Corey Mwamba Interview
Vibraphonist Corey Mwamba is based in Derby and frequently performs in jazz and contemporary music settings around the UK. Ahead of his appearance at the first Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival, SJM caught up with him to discuss his latest projects and to hear his advice on arts funding applications.
How did you get into music to begin with?
“Big question! I have to keep thinking about this. I guess the first thing would my parents who love listening to music, although they don't play any instruments. One of my uncles played bass guitar as a hobby. I had organ lessons as a kid but stopped; but I used to sing in choirs all the time.”
“I got into playing jazz because of a girl I fancied at college. She played alto sax in the jazz band and I went to see them rehearse – a bit like a puppy! I started tapping on the chair, and I think someone handed me some drum brushes. The band leader then asked me if I wanted to play drums for them the next day. Up to that point I hadn't played drums before, so it was nerve-wracking, but I did it.”
“I then thought about playing drums (as a hobby), but found it dull; I wanted to make melodies too. I bought John Fordham's Dorling Kindersley book on jazz and saw a picture of Orphy Robinson playing vibes and thought ‘that's it!’. I had five lessons from the percussionist Lewis Dyson, who taught me a lot about how to just be, and relying on my internal resources. It was very deep at the time, I was 17. I used to hang around trad and improv scenes, and then ended up ‘drifting towards the middle’ as I went to university to study Chemistry and met more people my own age.”
“I was really lucky to go to uni in Birmingham as I was exposed to such a wide range of music, and musicians; and I was able to ‘borrow’ the music department's marimba every so often. The other students I knew there would help me get into the practice room, so I could work on things. I finally got my first instrument when I was 21 or 22, thanks to a grant from the Prince's Trust.”
You’re based in Derby. What’s the music scene like and how does it compare to other scenes around the UK?
“There are good musicians here; but I think they don't necessarily get the chances to play locally, so I would say it's underdeveloped in terms of jazz and improvised music, sadly. A lot of really good musicians have come from Derby or Derbyshire; Alex Wilson, Phil Robson, Dave Sturt and Fred Baker (who are still in Derbyshire), Dave O’Higgins, Joshua Blackmore… but in the main, younger musicians end up moving away as the opportunities to play locally are scarce, or because of study. I've come to the conclusion that there has to be a way to remedy this, and hope to work with people on different ideas to keep musicians in the area and working.”
Tell us a bit about all the different projects that you’re involved with.
“Well, my main group is Yana, with my brothers-in-music Dave Kane and Joshua Blackmore. Up to now, it's my longest running group (eight years!), and I love playing with these guys. I describe our music as ‘open, living music’: totally improvised, very malleable, full of life and humour.”
“We're playing at the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival in a few weeks. I'm also playing Rachel Musson, who is one of my favourite saxophonists, in a band with Mark Sanders and Neil Charles. We did this group at the Vortex a few months ago: it was wonderfully deep, high energy improvising, and a lot of fun.”
“I'm in a duo with Rachel as well; and play duo with Robert Mitchell, Walt Shaw (who is a great visual/sound artist based in the Derbyshire area), Martin Pyne, Nick Malcolm and Orphy Robinson. I play in a trio with Mat Maneri and Lucian Ban; another trio with Andy Champion and Ntshuks Bonga; a quartet called Sonsale with Andy, Sylvain Darrifourcq and Valentin Ceccaldi; a trio with Cath Roberts and Olie Brice; and I'm in groups run by Nat Birchall, Richard Spaven and recently Mark Wastell. I'm also in Martin Archer's great ten-piece band The Engine Room Favourites, and he has a new group called Story Tellers, for which we'll be recording this autumn.”
“I was also lucky to work with a saxophone quartet, doing my compositions based on work from my Master's degree, called ‘new dark art’. Cath is in that, with Tom Ward, Colin Webster and Chris Williams.”
What creative things are you working on at the moment?
“At the moment, I'm still working (VERY slowly!!) on ‘new dark art’, which was my Master's research last year. It's a system that's based on European early medieval ideas around music theory, letter notation and improvisation. I'm also thinking around ways of looking at personal voice and tone on the instrument, which is really important to me. I think that will take a lot more time.”
What process do you go through when you compose a piece of music?
“A lot of the longer pieces begin with books, research, and thinking-while-walking. I always have a notebook to write down words and thoughts; and always aim to get away from my desk during the day to think. My working day normally starts at 4a.m., so I can pack in my reading and listening early in the day. I can then spend the rest of my day allowing the idea to develop in the background. I don't tend to compose at a piano, and definitely not at the instrument.”
“On a practical level, if it's a tune in the usual jazz mold (head-solos-head type) then I can usually whistle what the tune and transcribe it in letter notation. I can then refine it on the piano.
