Grace Barbé will launch a new single, Mardilo, with a huge show at the recently opened Fremantle venue, Rock Rover, on 19 October. In support will be the Sunshine Brothers and Randa and the Soul Kingdom.
The fast and furious Mardilo is taken from Barbé’s forthcoming album, FANM:WOMAN, and is based on a traditional song from her native Seychelles. The video was shot in Seychelles and Western Australia by award winning UK filmmaker, Dave Le May.
Around The Sound caught up with Barbé over coffee in her adopted native town of Fremantle.
Grace Barbé is a woman with a strong sense of purpose: “I have an important role to play.”
Hang that statement on most wannabe rock stars and they’d come across as arrogant, self-involved and, well, wannabes. Not Barbé. This is an artist who has paid her dues and knows what she’s looking to contribute. It’s music, connection, culture and celebration.
“I’ve been living in Australia for over 10 years now. You learn along the way, as you’re doing this, and as you get older, I find that you have an idea of what you’re supposed to be doing [as an artist], your purpose. And, I think because I’ve got a very strong link to my roots, my culture — we have a very strong Seychelles community here — I’ve always been involved in the community, and that’s where I’ve learned all the traditional dance and songs.”
The single, Mardilo, that Barbé and her band will release this weekend draws directly on her cultural heritage.
“Mardilo is based on a traditional song from the Seychelles Islands. It’s a stick dance. There’s no particular meaning to it, apart from that it’s a dance and it’s a showcase of culture, the rhythms, and the dance. We have two people at opposite ends holding a stick and they’re jumping over the stick, and it gets really fast and the song gets very, very fast. Afterwards, they put the stick down so they can have a breather, and walk around the stick clapping and chanting and singing. Then they pick up the stick at the end and then they jump the stick again. I know the dance and I absolutely love the traditional song, so what we’ve done is, we went into the studio and wrote a song based on it. So, it’s not a re-recording of the original track, it’s just based on it. And there’s a part of the song where I do sing a little bit of the original, to acknowledge it. The meaning has been lost in time, but the dance is still there.”
Listening to Barbé describe the song and the dance it invokes, you can’t help but get caught up in the moment. When she tells me there will be a demonstration of the stick dance at the launch, I immediately ask if there will be audience participation. Barbé, laughs, gently, reassuringly but also as if to ask, ‘Are you mad?’, and tells me, “No, no, just demonstrations.” What she says next is very measured, “It’s not the easiest of dances, because it requires a lot of stamina to do it. It looks simple, but it gets faster and faster and it does need a lot of stamina. Not everyone can do it.”
So, there goes my career as a professional dancer. But the letdown was kind and an accurate estimation of my potential as a dancer and lack of anything remotely resembling stamina.
That little experience, right there, gives us a measure of the artist and human being that Barbé is. As an artist, she’s skilled, expert at her craft. As a woman, she is wise and humane, and enriches rather than diminishes. Some people just have a way of enhancing lives and Barbé is certainly one of those.
There’s an intent to Barbé’s music that goes beyond just enjoyment. As she talks about the recording of the single and the album that it’s taken from (yet to be released), you get insights into why it’s entirely on the mark for Barbé to recognise her own importance.
“What I’m singing about is preserving the dance, preserving the culture and getting the younger people to learn about their history, to learn about where this dance comes from and to preserve it.”
“I grew up in a household where preserving culture, singing, dancing, cooking is our everyday life, even being based here in Australia. I’ll go to my Mum’s house and there’s always Kreol music being played, aunties and uncles visiting. So, over the years, being involved in the [Syechelles] community in Perth and doing my own work, I’ve never left that, even though I have branched out.”
By “branched out,” Barbé means that her music has evolved beyond the Afro-Kreol heritage that infuses her life. “I’ve become a little bit mainstream with my music, a little bit commercial. Now we’re doing a lot more Afro-rock-Kreol. There’s a lot more rock sensibility about it, but the roots are still there. And I think that’s very important. I have an important message.”
So, what’s the message? There’s the utterly vital preservation and furthering of Barbé’s cultural heritage. There’s also a message of love, from a female perspective and with a will to embrace the world. Barbé hits her stride on this topic when talking about the upcoming album, her third, to be called FANM:WOMAN.
