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Based in Singapore since 1993, American-born bassist Christy Smith is a distinguished figure in the local and regional jazz scene. We caught up with the band leader, composer, mentor and everything in between to learn more about his wide-ranging musical influences and the monumental festival that inspired his upcoming show celebrating the spirit of Afrobeat.
Listening to Ray Charles and his big band works. There was also Duke Ellington’s sound, the voice of Louis Armstrong, and whatever pop music was on the radio at that time.
When I was about six or seven, I first heard Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips, and I could just feel it. I knew that music was something that was important for the human spirit. Sergio Mendes’ Waters of March, Cast Your Fate to the Wind by Vince Guaraldi, and everything else. I was just influenced by the times.
My mother played classical piano when I was young, and dad also had some training but played by ear. I saw a bass for the first time when I was three at my godfather’s house. He played Dixieland on the riverboat at Disneyland. I remember when I was five, a neighbour around the corner had a bass in the garage, and my friend and I tried to take it out. The lady drove up and I dropped my end and ran home. I just thought it belonged in my house.
When I transferred to Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Junior High School, which was new at that time, I knew new instruments were coming in for the orchestra and I was like “yeah, I’m gonna play that.”
When I was in high school, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra came to my high school and I got a chance to sit with these guys while they performed Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I was ready for the classical influence on the double bass, because in turn I knew that was going to help me play whatever I wanted to play, on top of having really good teachers.
In high school, I auditioned for the production band that performed at the Hollywood Bowl every year and made the band several years in a row, so I got a lot of big band experience. I was pretty much open to all music, I didn’t have any doors closed. So I would never say I'm a classical or jazz guy, more so an artist. I just wanted to play some music. I don't like to just be pigeonholed as a jazz guy
It was just everything. There were Motown hits coming out every week on the AM radio, and jazz on the FM radio. I’d hear bands rehearsing in the neighbourhood when I used to throw papers. If I heard anybody playing music, I was attracted to them. I saw people in the neighbourhood bringing on instruments and playing live music, I was just inspired by the sound of music.
Pretty much all the bassists that I can think of. I started learning who the bassists were whenever they would announce them on the radio and would keep track of the names. I also used to read the liner notes and seams on albums. I’m influenced by Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke, a little bit of Jaco and anybody else today that's influential.
It was in 1977 at FESTAC (Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture), I had heard about the king of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, and we were invited to the Kalakuta Republic where he performed at the Afrika Shrine. I heard his music in the distance at the cafeteria and saw people dancing and I was like “What is this?”
It was a part of a process of me growing up discovering who I was as an African American and of African descent. I was in Fela’s domain and environment. This brand new music felt so good while I was struggling with discovering my new identity. At the same time, I was internalising the music’s message about spreading human rights and love of the people.
So Fela’s music started out with solos, but in jazz I always waited for the solos. I was so naive and thought if you couldn't solo, you weren't up to snuff. And I couldn't solo. Some people are just stronger soloists. But if you can hold a groove and do what you're supposed to do, be responsible for performing the music with integrity, that person deserves the same accolades as the soloist.
In a sense I can relate Afrobeat to James Brown, with two or three guitars playing complementary lines that sound like a drone. Everything has a rhythmical fit and the forward motion of the music gives it a distinct power.
It was so epic and monumental. It’s hard to fathom the importance of unification of the holiest spirits of humankind in an event that demonstrated and shared the preservation of African civilisation, art, culture and life to the rest of the world. This was the biggest festival that I've ever been a part of and one of the biggest festivals the world has ever known. Yet 50 years after it, a lot of people still don't know that it happened even though it’s documented. In that sense it’s transforming because it's still new to me.
It was truly a blessing for me to be a part of it along with so many other thousands of participants and as a representative of the United States and Black slave descendants so to speak. It’s hard to describe in words.
I do that with music. Hopefully I can reach out to an African audience here, but the whole point of music is that it’s communal. It doesn’t matter whose music I’m playing, you're gonna feel good about the music because it's a shared feeling of us having an opportunity to celebrate together. The give and take with the audience is still prevalent, it's not relegated to race. We're talking about universal music here. It's about sharing the love of life and music.
Because I'm a performer and mess around a lot, I'm constantly composing but I don't write it down or record it. But every now and then I’d go on my iPhone’s voice memos and I had discovered tunes from around March 2017. Turns out I did compose something, I just didn't pay attention to it! So I'm sort of a ‘crank it out tunes’ kind of guy, and I reinvent things I stumble across or think of. Actually I want to study composition with a teacher, get some fundamentals going. That's my short range goal right now.
When I play live music, certain situations bring out the best in me whether it’s the calibre of musicians or the particular music that we're playing. When I pick up my bass and let it talk back to me, or hear it and follow it, I know that it’s growth if you keep playing no matter what. I remind myself to continue to improvise and mess with my instrument.
I look to some of my friends like Andrew Lim (guitarist) and Aaron James Lee (drummer) and what they’re listening to because I might not be up to date with what's new. Some of these new artists are mind-blowing, they really have a grip on the instruments they play. I also listen to and draw influences from music of different cultures like the Pygmies from Africa and even Chinese funeral music because they’d be playing down my block.
New music can be anything like the chirps of everyday birds which I sometimes imitate. Even just picking up an instrument, it’s new music.
Fela Kuti and his band Africa 70, and subsequently Egypt 80. You can listen to early James Brown. Just think of Afrobeat as funk in African time-feel. And make sure you listen to the beat and the bass and start from there.
Christy Smith’s FESTAC ‘77 is on at Esplanade Annexe Studio on 11 Jun 2023 at 7.30pm.
Mosaic Music Series features exceptional musicians at the forefront of their genres. The series also seeks to deepen audience understanding and appreciation of the musicians and their works as well as inspire Singapore’s music community.Find Out More