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Interviewing Rachelle Ferrell
From the moment I saw the name Rachelle Ferrell on the line up for this years edition of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, I made a decision then that I’d be going to the festival. Having seen her perform at the Standard Bank Joy Of Jazz a few years ago made me yearn for that experience of amazement and electricity through her powerful and unique performances.
On Friday morning on my way to the beginning of the press conferences at the Pepper Club Hotel I saw her where we were formally introduced to each other. The smile across her face and the gentle and calm demeanor said it all about her. That just escalated my love for her, not just as a musician, but a humble and respectful human being. When our paths crossed again later that night outside the hotel where she was in random conversations about her activities for the day with Bilal and a group of other people, it was so easy for me to join in and share in the conversations.
Our third encounter was at the hotel on Sunday when I had the chance to have an extensive talk with one of the best jazz musicians I’ve ever met. Our previous meetings turned out to have been a preparation, or rather a catalyst for a comfortable, lengthy, revealing and engaging talk that I think we both immensely enjoyed. After sharing a few pleasantries, this is how the conversation transpired.
Khetha: I spoke to you briefly on Friday night. You spoke about learning Xhosa. How has that experience been like?
Rachelle: Amaziing! (Laughs) Hm. I don’t even know where to begin. It’s been such an amazing experience. I love the language. I love Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho. And there’s the one that’s supposed to be really hard. (Khetha: Venda?). Is it Venda? Sesulu (sic)? And, uhm, the cultural. Uhm, and linguistic millage that exists here, uhm, to my knowledge, exists nowhere else. So, for me loving language, loving people, loving humanity, and loving, uhm communication, period. Because that’s uhm you know, for me, that’s my passion. My vehicle is music, but my passion is communicating and connecting people. So it’s like throwing the fish in the water. (Laughs) And it’s been amazing. I love it. Uhm. And it’s just, I try and take in as much as I possibly I can. Hm, in the short amount of time I’ve been here, and so, I’m swinging in it now. It’s feels wonderful. And I’m so looking forward to tonight. Because, I’ve not experienced anything like this before. So, I don’t know what this translates into, musically. So, I’m just as uh, excited and, you know, uhm, and anticipating what’s gonna happen tonight, you know. Even more so probably, than everyone else because I know myself well enough to know that this is something new. This is something different. And so, I have no idea. Even having been a musician for all the years that I’ve been a musician. In all my life, really. Uhm. And I know that when this kinda stuff comes in, anything that comes in, everything that comes in, translates through me and comes out as music. And so, having experiences that I’ve had before. And I know that I can pretty much depend on it. Being a certain quality, a certain level. But this, is a new variable. So, it’s like putting a new combination of foods together. And what the dish is gonna be, I don’t know. But I know it’s gonna be good. (Laughs).
Khetha: And obviously it’s not your first time. We just spoke about the Joy Of Jazz Festival in Jo’burg. Did you have any misconceptions about the country, before getting here?
Rachelle: I Just…I don’t recall having any expectations. I just…the one expectation that I did have was, to have a life-changing experience. That’s what happened here. It’s happened twice now. Once in Jo’burg and once in Cape Town. And, I think when I go to new places, and I think also, I’m just thinking about it. Being a musician, being an artist, I’ve trained myself not to have expectations. Uhm. Tangible ones, you know what I mean. I have expectations in terms of principle, quality, uhm, and substance. Not necessarily, ok, this is gonna happen and then this is gonna happen; then I expect to meet so and so and so. No. Uhm. I did expect to go on a safari. I wanted to go on a game reserve this time that I was here. And I really wanted to go to Robbin Island. So in terms of having tangible expectations, I just uhm. I just contradicted myself, ‘cause those two were in my spirit, when I arrived here. What I found here, was, you know, what I did experience here was amazing and so much more that what I could have even planned for. What I could have ever planned for. So, I look forward to, uhm, returning and being able to do the game reserve and do Robbin Island. Some lovely people were able to, I don’t know how they did it, some small miracle. Wise (sic) and small miracle, procure 11am tickets for me to go to Robbin Island this morning. But I had already committed to doing the interviews. So I had to turn it down. I was like, my lip kinda dropped down to the floor (laughs). Because, uh, they were booked up through Wednesday. I don’t know how they were able to do it. But I had to stay true to my word. And, keep in mind why I came here. Remaining in my integrity. I mean, I couldn’t very well speak in the workshop about remaining in your integrity and then go off and just blow off the interview. (Laughs)
Khetha: I believe you’ve been doing classes, teaching kids about music. What I’m interested in is, what are some of the lessons that you’ve learned from the kids that you imparted your knowledge to?