“Fanm is ‘woman’ in Kreol. I feel that I’m at a stage now in my career and as a woman where I can represent that very proudly. I’m pretty proud as a female artist in the [music] industry. I’ve been able to create some fantastic work and be on some fantastic tours over the years, and it’s really important to represent that. I think I have a stronger stance and a stronger voice now than before. Before, I was learning, I was making mistakes, getting experience as an artist and as a female artist in the industry. Over time, you grow and that’s part of life. I’m in a very good place now: as a person, as a woman, as an artist and to represent that on my next album, it’s just fantastic to do it.”
“We have a song called Fanm on the album. It’s about women, encouraging women, motivating women and spreading the love as women throughout the world. And then I also have a song called, Woman. Interestingly, Woman, I wrote that when I first started out as an artist, over 10 years ago, and it’s only being released now. It’s very special. To wait this long for a song like that, I still really relate to the lyrics. I’ve hardly changed any of the lyrics. To listen back and record it in its original form with very slight edits, it’s really interesting to put myself in that song now, when I wrote it more than 10 years ago. It’s a strong song.”
Barbé also proves herself to be adept at delayed gratification. Noting that the song Woman has taken 10 years to see the light of day, she also talks about the delays in recording and releasing the album that carries its name.
“We were supposed to be launching the album this year and we’ve been delayed by a year, so the obvious thing to do is release some singles before the album comes out next year, so that we have something to give to the people. The release time between each album has been four to five years, and now it’s coming up to five years. Next year is six years since our last album. I just can’t believe it!”
“The tracks on the new album, we recorded around five years ago, around the time that Welele! (second album) was recorded. Our audience will already have heard a lot of our new tracks live, and it’s great to be able to test the new tracks with our audience. I love doing that before going into the studio and recording them.”
A couple of things arrive in our conversation as a result of these reflections. Barbé talks about the delay in releasing the upcoming album, not with regret or impatience, but with a wisdom that comes from doing it tough but knowing that everything’s going to be all right.
“I think it’s all meant to happen the way it is. We have to be very conscious as independent artists, because cost is a big factor, so we have to make sure it feels right, and it is right and that the price is right (laughs). I’ve learned that when I do adopt that sort of philosophy it makes my life so much better. I’m more at peace when these decisions are made, although sometimes I feel frustrated that, ‘Oh no! We did a campaign and people are expecting it [the album], and I feel bad.’ But, once I step outside of that and reflect upon it, it’s centring, and it feels right, and I’m a peace with it. Let’s just go with that. Let’s not force things, let’s just go with that.”
“The majority of the time, it’s fine and people are very understanding. I find my audience, because I have a beautiful relationship with my audience, at the end of the day they are very understanding and open and honest about it.”
That’s the second thing: Barbé has a strong connection with her audience and understands completely the importance of that connection in creating the magic that is live performance.
“We’re sharing the same space. It’s not just my space here, it’s our space, and we are sharing something beautiful. We are performing and playing music to you, but you are also giving something back, an energy and joy. So, it’s really, really important, engagement.”
Speaking of ‘our,’ Barbé finishes our conversation by acknowledging the people she writes, records and shares her stages with:
James Searle, Bass — “We met over 15 years ago, and that’s when it started. We wanted to do this whole Grace Barbé project. So, he’s like half of Grace Barbé . Grace Barbé is a handful of really amazing people that make it happen with me. So, James has produced all my albums and I co-produce with him.
Joelle Barbé, Drums — “And, then I have my sister, Joelle Barbé, on the drums. She’s been working with us over the past seven years. People see a beautiful synergy between myself and my sister on stage. We have a very special connection.”
“Now, the Grace Barbé line up is three. In the past, I’ve had a five-piece, six-piece band, to now a three-piece, and, I tell you what, three-piece is amazing. I don’t think I could move away from playing as a three-piece now. It’s powerful! The power of three. There’s a lot of space. And I love space! We feel such a beautiful relationship on stage and I think that really shows through our performance.”
You’ve got to love the power of three, and it doesn’t get any more powerful than Grace Barbé and her musical collaborators. If you haven’t checked out Barbé before, get down to Fremantle this Saturday and feel the love.
Better get to work on your fitness plan, your stamina, because you’re going to need it!
Grace Barbé launches Mardilo with a huge show at the recently opened Fremantle venue Rock Rover on 19 October. In support will be the Sunshine Brothers and Randa and the Soul Kingdom.
Pre-sale tickets for the show are available now at rockrover.oztix.com.au.
Doors open 8pm.