A peace of jazz

The International Day of Peace, established by the United Nations in 1981, is celebrated on 21 September.  This year it falls on a Saturday, and on Saturday night, KWest Restaurant presents a night of peace, love and music, featuring  jazz, traditional Cambodian and Indian music.

At the heart of the event is a duo that has developed over the last couple of months.  “With the support and encouragement of hotel manager Anne Guerineau, I’ve been playing at KWest every Wednesday and Thursday evening, on Anton Isselhardt’s grand piano,” says Finnish pianist Mathias Aspelin. “It’s a luxury to play acoustic piano and to be able to shape my own repertoire.”

Wednesday nights become different when American saxophonist and flautist Gerard Evans began dropping in to jam.  “He’s from Detroit, and he has this intensity from his jazz background.  He really inspires me musically.”

The opportunity to put together a show for the International Day of Peace created a new ensemble, adding Andrey Meshcheryakov on bass, Richie Boisson on drums, and Mirasol Aguila on vocals.  “[Gerard and I] are the nucleus or centre of this group.  Mirasol has a good ear, and is able to pick things up, so she can sing on some of the instrumental jazz pieces as well – not necessarily with lyrics, but more as an instrumental voice.  She will also sing a few songs of her choice on the theme of peace and love.  She sings more jazz now, her music fits in.  And Gerard’s conception of love is more like Coltrane’s, you know, A Love Supreme kind of intensity.”

After dabbling in drums and saxophone as a youngster, Mathias fixed early on piano as his instrument of choice, and then jazz as his genre.  “I’ve always been passionate about classical music, but I started to improvise quite early on, and that was my strength, improvisation.  I think there’s something magical when you create something in the moment.  At 17 I used to work underage in a jazz club, selling beer, and all these great jazz players came in.  It’s a live music, you have to experience it live to become really passionate about it.”

Photo credit:  Steven Gargadennec

His passion for jazz piano took him to Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachussets, where he studied under NEA jazz master Joanne Brackeen, then to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and eventually to California, where he played for many years and also became involved in music education.  “There was a group that was trying to get music back into the national curriculum in the US, and that’s still an on-going thing.  A very challenging environment.  [But] I wasn’t American, so I wanted to do an international version of it.  I’d never been to Asia, and [Cambodia] with its history, stood out.”

And so in 2010 he found himself teaching piano in orphanages in Battambang.  “I met a teacher who invited me to come to his school on his motorbike, and I didn’t really feel like going at the time, but I decided to take the opportunity and got on his motorbike, and it was an almost two-hour ride to the village.  And they had a piano there.  They didn’t know what to do with it, so I started teaching the teachers.”

After his first season here, the country was already under his skin. “Cambodia is warm people in a place where wealthy individuals can decide whether to invest in casinos or education.”

In 2012 he registered an NGO, Global Village Cambodia in Europe, and returned to the school.  “We brought some more pianos and Cambodian instruments and started teaching the teachers there.  It was all at a very basic level, [but] gradually they could then teach the kids.”

Global Village Cambodia is attempting to use the tools of western music, such as notation, orchestration, theory, to reinvigorate the traditional music of the Cambodian countryside.  “You have the Cambodian tradition, and all these traditional instruments, but the music doesn’t necessarily appeal to the younger population here.  So how to support – especially young composers – to create new music using these instruments, and make it relevant and exciting: that’s part of what the NGO is about.”

Saturday night will display some of Mathias’ efforts to create open environments for sharing and developing music.  “I have invited Dorivan Keo from the Royal University, who brings a trio of Cambodian musicians, and Pakistani tabla player Pervez [Gulzar] and sitar player Thomas [Hommeyer] are also going to play.”  Collaborations are expected.

Besides the regular Wednesdays and Thursdays Mathias plays at KWest you can see his duo with Gerard Evans at Botanico on Friday this week.  The Peace, Love and Music extravaganza kicks off at 7 pm on Saturday.

For more information on Global Village Cambodia, visit the website.


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