/Dub Reggae and in the centre of it all a lot of humor.

I think the core of why it caught the imagination of a lot of people was that it was real and not a manufactured notion – we had all actually been involved with the music we used for inspiration and played it live. The community of musicians and fans was a real family at one point and through that came support from all over the place. We gave people some amazing gigs, I still get people coming up to me talking about the shows we did at Brixton Academy, the Marquee in London, Glastonbury for 4 years in a row, Festivals all over the planet and WOMAD. In fact a large debt is owed to the WOMAD festival. The band played several years in succession and gained amazing exposure. For me so much influence came from the WOMAD crew and the artists I’ve seen and continue to be amazed by on the WOMAD stages.

What led you to leave TransGlobal?

I released my first solo EP "Achtung Salaam!" just prior to Psychic Karaoke, exploring a more Dub orientated sound. The band had worked very hard on Natacha’s debut Diaspora, and after that we had a good tour supporting the Psychic Karaoke release, but Count Count Dubulah announced he was leaving, and for me it couldn’t be the same band so I left.

There was a move at the time towards the band being even more Arabic in flavor and I think the success of the group was it’s variety of flavor and reflection of a real musical moment in London and the UK, when a variety of cultural voices were able to have a lot of fun enjoying their differences and making new sounds.

What is your main musical instrument?

Vocals; percussion: congas, Egyptian tabla, Latin and Arabic hand percussion.

In addition to your work as musician, you are also a producer. Can you name some of the artists you produced?

Natacha Atlas, Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, Los de Abajo, Fero, Ben Baddoo; a great co-production with Jah Wobble on the album Shout at the Devil; my next production is an amazing group in New Zealand called Batucada Sound Machine in late June 2007.

What do you seek when you get involved in a music production?

I always look for an artist or band who have a developed musical identity, a sense of what they want in their songs and performances.

I also like to get the job done on time and in budget.

What’s more important to you, the music or the sound recording?

The music has to come first and then how it will be recorded; the texture it needs and the colors it suggests. The recording has to reflect the character of the music.

What projects are you involved with now?

Temple of Sound and our new album Globalhead, we’ll be performing the album live soon, and have some exciting projects coming up.

LoungeClash my collaboration with my great friend Sam Dodson (Loop Guru/Slipper) releases its debut album "Dread Time Story" in July 2007, a combination of World, Lounge, Exotica and Dub Reggae.

BouGaRaBou, my new drum ensemble with master drummer Ben Baddoo from Ghana and Alan Barnes, one of the UK’s leading Jazz saxophonists. We will be releasing an album later in the year.

Producing the debut album by Batucada Sound Machine in New Zealand. The group feature a full Brazilian batucada percussion section, horn section and Vocalists; they played a storm at WOMAD last year!! I’ll be at WOMAD UK Mcing one of the stages when I get back from NZ.

I am also guest percussionist for The Stranglers acoustic gigs, we are touring in Europe in the Autumn.

Which clubs in London would you recommend?

Cargo; Jamie Renton’s Chilli Fried; Max Reinhardt and Rita Ray’s The Shrine; Darbucka; Momos; Garth Cartwright and Leon Parker’s Princes Amongst Men and Belly Beats at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton; One of the newest events is Half The World, an occasional season of live world music gigs being staged at The Pizza On The Park in Knightsbridge, in association with fRoots magazine.

What stores in London are the best to buy musical instruments?

Charles Foote’s has great percussion: Chas E Foote Ltd, 10 Golden Square, London W1F 9JA.

Which are your favorite record stores?

Sterns, Rays Jazz Shop in Foyles, Intoxica in Portobello Rd.

You have other artistic sides, besides music. What other art forms do you practice?

Visual Art/Painting; Poetry: several collections published and new one on the way.

Where were you born?

Kent, England.

When did you begin to work as a professional musician?

First proper paid gig when I was 16, as a young aspiring double bass player with my own Latin jazz sextet – it was probably horrendous

What is your favorite meal?

Meat

What music are you listening to lately?

Lots of African percussion; Jose Alfredo Jiménez; Pedro Infante; Antonio Aguilar; Jaramar; Celso Pina; Art Blakey; La Original Sonora Dinamita. Lots of cumbia; King Tubby & Dennis Brown

What is your favorite movie?

I’m a huge cinema fan, so it’s impossible to say only one but I love the films of Nicholas Ray, Bunuel, Orson Welles, Sam Peckinpah, John Huston, it’s an endless obsession!!!

What do you like to do during your free time?

Watch films!!!!

What country would you like to visit?

I want to plan a long trip to Africa, hopefully Ghana

Which is your favorite city?

For their energy and influence on me: Mexico City and Havana

What was your best moment?

Working with artists I greatly admire: being invited into the atmosphere created by Peter Gabriel at Real World for musicians and artists to create in; working with Dick Heckstall-Smith for the best part of a decade, he taught me so much about putting musical elements together and his great passion for poetry always fed our collaboration with amazing insights; Collaborating with Jah Wobble, which was a joy, his bass sound is remarkable; Working with Jean Jacques Burnel, and the friendship that has come out of the music.

What was the first big lesson you learned about the music industry?

Dick Heckstall-Smith said being on-stage was the safest place in the world and he was right. He also said to me it would be great if I could do vocals the way I played percussion, but you don’t have to play all the time!!!

Neil Sparkes photo by Phil Houghton

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