Jinja Safari: interview

INTO THE WILD:  Jinja Safari.

INTO THE WILD: Jinja Safari.

If you have not heard the music of Jinja Safari, their name may conjure an image of wild African plains. A listen to their first two EPs, Jinja Safari and Mermaids & Other Sirens, would further suggest a band influenced by the sounds of distance shores.

But while the Sydney-based five-piece were gaining notoriety as a memorable live act and having their fusion of tribal rhythms, folk and pop played on national radio, its principal songwriters felt they needed further education in the sounds of their namesake – the city of Jinja, Uganda.

So singer Marcus Azon and keyboardist Cameron “Pepa” Knight embarked on information-gathering sojourns to the far corners of the globe, to bring an authenticity to their music.

“Marcus went to Uganda and I went to India,” Knight says. “But last year we toured all around the world and we did a lot of writing together and got some ideas, and wrote songs on flights. It was nice to be multi-tasking on those trips. We took over these little recording devices that we could record samples with – anything that we were inspired by there. Some of the songs on the album have those samples in them. It was cool to be able to use a drum beat from a dholak player in the Himalayas or some chanting from Uganda.”

The sounds of their travels permeate the 12 impressive tracks of their self-titled debut record. Perhaps unavoidably, given the record’s influence, it echoes of Paul Simon’s Graceland. The kinetic, layered and lush songs on Jinja Safari are alive with percussive energy. And the album’s finale, Bay of Fires, might create numerous images in the mind’s eye of the listener, but it holds a very specific memory for Knight.

“There’s a sample at the very end of the album that was recorded sitting behind the Taj Mahal in India, as the sun was rising,” Knight explains. “The Islamic call to prayer was travelling over the Yamuna River and it was such a beautiful and eerie experience. I took it home, warped it, looped it, and put chords under it. I remember listening to this on repeat for over an hour in the studio and it put me in a really peaceful meditative trance.”

Knight now feels Jinja Safari have the authority to carry their African-inspired band name. “We’ve been so inspired by world music, so to be there and see it all felt a bit more organic than a bunch of white guys just trying to write Afro-pop tunes,” he laughs.

The Islamic call to prayer was travelling over the Yamuna River and it was such a beautiful and eerie experience. I took it home, warped it, looped it, and put chords under it. I remember listening to this on repeat for over an hour in the studio and it put me in a really peaceful meditative trance.

When the keyboardist travelled to India, he hoped to find both musicians to learn from and authentic instruments to bring home. “Every place I went to in India I tried to find musicians that I could hang out with,” Knight says. “The sitar that I’m using on this [upcoming] tour I picked up in a place called Udaipur in India. I bought that from my sitar teacher, I was there for about a week and he taught me every day. I’m still not very good – if he saw us live I don’t think he would be impressed.”

But what Knight heard in their native songs has translated into Jinja Safari’s material. “Indian music is all about the melody and the rhythm – you rarely hear chord changes in their traditional music,” he says. “I got obsessed with that – how they have these complicated rhythms and these scales that are not even heard of in the Western world. That was really inspiring.”

Jinja Safari, which also includes drummer Jacob Borg, bassist Joe Citizen and Alister Roach on percussion, have experienced a very steep rise in popularity. The band’s genesis came from a chance meeting between Knight and Azon in 2010.

“We were at a beach party at Crescent Head and I gave Marcus a demo CD of some solo songs I was working on at the time,” Knight recalls. “Within a few weeks Marcus sent me an email and asked if we wanted to do some writing together. He came over and we jammed out some stuff. It was really fast after that – we uploaded one song on to the internet and then our manager, who we have now, heard it and put the song on to Triple J and it took off from there.”

While the group has handled its fame – including extensive touring in Europe and America – they were thrown in the deep end. “It was a big learning curve,” Knight says. “Jacob and I were always in a band together, since we were 12, but it was strange to be a part of something that was so exciting and moving so fast. We did our first [public] show on the main stage of Splendour In The Grass [in Byron Bay].”

While every member has contributed to the final sound of Jinja Safari, Knight was also the record’s producer. He admits that this adds to his sense of responsibility.

“I guess there’s a bit more pressure doing the production and piecing the music together,” Knight says. “But at the same time, it’s what I love doing and it’s nice to have creative control where you can just do whatever you want.”

As for what direction the band’s pop music could move in from here, Knight is as in the dark as his audience.

“We always seem to break our rules when it comes to songwriting,” Knight says. “We wanted to write Simon and Garfunkel-style folk songs at the start. But now we might write some hardcore, heavy metal songs or some soft, ­ballady kids songs. Who knows?”

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