“Music is a fantastic communication medium” – French cross-cultural flutist-composer Jean-Luc Thomas
Based in Brittany, French flutist and composer Jean-Luc Thomas has traveled around the world for a series of musical collaborations. Celtic traditions blend in a creative mix with African, Arab and South American sounds in his albums. Spanning folk, classical music and jazz, Jean-Luc continues to cover a wide range of sounds and styles in his projects. His earlier albums include Ainara, Translations, The Dance of Fire, Parallel Horizon, Namou, Kej, Hastan, Dibenn, and History of Water, Tree and Stone.
I caught two performances of his fusion lineup promoting his most recent album, Magic Flutes, as part of an India tour. He performed with Indian musicians Ravichandra Kulur (flute), Giridhar Udupa (ghatam), and Muthu Kumar (tablas, cajon, djembe, darbuka). They played at Alliance Francaise and The B-Flat Bar in Bangalore. In this interview, Jean-Luc speaks on his collaboration of Celtic and Carnatic styles of music, his decades-long musical journey, and message to the world.
Q: How would you describe your musical journey so far, in terms of phases, genres, collaborations, inner discovery, and so on?
JL: I learned to play the flute alone, then I learned to play music thanks to others. I started with no teachers because flute, at that time, was very new in Brittany. So I had to find the basic technical things by myself. Then I met old singers of Breton traditional musics who gave me times and songs, then I went to Ireland to play during the sessions they have in pubs.
Here I learned many technical things and lots of tunes. I was a traditional musician for 15 years (quite successful), but I felt I had to listen to others sounds. So I went to Mali, Poland, Brazil, Kurdistan, Tunisia, Niger, and so on. I played each time with local musicians. I also started to meet jazz musicians, story-tellers, electronic musicians – and little by little I discovered new sounds, new territory. I improved my availability and capacity to listen and then play with other people.
So, I always keep one feet in my local music and the other foot in encounters of other artists with improvisation as a key to communicate.
Q: How did the lineup for Magic Flutes get formed in France, and then in India?
JL: In France, Ravi and I decided to invite Camilo Menjura on guitar for the recording (we had met him earlier in Rudolstadt (Germany) in 2013). When we started recording Ravi and I immediately thought about Camilo. Camilo is a Colombian guitar player living in London. When we performed last June, he couldn’t leave England for administrative reasons, so we had Philippe Bayle at the guitar. In June, we also performed with tabla player Prabhu Edouard, who plays kanjira and some other percussion as well. It was a great moment!
In India, Ravi wanted to try several combinations, I think it was a very good idea. We could change the colors of each concert, so we had Giridhar Udupa (ghatam), Muthu Kumar (tablas, cajon, darbuka), Swam Selvanganesh (kanjira), and Rafiq Langa (khartal). We played sometimes in trio, sometimes in quartet. I completely trusted Ravi on his musical propositions. So, every concert was a different party.
Q: What are the features of Carnatic music that makes it possible for you to collaborate so well with South Indian musicians?
JL: As a Breton traditional musician, I come from a modal music, not tonal. This is the specificity of Carnatic ragas. We play modes or ragas and not tonality. I’m fascinated with modes, music with drones, which is very meditative and very inspiring for improvisation. The time stops, you are in a meditative atmosphere and then you let the ideas become organized, the improvisation emerges, and you let music go through you!
Q: How was your overall experience touring through India this month? What were some highlights for you?
JL: We had very good concerts in Bangalore, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Delhi. Every concert was different because we changed the line up for each concert. It was a really good experience to travel through India with Ravichandra as a guide. I saw so many different things, met so many people, listen to so many amazing musics, eaten so many different meals, that I need a little bit of time for a good digestion of all that!
Q: How did the musicians know each other?
JL: I met Ravi in Rudolstadt in July 2014, Camilo Menjura was also a part of Magic Flute’s first creation in Rudolstadt. Then sometimes I introduced Ravi to Western musicians, sometimes Ravi introduced me to Indian musician. Music is a fantastic communication medium!
During the Indian tour, many musicians met just before the concert. The musical quality of each of them allows lot of precision and freedom for us. Music allows that situation, especially if you are ready to improvise, which is obvious in India, but not so obvious sometimes in Europe.
Q: How is your album being received by audiences and media?
