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Myele Manzanza

Myele Manzanza Boundary-defying drummer discusses mentors, albums and mental health

The unique jazz drummer and producer talks to Now Then about life in the UK, musical mentors, his ongoing five album project, and how his struggles with mental health have influenced his music and his career. 

“I was definitely the new kid - well, the new early 30s guy!”

Sitting in the quietest available corner in the endlessly buzzing Manchester Blues Kitchen, where he is due to play later that evening, New Zealander Myele Manzanza tells me about settling into the UK.

Touching down in 2019, the past two years have provided an uncertain start to a new life 12,000 miles from home. But Manzanza, an electrifying drummer and producer defying the boundaries between instrumental jazz and electronic production, has determinedly grasped the opportunities provided by lockdown.

The Wellington-born son of a Congolese father and a New Zealand-European mother was surrounded by music as far back as he remembers. Sam Manzanza, Myele’s father and the frontman of a popular Afrobeat band in Wellington, is often regarded as the first musician to popularise African music in New Zealand.

"There was never a disciplinary, ‘Spend five hours practising now, boy.’ Music was just a thing that was around in our lives.”

This is no surprise. Manzanza gives the impression of someone who has lived and breathed music his whole life, not just been taught it. Involvement in his father’s African drumming classes ingrained in him the fundamentals of rhythm, setting him up to develop into one of jazz’s most exciting talents, working with the likes of Jordan Rakei, Miguel Atwood Ferguson, and long-term influence and legendary house DJ Theo Parrish, who flew him out for a European live band tour in 2014.

“I had a jazz trio version of a Theo Parrish tune on SoundCloud. He got wind of it and ended up signing it to Sound Signature [Parrish’s label], a big seal of approval for me. [The European tour] is how our relationship got going, and how he ended up doing some remixes for me. He’s been a big part of my musical development.”

It’s since his touchdown in the UK, however, that Manzanza has been able to wholeheartedly drive forward his solo career.

In its most innovative and inspired moment for half a century, the contemporary UK jazz scene – driven by the likes of Ezra Collective, Shabaka Hutchings, KOKOROKO, Moses Boyd and countless others – is proving itself to be the world’s strongest community for the development of nu jazz talent. Manzanza, steadily building a name for himself, is already proving a first-class addition to a thriving population of musicians.

“A lot of the reason why I moved here is because of this sudden global recognition of the jazz music coming out of the UK. It has an identity of its own and the musicians are getting stronger and stronger every year. I can create a self-sustaining musical career playing the kind of music that I want to play.”

And with the release of his latest two studio albums, Crisis and Opportunity Vol.1 and Vol 2, the first two of a five album project, he has done just that.

“When the pandemic hit, all the gigs I was supposed to have were wiped off the books. There was definitely an element of, ‘Oh shit, what am I doing? Should I go back to New Zealand? Should I stay?’

“One of the things I’ve known about myself for a while now is that I’m at my happiest when I’m in the middle of a project, and my most miserable when a project’s over. So I knew I needed to create something to do whilst having all this time, and had the idea of the Crisis and Opportunity five volume series.’

Struggles with mental health have often played a role in Manzanza’s music and career, most notably defining the sound of his deeply personal 2019 album A Love Requited. Is this the case for the Crisis and Opportunity albums too?

“In terms of raw subject matter, Crisis and Opportunity was definitely less overtly driven by the mental or psychological aspect that A Love Requited was, in terms of what I was trying to talk about with the compositions. But the process of throwing myself into such a big endeavour, making five different albums with five different concepts… I just needed to give myself a massive project, largely to not let myself slip into depression.

“There was this element of crisis the world was going through, with lockdowns and the massive loss of life. But at the same time, for me, there was the opportunity to try and make something positive, and turn a shitty situation into the beginnings of something which hopefully will be positive for me.

“I’m feeling in a pretty good place in terms of my morale. I have a creatively fulfilling musical life and I’m relatively self-sustaining career-wise, which is a real blessing.”

Manzanza does, however, confess to an element of strategy in his five volume project, aiming to firmly establish himself in the UK and global jazz market, proof of his unwavering musical ambition.

Volume 1 - London showcases an abundance of London-based talent, including Ashley Henry and Benjamin Muralt, the latter on the bass guitar for the Blues Kitchen gig.

“One of the silver linings of lockdown was that lots of the best musicians were available,” he tells me. “Normally the cats that you want for your A team would be busy on the road, so it’s pretty hard to get them into one place at one time.”

Myele Manzanza at blues kitchen manchester

Myele Manzanza at the Blues Kitchen in Manchester, 23 November 2021.

Manzanza, through Volume 1, acknowledges the ‘London’ jazz sound, which he tells me has influenced his recent music. There is a combination of energy, such as the impeccably anarchic ‘Portobello Superhero’, trance-inducing harmonies in ‘Brixton Blues’ and ‘London’ - both of which held the Blues Kitchen audience in a silent daze - and flawless, diverse drumming.

Released in November this year and recorded instead with New Zealand based artists, Volume 2 - Peaks has clear sonic differences. Shorter songs, seamless transitions and looped structures prove a contrast to the full-bodied compositions by Manzanza in Volume 1.

“I realised I could take some simple harmonic structures, give them to the band to improvise and see what happens. I could allow musicians to bring whatever they bring to the picture without having to be the dictator from on high.”

Absorbing rhythmic structures (‘Sit In Your Discomfort’, ‘Quinnies for the Boys’), a returned use of his electronic talents (‘To the Before Time’ and more), and irresistible guitar riffs over uncomplicated yet effective drum beats define the sound of Volume 2, another album of masterful drumming and musical innovation.

As for the gig, the Blues Kitchen audience was occasionally sitting dead-still in admiration, but more often uncontrollably tapping their feet as Manzanza’s three-piece – Lewis Moody on keys and Benjamin Muralt on bass – played a strong selection of tunes including ‘Coldharbour Lane’, a soothing-yet-uplifting personal favourite and one of his most popular.

Manzanza’s aspirations, including a potential future attempt at an orchestral piece, seem limitless. For now, we can look forward to his release of Volume 3 in mid-2022, and watch over the next few years as he unstoppably grows into one of the leading names in an invigorated UK jazz scene.

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