Rachelle: Hm, a lot. That’s a good question. I learn something from everyone from everyone, uh, who I meet or come into contact with. Uhm, sometimes it’s something I wanna hold on to in terms of what to do; and sometimes it’s what not to do. But with regard to teaching children, what I learn is, and this has been very valuable for me in my life. And that is to maintain ones youthful, uhm energy. Uhm, ones sense of wonder. Uhm, ones openness to learning new things. And not pulling a shroud over oneself, ‘oh I’ve been there, done that, seeing that already, I already know what that’s about’. Kids are so open to everything. Open to possibilities. They are just like little sponges; and they absorb everything all around them. They’ll stop and look at an ant. You know, uh, whereas as adults, we don’t have time for ants. (Laugh).
Khetha: Now, the beginning of your career, as a female jazz musician, how easy or difficult was it?
Rachelle: Hm. Well, the beginning of my career, uhm, I didn’t realize it was a career. So, uhm, these words come, like career…and labels, like career and female jazz musician. They all come afterwards, you know. And they are like, saying ok you have a white sweat jacket with blue stripes clinging (sic) down the sleeves (describing what I was wearing). It’s used to describe what you are wearing, but not you. (Laughs). So, early on, it was important to me to just be me. And to explore like that child explored everything from the mount cliff that Table Mountain is (pointing at the mountain) to the little, tiny ants and the creatures that I see walking around on the road, on the ground, underneath my feet. Uh, and to understand what that meant. To understand who I am in the universe and the world. Where I am. What I am. And how to express that, in the moment. To translate it and express it. Take it in, absorb it, digest it, and bring it back out. So, uh, something that’s understandable. Uhm, in the form of music. Sound.
Khetha: Speaking of that, what do you feel are some of the biggest impediments you just had to push through to get to where you are today?
Rachelle: One of the biggest impediments was, one, lack of self esteem. Uhm, the ability or inability to acquire courage and fearlessness. It’s very difficult to do when you don’t have self-esteem. Uhm, another huge one, that took me from self-esteem, even further back in self-esteem, was, uhm, learning how to love myself. But you can’t love that you don’t know. So I had to learn who I was to be able to love who I am. Uhm, learning about my history; learning about uhm why I’m valuable. And that I am valuable in spite of all these messages that are coming into me that I’m not valuable. You know what I mean? That struggle, that conflict that I think we all deal with as human beings, no matter where we are in the world or where we grow up in the world. Being in a household that’s dysfunctional, with parents who fight and argue. You know, feeling like we are not loved, not valuable, not seen, not noticed. Uhm, being able to push through that, anyway, and say I am here, I am. Just by the very fact that I am, means that I’m valuable. That the fact that I exist, by virtue of the fact that I exist, I am valuable. And being able to take that, the energy in it, the information of that, and translate that into how I treat myself; how I care for myself; how I feed myself. Nutritionally speaking in terms of food, but also in terms of thoughts and thinking. How I treat you is based upon how I feel about myself. So…and all of that gets put into the music and little by little when it comes back to me, I get this reflection. Not only in the moment of the music when I’m performing, and if I said…(she started singing for me, I felt like I was in heaven *big grin*)….there is a whole lot of meaning in that, that it would take us 25 minutes to go dissect and figure out what was said, but you know what was said. ‘Cause you can feel it, right? (I nodded heavily, uttering that I did feel it) (We both laugh). So, it’s the quickest, most efficient way to communicate for me because words sometimes get in the way. Although I love words too, and language. But then music is a deeper language. When you fuse music with spirit, with energy, with love, with emotion, and intensity; then you get, it’s a whole other language that cuts through any unknown barriers that exist. Whether they are your barriers or my barriers. You know, it could be a barrier of self-esteem. ‘I don’t feel good about myself so I can’t open or share myself with you; I’m shy or I’m embarrassed’. You know what I mean (softly laughs). Or vice versa. Music cuts through all of that. And I used to be a very shy individual. I still am in some ways, but I know this is my job, so I have to, handle my business. (Laughs).
