Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Ex Week No. 3:
Our Man on the Inside -
Toronto’s Brodie West

September 12th, 2009


Brodie West, left, with The Ex and Getatchew Mekuria, photo by GABURU on Flickr.

Our series of posts this weekend continues celebrating the visit of The Ex and Getatchew Mekuria to Canada, tonight and tomorrow at the Polish Combatants’ Hall in Toronto (the site of one of the Concrete Toronto Music shows I co-curated with Jonny Dovercourt last year). Part 2 of the video retrospective should be up tomorrow, and Zoilus contributor Chris Randle also has an interview with Jeremy Strachan of the band Canaille, who open for The Ex tomorrow night. But today, I’ve had an exchange of emails with Brodie West, a Toronto alto saxophonist and improvisor (Zebradonk, Drumheller) who for the past several years has been a frequent collaborator with the band, to get his perspective on how they work and their interchange with Mekuria.

Give me a little outline of your musical background.

I grew up on Vancouver Island - Nanaimo - and started playing the alto saxophone at 12 in elementary school. I learned to play many old pop melodies from my grandmother, a piano player. Then school jazz band and then Humber College for jazz - I didn’t receive a diploma, but that hasn’t mean anything to me so far. It was really good for me to hear and play there with Don Thompson and Pat Labarbera. At that time i was completely into John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden - jazz was my main thing.

I started to improvise with the Woodchoppers Association and formed Zebradonk; in 1998 we went to Amsterdam. I met Han Bennink in 1999, and first played with him in Toronto at Mike Hansen’s studio. Went again to Amsterdam in 2001 to study with Misha Mengelberg - counterpoint and improv/noise class. Around this time I was also starting to check out more indie-rock bands, and classic rock too - living with [Woodchoppers leader] Dave Clark for a while, I was hearing lots of classics which I had missed through my jazz obsession.

I moved back to Amsterdam in 2005, and went to Ethiopia in 2006 with Heather (my wife), Han Bennink and Terrie (of The Ex).

How did your work with The Ex begin?

I first encountered the EX while on tour with Han in Canada - we shared a night with/opened for them at a gig at Lee’s Palace. Then in 2006 when Heather and I arrived in Amsterdam - we went straight to an Ethiopian restaurant to meet Han. Terrie was also there - these two are very close, coming from the same rural region of Holland. There was a lot of talk about Addis Ababa. A few weeks later they invited us to travel there with them if we were so inclined… We were totally convinced. While we were there Getatchew visited the hotel where we were staying - the Baro Hotel in the Piaza area, highly recommended! - and with his saxophone gave an example of the 10 or so melodies which we were to play with this band.

It was a few weeks later that Terrie proposed to me to join the group as he had the idea to have a horn section. I think it was also with some encouragement from Han.

What’s the creative process like, working with them - in terms of conceptual direction, musical coordination, etc?

To prepare for our first engagements and with the idea to record, we rehearsed these [Ethiopian] melodies for two weeks, referring to previous recorded versions, and really settling on the song forms/structures, before Getatchew arrived. I got the impression these rehearsals were structured in a way not very unlike how Terrie, Kat and Andy usually put together their music… and Jos was busy with words and how they would relate with the Ethiopian meanings.

There is not a whole lot of conceptual discussion. We were not overly concerned with making things perfect - it was mostly that the bass and drums would stay together and everyone would be able to anticipate changes and shifts through the songs.

From what you’ve seen of it, what’s their process and dynamic with Getatchew like, and what steps do take to they fuse their approaches and styles?

Really, a lot of time spent together and not a lot of compromise musically. Somehow the direct simplified use of language - Getatchew doesn’t speak too much English - so we had to find ways of sorting things out without a lot of discussion. Laughing, and try again - GO!

What particular qualities of the Ethiopian tradition have you found interesting or learned from?

For me the most difficult challenge has to do with the scales. The music relies on these scales - 5-note scales - for the sound, the harmony. There are songs that are popular in Ethiopia which are just called after the names of the scale, “Tezeta,” for example, a love song - Getatchew named his daughter after this scale! it is beautiful, and can be played in a minor or major way. For me, if I am to take a solo on one of these songs it takes quite a leap to depart from these scales - is it then a question of staying with, and playing within this limit harmonically, or what? This has been something i’ve meditated on a bit.
Getatchew uses the term “broken note” - to distinguish a note which falls outside the scale.

The Ex are famous for the radical politics that are interwoven with their musical approach. How does that come into play in actual musical work with them (if it does)?

Everyone is free to chose their own approach to the music - that is true, and it is not expected that we should behave in any kind of appropriate, professional manner. There is no boss officially - but Getatchew is a Lion. He can really direct the band, that is for sure!

How do you think this project copes with the kinds of charges of exoticization, romanticism or touristic attitudes that arise any kind of fusion of ‘first world/’third world’ musics like this? Is it an example that can be applied elsewhere.

The musicians of The Ex have a strong identity and have developed their approach to the point that they would be unable to play music from the standpoint of another tradition. They could not play Ethiopian music in a traditional way, this is a case where what you can not do - because from a technical standpoint you are not proficient in that way - is what makes it great! It is not by accident either. I thought quite a bit about that because i went to jazz school and I learned that the more you practice the better you will get - but it really depends what you practice, more than how much.

Any other reflections, or upcoming projects of your own?

I have a new band that features one of my all-time favorite musicians to play with, Ryan Driver, on piano, a bass player who i started playing music with when i was 14, Brent Tanemura, and the most amazing trumpet player, Nicole Rampersaud. The band is called Legends of Jazz Piano - we’re playing my own melodies which might sound familiar because they are not overly original. But i think it’s pretty good Jazz. I absolutely love to hear what the musicians do with my songs.

I should also say that it is such a great pleasure to play with Getatchew Mekuria, and The Ex and Xavier [Charles, clarinet], Joost [Buis, trombone] and Colin [McLean, bass, formerly of the Dogfaced Hermans]. We play music which people can dance to! Getatchew’s playing is so meaningful to so many people - his music has touched almost every Ethiopian, it is generous and beautiful. I don’t know what to call it, but everyone should hear it.

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  2. Half says:

    For those who need the proof, I’ve uploaded a couple of clips of last night’s show.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nm_Ym0cNPL4

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Boqkwr24D3U

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