On their sound, and why they won’t put a label on it.

The cultural melting pot of Manchester city centre is where Kabantu, meaning ‘of the people’, were first formed. They may have only been playing together for a few years but they are no strangers to success. Winners of the prestigious Royal Over-Seas League competition 2017, they released their debut album to critical acclaim in 2018 and have gone on to play everywhere from the BBC Proms to Cambridge Folk Festival.

Kabantu: Delia Stevens (Percussion), Katie Foster (violin), Abel Selaocoe (cello), Ben Sayah (guitar) & Ali McMath (double bass).

They are classically trained musicians, and all met at the Royal Northern College of Music apart from guitarist Ben. He was serendipitously spotted by Delia while busking, at a time when he describes himself as being ‘more into rock’, and was the perfect fit. In terms of genre, they each have diverse and colourful music tastes which come together to create a sound difficult to pin down as any one genre. I met them after a recent gig in Hackney’s Round Chapel to hear their own take on their music, their audiences, and why they don’t want to put either inside a box.

You all met while studying in Manchester, apart from Ben?

Ali: By lucky chance Delia spotted him!

Ben: – but we try not to focus on that because everyone gives me a lot of unwanted attention, ‘so… you used to play on the streets?’ – so we can breeze over that!

Delia: It’s been an advantage to have someone from a slightly different training.

Are you influenced by particular cultures or styles of music?

Delia: What is your culture if you live in a big city? My culture now is in Manchester where so many different people live together – I could eat in a different restaurant of a different country every single night.  I wouldn’t only want to eat British food because I’d be missing out – there are so many amazing flavours to try. 

Ben: I always think about the comparison between music and films or books. More people are open to liking lots of different film styles and lots of different book styles. Maybe it’s because a lot of people find their identity through music, and that ties you to one style. 

Katie: I have a strong pull towards the music that got me excited about playing my instrument, which was Scottish folk music. For me [hearing] that was probably the moment where I thought ‘that is what I want to do for the rest of my life’. All of us are passionate about making sure people get that experience because we know the effect it can have.

How does that translate into your writing process as a group?

Katie: I think you learn a lot from other people. Quite often Ali and Abel will be warming up, and Ben will start jamming along and that ends up being the basis of a piece.

Delia: I know that most of us have a ‘notebook’ of sounds on our phones – little ideas and snippets, and occasionally we think, ‘oh, that could become something’.

Ben: That’s what I love about our rehearsal sessions when we’re trying to arrange a song – maybe one of us will come with a really small idea and they don’t know what to do with it, but then you have another set of ears, another brain and somebody asking, ‘why don’t you try this?’.

People often describe your music as being ‘world’ or ‘folk’ – do you ever feel restricted by these sorts of labels?

Abel: Yeah, definitely, because it’s too [limiting]. If you say ‘traditional’ here, often people think of English folk music. We should come up with our own word for it!

Delia: We’re not restricted. My percussion teacher said, ‘Everyone will try to put you in a box […] just do what you do – people will create a box around you but you don’t have to worry about where the parameters are’. It was a really good starting point for us. Because I think we tried to be a folk band but then we realised actually we want to be something in between the cracks.

Katie: I think it took a while for us to be comfortable with ourselves – especially turning up at folk festivals! We thought people wouldn’t like what we had to offer because we weren’t what they were expecting to hear.

Delia: We’re always the wild card in pretty much every situation, but that’s OK!

Katie: We’re happy to be it.

Is it a very different experience playing live compared to in the recording studio?

Abel: I think in both you have to find your voice.  I think the more albums we make the more we will find our voice – but it always will be different from the live experience.

Katie: Listening back [to the album] we think some tunes sound completely different because they have evolved so much in our live performances.

Delia: The most magical gigs are when we can feel the evolution is happening on stage – when people take risks which go well and we’re all thinking in the same way and taking that risk together.

You always have a very strong connection with your audiences – does it make a big difference to you whether you are playing for adults or children?

Delia: We sit in a horseshoe so that we can communicate and the audience can communicate with us. That’s what’s so great about live performance – otherwise just listen to the CD!

Katie: I think the trust thing comes into play, where we can react if there are children there who we think would benefit from being more directly involved. That versatility is down to the fact that we know each other so well.

Delia: Sometimes people can really surprise you – adults can be so down for the party, and some kids can be really shy. We don’t label our audience either.

In the same way you don’t want to be labelled?

Delia: Yeah exactly. Kabantu means ‘of the people’ and it really is about that – the people who are actually there and the way they respond.

This is a group full of passion, life, energy and creativity both on and off the stage. They are making music to the highest level of virtuosity and musicianship, but their main aim is that they “want people to go away feeling good, feeling happy, feeling uplifted” – and that has certainly been the case any time I’ve been part of their audience.

See https://www.kabantu.com/ to find out more about upcoming projects.

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