Khetha: On the flip side of that, because life in nature is ambivalent… (She loved what I said and made me blush…you can pick up from my smile/laugh, LOL). So, what are some of the blessings you are appreciative of, that will be entrenched in your memories forever?
Rachelle: Hm. There are many. The profound beauty of South Africa, and of Cape Town. Which is only rivaled by the profound beauty of people. Uhm, it will remain with me forever. And, uh, it’s amazing to me to even observe it and experience it myself. But I open my mouth and I hear how I sound now, today. I’m different that who I was before I arrived here or when I arrived here. And so that, the essence of that, and the substance, the tambourine, the texture of that, is already coming through. You know, so, I’m really looking forward to being able to express that in a whole; in its totality; and explore what that feels like, it sounds like, it tastes like, within the context of what it is that I do, professionally as an artist. And that’s with my band on stage, with a microphone in my hand and a piano in front of me, a keyboard in front of me. I’m so looking forward to being able to give back, as much as I possibly can that has been given to me. ‘Cause so much has been given to me. I mean, I’ve spoken to you over the last 2, 3, 4 days, right? Just in the lobby. You’ve been so warm and real and you know, hospitable (there I g, blushing again). Just, this kind of thing, that’s the substance of what I take with me. And I hope that you take some of that with you as well. And you will also take the music with you as well, ‘cos I’m gonna give it to you, a’int I? (we both laugh).
Khetha: (I’m really looking forward to it, cheesing again). The first time I was introduced to your music, it was the duet you did with Will Downing, Nothing Has Ever Felt Like This. Actually I always say to my friends that’s gonna be my wedding song (Rachelle: Aww, sweet, thank you). What are some of the considerations you have in your head when you decide to collaborate with somebody? What qualities are you looking for in that person?
Rachelle: That’s a good question. Uhm, that depends though on whether I’m collaborating in the form of song writing or whether I’m collaborating in the form of performing or recording the song. In the case of this duet with Will Downing, I had written the song already. I was looking for a specific type of voice. A warm resonance and, uh, a deeply masculine sounding voice. To, uh, convey the sentiment of the song. To create, paint a picture, an oral picture, of the song actually; the idea and energy of the song. And his voice was the perfect one. It was only afterwards that I met the man and, you know, we’d laugh together and we could cut (sic) the song, or just record in the studio. I didn’t understand, I didn’t know who he was. I was introduced to him, I was referred to him by Bruce Lanville, he was the President of Blue Note Records. And he said I’ve got just the voice for you and he introduced me to Will Downing. And the rest is history. Will just went in, just cut it off and sang it down. And took care of his business. (Laugh).
Khetha: And you’ve also worked a lot with George Duke. I believe you two are related? (Rachelle: no, musically related). What are those experiences like, these two creative minds coming together?
