When you think you have entirely unravelled and got the full picture of Hejira and their music, here they are to throw you off guard with their brand-new work. Thread of Gold, their recently released second album on Lima Limo Records, is indeed incisive and gentle, at the same time fully displaying their jazzy and soulful heart, but also narrating and setting in music Rahel Debebe–Dessalegne’s (the frontwoman of the band) journey to re-discover her native Ethiopia, re-embracing her Eastern African roots.
There was arguably no better time to reach Rahel, Alex Reeve and Sam Beste and to ask them a few questions about their inspiration, almost ten years of career, and upcoming Euro tour, starting in London on 7th March at Oslo, Hackney.
Rhythm Passport: Thread of Gold, your second album, was published only a few days ago (22nd February). How would you present it?
Alex: Thread of Gold grew out of a trip we all took to Ethiopia together a few years ago. The record reflects our shared experiences of trying to make sense of our place in the world and the impact changing surroundings can have on our identity.
It feels like a real achievement to get to this point for us. We have been hands on with every element of the making and releasing of this record, the first LP on our label, Lima Limo Records.
RP: When did the project behind your new album start and how did it unfold?
Rahel: Our trip to Ethiopia in 2016 was where it really unfolded. Having the opportunity to share my experience of reconnecting with my heritage after the loss of my father in 2012, and sharing those special moments together with Sam and Alex was particularly important and inspiring for all of us, I think.
RP: We know that the album is pretty introspective and sort of autobiographical. What can you tell us about its main inspirations (both in terms of lyrics and music)?
Rahel: Yes, it’s certainly introspective in places, and I guess the main inspiration points were a result of our time in Addis together. It was such a unique experience. We searched through the city for rare vintage records, roamed music shops and collected various cassette tapes, we went on the search for live music and traditional dancing, visited old churches and markets and took field recordings all along the way. Also, visiting my family and piecing together the parts of my dad’s life that he hadn’t had the chance to share with me. My uncle, Gashe Seleshie, was a great inspiration. He told many stories of the countries past and his time spent with my dad. This was the last time that I spent with my uncle before he passed away a year later. This album is a reflection of all of that and a reminder that life is beautifully finite.
RP: If we are not wrong, this autumn, Hejira will celebrate its 10th birthday. Can you briefly retrace the story of the band? When and how did you form the band and how did it grow up? Any peculiar moments to recall?
Sam: We hadn’t realised this yet, but you are absolutely correct, that this autumn will be 10 years since the inception of Hejira. As the leaves were falling around us, we discovered that we had a shared need to create something new, and this is what ultimately drew us towards each other in 2009. In 2010, I moved to a shared house in Brockley, which became a special place of congregation for us, where we would rehearse, record, forge plans, and even make films. This is where we recorded our first album, Prayer Before Birth, which we engineered ourselves, experimenting with everything from mic placement through to which room we wanted to record in for acoustic reasons. We would send our recordings to our co-producer, Matthew Herbert, eventually relocating to his studio in Whitstable for the final production and mix phase. We developed our live sound and our community through a live event night we started in 2012 called TRAUM, which ran monthly at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston. Each month, we would perform our new material at SJQ, and this really gave us a structure to grow as musicians together. It also sharpened our curatorial and organisational skills, since we were doing everything from booking the line-ups for the night and collaborating with visual artists for the poster designs, through to self-promoting the events. We were lucky to be surrounded by inspiring musicians, and many of them played at TRAUM, such as Eska, The Invisible, Micachu & The Shapes, Gwilym Gold, Rosie Lowe, Kwabs and Oliver Coates.
Our next release was a 12” on Eglo Records in 2015 called Name Surname – an EP where we experimented with different forms of writing and sonics. Then came The Lima Limo Ceremony EP, which was the release that celebrated the birth of our record label Lima Limo Records in 2016. We founded the label after a significant trip to Ethiopia we made together. This trip also formed the backbone to our new album, Thread of Gold – more on this later!
