It is a white-hot 30 degrees in Constellations’ garden at the core of the Baltic inferno; yet, the searing heat won’t keep us from spending a day in the company of WAYNE SNOW, immaculately decked-out in a brilliant white T-shirt, chinos and trabs. Snow is simply Cooler; as the opening track to his debut long player, Freedom TV (which has been an ever-present on the Bido Lito! turntable since it landed in 2017) suggests.
The album is a sanguine marriage of nu-jazz, deep house and electronica, all delivered with the energy and groove of his native Nigeria’s highlife traditions. A work of beauty, wisdom and guile, the record is the product of Snow’s experience: having left his homeland as a teenager, Snow has now settled in Berlin. Luminaries and collaborators such as Max Graef, Neue Grafik and Nu Guinea have provided inspiration and guidance along the way, but Freedom TV is the work of an artist with a deep sense of his craft and the responsibility he weighs upon himself to make music which resonates with the contradictory, bewildering times in which we live.
Some artists have a confidence verging on arrogance and an over-cooked sense of their own self-importance. Wayne Snow is not such an artist, but he is man blessed with a deep and humble sense of his gift and the responsibility that comes with such a talent.
“I know that I can make beautiful music,” he tells me slowly, deliberately, each nugget delivered with an infectious lethargy. “That’s one thing, but it bores me to just do that. I want to feel like I’m useful. I want to mix up things here and be able to communicate, with the language of my time, to the people that are here. I feel like you can easily fall into a nostalgic thing. You take my voice, it’s soulful, right? I can go back and bring out some Motown shit, like, Marvin Gaye, you know. They’re all great, but for me, it doesn’t move me much. I really have to feel like I’m incorporating the ideas of my time.”
By such a measure, Freedom TV can be regarded as nothing short of a blistering success. Traversing the smoky, disorientating staccato stabs of Cooler, via the frenetic fizz of The Rhythm and the gorgeously plump, lolloping Rosie, the record is both an essential document of our times and an affirming, positive and elevating listening experience. It reaches its zenith with lead-single Red Runner, a track which grooves as if The Whitest Boy Alive were bitten by jazztronic cool. Snow is an artist who, in time, will sit as comfortably alongside LCD Soundsystem as he will Oko Ebombo and Chip Wickham.
The record is dense, plural in its reference points and inflections. A deep-seated soulfulness runs throughout and is laced with experimentation and a heavy helping of nu-jazz. I wonder how much of Snow’s musical upbringing is woven into the LP’s many layers?
“All of it,” he confirms, but jazz came a little later. “I used to randomly read these magazines with Louis Armstrong, just the classics. I kept listening to it, Dave Brubeck and so on. I was trying to learn all the improvisation that you had on the record. I didn’t actually understand the music at first because I was brought up in Nigeria where they listen to a lot of Motown, of course, a lot of disco. Jazz was a bit complicated. I didn’t understand if I should enjoy it with the soul, because I was trying to find a way to just get into it. There was something missing. So, it took me a couple of times to start using my head, to understand it.”
Using the head over the heart was a new way of translating music for Snow, as was the Western obsession with labelling, organising and chronicling. “Something you should know is, let’s say, naming things and putting some kind of reference on them is something I learned in Europe,” he says. “The way you grow, you’re surrounded by music, as if it’s like breathing. You never ask yourself why you’re breathing, you just breathe. It’s the same way I was brought up with music. So, I always had many influences. My native music, all local music with percussion mostly and voices, no harmonic instruments. From there to highlife and then, of course, Fela Kuti. I just grew up with these things.”
That process of growing took Snow to Berlin, via Paris. I wonder what was it was about Berlin, as a city, that made Snow feel he could realise the music he had inside him? “At first, I dreamed of machines. Synthesizers,” he tells me with a deep concentration in his eyes. “I started composing, writing music with a huge amount of synthesizers from the 80s. I saw Berlin as this industrial land. I felt like the landscape, the places, the clubs were perfect to allow me to express this feeling. In Paris, I felt like they weren’t ready for machines. When they saw me as a black, Nigerian guy, they still think of drums, tan-tans, percussion and so on. Not using machines. When you’re listening to techno, it’s very reminiscent of African drums and percussion.”
It was this rhythmic, percussive nature of techno that appealed to Snow, and drew a natural link between his musical upbringing and a new future. “It’s completely minimalist,” he energetically confirms. “When you go to clubs like Berghain in Berlin, you really feel like you’re in this jungle and it’s crazy. It’s very raw. I experienced this back home in Nigeria, when I was a child. When we had a feast, we played drums for hours and hours, days and days, and you had this pumping, boom, boom, boom. I felt Berlin was the perfect place for me to go and do this without having to justify it.”
Snow is in Liverpool for the first time and is playful, excited about being here, in a city which is so synonymous with music. Like Berlin, music is very much at the centre of our culture, what our city means in the world and what it means to our people. The openness and inclusiveness of Berlin has always played out in its music and culture. I wonder if Snow, as an artist, feels that within the environment of the city?
“Yes. It’s crazy,” he says, with simmering enthusiasm. “When you go there, there is a lot of concrete, but you feel like the concrete has been humanised, like, given a heartbeat. That’s why there are more artists going there. We feel like it’s not cold, there’s a soul somewhere. You can reach it. I started understanding that this city, it is actually made by the people and just for the people. So, it’s not like the government decides what people should do in Berlin; it’s the people in Berlin that decide for themselves.”
And the government responds to it? “Yes, and the music also, it has the same kind of energy. Music is everywhere and you feel like people are easy with that. Berlin, I think, is the first place I really found that, actually; we can listen to different music and it doesn’t have to be the hyped ones. People have different tastes, very underground or whatever, and they have fun with that.”
This open-mindedness has framed Berlin’s experience in recent decades and inflected the city with an alternative, electronic, more progressive music at the heart of Berlin’s modern folk culture. I wonder what role Snow thinks music plays in Berlin’s collective identity? Is it key to bringing people together?
“I think it’s central,” he asserts. “Music is central to people. We don’t know what this drug is, but we need it more than anything. I’ve always felt like the most political tool we have is music; the musician himself cannot be political. It’s way beyond that. The reason of music is to always connect people. When you’re into music, you just stop being black, blue, whatever, any colour. Even feeling-wise, you just have the same emotion. I’ve always seen music as something of a high level, like, spiritually the highest thing we can ever, ever experience. As a musician, if I call myself so, I think I’m blessed. To be able to connect or to be able to feel things and rearrange them and make people feel them through music. I’m very happy to be giving some kind of insight.”
Freedom TV is available now via Tartelet Records.