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Jazz allowed Jowee Omicil to 'speak many languages'

By Alison Hird

Jowee Omicil is a free-form multi-instrumentalist born in Montreal to Haitian emigrants. His new album Love Matters blends African rhythms, melodies by Bach and Mozart, and pays tribute to jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. "We don’t have no boundaries," he tells RFI. "Those lines, like Hugh Masekela said, those lines were handmade and we’re trying to eradicate those frontiers with the music again, we’re trying to unite."

Omicil is the son of a pastor. His dad encouraged him to do music but at 15 the youngster had other ideas.

"I was into hockey, billiards, video games. He forced me to go to music school and three months later I realised the alto saxophone could become my video game."

He became obsessed with the sax but soon widened his repertoire.

"Because of the church [my dad] wanted us to play an instrument to accompany the assembly and I chose the sax. My other brother chose the trumpet. And then we ended up playing the trumpet, the piano, the drums, the bass. Whenever something was missing we had to jump on this instrument because we were the PK, you know, the pastor’s kids."

He went on to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and then moved to New York where he'd jam with the likes of Ornette Coleman and Roy Hargrove.

Now an accomplished multi-instrumentist, he switches effortlessly between sax, piano, harmonica, flute, with the odd flight into rap.

Love Matters! is a follow up to the 2017 album Let's BasH! (let's love) and came out of an improvised recording session in 2015 at La Buissonne studio in the south of France. His fellow musicians were from the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Canada.

"Let's BasH! was a suggestion," he told RFI, "Love Matters! is an instruction. I'm a love dictator."

Jowee Omicil in Conakry recording the video for Mende Lolo. RFI / Guillaume Thibault

Taking jazz back to its African roots

Omicil went to Conakry, Guinea, to record the video for the track Mende Lolo.

"Mende Lolo is dedicated to Hugh Masekela because it's the type of groove he did, the type of lines that Masekela would do so I put it into Jowee's style.

"Mende Lolo is like a question, in Creole mende means ask and lolo is the elder, lolo is love. Mende is also a Rara groove, a Martinique rhythm and a Rara groove for us Haitians in vaudou."

Omicil plays a tin whistle on the song, similar to the fula or tamashek flutes seen widely on the continent.

"Haitians roots are from Congo, Togo, Guinea and Benin. Our Haitian roots are deep and we wanted to do that musically, to show that this is the music of Africa that has travelled and can continue to travel, it's actually a global sound.

"It's not new, it's nothing new. It might be different the way I interpret those grooves but it's nothing new, so we're giving credit where it's due. It's the land."

Saxlophonist Jowee Omicil performing in Dakar, 20 May 2017. RFI / Guillaume Thibault

Jowee Omicil in concert at Paris's New Morning 11 October 2018.

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