JL: We had very good feedbacks of this album, internationally (Canada, South America, USA Belgium) and in France (including Brittany, where I live). Endorsements and praise have come from Cloudcast (Canada), RTBF (Belgium), Le Tregor, Global Village, Trad Magazine, and Ethnotempos.
Q: The tracks ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Carnaak Nagin’ really jump out! Can you describe how they were created?
JL: I composed the fast melody of Crossroads for Ravi in 2014 when I came to Bangalore. I was thinking about his flute and this tune arrived. Then we practiced together and Ravi wanted to have an aalap. When he played it, I was thinking of the ancient Pibroch (Piobaireachd or Celmar) of the old tradition of bagpipes from Scotland. Then Ravi composed the last tunes, and one after the other, each of us brought an idea; we tried, we kept, we changed, we threw, we kept some elements. It is the way we work together. On the album, the presence and colors of Camilo Menjura are awesome, and he contributes a lot to the sound of this album.
Carnaak Nagin is another story. We were talking about common groove and scales. I played a very old tune from South Brittany on a very old scale (microtonality, ¼ tone) and Ravi immediately enjoyed it, so we played it again. The tempo arrived and the dances from South-Brittany could communicate with Indian snake’s dances. For the recording, Ravi also wanted to have additional percussion and they also bring their own colors in this album, on tunes like Carnaak Nagin. (Carnac is a place in south Brittany famous for menhirs and dolmens of the old Celts tradition.)
Q: What other lineups have you played with?
JL: The album original ‘Magic Flutes’ features Camilo Menjura (guitar), Jerome Kerihuel (percussion), and additional percussionists K.U Jayachandra Rao (mridangam), G. Guruprasanna (kanjira) and Muthu Kumar (table, darbuka). For my Bangalore tour in 2014, I collaborated with Arun Kumar (drums), Prakash Kn (bass), and Aman Mahajan (keyboards).
In France, I have teamed up with Philippe Bayle (guitar) and Prabhu Edouard (tablas, kanjir). Other musicians on my India tour this year have been Swami Selvanganesh (kanjira) and Rafiq Langa (karthals).
Q: What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
JL: As a flute player, you need to work every day on the instrument, so, it’s a lot of time just to keep connected to the instrument. You need to work on technical things, daily exercises on improvisation and traditional music. Then you need to feed your art by listening, reading, observing nature, to find inspiration for compositions, new roads to explore as an artist and, of course, meet other musicians.
And then, you need to work, record albums, perform live. I created a label with Gaby Kerdoncuff, another musician from Brittany, called Hirustica, which is 10 years in 2017. It allows us to record and produce our music with 100% liberty. So you need to be always connected to the instrument, find ideas and be creative, try to perform to make your compositions live on stage or on albums.
Q: Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
JL: So many influencers, from local musicians and singers from Brittany and Ireland to others like Hariprasad Chaurasia, Hermeto Pascoal, Alim Kasimov, Steve Reich, Egberto Gismonti, Eric Dolphy, and Rolland Kirk – without forgetting the amazing nature from Brittany with sea, birds, forests and rivers and all the wonderful musicians I met on my musical journey!
Q: How do you blend different musical influences and genres, i.e. how do you create fusion without confusion?
JL: In all the collaborations I had, I wanted everybody to keep his accent. I think of music as a discussion, sometimes you have to talk, sometimes you have to listen and be silent when the other is speaking. When everybody speaks, that’s confusion for me in music as in life. So, the human quality of the others musicians is also fundamental.
Q: What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums? What is your vision of what music can do in this age of political and economical turmoil?
JL: We can be Indian, Breton, Nigerian, and so on – but before all we are terrans, we live on this earth, we have our qualities and limit. There are so many things we can’t do alone so we need to work and learn from the other. Anyone else can teach us some important things in music, in life. We need to move the borders, keep our accent, our spices, but cook together something new with humility and sincerity because each is a new school.
1+1 is more than 2. Over religions, politics, and opinions, you have music and the quality of a relationship on stage. I played with so many different musicians. But I felt always the desire to share music above all with all of them. Through music or arts, you can meet so many different people. Learn to accept and enjoy the difference because it helps to learn and grow.
Q: What new album or video are you working on now?
JL: The next album, ‘Serendou.’ will be released in February. It’s a collaboration with the amazing flautist and singer Yacouba Moumouni and Boubacar Souleymane from Niger, we have worked together for 10 years now. We played in Niger, France, Brazil, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, and now it’s time for the second album. We have guests Carlos Malta (Pifano-Japurutu) and Bernardo Aguiar (pandeiro) from Rio de Janeiro, and the amazing Michel Godard on tuba. We’ll be on tour in France and Scandinavia in March 2017.