Rachelle: That was an amazing experience. And it’s something that really helped to shape my approach to music, in terms of production. I learnt so much from him from producing, being able to create an oral picture. You know, and oral landscape. And then being able to put my voice in it, after painting the picture. And then kinda just, it’s like interior design; but it’s oral design. And he taught me so much about that. And we had so much fun, you know, I had so much fun learning from him. I learned through laughter, and hard work. We would spend hours together recording, you know, the CD. He said this is your cake, bake it anyway you wanna. And it was the only one, other than Bruce Lanville, who advocated that for me. Everyone else was like, ‘you gotta do this, gotta do that, you gotta be’. And George Duke was like, ‘look, leave this woman alone, she will just leave and go do something else. Because she’s a real artist, and she’s not beholden to the commercial side of the industry.’ And anybody at that time had gotten a taste of huge multi-platinum selling CD’s and stuff, and everybody was really hungry, you know, to make the next multi-platinum artist; but they had no idea how to do it. They lost in the effort to grab the new thing, they let go of the old thing that they had. Which was, you know, learning, you know, the artist development. What I grew up hearing about in terms of what you had to do, what you had to accomplish in order to be an artist worthy of recording or being recorded, was to have your own sound. I can’t tell you a number of times I heard, you know, ‘what you need or what do I do to get noticed’? I asked the same questions everybody is asking now ‘what advice do you give young up and coming artists’? And the advice that I received was, develop your sound to a degree that as soon as you open your mouth, people know who it is. And you know that was a daunting task for a young artist back then. It’s like, how do I even begin to do that? Where is step one? And it was almost like a conundrum that had to be cracked, a corn that had to be answered, before you can actually do it. I was able to do it, then once I finally broke through and had a chance to record; then they changed the rules. They wanted me to sound like somebody else. I’m like oooh, ooh, hold up! (Laughs).
Khetha: I’m actually interested in knowing this. Record companies always have this idea of what they want from you. And you being this immensely creative spirit, you have your own ideas. How do you reconcile those ideas?
Rachelle: They are very difficult, and it’s a very good question. It is, and has been very difficult for me to reconcile. That was a struggle, you know, a constant pulling, pushing, for me to, first of all maintain my balance; be who I am. Uh, remain excited and passionate about, not only what I do, but the fact that I have an opportunity at the platform I have to do it. Once I finally get on this platform and now people are trying to tell me what to do, when I know what to do. Not fair. (Laughs) And I saw the lengths to which they would go to try and manipulate and control. I went to class, school for manipulation 101, control 101. You know what I mean. Just like these winds whipping (sic) around us now, are shaping this mountain, you know; it shaped me. And I’m very, you know, I’m shy, but I had to put the shyness away and be able to speak out and speak up for myself; and say no, thank you. You know, explain…(Khetha: otherwise you will lose yourself). Yeah, you will. And at times I did lose myself. Uh, but I had to find myself, kinda heal and get away from it. And I’ve been saying for the last few years thank God I’m not in the music industry. I haven’t been in the music industry fro many, many years; I’m in the people business. You now, the music business if off on their own thing. Uh, my vehicle is music, but I don’t do it the way they do it. I came up through a very critical time in the industry where they were changing over from the old values, and value system of having your own sound, and uhm, artist development. Working hard, going out, doing live performances. Developing (your brand), through experience, one gig after the next. Going out on the road, staying on the road. You know, that experience that’s hands-on, putting your time in, paying dues. Nowadays, you just record something, and put the machine behind you. Most people can’t even perform live, because you spend so much time in the studio. Technology has kinda taken over. We thought we could use technology; but now technology is using us. We are slipping away those old values.
I hear there is a woman in the Eastern Cape named Madosini? ( I confirmed the name). I can’t wait to meet her. Because I hear that she embodies the original, sacred purpose and essence of music. That makes me feel good to know that there’s someone on the planet, you know. I need to hear about one more person, who cares about the sacredness of music. The sacred privilege of being a musician and artist, as opposed to, you know uh, simply a merchandiser of music, or promoter, or the commercial side of music. That has its place, but I think that it’s become such a monstrous, huge beast that is swallowing up the artisional part of it. I would like to come back and meet Mother Madosini, with much respect, and just sit with her and listen and share with her, and just take it in. Because it seems like, from what can I hear and understand, from what everyone tells me; that she translates the spiritual energy. She channels the deities and the divine, through the gift of her, her being-ness and her abilities. How do you say in Xhosa “Be Strong”? (Qina). Qina! (Laughs).
