Holy Forest's Dreamlike Gambian Visuals For 'Nyokonole - We Are Together'

Jon Fine speaks about the making of the 'Holy Forest' LP featuring Gambian griot Tata Din Din Jobarteh, ST Da Gambian Dream & many more.

Holy Forest is the brainchild of songwriter & documentary filmmaker Jon Fine (Bill Withers' Still Bill, Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities). The project's self-titled debut album, which took over four years to complete, was recorded across the Gambia and the U.S. and features collaborations with griot Tata Din Din Jobarteh (aka the Jimi Hendrix of the kora), rapper ST Da Gambian Dream, Harlem-based Ed “Preachermann” Holley, members of Antibalas, and many others.

The Holy Forest LP has been gaining traction after the album's lead single  "Africa Calling"  was picked up for BBC 6 rotation by Gilles Peterson. Today we're premiering the music video for "Nyokonole - We Are Together," the album's second single, which was shot in the Gambia and Senegal. Read our interview with Jon Fine about the kora influences behind the album and the making of the video below. The 11-track Holy Forest LP is out today in vinyl and digital formats through Bandcamp & iTunes.

Okayafrica: How did you connect with ST Da Gambian Dream & Tata Din Din Jobarteh to record this track?

Jon Fine: My wife’s from the Gambia and this album began on a trip to visit her family with our two young kids. I brought along my laptop and some mics with hopes of making music while we were staying in the town of Sukuta. I was told by a friend to “go to Birkama and ask around for Tata Din Din Jobarteh.” I’d heard of Tata while in NY and had hopes of reaching out to him and learning more about the kora while in the Gambia. One afternoon, as luck would have it, on a ride home from the Makasutu Forest, our taxi driver, who coincidentally knew Tata, pulled us up to his gate. Serendipitously, Tata was home, invited us in for tea and welcomed us like family. We talked about kids, travels and I mentioned I’d brought a hard drive with some sketches of music I'd begun recording in NYC.

The next week, he invited me back to record in his studio. The first sessions with Tata planted the seed for the record and became the song “Africa Calling.” The next song we recorded together was “Nyokonole - We Are Together.” S.T. Da Gambian Dream, an incredibly talented young artist also from Birkama, was introduced to me by our friend Gass. S.T. had just finished his own album and we made a video together for his song “Njunku.” When he heard one of the instrumentals I had, he came up with “Nyokonole.” It translates from Mandinka as “We Are Together” and is a song about friendship, about making music and making friends. Jamal who also sings on the song is a friend for nearly 20 years.

Tell us about the video.

The video was filmed while spending a month in Gambia and, in part, on a short family trip to Senegal with my wife's family. Like the record, the video is a bit of a collage, layered and re-imagined. The album took me four years to complete and gets into memory and travel so this video felt like a reflection of that feeling.

What sparked the idea to record an album in Gambia?

Loving the kora… and wanting to find a way to make new music with such a beautiful and traditional instrument. And it was my wife’s first trip home in many years. After coming home with the recordings with Tata and S.T. I was on a mission to complete an album in the spirit of the recordings we’d done. I reached out to friends Martin Perna, Jordan Mclean from Antibalas, Preachermann, Sparlha, Morley, all friends who know me through filmmaking as well as music, and I kept recording. When I was introduced to Youssoupha Sidibe, he added kora to a number of rough songs and the record came together. The song with Morley is the last one I recorded for the album.

What would you say are the main musical influences on "Nyokonole" and the rest of the Holy Forest LP?

In “Nyokonole” I like the repetition, I love the melodic feeling of soukous guitar, the repeating lines. The album was recorded in parts and in lots of different places. In a way my background as a film editor played a role in the way I approached the music production. I recorded layers and layers and then reduced and thickened. A lot of the writing happened in the studio after recording, kind of like a documentary film: finding the story in hours of material.

The whole album is a blend of a lot of places and inspirations. It’s definitely influenced by my travels in Brazil, Ethiopia and Jamaica where I’ve made films. Sonically it’s reggae, soul music, afrobeat, blues... maybe call it cross-continental roots music…diasporic funk? There are a lot of influences in this record for me — it's full of a nostalgic feeling — in Brazil they call it saudade. Thematically, it’s pretty much a collection of love songs, about longing for love or remembering a deep connection. I hope it expresses the feeling of a journey.

Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Maia & The Big Sky LP cover.

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Maia & the Big Sky connect with Blinky Bill for "Pawa."

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The Nairobi-based artist is now sharing the new music video for "Pawa," the album's leading track, which we're premiering here today. Directed by Chris King, the beautiful new clip sees Maia & the Big Sky taking over the TV airwaves and minds of all of those watching, freeing them from the "power" that controls them.

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Photo: Mídia NINJA

The Assassination of Marielle Franco and the Dawn of Brazil's New Civil Rights Movement

Marielle Franco was one of a new generation of black activists trying to overturn Brazil's entrenched and violent racism

The violence in Rio de Janeiro right now is akin to a war zone, with per capita death tolls resembling those from Afghanistan and Syria. Two weeks ago I traveled there for business and stayed in the relatively safe and trendy neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Each night of my stay, was abruptly awaken by long streams of gunshots and also fireworks from the nearby favela of Falett. The fireworks—as I learned from my local friends—were not a result of any celebration, rather a signal that either drugs, guns, or the police have arrived. This is the norm for many of the 763 favelas in Rio which houses nearly 25 percent of the city's population.

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