This is an album that has landed at a time we may most appreciate it. Elevation is at the heart of this record. It is an LP inspired by afrobeat and spiritual jazz with strong elements of Detroit groove pulsing through the soundtrack. Nicola Conte and Gianluca Petrella’s message is one of connection and spiritual heights. It is designed to be liberating and empowering. We do not have to accept the current design of society. Let the music convince us of their message.
People Need People, released by Schema Records, is a jazz album written for dance and movement. Although the foundations of the LP were put down by Nicola and Gianluca, they have brought together an impressive diversity of collaborators from across the world. MC/poet Raashan Ahmad from USA adds touching lyrics, and pianist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini brings his South African musicality into the mix. Other artists involved in the project were able to write from Sweden, Finland, Ghana and the record also included many rising stars from across Italy.
Nicola started his career playing acid jazz at around the same time Gilles Peterson was making a name for himself in the clubs of London. He has never stopped exploring through his love of sound, travelling sonically to Latin America, Africa and the USA. Gianluca was being recognised as a rising talent in the early 2000s and initially worked with Nicola when he produced one of his records. It is a friendship that has grown stronger over the years.
They took the time to talk to us about their new album, their message and what it was like to collaborate with such accomplished musicians.
Your new album People Need People has some quite remarkable artists featured, how do you go about discovering your guest musicians? What’s it like to work with them?
Nicola Conte: It is always challenging, because it’s like being constantly on the move. And by working with people from many other parts of the world you are also receiving parts of other cultures. This album is very much about a humanistic view of our society. Maybe it’s a bit idealistic nowadays but we strongly believe in what we are trying to say. A different society is possible and a different society is needed. A society that is based on the crossing of cultures and not of oppositions.
Some of the guests are part of one of Gianluca’s bands and some are part of my band. However, the others we discovered along the way, for instance Raashan Ahmad, the Afro-American poet. We felt like we needed some strong lyrical content in the album. We wanted to take things to another level. And he happened to come and perform in Bari, and I met him and he said he was into the idea.
And meeting one of the singers (and educators) called Débo Ray was due to a friend of mine. She said, “you have to listen to this singer, she’s great.” And Débo was singing with Terri Lyne Carrington, actually one of the songs they recorded on the Terri Lyne Carrington album was nominated for the Grammys.
We also have a strong link with South Africa because two years ago we had been to South Africa. So Nduduzo Makhathini, the piano player, who has now become a very important figure on the jazz scene, was the very first person that we met. We performed together. It was like a big puzzle and then slowly all the pieces slowly came together without too much planning.
You talked about the message behind your album. And the lyrics are important to what you want to convey. When people listen to your album do you have a strong desire for how you want them to think, feel, act?
Nicola: We were concerned about what we wanted to say with the music and the lyrics are a very important part of that. But the feeling of the music is just as important. So if I had to judge now how I’d want the audience to respond, I’d say that even if they do not get all the lyrics, they can get that message through the music. That spiritual side of things allows people to understand what it is about.
Gianluca Petrella: Inside this record you can find different kinds of styles from hip-hop to afrobeat, with percussion from house music that comes from Detroit that we love so much. So this message is to involve as many musicians with different styles as much as we can.
I’m interested to know more about how you guys came to collaborate and what inspired you to work together? This isn’t the first time you have created together.
Gianluca: We have worked together since I was a teenager and Nicola was an important personality in music in Bari where I grew up. Actually we started much longer than sixteen years ago, with a movement of different kinds of groups around Nicola. It was the early Nineties. At that moment he was the producer and we had such a good relationship with him.
Nicola: Those were our very early days, and it was very connected to what was going on in London at the time with the explosion of Acid Jazz. The stuff that people like Gilles Peterson were doing. The focus from our collaboration started in 2001/2002 when we got to the studio and did this EP which was called New Standards. My favourite thing I can say about our relationship is that we are kindred spirits and there was a very strong relationship and link musically speaking, but also on a friendship and human level.
Both of us were always moving and searching. We have never been trapped into one niche musically speaking. So since then we have had a lot of collaborations.