Khetha: You are one of the few people in the world whose voice is considered an instrument on its own. And when I listened to Run To Me for the first time, there is a note you hit towards the end of the song. I think I came in mid-song and thought it was actually a saxophone. How do you do that?
Rachelle: Uhm, I don’t know. (Laughs) I mean, there are no buttons to push. Singing is…it’s spiritual, it’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s mental, it’s psychological. All mixed up into one pot. And it’s sorta like when you’re in the cockpit, you have to be it. You know. Then you can go back and listen back and figure out how you did it. But in the moment, because it’s not a piano, or keyboard…there are no valves and no keys to push, one has to find those internal valves and keys. There are all in, you know, in the interior of my being. So to say how I did it, I don’t know.
Khetha: I guess it takes some practice as well. Is that true?
Rachelle: Practice and just being free enough to give yourself permission to be free enough….to just go for it. And express the inexpressible in a moment.
Khetha: Yesterday at a press conference I made a request to Jonathan Butler to get you to do Gaia with him. And he said he was up for it if you are, so I must try to convince you.
Rachelle: (Laughing) Funny thing is, I don’t remember the song.
Khetha: It’s funny that he said the same thing that he didn’t remember the words. And I told him you would remind him (smiling).
Rachelle: 2000 was when the album was released. And we recorded it in 1999, I think. So, what we’ll have to do is…get together, learn the song and then come back and do it for you. I hope somebody will facilitate that, ‘cause would d love to do it. It’s a gorgeous song. And even more so, I understand where it came from now that I have been in Cape Town and seen the landscape and beauty of Cape Town. It’s about the beauty of Mother Earth. And Jonathan brought the music to me originally and he said, “This song, I wanna write with you. It made me think of you”. So, I was listening to the track that he gave me and then that’s what came out. I was in Santa (sic), in Mexico at the time. And so, when I look out the window and I see Table Mountain, and you know, The Lion’s Back and The Lion’s Head and Single Hill, and I think of Cape Point, and…just the rugged beauty here, it just makes say Thank You to Mother Gaia. Yeah, that’s where it came from.
Khetha: I just though I’d take a chance since you are both here and you are both performing tonight…
Rachelle: He didn’t tell me at the time that he was going to be here. I just ran into him yesterday. And I didn’t know he was gonna be here until I arrived and I looked at the programme. And then I ran into him outside. And I just went up behind him and just hugged him from behind and grabbed him. He was in the middle of a conversation, and I didn’t wanna interrupt him. And he just said “Rachelle”. I said “How did you know it was me?” (Laughs). We haven’t seen each other in years. And after the workshop yesterday I’d given so much energy and I guess I’d just been pushing. And the time difference. I went, you know, to lay down, to take a nap, to wake up for his show. ‘Cause I told him I would come sing on his show and then invited him to come sing on mine. And then I fell asleep, went into a comma and missed it. When I woke up it was like 11:49. And I was so upset. So, I have to call him and apologise. But in case I don’t get a chance to get a hold of me, Jonathan I’m so sorry, I’m sorry I fell asleep and I missed your concert. I know I promised that I’ll be there. Please forgive me.
Khetha: When we chatted on Friday night, you also mentioned that you were gonna do something with Bilal tonight. Is it still on?
Rachelle: Yeah. Bilal will come up…what I’d like to do is just have folks come up and share with me, just jam. Just have a song where they come up, and just everybody…just like that.
Khetha: How do you feel about him? I love his music. His voice, the nuances, his range, everything just come together so perfectly.