“Sometimes I then use Musescore to notate the piece in standard Western notation. But because I work with improvisers, it allows me to notate things in different ways: so I'll use graphic notation and other things. When I used to make more electro-acoustic music, I used to make map-like scores. The idea is that the map contains all the music material of the piece, but with a ‘geographical’ layout. Your eye then traces a path around the map as you play. I've done other things like positional scores (triggering a sound based on where someone is standing at a point in time).”
For more information on Corey Mwamba, visit his website:
Corey appears at the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival on Saturday 12th September as part of Rachel Musson / Neil Charles/ Corey Mwamba / Mark Sanders.
Corey Mwamba offers advice to up and coming musicians and promoters on how to go about applying for arts funding for jazz projects.
There’s often a perception amongst musicians that arts funding involves lots of filling in forms, followed by a long wait that ends in disappointment. What has been your experience of arts funding?
“It certainly isn't that! My experience of arts funding started in 1995, when I was at university. I applied for an Awards4All grant to run some educational workshops and gigs for Birmingham University Jazz Club, which I got. I was able to pay Julian Arguelles, J-Life, Denys Baptiste and Ciyo Brown to do workshops. My first Arts Council bid was for a project I did with Walt called <dialectic> in 2002. The Arts Council in those days was very different; the form was harder, the wait was longer. But we were still successful. I applied for some money to run a large ensemble in 2004: Shabaka Hutchings was in that and the decision took six weeks. Just recently this year, Yana went on tour; that was also a six-week turnaround. During that time I also applied for (and got) funding for a series of gigs that give better access to families.”
There’s also a perception (by some people) that arts funding only produces something 'wild and whacky' and not something that audiences can relate to. There’s also the argument that funding encourages projects tailor-made to receive funding rather than happening organically. How can you counter these arguments and assumptions?
“The first is clearly not true since arts funding covers the whole range of arts; and within that a very wide range of music that is not “wild and whacky" at all, like opera. It's not an argument that makes sense when looking at the spread of arts funding, and is entirely subjective (one person's "wild" is another's “tame")."
“The second does happen in rare cases, but when it comes to thinking about and focusing on your idea I don't think it's really worth any consideration. I realise that sounds a bit blunt, but it's more important to concentrate on what you want to do as an artist.”
What advice can you give to other musicians to help them succeed in getting funding for their project?
“Most musicians/composers will want Grants for the Arts funding. It covers one-off events, tours, and arts project development.
1. Have the idea and be committed to doing the idea before wanting to apply for funding for the idea. If you don't get the funding, what will you do? How committed are you to sticking to your plans?
2. If you decide to apply for funding, give yourself enough time to apply for funding, and ensure that you are willing to put in the time to write the form.
This is where a lot of people struggle, and it's a wider issue to do with how gigs are promoted/booked in the U.K. But honestly, don't rush it. If you're committed to the idea but don't have the time to do a massive tour, consider doing a smaller one. Or a development day / ‘private sharing’. You don't have to do everything at once.
3. Be clear in explaining and understanding your idea. You don't need jargon. But you do need to show what you're planning to do.
4. Appreciate that it's public money. This means that it does have to be accounted for, and meet priorities. The guidance provided (and ACE gives A LOT of information) is there to help you explain how your work fits in.
5. Read the guidance notes carefully; and be willing to ask for and accept help. You can call ACE to talk through your idea, and they can make suggestions. You don't have to do it all on your own.
6. Understand that it's arts funding. There is not some pot for jazz. There's a valid argument for ACE having some context for the jazz scene; but that context has to come from us first. This is something you can explain within the application. More important is how the project has developmental context to YOU; how will it make you grow as an artist?
7. Don't moan or complain about the time it takes to fill in arts funding application forms within an application for arts funding.
8. Every promoter/jazz organisation that you work with counts as a partnership; and every partnership has value, whether it's in-kind (such as marketing from the promoter) or as income.
9. Value your time through the lifetime of the project. It's not just about playing; all the time you spend administrating, writing, rehearsing counts. I happily admit that it took me a very long time to value the time I took organising gigs within an application; it's very easy to do things for the love, but ACE actually wants to give you money for arts activity. So don't forget about yourself!
10. Always obtain reasonable and informed estimates for fees and services. You can use the Office of National Statistics' Average Weekly Earnings in your area; or Musicians' Union rates; look up accommodation prices on a travel web-site, and so on. Never guess.
11. If you're unsuccessful, ask for feedback. In most cases, the rejection letter will tell you. Then decide what you want to do. Unlike most funding bodies, ACE allows you to apply again if you fail at Grants for The Arts; there are no deadlines or penalty periods.”
Tim Whitehead’s Meeting with The Arts Council
Photo of Corey Mwamba by Andy Newcombe