I will also finish a new solo creation ‘Oficina Digital,’ which is a concert where I wrote 100% of the music. I worked with a looper who sent soundtakes I made in Brazil during different stays and my own flute that I loop in real time for diffusion via five speakers around the audience. There is also a video I made in Brazil. It’s a creation with video mappings and spatialized sounds, and takes me a lot of time.
Q: How is the creative scenario for jazz and fusion music in France today?
JL: My humble perception is that it’s still possible to find some places opened to experimentations, creations, far from the big music business. But it’s a fragile network supported by people of an amazing faith in new sounds, radicalities and explorations. I’m surrounded by fine musicians who try to explore new musical horizons, sometimes they can have support from festivals, venues, producers, radios – and sometimes not, but most of them don’t give up and never will.
In the 70s it seemed that everything was possible, now some producers have managed to format music as entertainment and not for art or culture, so it’s not so easy for creative and original artists to be regularly programmed. But there still remain some places and festivals who keep providing spaces for undiscovered sounds.
Q: Are French audiences, venues, labels and artistes very open to collaboration?
JL: Some are, others are not. Most of them are in search of rentability or easy profit. It means mainstream success. As in any city, you can find fast food and cheap bad food restaurants, you’ll find in the world (and France is a part of that), fast listening, quick consuming, big musical gatherings who can survive because they sell lots of beers surrounded by a bad loud sound. But it’s also always possible to find real restaurants with people who prepare good food with originality, ethics and creativity.
Q: Where do you see yourself 10 or 15 years from today? What are some ‘dream projects’ or visions you are working towards?
JL: I have no vision, life has taught me that everything I have is more than any of the dreams I could have. I play with fantastic musicians: Michel Godard, Yacouba Moumouni, Carlos Malta, Ravichandra Kulur, and so on. I never dreamed of that and it’s really deeper and more beautiful that any dreams I could have.
So, no projection, I keep working on my Breton garden, open to Indian spices, African ginger, Brazilian coconut – trying to be honest with me, musicians I play with and audiences who may come to my concerts.
Q: How does your composition process work? When do collaboration and jams come in?
JL: Each composition is different. You can compose thinking about a place, a person, you can compose during an exercise, during a walk in the forest, looking at the sea, or inspired by a book. I always start with a melody. I sing it, then I record it in a non definitive version. I let it sleep for a while and come back to it a few days later to listen with fresh ears – I change some things or maybe not, and then think about the pulse, a bass line, some harmonies.
Then I may continue alone or submit to other musicians who will add their own creativity for the structure, introduction and so on. Sometimes I can do everything at home, sometimes I wait for a rehearsal to fix more some elements. Each composition has its own story!
Q: Do you compose on the road also, while traveling?
JL: It happens, I need calm, time, good vibes, feeling quiet to be able to compose. Very often, I compose after traveling, back home, quiet.
Q: What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
JL: With Magic Flutes, during our last concert in France in June 2016, many people cried. They had too much emotion relating to the dialogue, respect, love between myself and Ravichandra Kulur. That was very intense for Ravi and me.
Q: Do you also teach workshops for students and musicians?
JL: Yes, very often, it can be traditional music from Brittany or Ireland, or improvisation. I give three or four workshops (from two days to one week) each year.
Q: How has the music industry changed over the years, and what are the effects? For example, downloads, social media, loops/mixers.
JL: Everything changes around us, everyday. So, you have to learn and adapt. I don’t want to be sad about old times. What is happening, happens. I knew vinyl, tapes, CDs, and now digital technology. But in Brittany vinyl is back with lots of interest. So it’s good to be connected to the world, we can listen today to all the music of the world, but do we listen? One thing will never change, it’s the quality of time you spend practicing, rehearsing, listening.
Q: What is your message to the musicians and audiences out there?
JL: Keep faith, work on your personality, open your ears and your heart. Never forget curiosity and alterity!
Author: Madanmohan Rao
Madanmohan Rao is an author and media consultant from Bangalore, and global correspondent for world music and jazz for World Music Central and Jazzuality. He has written over 15 books on media, management and culture, and is research director for YourStory Media. Madan was formerly World Music Editor at Rave magazine and RJ at WorldSpace, and can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao.