On Saturday, 16th December 2017, Jerry Léonide was presenting his second album – SOURCE OF THE OCEAN – at the Sunset-Sunside (1) (formerly known as Le Duc des Lombards), the Mecca of Jazz in Paris. For Jerry Léonide, even though he has been a resident in France since 2002, this evening was dedicated to the exposing the sounds and rhythms of Mauritius in the French capital. Indeed, the eight new compositions on his new album are a swinging and enduring tribute to his native island.
One is transported through the Indian Ocean from Mauritius to the coast of Natal, in South Africa at the heart of the Zulu nation, as the musical journey on the album takes us to the time of King Shaka. This first track, called «ZULU WARRIOR» is obviously a reference to Jerry’s and most Mauritian creoles’ roots in Africa. However, musically speaking this opening tune is far richer than that, alternating between rich jazz piano sounds and samba inspired horn melodies with clear rhythms and echoes from Brazil (à la Sergio MENDES) and the trumpet solo also connects us back to south African jazz from the 50s in Sophiatown. Precisely, the 2nd track takes the listener closer to the home of Nelson MANDELA. «SOWETO CHILDREN» and is a journey through the world-famous Johannesburg South Western Township. This happy promenade with a guitar riff, not so dissimilar from Zairian rumba, is a superb reminiscence of a key cradle of Jazz on the black continent as well as a general contribution of African music to contemporary Jazz.
Then Jerry takes us back to the Orient, as if he is wandering along the Rift Valley from the Drakensberg to the Sinai, with two tracks named «TALES FROM MIDDLE EAST – Part 1 & 2». Once again, the trio sounds perfectly tight, with Jerry’s piano in command and a trumpet that defines the middle eastern connection. The sonority is quintessentially jazz and delivers a rich harmonical unity. On every track, Jerry enhances his compositions with spicy touches that link his Mauritian roots to the country’s sources of population. These two very evocative tracks have a distant similarity with the music of Gilad ATZMON, the Israel born, British saxophonist. This is for sure a great compliment…
Finally, Jerry Léonide brings us back to the Indian Ocean with two compositions that bear a direct connection to the insular history of Mauritius: «CHAGOS» and «GRIS GRIS». The first track is a very melancholic theme, enhanced by Sylvain GONTARD’s beautiful trumpet. The beauty of the composition on piano is in synch with the human drama which played out at the time of independence for Mauritius in 1968, when the Chagos islands were theoretically part of the newly independent country. However, they were eventually kept by the British colonial authority and the creole population of this archipelago forcefully expelled and transferred to Mauritius (3). Gris Gris is the name of a beach on the island’s rugged southern coastline. One can feel on this tune, the warmth and longing for the native land.
The album, SOURCE of THE OCEAN, ends with a song, featuring the female star of Mauritian music: LINZY, on the very poignant title «THE OTHER SIDE». This evocation of emigration, when life does not leave you with any other alternative than crossing the ocean. In Mauritian Creole, Jerry Léonide builds the song around Linzy’s powerful voice, to deliver a strong message that reminds us all of the current migrant crisis in Europe, but on a subtle level it also refers to his own exile in France, far away from the Pointe aux Sables of his youth. The Ocean is symbolic of the horizon that Jerry had to transcend to ensure that his Mauritian Jazz could be heard the world over.
Jazz is not the primary musical genre of this small territory in the Indian Ocean. Even if since the early 20th century Jazz standards from the United States were played on the former British colony’s radio stations. The vital pulse of Mauritius, is found in Sega, with its 6/8 ternary rhythm. Of course, some musicians do play Jazz on the island, especially since the early 70s when tourism started booming. But this music never had a large popular following.
The first spark for Jazz in Mauritius can be attributed to saxophonist Ernest WIEHE (2), who studied and taught at the Berklee School of Music (Boston – Massachusetts), before returning home to Mauritius in 1978. After settling back on his native island, at the beginning of the 80s, he had a major influence on the development of a truly Mauritian Jazz, training musicians and inspiring a whole generation (from Belingo FARO on Piano, Jose THERESE on Saxophone and Philippe THOMAS on Trumpet). This heritage could have disappeared after he passed away in 2010.
A new wave of Mauritian Jazz has since emerged, and Jerry Léonide is undoubtedly its leading figure. Since the start of the decade he emerged as a jazz exponent, in 2012, when he was chosen among the three finalists at the Nottingham International Jazz Piano Competition. Then in 2013, he achieved international recognition by winning the Montreux Jazz Festival Piano Solo Contest. His first album «THE KEY» was released the following year on the ACT German label, and was met with critical acclaim throughout Europe, with praiseworthy articles in most Jazz magazines, including Jazzwise in the United Kingdom.
