To Erich von Däniken the pyramids are evidence of extraterrestrial intervention. The Grateful Dead played on the slopes of the Great Pyramid in order to tap into those ancient cosmic energies. While ‘Saqqara – the oldest necropolis pyramid in Egypt, is where my journey back to ancient Egypt began’ says Esbe, about the step-pyramid tomb of Pharaoh Djoser, built in the City of the Dead some 4,700 years ago, by High Priest Imhotep. Yes, we’ve seen ‘The Mummy’ movies.
But listen to her breathtaking ‘Saqqara’ album, and it’s hair standing up on the nape of your neck time. A jewel from the sky as Folk-clever as breath from the dunes. New fusions of ancient musics. And great tunes too, both majestic and epic, yet touch-sensitive personal. The instruments soar and pulse with non-western drones while vocal sounds startle as they soothe. Desert jazz with multi-sampled strings, entrancing world electronica, zithers, the magic beat of djembe, conga, and tabla, upright, electric and electronic throb. Kate Bush and sometimes Enya with Shahin Badar (from the Prodigy album). The sensual “Carry Me Away” uses the found-sound rhythm of a sampled helicopter thrum, while “My Love Knows No Bounds” has crickets and exotic birds twittering over the underlying hypnotic groove of sampled thunderclaps and jazz bass. It’s difficult to know where to begin, for there are immense soundscapes at work here.
Was there never a Rock music phase for Esbe? Was she never an Indie kid…? ‘I feel I missed out!’ she admits. ‘I began life as a classical musician and didn’t really listen to Pop music at all, apart from that which we all seem to know. I discovered Jeff Beck a little while ago, he was on TV last year in collaborations. OMG what a fantastic musician! I’d donate a small portion of a limb to work with him!’
More to the point, ‘Egypt is brill’ she enthuses. ‘Spent a whole day in Cairo museum where all the Tutankhamen treasures are. The outside stuff’s pretty awesome too! It’s fantastic. When the world opens up again you must visit Egypt, you won’t be disappointed! Try travelling by train back from Aswan, the sleeper is like being an explorer in the nineteenth-century. I’ve always been drawn to North Africa and the Middle East – where modern life connects with our shared origins.’ On ‘Saqqara’, she travels further east for the thematically-linked Sufi-inspired “Qawaali Dance” and “Qawaali Siesta”, which bookend the album, luscious devotional voice-strings dialogues that use her voice as an instrument. Sprays of delicate sounds plugged directly into the whirling cosmic firmament of eternity. Blending the dancing hypnotic repetitions of “Eyes Of Blue”, to the EDM-pulse behind “Bedouin Prince”.
Did the inspiration for the album come from listening to live Egyptian musicians while she was there? ‘No, not really! Mainly I heard what the bus drivers had on the radio, which is somehow more the real deal. I have listened to recordings though.’
Esbe has long curtains of Cleopatra hair, and dark eyes. Surely she must have been the child prodigy spotted for her musical talent at school, and from there whisked off to the Royal Academy of Music? ‘Ooh I don’t know about that. I grew up in NW London, Hatch End-Pinner, very conventional, but I was adopted and I traced my natural mother. Turns out I am half Turkish-Algerian! with some Polish ancestry too (what she terms ‘my nurture/nature of north African, Polish, Lithuanian Jewish roots, with a little Roma further back’). But I did sing solo in school assembly. Nearly missed the audition in primary school as I was on lunch detention. Said I needed the loo to go and sing! I’d been playing guitar for a couple of years then went to the academy at thirteen, Saturday mornings before going full time. I then performed with my duo partner for a couple of years but only enjoyed the songs we did due to guitar nerves. We did my arrangements of Bach etc but he played lute so we broke the programme up with Purcell and Dowland. That’s when I started singing a bit. I’d always improvised on the quiet and thought I’d write them down and hence started recording.’
Her love of European and Middle Eastern roots is reflected in her albums, ‘Desert Songs’ (2018), which sets her musical arrangements to a selection of poems from the eighth-thirteenth centuries – including those by celebrated Sufi mystic poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, ‘I do read poetry, but I must confess it’s now mainly when I’ve been reading with a view to setting it to music.’ Plus ‘Mystra: Songs from Byzantium’ (2018) reviewed as ‘a work of startling scope and imagination… (the) breadth of Esbe’s vision (is)… hugely enjoyable… (with the) capacity to delight and perplex…’ (‘RNR’) and ‘engaging music that incorporates poetry and phonetic vocal sounds… twelve enchanting songs take us to another time’ (‘Northern Sky’), ‘Ten Songs’ (2019), and ‘Far Away: And Not Crying But Singing’ (2019), which includes outstanding track “Obsession”. Also listen out for the ‘Dub Colossus Salome Mix’ of “Don’t Say Maybe”.
Acting Devil’s Advocate, what strikes me very strongly about so-called World Music is that we listen with Western ears. To a musician from outside that cultural tradition there’s a lifetime of learning that goes into their music, which we can never hope to understand. ‘You’re very perceptive, that’s a very good point. But we only have the one set of ears so I guess enjoy and make of it the best we can.’