In terms of peculiar moments, I suppose the start of our international performing careers as Hejira was unusual to say the least! We were invited by the British Council to perform in Algeria, and it was a beautiful experience to have our debut abroad show there, and to a full house too! Having the opportunity to connect with a room full of people that you don’t know is a really important step in any band’s development, and it was definitely an important milestone for us.
RP: At the same time, there’s no doubt that Hejira, as a project, is still growing, changing its shape and features. Considering the differences between your first and second album, it can be seen as a work-in-progress. So, we wonder if you’re following a path, or if it’s all inspired by the spur of the moment…
Alex: The sound of Thread of Gold is very different to our debut, Prayer Before Birth. I wouldn’t say we are following some kind of set path, as the music we make in Hejira develops organically, and the changes come from us growing as individuals and the space we create for this within the group.
RP: What music and musicians are you listening to these days?
Sam: As a band, we all listen to different music. Currently, I’m listening to a lot of Curtis Mayfield, while Rahel is checking out Rosalía, and Alex is listening to Shostakovich!
RP: It is possible to say that you’re an integral part of London and its music scene, having played and collaborated with many ‘local’ musicians, but at the same time, you’re quite exotic too, considering your sound. So, how do you feel about being part of the London music scene, and what do you love and hate about it?
Sam: London is an incredible place to be a musician! Patience, persistence and community are key though, when it comes to building a platform for independent music in this city. In the words of Curtis, “Gotta keep on pushing”!
RP: Is there any London-based musician/band you would like to suggest for us to listen to and who you are looking forward to collaborating with?
Alex: I would definitely recommend that everyone check out our label partner, Tawiah. She is an amazingly talented singer and an electric live performer. String duo Fran & Flora recorded all the string parts for our album but have their own debut record “Unfurl”, which is out this month too. Leyendekker are another South London band that should be on everyone’s radar. Members Calum Duncan and Jonny Coote also play with us in Hejira.
RP: It goes without saying that Ethiopia, its culture and tradition, is another driving force in your music. What’s your relationship with the country and its people? What do you look forward to bringing back to London when you go there?
Rahel: I am of Ethiopian heritage but born here in London. Both my parents were born there and have huge families that live all over the country that I have always longed to develop relationships with. Even if I want to, I never come back to London empty-handed, thanks to my aunties, who often load me up with Injera and spices.
RP: Again, about Ethiopia and what’s happening in the country nowadays… is it one of those rare cases of all that glitters is gold? How can a country that has suffered for decades make peace with itself and get back on its feet in just a few months?
Rahel: Ethiopia is going through radical reform like no other. The new Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed has been widely accepted by most Ethiopians, making it easier to unite people in ways that have been almost impossible before. After many years of corruption and tribal wars, I think that is an incredible achievement, whatever happens. I also think it’s important to remain hopeful, especially at a time when most world leaders are doing very little to listen to their country’s needs. Ethiopia and Eritrea are trying to work out their differences and should be an inspiration to us all.
RP: With a new album on the launching pad, we are pretty sure that you have a pretty busy agenda for the coming months. So what’s coming next for Hejira?
Alex: We have an album launch show at Oslo in London on March 7th, followed by shows around the UK and Europe over the coming months. Offers for some exciting festivals in the summer are also coming in, including WOMAD, so keep a look out and come along to a show!
RP: We always close our interviews with a tricky question… How would you introduce your band and your music to someone who has never listened to it?
Sam: Hejira are a troupe of best friends, who make soulful, reflective music.
This March, April and May, catch the Hejira troupe marching through Europe and bringing their tour to London (Oslo Hackney, 7th March), Amsterdam (Paradiso, 17th March), Liverpool (The Spot Club, 23rd March), Paris (Duc des Lombards, 28th March), Oxford (Tap Social Movement, 10th April), Halle (Oper Halle, 27th April) and Berlin (Xjazz Festival, 8th May).
Photo ©: Bruce Collier