Project Mama Earth – ‘Mama Earth’
All-star debut EP released 10 November on Mascot/Provogue
Preparation is overrated. Impulse is everything. Such was the rebellious wisdom that drove the sessions for Project Mama Earth’s astonishing debut EP. In June 2017, five world-renowned musicians met in Devon England for a high-wire act unique in modern music. They had no songs. No chord charts. No game plan. No safety net. Nothing, in fact, but a plan to play and catch the sparks. Where a lesser band would have stumbled, the gauntlet was readily seized by the all-star Mama Earth lineup of Joss Stone (vocals), Nitin Sawhney (guitar), Jonathan Joseph (drums), Étienne M’Bappé (bass/guitar) and Jonathan Shorten (keyboards). “The possibility for catastrophe was huge,” nods the drummer. “It could have completely tanked. But the minute everyone stood in the studio, before we even touched an instrument – I just knew.”
Releasing on 10 November on Mascot/Provogue, Stone’d Records Project Mama Earth was recorded in ten white-knuckle days, but the roots of the project run a little deeper. Rewind to 2003, when Jonathan Joseph’s sky-high reputation as a drummer/percussionist (Jeff Beck, Pat Metheny/Ricky Martin) saw him drafted as musical director for a hot-tip British soul singer about to sell five million copies of her acclaimed debut album, The Soul Sessions. Fast Forward to 2013, While Joseph manned the drumstool for Jeff Beck, their friendship remained tight, and when the drummer hit on the Mama Earth concept of an album driven by the dynamic rhythms of Africa, there was no question that Stone would take lead vocals. “I’ve been a Joss Stone fan right from the start,” he reflects, “and any opportunity I have to work with her is a blessing. As Joss says, I pack the rhythm and she packs the melody. How could I possibly say no if she was offering?
“I’d had a couple of conversations with Joss,” he adds, “about a drum book I wrote called Exercises In African-American Funk, which focuses on these two ancient Cameroonian rhythms, Mangambe and Bikutsi. That kinda launched into the idea of doing this record.”
Assembling the Mama Earth band, the drummer remembered his long-standing compadré Étienne M’Bappé: the dazzling Cameroon-born multi-instrumentalist whose résumé spans from John McLaughlin to Robben Ford. “He’s one of the premier bassists on the planet,” says Joseph. “He plays electric and acoustic guitar, and sings as well. A very talented man. So I gave Étienne a call, pitched him on the idea and he flew over from Paris.”
Another common denominator was Shorten, who had produced much of Stone’s studio catalogue between penning some of the biggest hits for Gabrielle among others. Finally, there was Nitin Sawhney: the genre-slipping wildcard and one-man musical tidal wave whose collaborations take in Sting, Paul McCartney and the London Symphony Orchestra. “Nitin is Nitin,” smiles the drummer. “He’s a genius, basically, and a powerful force in his own right. I’m just grateful my career has allowed me to meet these people. You couldn’t be standing in that room unless you’d really done something before.”
Convening at Stone’s home studio in rural Devon, this musical crack-squad didn’t take long to feel each other out. “It was all very spontaneous,” remembers Sawhney. “The sessions were all about making something in a short space of time, creating a vibe, listening to each other, coming up with ideas, being creative. Every time you work with great players, it’s always a learning curve, no matter how long you’ve been playing yourself. These guys are superheroes, really, on their instruments. It was also trying to get into the swing of those rhythms and making sure that all the music reflected that, as opposed to just drums.”
“Nothing was prepared,” picks up M’Bappé. “So the real challenge was to just show up in the studio and go from a little idea that Jonathan Joseph had on the drums. Everything really was created in the moment, and that was just a mind-blowing experience. It’s like when you’re cooking. You open up your fridge, see what you’ve got and suddenly you’re creating a great dish. We all wanted to catch those creative moments. As soon as one of us caught an idea, we were all following it. This EP was really intense in terms of creativity.”
Meanwhile, Stone purposefully kept her own creative process separate from the four musicians. “I left them to do their own thing with the music in the studio,” she reflects, “while I was cooking dinner in the kitchen. I deliberately didn’t have any input in the music, because I didn’t want to affect it – or it’d all come out hip-hop and R&B! Then they’d come across into the house, give me the track and I’d sit in the kitchen writing lyrics and melodies with my mum. So it was, like, ‘You guys do you, and I’ll do me – then we’ll put it together’. And that’s the way it worked.”
I also went down to the river on my own with a pen and paper to write in the grass by the river. Which was a good way to do it, actually, The whole project is about Mother Nature. It’s supposed to be from her perspective.
Soon, a cohesive EP was taking shape. In the studio, the music forged by Joseph, M’Bappé, Shorten and Sawhney began with the propulsive Mangambe and Bikutsi patterns, but quickly spilled over into tunes that take in everything from rock and funk to soul. “These rhythms are definitely meant to make people move,” notes the drummer. “Historically, the word ‘Bikutsi’ means to stomp the ground. So this is the dance that people did when they were trying to contact their ancestors. Dance is built into the rhythm. The effect that these rhythms have on the human condition is profound.
Both of these ancient rythms, Mangambe and Bikutsi, traditionally were used by people in Cameroon trying to contact their ancestors, and in celebrating festive occasions
Just ten days after they came together – and following a powerful co-production from all five bandmembers – the Mama Earth sessions were over. And yet, you sense that the story of this fascinating band is only just beginning. Impulsive, dynamic and sometimes downright dangerous, this is an album unlike anything else in the five musicians’ respective CVs, unprecedented in the clinical modern music scene – and sure to make waves upon its 10 November release. “I guess this album is essentially how I think of music,” considers Sawhney. “It was all about being open to the moment. I think that’s really what I loved about this project. To me, Mama Earth is what music should be about, really…”
Project Mama Earth supports Community Development Network in Cameroon. http://www.codevnet.org/
Project Mama Earth