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Photo credit: Richard-Birch.Com
Sabina Desir is a wonderful vocalist, Artistic Director and Producer of the newly formed Heritage and Arts organisation Freedom Road Project, who is powering forward with Freedom Road Re-Imagined, an incredible new project co-created with long time collaborator Jessica Lauren. Not only has Sabina been carving out her own performing career, she also supports other UK musicians promoting and producing a variety of projects including her promoting initiative The Jazz Sessions in East Kent.
Photo credit: Richard-Birch.Com
Jessica Lauren is a keyboard player, composer, musical arranger and recording artist, who has been a part of the UK music scene since the early 1990s. She has released 4 albums in her own right, as well as collaborating with and recording for so many others, spanning the worlds of jazz, soul, blues, psychedelic rock and analog electronica.
We caught up with Sabina and Jessica to discuss the new powerful project and UK tour ‘Freedom Road Re-Imagined’; an immersive live music performance created by Sabina Desir and Jessica Lauren, which is being featured at Rich Mix in Shoreditch on April 2nd 2022.
Using the combined art forms of live music, photography and filmed footage, focus is drawn to the resilience, determination and pride of Black British Communities. Presenting an intergenerational perspective of protest through the lens of esteemed photographers Charlie Phillips and Vanley Burke alongside the young photographer Shaïny Vilo. Both Phillips and Burke’s have made it their lives work to document the fight for equity and Civil Rights by Black and Asian people in the UK.
The show’s visuals draw you into times both past and present when the collective and individual voice is weaponised as a force for change. The show is as much a tribute to these activists as well as a celebration of the tenacity and drive of Black British communities.
Central to the show is the exhilarating music. Music associated with the US and UK Civil Rights Movement. Music that sustained, empowered and educated..music that became and remains some of the most important of the 20th Century. Many of the band members, some of the UK’s finest Jazz players, are direct descendants of the Windrush generation including the show’s Producer and Artistic Director Sabina Desir.
Our chat with Sabina and Jessica:
Sabina, huge congratulations in all you are doing. It would be great to first get to know more about the very start of your music career. What were your first steps towards establishing yourself in the music industry?
Thank you so much. In many respects I came late to the game. I started performing as a child and went to theatre school and cut my teeth, so to speak, treading the boards. My first professional job was aged 10 in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ at Westminster Theatre, now St James Studio. So music and performing have always been part of my identity but a good time passed before I understood it to be my purpose.
We heard your interpretation of Nina Simone’s songs, they’re outstanding – it takes us back to the world of still living legends. Amidst the great projects you create, your voice is central; what is it about the voice that you clearly love so much?
S: Thank you so much! The fact is I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without my voice. It is the root of my journey both as an artist and an individual. The human voice is an instrument through which we can convey our greatest hopes and dreams and I’m so grateful to be able to use it to express myself. It has allowed me to give voice and contribute to the necessary conversations that must continue if we are going to address the issues of inequality and racism faced by P.O.C. and other marginalised groups within society. Using my voice as an instrument, part of an ensemble of hugely talented musicians and creatives that believe in the project too..Well, I’m really happy to be part of that.
What are your greatest musical and non musical influences?
S: That’s a hard one!! Nina Simone and her uncompromising attitude to fighting for justice and her incomparable musicianship are an influence and inspiration. The humility and wisdom of Dr Maya Angelou. I had the honor of meeting her when I was 16 years old and I treasure that memory so much. Musically and otherwise the influences are vast from Ray Charles and Dinah Washington for their honesty inside and outside of the music to the film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto whose work always moves me. There are too, too many to mention. My heritage and culture will always be an influence and the evolution of art forms that spring from black culture. I love artist like Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar who are taking the baton and running with it. In the UK artists like Camilla George, who played on The Jazz Sessions and Kokoroko are taking their heritage and fusing it with traditional forms..really exciting!
J: I love so many artists it’s impossible to know where to begin! Sabina and I have performed music by many of the great classic artists we both treasure: from Nina Simone and Ray Charles to Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder, and so many more. As a player my notable musical influences (amongst countless others) have included Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, George Duke and Sun Ra. As a person, I’m inspired by the sea and the coast where I live on the edge of South Eastern England.
How did the musical relationship between you and composer, keyboard player Jessica Lauren come about? How do you find having this musical companionship feeds into both your careers?
S: You know how you can just be in the right place at the right time!? We both moved to Thanet in Kent around the same time. We were introduced at a crazy gig in Ramsgate, that’s a story for another time… and the conversation turned to doing something together musically. So we began collaborating almost immediately. Working with Jessica has been and continues to be an absolute joy and gift. She’s an incredible Arranger, Composer, Musical Director, Keyboard Player and Recording Artist. As a Vocalist she has pushed and challenged me. I know I have grown as a result of our collaboration…and if that wasn’t enough she is a fantastic friend with a great sense of humour.
J: We first met over 5 years ago when I moved out of London to Thanet on the East Kent coast, and we started to work together quite soon after that. It was truly a blessing for me to find such a great singer in the new place I now call home: someone who shares my passion for great soulful music, and our collaboration pushes me and inspires me to make the most beautiful music I can. She has a wonderful voice, a passionate spirit, a great creative imagination, and like she says, she’s become a treasured friend.
It’s clear ‘Freedom Road Project’ is a journey. Can you tell us how this project began for you both? And how did it develop into ‘Freedom Road Re-Imagined’?
