Gentlemen, I'd like to start this interview by talking about 'Bye W.C.C. Zuiderpershuis Bye', the last track from your debut album. How much of a hole did the disappearance of Zuiderpershuis leave in the Belgian world music scene?
Steven Vangool (bass): "I think that will still have to become clear. In the twenty years of its existence a long list of artists have been on stage there and I'm sure a lot of people will have enjoyed certain genres at Zuiderpershuis for the very first time. I'm definitely going to miss the place."
I really asked that question because I know you guys were initially planning to record your first album there. Events caused you to revise those plans, so how did you eventually proceed?
Stefaan Blancke (saxophone and trombone): "For a while there was a lot of confusion, mainly because there wasn't much being communicated to us by the people at Zuiderpershuis. We knew they were having problems renewing the government grants they normally received, but it took quite some time before it became fully clear how bad things were really looking. Initially they still wanted to go ahead with everything that was already on the agenda, but in the end even that proved impossible. We had to move on and come up with a back-up plan. That's when we started contemplating just doing a regular studio album. The music we play is the kind you need to experience live, so in that regard the closure of Zuiderpershuis was a bit of a disappointment for us and even just from a financial perspective it would have been way cheaper for us to be able to record there, because renting a studio means time equals money. It would have been great to have had the opportunity to throw one last blast of a party there to launch this album and 'Bye W.C.C. Zuiderpershuis Bye' is our farewell, our homage and also our statement on the closure of Zuiderpershuis."
Jelle Van Giel (drums): "It's not exactly the most energetic dance track on the album, but it's a nice illustration of our feelings concerning the closure of the center."
Where did you eventually end up recording the album?
Steven Vangool: "At Jet Studio's in Brussels. In the end we decided to play live in studio conditions. Jet Studio's have an almost legendary reputation in the Belgian music scene; just about every Belgian artist with a bit of a reputation has recorded there at one stage. Staf Verbeeck, our sound engineer, has a long personal history with that studio and for him being able to work there again was like a nostalgic trip back in time."
I had the impression the tracks on ‘Shakara United' are a bit more jazz-infused than your live sets tend to be.
Jelle Van Giel: "I guess our improvisations might have steered certain tracks that way a bit; the middle part of a song like ‘Woman, Woman, Woman' for example, is wide open and that's very inviting for a musician."
Stefaan Blancke: "I think it also has to do with the background of some of the musicians in Shakara United; both Jelle and Steven are jazz graduates and a few of the others are also active in the jazz scene. It would be great if with Shakara United we could both appeal to people from the jazz-circuit and the world music scene. We're often called an afrobeat band, but I don't think that label covers what we are all about."
Apart from 'Bukom Mashie' (originally by Oscar Sulley, red.) there aren't any other cover versions on the album. What happened to the Fela Kuti tracks this project started with?
Jelle Van Giel: "When you record a cover version of a well-known song, your version almost has to be better than the original and that is often very difficult to achieve."
Stefaan Blancke: "We still play those songs live though."
Gregor 'Terror' Engelen (Antwerp Gipsy Ska Orchestra, Gregor Terror & The Calypso Gigolos, Ambrassband, red.) was invited to do the vocals for 'Modern Times'. How did you guys end up asking him?
Stefaan Blancke: "That happened quite organically. Gregor came to see us play some of our earlier concerts and at one of these gigs he spontaneously jumped on stage during that song to improvise with us. The lyrics we eventually used for the song were written by Donkey Diesel's Gunther Naegels, but when the time came to record it, we immediately thought of Gregor again."
For 'Kukunanatzi' you guys even switch to something resembling an African dialect.
Steven Vangool: "To clear up all confusion: we're definitely singing in an African language and not just talking gibberish! (laughs) Babs (Jobo, percussion, red.) wrote the lyrics for that song and "kukunanatzi" means something like "we're the guys (of Shakara)" in Hausa, a language mainly spoken in Ghana (Native speakers of Hausa are mostly to be found in Niger and in the north of Nigeria, but the language is used as a trade language across a much larger swathe of West Africa, Central Africa and northwestern Sudan, particularly amongst Muslims, red.)."
You're releasing ‘Shakara United' independently and at your own expense. Isn't that a bit of a financial risk these days?
Stefaan Blancke: "Well, of course it helps to stay realistic, but we're also releasing the album digitally and on vinyl, a market that has seen a small boom again lately."