Rachelle: I haven’t heard the new CD, but I know of his work. Uh, I played his first CD to death. And he’s funky, he’s raw, he’s real, he is intrepid. He’s not afraid to be himself. He’s not afraid to be a non-conformist. Uh, that fearlessness I love. And he’s just dripping with the soul, and the individuality…that I’ve been speaking about, you know, since I’ve been here. We’ve ran over and over again. And I look forward to being able to counter (sic) off with him.
Khetha: Have you had a chance of listening to any new music from here since you came through?
Rachelle: Any new music? No, I haven’t had any chance to listen to any music, but I think I’ve written or started some new songs since I’ve been here. There are like 3 or 4 that are filling around me now. And, on the flight here I ran into a beautiful woman, named Nontando. And she taught me a song in Xhosa, uh about uh, I think it means daughter (thought she was saying “doctor”). And it’s also a word that means the beetle, and the road? (She started humming it. It didn’t click – pun intended – to me at the time that she was referring to Mama Miriam Makeba’s The Click Song). Can’t remember it. It’s beautiful. And then I ran into some people at the Green Market Square and I asked them about the song. They started singing it for me as well. So, I have a recorder with it. When I come back I’ll be able to speak a lil’ bit of Xhosa, and sing in a lil’ bit of Xhosa as well.
Khetha: And, anybody else that you’d like to do something with beside Madosini and you’ve done stuff Jonathan Butler already? Anybody that you are aware of from this country you’d like to do something with?
Rachelle: I would like to work again with Jonathan Butler because it’s been many years…and Madosini. Uhm, and I’m not that familiar with any other artists. I met a wonderful, handsome gentleman by the name of Lesley, yesterday. And I got like, inundated with CD’s yesterday, after the workshop. So, the next time I come I will have more information and better answer your question. People just were so generous to give me their CD’s, their music…so I can check out their music. There is another, uhm, the woman who was trained by Madosini. And they gave me her CD yesterday. So, I look forward to doing the research and exploring that. I’ll get back to you on that one. (Laughs).
Khetha: Last question. Let’s say 80, 90 years from now, what do you want people to remember about Rachelle Ferrell. What type of legacy do you wanna leave behind for the next generations that come through?
Rachelle: WOW! I like that! Uhm…thank you for the quality of your questions and the quality of your interview. I appreciate it. I’ve done many, many of interviews over my career…and a lot make your eyes glaze over (inaudible part). Uhm, but to answer your question, uhm, I think the first thing that I’d like people to remember about me…uhm…I should say Rachelle Ferrell. (Laughs) I find it hard to speak about myself in the third person…but (inaudible), my humanity. Who I was as a person, as a human being first. Uh, and how I translated, manifested and translated spirit, my spirit, through the physical. Uhm, and the legacy that I would hope to be able to leave would be the legacy of quality of music, uhm, that others can draw from. In whatever way that they see fit. In whatever way they need in the moment. Whether it be to encourage or inspire them or to soothe and calm them or to heal them. Or to uh, use as a, you know, a learning or training tool for their own artistry…for their own gifts. However they’re infinite possibilities, uhm, but that I was a human being, a good human being first.
That was the end of the interview. This was one of the best interviews I’ve always done for YEAHBO yet. We had ignored countless knocks on the door because we were so deep in the topics we chatted about. We shared our endless thank you’s and farewells afterwards and just chatted more informally. The expectations for the show later that evening was heightened to an unbelievable level, as the anticipation grew strength by strength.
And to say she delivered on her promise is an understatement. She gave us an exhilarating, thrilling and the most honest, creative and memorable shows ever. As promised she brought Bilal on stage to perform a rousing duet that left us standing there, motionless, in amazement. As I’ve mentioned already, it turned out the song she spoke about, that was sung for her at Green Market Square, was Miriam Makeba’s The Click Song as she started belting it it out to our pleasant surprise and delight. Being a true musician she that is, she also sat in front of her piano and showcased her immaculate skills on the keys as she did songs like I Forgive You and more. What an amazing show! I was totally satisfied, I could have just left the festival right there, in utmost content. Definitely among the best I’ve been to in my life. I cannot wait to see her again.