Frédéric Gassita: Creative Process, Balance and Labels
Super-achiever, artist, footballer and co-founder of Libreville’s African Music Institute, Frédéric Gassita brings his Bantu Jazz Orchestra to London next weekend. I spoke to him about his life, his creative process and works.
Frédéric Gassita, Creative Process
CE- I am interested in the ‘hows’ of your creative process. Do you hear the music full in your head? Build it in layers? Create in iterations? Improv and build? Get feedback from others? A combination? Does it depend? Could you talk us through one instance of the process (and let us know whether it is different with orchestra to, for example, fourplay)? ~full in your head?
FG-Yes, I do. But it is like if you’re visualizing a landscape. There is the near view, the medium view and the distant or far away view. Or it can be viewed as a dream. You can have a whole film in a dream but when you wake up you have to rebuild it from scratch or from the memories of your dream.
FG- After dreaming, you wake up to reality! This is when I use my knowledge to build the different aspects of a composition in layers. My musical landscape is defined by the different instruments I am going to use for a particular composition. For example, if I want the piano to be upfront because it is my main instrument, I will consider it to be near the view of my landscape, and I can use strings orchestra to be the medium view, while the woodwinds will be the far away view. It all depends, of course, on the moment of inspiration which is, I would say, a bit mystical.
FG-Not really because I don’t see music like maths, although harmony in music can be considered like high-level maths. Because of the complexity in which musical harmonies can get to.
~ Do you get feedback from others?
FG-Yes, on all levels. Music is a form of art based on exchange and the influence of others. I didn’t invent music myself. When I started, I was influenced by others, I wanted to do what they were doing. But as you grow in music, you eventually follow your own path even if it sounds like someone else, it would be your own decision or choice.
~One instance of the process?
FG-Sometimes, I wake up in the morning, and it hots me, or I’m left alone with my thoughts when I’m out, and then a melodic pattern hits my mind and it keeps playing in my head. Then I come back home (it’s better for me than the studio), I sit in front of the piano and start playing back this melodic pattern then I write it down on a musical sheet in order to remember it. After that, I choose the harmonies that will define this piece of music. Then I have to decide whether it’s going to be an orchestra with a modern rhythm section or simply a quartet or quintet ensemble like FourPlay.
CE-What stimulates the creation of a new work?
FG-Life and everything within this life. Music is a gift of God. I can stay a long period of time without composing and one day it all comes back and I write 10 compositions in 2 months and then I come back later for the orchestration. It is all related to the feeling or inspiration of the moment. And sometimes, being a professional musician, I can be commissioned to do a job or to write a film score. In this case, I force myself into composition because a deadline is given to me to deliver.
CE- Does your clear interest in helping others develop influence how you create?
FG- Not really. When I want to create, I don’t necessarily do it in order to help others, but I’m aware of the impact my music can have on others. It’s a musical exchange!
CE- So, clearly you are influenced by local music but local music is a big word, so what do you look for in local music?
FG- My local music is more oriented towards the richness of the different ethnic music groups that we have in Gabon. Because local music here can be associated with African Pop, Traditional Ethnic Pop and so on. Personally, I think that I have been more influenced by the rhythms and the ancient melodies used in very traditional ways.
Frédéric Gassita: Drive and Motivations
CE- What is your motivation for getting involved in the foundation of the African Music Institute in Gabon?
FG- I attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. And when I returned to Gabon, my four years at Berklee lingers in my memory and will continue to do so because it was such a formative period for me and my music. So when my friend and partner in composition, HE Mr Ali Bongo Ondimba, President of Gabon visited Berklee in 2015 (because he was tired of me talking about Berklee for many years) he decided that it would be great to have a partnership with this amazing school for the young Gabonese and young Africans who had the desire to develop their own musical identities with proper musical knowledge.
CE- What sort of resistance or encouragement did you get when you made the decision to start the Institute in Gabon?
FG- We didn’t have any serious resistance to building this project. We had a lot of encouragement instead. However, it was a capital-intensive investment, and the president had some health issues in 2018, followed by the big recession (as oil prices plummeted) and
the global COVID-19 pandemic. These were the only things that have slowed down the pace of the project.
CE- You are often described as an African Jazz Legend. Does this label change how you feel about your work or yourself?
FG: Not at all. If people love my work and choose to describe me as an African Jazz Legend, I won’t go against them. They certainly have their reasons. But it doesn’t affect the person I am and it has certainly no influence on how I feel about my work or how I compose. I cannot rely on label to do my passion.
Frédéric Gassita: Football, Labels and BalanceCE- Medicine, Football, Fourplay, The Institute.. You have achieved a huge amount in a wide variety of sectors and areas. If you were European I would call you “A Rennaissance Man” but you’re African, so is there a more Afrocentric equivalent label or other label that you would prefer?
FG: Very early in life, I had the chance and blessing to travel a lot learn and discover different cultures, because of the grandeur of my parents. I’m Gabonese from West Africa, but I was born in France to a Gabonese father and a Gabonese mother whose father was a Frenchman from the East of France and had married a Gabonese woman in 1936. But I grew up in Gabon, and as a musician, I embraced all I could gather. So I think a worthy label would be, “A Passionate Man”
CE- How do you balance helping other creatives and with your own career as an artist?
FG- It goes with the feeling of the moment. If I can help other creatives, I do it wholeheartedly without interfering with my own creative process. I try to find the delicate balance!
Frédéric Gassita: biographical notes
Pianist, composer and record producer Frédéric Gassita, 58, is one of Africa’s leading jazz artists. Born in Gabon and classically trained at the Conservatoire de Châteauroux, France and the Berklee College of Music in Boston. His music fuses jazz with Gabonese rhythms and classical music elements and his career can be traced from mid-1980s. He has created eight of his own albums (which have sold in the hundreds and thousands of copies, has recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra.
He has performed throughout Europe and Asia with local symphony orchestras, on Radio 2 with UK singer Emeli Sandé, and most recently with the American group Fourplay Jazz. He started his Bantu Jazz Orchestra in 2017 and has performed with it throughout Africa.
Gassita is the founder of Gabonese first division side Akanda FC. He played as a striker for the team, then known as Sapins Football Club, becoming the Gabonese league’s top scorer. He is also a founding member and the president of the African Music Institute in Libreville.
For the first time ever, Gassita will present his new project outside of Africa at London’s Barbican Centre on Sunday 19th June. Tickets at https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2022/event/frederic-gassita-the-bantu-jazz-orchestra