And that’s a very good response. Do you see yourself as part of a ‘movement’ or genre? Do you consider there are there other artists working in a similar area? ‘I don’t try to follow any ‘conventional’ sound groups. I’ll create grooves from anything I think works – as the great Cole Porter said, anything goes. So there’s Pop-Classical north African-Indian musicians and etc, all hopefully blended well.’
The electro-hiss of standout track “Paint The Moon” is set against the blood moon night sky once associated with the Biblical end-of-time itself. Her voice flies. ‘The song is a reflection of the moon as ‘it-she’ watches what we’re doing to this glorious planet. The moon cries red tears,’ Esbe explains. ‘I wrote it both as a paean for a departed lover, but also something bigger, a plea by a moon saddened at the natural world’s depletion by humankind, as in the lyrics ‘paint the moon red, with tears of pain, you’re calling my name…’ The song was written around the riff using fifths – the rhythmic sections. But I wanted the plea to be plaintive so I lost the groove there. It might sound strange but I actually heard Ed Sheeran’s ‘The Shape of You’ – my groove cheekily sounds a bit like what might happen if Ed meets some Nubian friends!’ A pause. ‘On second thoughts, about the Ed Sheeran reference – it’s a bit odd, especially as I don’t sound anything like him. You were surprised too, so it’s probably not a good reference after all – and people might expect a very different album! Haha. I should have taken heed, had a coffee or watched TV, before pinging my reply.’
Are you a more cerebral than emotional person? No offence intended, but do you respond to music intellectually rather than intuitively? ‘No offence taken. I’m cerebral, but emotionally driven. So when composing or doing anything creative, I respond completely on the emotional level as to whether it’s ‘right’. Totally intuitive and not bothered by what it should be. But otherwise I’m very organised and focused. I hope that’s a good combination for both writing and producing.’
We should all operate on such enlightened principles. ‘Thank you but I’m not special. I think it’s how all classical musicians are because we have the practice thing and discipline drummed into us from an early age – ‘scuse pun!’
We are all special, in different ways. Esbe’s music is unique. ‘Talking of other projects – I have the sixth album ready to finish mixing for 2021, I’m just about to record vocals for the next one, I have two very fruitful collaborations on the go, and am really keen to premiere a more classical piece a bit like ‘Peter and the Wolf’ for young people, but Covid-19 got in the way! I’m also trying to get another project about mankind’s destruction of the natural world off the ground…’
We talk about her marmalade cat, about Audrey Hepburn, about our (separate) shopping visits to Borough Market, and about why her Facebook page is Esbe Esbe…? Is that to differentiate her from the Los Angeles Esbe? ‘Ah yes, the other Esbe, who’d have thought there’d be two? No it’s because you had to put two words in and I just use the same one twice! But no worries. That’s a nice thought to sleep on. It’s been a long week and my book is calling . . .’
You’ve got a book too…? WOW! ‘Ooh no the book I’m reading – the last one was the ‘Jamestown Brides’ which I only knew about because a friend from our allotments wrote it! It’s very interesting if you’re looking for a bit historical reading. But I do have other projects on the go. Thank you for your response and interesting chat. Let’s continue…’
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
ESBE ‘SAQQARA’ (New Cat Music)
(1) My Love Knows No Bounds (7:07) ‘nights sleeping under the stars and dreams of those who walked there three thousand years ago’
(2) Carry Me Away (4:42) ‘Cleopatra sings of her love for Mark Anthony… whilst looming swooping helicopters above fill the air with dread.’ The rhythm is a pulse, like an accompanying chorus for the singer
(3) Qawaali Dance (4:02) ‘I fell under the spell of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the renowned qawaali singer and of the interplay between the rhythm and melodic phrases characteristic of this form of devotional song’
(4) Eyes Of Blue (5:28) ‘I see the swaying hips of a dancer before the campfire’
(5) I’ll Fly (3:43) ‘The sun rises as a young slave woman from Saqqara sings of love and her yearning to escape.’ Using two versions of a minor scale offer a duality of history and culture, the melody also uses the whole-tone scale, so loved by Debussy and Ravel for its harmonic ambiguity
(6) Paint The Moon (3:53) ‘A riff using fifths underpins the upbeat groove. These are separated by pared-down sections, giving the vocals a sense of yearning’
(7) Bedouin Prince (4:08) ‘the jazz inflections of the track follow the loose groove, with a liberal sprinkling of strings and improvised vocals’
(8) Qawaali Siesta (5:15) ‘Slower and more filmic, I used expansive strings, courtesy of Spitfire Audio… (it) dreamily ends with all the tracked vocals slowly falling to the key note, lazily landing at different times but blending on the low middle C’
(9) My Love Knows No Bounds: Radio Edit (3:50) ‘Samples of a thunder-clap, crickets and exotic birds all lend their natural rhythm to the hypnotic groove, underpinned with jazz bass’
(10) Eyes Of Blue: Radio Edit (4:03) ‘In a region where eyes and hair are dark, blue eyes represent the height of exoticism’
Composed & Produced by Esbe
Mixing, Paul Chivers, Mastering, Toby Mills
Cover photo by Christina Jansen, photo editing by Esbe
Expanded from an interview first published in:
‘R’N’R’ Vol.2 No.84 (Nov-Dec)’ (UK – November 2020)