It sounds like a pairing like that was ‘meant to be’, as your paths kept crossing. And I understand the city of Bari in Southern Italy is a place that flourishes culturally. Why is that area so rich in the arts?
Nicola: First of all you need to understand that between the North and the South of Italy there is a very big difference. The South of Italy, especially after the Second World War, was still linked to agriculture and landlords and big property settlements and commerce. But it has been a land of culture because of its heritage.
I mean this part was firstly touched by Greek domination. We come from that heritage that was merged with the Ottaman Empire, from Arabic influences, from Eastern influences. All the Slavic countries are really close to us. So we have a very open frame of mind and we are able to embody the culture whereas other areas have more difficulties.
In our region in the last fifteen years, there has been, how should we say, more of a left-oriented government. Whatever left means nowadays – lets say progressive. So they invested in culture and this created a chance for many artists to have access to funds to record albums or do any other work they want to do.
But Gianluca, for example, had to move to Turin because there has never been a very strong jazz scene here and it’s only developing now, on an international level. In Italy it was all based in Milan or Rome or Turin or Bologna.
I was lucky enough to be able to record some albums and they became quite popular, and so I didn’t have to move.
I see your music described as world fusion, Shaman jazz, jazz, and you talk about it being spiritual music. If you were to just use a few words, how would you describe your music?
Nicola: If I was to sum it up, this is basically an album inspired by contemporary black music written by two jazz musicians based in Italy. The essence of it is the fact that you can be influenced by other cultures. And our goal was not to imitate what Afro-Americans or what contemporary Americans are doing, but to try to infuse this influence with a European sense of poetry in some ways.
Hopefully it gave some extra edges, because this European style is our personal heritage. We are not trying to say we are not influenced by this person or this scene, everyone is. But what we are trying to do is come up with something that people can see has come from Nicola and Gianluca, because they can hear their personality in the music. I don’t know if we have succeeded in that, I mean this is up to you. But that was our intention.
This is one of your more eclectic albums, are there any songs on the album that you have a particularly strong bond to?
Gianluca: I think there is. I like ‘Inner Light’ for the lyrics and especially for the sound. It is the most empty track of the album and the sound is amazing for me. And I have to thank Nicola because he cares about the production.
Nicola: I think in the end, two songs, ‘The Higher Love’ and ‘Hold Onto Your Dreams’, where we went back to our roots because I was very into Hip-Hop some time ago. And then because it was becoming too commercial, I just let it go and concentrated on other things. But we wanted to experiment in that direction for the lyrical content and for the musical content.
There are some tracks where the music is more sophisticated than others, while others are mostly tribal or hypnotic. Some others have a slightly different approach in terms of harmony. And Gianluca did a really fantastic job in adding certain ideas and adding colours. I’m close to each and every track, because each track is like a little manifesto about different approaches and styles. Be it afrobeat, or deep house or tribal house. Or something more jazz-oriented. There were all kinds of moods that we passed through.
Do you have any other plans for another collaboration, and how do you see your ability to collaborate in more locked-down times? What’s in the future for you guys?
Nicola: Well our collaboration is starting again right now, because we are starting to make some new tracks for the next album. And we are not concerned too much about COVID. The whole album was conceived before that and even though the album may seem very hooked on what’s happening now, it was something different. Our vision is very humble, but very much behind that. It’s a vision of hope to change society. We think that there are too many things that are no longer acceptable. Too many conflicts which are unresolved. Too much pressure from capitalism, and that the God of profit is the only god on earth right now.
So if you see things from this point of view, then what we are passing through is an effect, it’s not the cause of what we are living through. It’s an effect of how the world is setting itself up towards human beings. And that involves the social empire, it involves a lot of things. We think that we have to put back together the individual human beings and the community at the very centre of any idea in order to progress.
People Need People, Nicola Conte and Gianluca Petrella collaborative album, is out now on Schema Records. You can listen to and buy it on their Bandcamp page.
Photo ©: Giovanna Sodano