Marcus Azon – singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter – is stumped. We’re sipping coffee in a Glebe café as the breakfast crowd dwindles, and he’s pondering that old chestnut of a question: ‘How did we get here?’
The ‘we’ is his five-piece band Jinja Safari, a dance-inspiring Sydney band that stands tall above the glut of same-old indie pop by drawing strong influences from traditional African, Indian and Eastern music. The ‘here’ in question is the release of their first proper full-length album, on a major label no less. But the context of the question is more involved – if Azon’s been touring and exploring the world for the past few years to visit and get to know the far-flung places that have lent their sound to his band’s music, how did he come to be so influenced by these cultures in the first place? Is he writing in reverse?
Jinja Safari began in 2010 on the NSW Central Coast when Azon was introduced to Cameron ‘Pepa’ Knight. A songwriting partnership developed, with Azon the fresh-faced singer and Pepa, with a longer history in bands, as the ideas-heavy producer. It was just the two of them, and within 12 months they’d won triple j Unearthed, played Splendour, and their gigs started selling out. It was at this point Azon and the now five-piece band started crossing the earth. “We toured India with the band, went to the UK a couple of times, the US a couple of times,” Azon recounts. “Canada, Germany, I went to Cambodia, we went to Indonesia, I went to Uganda, and we’ve got a lot of samples from all these places on the album.”
He says the new self-titled record features samples the band recorded of a choir at a Ugandan school for girls, temple chants from India, and rocks from the Nile. “We got one wav recorder each, and we just tried to get as much as we could,” Azon says. “It’s amazing with sense memory, hearing these files can bring back memories that are just lodged in part of the brain somewhere. Re-listening to this 11 year-old kid rapping, and he’s got the voice of a 45 year-old taxi driver, and you close your eyes and it brings back all the memories and laughs and smells of sitting with these kids at Bujagali Falls (near the Ugandan town of Jinja).”
“But as you say, it’s in reverse, because we’d already drawn inspiration from all these places, then there’s this need to go there and justify it in some way. Kind of give it a bit more weight,” he says. “It felt a bit phony naming our whole band after a place neither of us had ever been, so obviously Jinja was high on the priority list of travels. It didn’t change too much, but I guess it gave it a bit more authenticity, especially having all those samples in there.”
He’s been thinking about the influence of African and Eastern music for a while now. Azon says he’s well aware people might think they’ve jumped on the recent indie Afrobeat bandwagon, but it runs far deeper than that. “I’m truthfully not sure. It didn’t seem like a really specific genre or style we were going for. Because Cameron’s pretty advanced in his electronic production, he likes to go for the world music instrument before he goes to electronic synth…so straight away it gives you more of an Eastern feel,” he says.
“Lyrically I guess your brain goes to those places before it goes to the places that a synth takes you – which is in your 20s in the city I guess. That’s why I wanted to get out of Sydney to create this music, to the Central Coast, to escape what all my friends were doing and make it more, I can’t think of a better word than ‘organic’.”
It’s at this point that Azon reveals his grandmother has spent the last 30 years as a missionary in Uganda. Despite this familial tie to the country that’s inspired him creatively, he says he hasn’t been consciously influenced by that.
“I don’t know how to say this in the most sensitive way, but I guess…the western philosophy that we need to save the world from itself isn’t what I took away,” he says. “If you go to some of these places, in the villages in particular, out of the cities, they’re very happy and full of love and there’s a lot of laughter. There’s a sense of community that we in the West could learn a lot from. And while there are basic needs that need to be addressed in terms of prevention of disease and clean water and government corruption… I suppose the more time I spent with missionaries, the less time I wanted to spend with missionaries,” Azon says.
“I didn’t feel like Geldof or Bono when I came back at all. We are simply writing pop songs. I didn’t feel the need to be a spokesperson… Just in seeing the way Ugandans react to Afrobeat and reggae music – it’s how us as Australians relate to classic rock. You hear it in all the tradie trucks and at work sites and all these funny riffs and Diblo Dibala, and just good vibes everywhere, and it’s kind of a pretty stark contrast to their landscape and their history and their current political climate. I guess that relationship with the people and how they relate to their music, was what I got most out of it.”
BY SIMON TOPPER
Jinga Safari plays Oxford Art Factory Thursday May 30 (sold out) and Friday May 31. And Jinja Safari out now on Universal.