The Freedom Road project began on 8th March 2020 as an immersive live performance at the Turner Contemporary as part of the POW! Thanet Festival: featuring music that provided the backdrop to the American Civil Rights Movement. Originally we used an art installation by artist Karen Vost which presented images of the US Freedom Riders in illuminated light boxes and projected images as a backdrop on stage. The show was informed by an exhibition called ‘We Will Walk’ which was installed at Turner Contemporary at the time so the focus was from the US perspective.
A little time after this performance we went into the first lockdown and then the horrific murder of George Floyd happened, a global uprising followied the likes of which hadn’t been seen for decades. In response to this uprising and wanting to add our voices to the long overdue conversation that was opening up we took the opportunity to revive Freedom Road as a filmed performance, re-framed in the present context and drawing parallels with the Black British experience. We included the spoken word of Taariq Forder who contributed his lived-in experience to the peice. The film was released for a short time in July 2021 and impacted positively gaining coverage both locally and from the BBC but the full impact of the work is to be had experiencing the dynamics of the live performance.
This project is clearly valuable both to you and to our society, carrying its essential message through the universal language of music. Alongside the specific power and message of this project, can you describe its universal message too?
Well partly the message is to share a perspective of the story of UK Civil Rights and in doing so we open up another possibility to understanding each other. Doing this through the combined mediums of art, voice, music, photography and film creates layers and textures that I hope make the work widely appealing and assessable. The show also leaves space for people to explore their own feelings. It’s important that people come and experience the joy of the music and be entertained. We want people to leave the show uplifted!
The photographs presented in ‘Freedom Road Re-Imagined’ documenting the fight for equity and Civil Rights by Black and Asian people in the UK, are powerful and impactful in their own right. We live in an ever increasing visual/audio age, and visuals can sometimes be seen to take music to another level. How did the idea of collaborating with Charlie Phillips and Shaïny Vilo and their powerful series of photos come about?
S: The photographs were first used in the film version of Freedom Road in 2020. The film paralleled the UK and US Civil Rights Movement and the work of Vanley Burke and Charlie Phillips is hugely important as it documents the UK fight and resistance to accept inequality. Both Burke and Phillips are activists and come from a generation that contributed so much in order to give people like me a voice. It is important to represent that. Alongside Burke and Phillips we feature the work of Shaïny Vilo. They too have utilised their ability to document the recent uprising in regards to the murder of George Floyd. It made sense to present theintergenerational aspect of the work through the eyes of Shaïny’s work. Looking at protest visually in the 1960s and 1970s then comparing that to how young people are mobilising and using technology now to effect change is inspiring.
The live production has an extra component to the visuals which has been beautifully filmed by Nathan Jones who is collating all the visual components. We also have the work of talented photographer Richard Birch. He has captured some wonderful images, also included in the show…sorry, no spoilers!
We love your band set-up for this project (vocalist, keyboards, woodwinds, drums, cello, bass, percussion, and additional voice). What led you to this specific band setting?
J: We first presented Freedom Road at the Turner Gallery in Margate in March 2020, and then created a film version later in the same year, and the musical line up has evolved through these iterations. I always love percussion in any project I’m associated with, and the addition of cello brings a different tonal colour to the overall sound. We’re so happy to have the very finest musicians involved:
Tamar Osborn and Jason Yarde on woodwinds
Ivan Hussey on cello
Jason Simpson on double bass
Winston Clifford on drums
Lascelle Gordon on percussion
Taariq Forder Recorded Additional Voice/Actor
The ‘Freedom Road Re-Imagined’ is being presented at the Rich Mix venue in London which is renowned for its great work and performance space, plus known for its important objectives, in eliminating racial discrimination, and promoting equality. How did you come to perform at this venue and what is it about its performance space that you love?
S: There are seven incredible venues on this tour. London really is my hometown even though I no longer live there, and Rich Mix represents that really well: it’s an intimate venue which is perfect for our show, and they really understand the subject matter which is important to me.
To reach a wider audience, the ‘Freedom Road Re-Imagined’ is going on a tour all around the UK. Could you elaborate on the importance of the ‘Freedom Road Re-Imagined’ reaching all audiences?
We are really proud of what we have created collectively and want to share that with as many people as possible. The production is born of people from different backgrounds and ethnicities and we want to welcome all people to come and enjoy the experience with us.
The Covid period was particularly tough for musicians, who had almost no opportunities to play on the music stage. How did you handle this period – did you go from performing to planning projects or other collaborations?
S: I used lock down to set up the Freedom Road Project and get the organisation up and running. I’m grateful that I was able to use the time to repurpose my skill set and plan new projects. I live on the Kent Coast so spending time on the beach and in open spaces had a positive impact on the process of planning.
J: Speaking for myself, I turned the spare bedroom into a studio so I could make music at home; I contributed remotely to various projects, including one I’ve been involved with for many years now, the space jazz Emanative collective (led by Nick Woodmansey); and worked with Nick on an ambient keyboard project that we hope will be released later this year.
Now we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic, we would love to know what is planned for 2022 and beyond, when and where can we hear your band performing?
S: In 2022 we will tour the show, and there are a few festivals that we are lined up to be part of; and in 2023, my production company the Freedom Road Project will be announcing an ambitious new project that I’m really excited about. Watch this space!! I’ll also be getting myself to the Emanative gig in London in March..looking forward to that 🙂