This first album is a masterpiece built around amazing Piano improvisations, delivering tracks with clearly recognizable Mauritian sounds, a mix of Africa and Asia. Even if one finds, in the Jazz trio he has assembled with Jhonny JOSEPH (drums) and Gino CHANTOISEAU (double bass), the ternary rhythms of his island, his compositions are always embellished by the presence of other musicians of great talent. These include the likes of Christophe Bertin on drums and Lionel Loueke on guitar.
To end this beautiful Jazz encounter, on a night when Mauritius was whispering in Parisian ears, Kreol then interviewed Jerry Léonide on his influences, his projects and dreams.
You were born in Mauritius in 1985. Which musical memories have you kept from your island? What was the influence of your parents in your current musical taste?
I only have good memories. Mauritian music is a very rich Creole mix. I grew up listening to Anglo-Saxon hits, French chanson and local Mauritian music in all its forms. This variety of influences still plays a big part in my compositions today. My dad was a professional musician and I embarked on a musical career due to him. He was the one who initiated me in Jazz.
At what age did you start playing the Piano? Where can one hear and play Jazz music in Mauritius, outside the hotels?
I started music at the age of 7, playing the guitar, then I moved quite quickly to playing the Piano. When I was residing in Mauritius, there were no places to play jazz, outside the hotels. Today, we can start to see some progress. Some Cafes, Bars and Pubs offer live music on week-ends and we saw festivals and musical events dedicated to Jazz starting the past few years. It’s great, but it’s only a start.
When did you decide to leave Mauritius for Paris? And why?
I decided to leave Mauritius in 2002. When I finished secondary school, I wanted to study music at a University level but unfortunately this curriculum does not yet exist in Mauritius. Paris was my first choice since it is a city that I love and I knew that “Culture” holds a primary position in French society.
To all the young aspiring artists in Mauritius, what are the key factors to find success in Europe, which you would like to share with them?
Today, I don’t think that it is an absolute precondition to leave the island to find success. And that’s a good thing! Globalization and new communication tools enable artists to start an international career, even when based in Mauritius. However, you have to raise the bar and deliver on a par with the international standards of the industry. Quality musical production and a long-term vision are key when aiming for success and so as to ensure that you spread your wings beyond the island market, which is obviously too small.
Who are the musicians that work with you in Paris and tour with you?
I have my solo career, but I also collaborate with numerous artists from different backgrounds. My current musical perspective has led me to work primarily with Mauritian artists. But, I also accept collaborations with foreign artists, when I see that this will improve my skills artistically.
Would you say, like Linley MARTHE(4), that Paris is a more diverse musical capital than London, in terms of musical styles, especially when one considers the various African musical styles?
I think he is right. French Africa is a far richer world artistically, that incorporates North Africa, all the way to a vast proportion of sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean islands. All these musical influences have enriched the Parisian scene and that has enabled a variety of amazing artists to come forward. The London scene is also very interesting, obviously, but I think that the policy of the French Government in Cultural activities has played a part in establishing Paris as the European capital of Jazz.
Who are the artists from Mauritius that you could recommend to our readers, in order to grasp the musical soul of your island?
There are many interesting artists on the current Mauritian scene. Unfortunately, very few have a truly international dimension. If I had to name only one, it would be MENWAR. I personally find that he brings across so many things through his music. He has explored the Sega rhythm in and out and his creole lyrics are second to none.
You recently did a world tour with Christopher CROSS, and were performing in London at the end of June 2017. How did you meet this illustrious American artist?
My solo career sometimes acts as a showcase for other performers. International artists see my work and when they like it, they contact me for a collaboration. That’s how it happened with Christopher Cross. A bass player friend recommended me, and then Christopher Cross downloaded my album on the Internet and then called me. We will actually have more dates in 2018, especially in Asia, not too far from Mauritius.
Jerry Léonide is currently surfing the wave of success. A wave that has swollen, through hard work, sheer talent, but primarily because he had the courage to choose to relocate in France. There is no doubt that he is at the Source of his own success. These days, he does cross the Oceans regularly and effortlessly, touring with other artists to whom he brings his enormous pianistic talent. But foremost, sharing his own music, which is a fine balance between international musicianship and national influences. With Jerry Léonide, we have found the new Source of Mauritian Jazz, which is a perfect blend of over here, in Paris, and over there, in Mauritius…
- SUNSIDE Paris : Website : http://www.sunset-sunside.com
- BERKLEE School of Music – Boston (USA) https://www.berklee.edu/bt/221/final_cadence.html
- Documentary: Stealing a Nation by JOHN PILGER: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17OPvurq97I
- Linley MARTHE: Mauritian bass player: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linley_Marthe