We have to say thanks to Yugen Blakrok who got us onto the duo Mr Freddy. In fact, Yugen dropped their tight track It Shall Be on her curated playlist for us. A haunting trumpet intro by Swaziland born multi-instrumentalist Ralph Smit is the pre-cursor to some intricate drum flushes by Ugandan drummer Mwesigwa Kisaakye. The sum of their contributions on the track (and evidently their debut sterling album Lay Of The Land 2018) is a sound of consummate integrity attracting the attentions of names like Gilles Petersen who gave them a kudos enhancing co-sign.
It is the ability of Mr Freddy to hover like some ethereal body between a collection of genres from; jazz right through to tastes of hip-hop that make them such an interesting group. And indeed, with that last album out in early 2018 we are keen to know when the next installment is dropping. Thankfully we saw some raw recording of new material on their Facebook. With that we got in touch with the group to get a bit more info on the duo and forth-coming music.
First for introduction purposes can you tell us about your individual journeys into music?
Ralph – I grew up around music in a way. I’d gotten some traditional instruments at a young age and collected them with little insight into the roles and traditions behind them. More drawn to the sounds they made. I also started trying to make beats on Fruity Loops when I was in primary school. I’d gotten a few lessons on guitar and piano, but I didn’t like being told what to play and what not to play, without coming to those conclusions myself. Much later the door to improvisation and sound opened to me. I was given a trumpet and learnt the significance of the music I was around. Music is a vehicle for me to experience the world and myself. I traveled a bit and played in collectives and projects, and I developed my own practices and approach.
Mwesigwa – I believe my musical gifting manifested when I was four or five years old, and in pre-school, but these things are overlooked by the African parent. The child is expected or rather pushed towards conventional means of education. Years later, in my early teens my mother having dealt with the noise of banging containers and boards allowed me to go and learn an instrument.
I took a few piano lessons due to my inclination towards harmonies and melodies. Later, I picked up the drumsticks for the first time in my life, and it was as if I had always been playing drums in another life. From there I surrounded myself with people who challenged me. Thank goodness for the internet. Today, I can say I have worked with a great deal of what Swaziland has to offer musically and I am embarking on personal projects one of which is Mr Freddy.
Mr Freddy-tell us about how the group had indeed your paths crossed before you eventually decided to form the group as Ralph you are from Swaziland and Mwesigwa you are from Uganda?
Ralph-Both of us have called eSwatini home since our births. The music scene is quite small here, and you are bound to see or play with a lot of the musicians at some point. We have played all sorts together before Freddy, from chamber orchestra, jazz ensembles to rock bands. We used to busk regularly as a duo too.
And what made it ‘right’ to form the group?
Ralph-It came to a point for both of us after working together in another project, where I had some material and it made sense to work on the music as a duo while sharing music and ideas, Mwesigwa was pushing us to play and gig together. A duo format had much more focus and freedom. It’s more intuitive and easier to make decisions in the moment. We both found it interesting and a challenge. After focusing on creating we saw the possibilities to open up the sound.
Did and does Mr Freddy fill a cap in the musical African diaspora?
Mwesigwa-Rather than fill a gap it adds another shade of colour to the African music diaspora perhaps. We are quite unique as a project and we bring a lot of different thing together. It has been interesting to see how people are hearing it and what they are taking from it. We take risks and push ourselves in whatever situation we find ourselves. There is a lot of unheard of music in the diaspora that we continue to discover.
We read Ralph that you have been particularly focused on bringing alternative music-what do you mean by alternative?
Ralph-Alternative for me is music that puts the art of sound before commercial and is more relevant to us in a way while trying to experiment with doing things differently, in the process or approach. When I came back to eSwatini I had a hunger and interest for more alternative things, but there was no one putting on shows. So, I became a kind of concert organizer for some left field jazz and experimental musicians from South Africa and even as far as some noise/sound artists from Europe. I was trying to create a scene. It taught me a lot about interacting and collaborating with others.
For you Mwesigwa what does alternative mean?
Mwesigwa-Alternative to me means the other side to music in general. The side/possibility not favoured by the general public due to lack of their exploration. The “third side of the coin” as I like to put it.
We have been pushing an afro futurism theme. How is afro futurism affecting the current music from Africa and indeed the music you create?
Ralph-It’s an interesting question, and yes, it’s a big influence on a lot of art today. In one sense it’s a positive direction. It’s time for Africans to decide and imagines the futures of Africa, and the world is very interested because it’s powerful and full of new possibilities.
In our music, it’s undeniable that it is one of many influences. Simply we are trying to be forward thinking in an African context. We try to approach afro-futurism in our sonic capabilities and keep it true to our own experiences.
Your debut album Lay Of The Land. How did that album set the foundation for the sound of Mr Freddy?
Mwesigwa-It was a great moment and opportunity. We had been doing gigs and had come up with the material and the producer Sydney had been in contact about coming to the kingdom to meet and record local musicians for his EP (now out on Black Acre). We recorded it in a short amount of time. The release really surpassed our expectations. It’s been played on radio from Melbourne to L.A. That kind of reach is unheard of in eSwatini. It has come with mixed feelings from local audiences and has been applauded by the international community to an extent.
Most musicians like to resist being clearly defined by genres and indeed it is probably difficult with your music but maybe the question is what sounds helped shape that project?
Ralph-We both listen to quite different music and bring that to the project. We both saw a duo from Spain called ZA. We both referenced that show when starting the project. Chicago Underground Duo was an influence but so was a lot of electronica, world music, free jazz, jazz and hip hop. A lot of world music that has elements of repetition and trance elements in it. It’s hard to say where it’s from now. We get ideas from all over and try to express it from our own experiences.
While the album was released in 2018 of course you must be working on new material (we hope)-we looked on your FB and saw some snippets for new music-Roll Out The Magic Carpet-Over The Fence? Tell us more about forth coming projects?
Mwesigwa-We create in the moment a lot, so now we are in the process of going through recordings from all our gigs and rehearsals to find interesting moments to take to studio in the next month and create our next album. It’s exciting and there is a great team behind it. There is also a collaborative ep in the works. It’s all recorded but still working on the release later this year.
Lastly, you worked with Yugen Blakrok (who we featured). Tell us briefly about connecting with her?
Ralph-I was staying at the Iaptus studio in Johannesburg to create some material for another project. We’d connected with Kanif before and thought of creating something together to perform on an upcoming tour. We were hanging out and playing over beats. We had recorded some horns and Kanif let me cut them up on Serato. Yugen was hanging out and cooking. I think they were checking me out to see if they could work with me and they liked how I played over the material. The process was organic and easy and I’m looking forward to hanging with them soon. I’m grateful for how warm and clear Yugen and Kanif are. There is no pretense-just music.