Bonobo Talks Cultural Diaspora, Canadian Connections and Finding Home on 'Migration'

BY Daryl KeatingPublished Jan 12, 2017

To say that Bonobo's new album Migration is highly anticipated might be putting it lightly — it's been almost four years since his stunning album The North Borders hit shelves. Throughout his 18-year career, Bonobo (a.k.a. Simon Green) has brought together the varying styles of jazz, folk, house, trip-hop and world music, always with a wistful elegance, and his latest record follows suit. Only this time, it has a central question: What constitutes "home"?

"There's a lot of emigration with people these days," Green explains to Exclaim! "So, [Migration] is based around that idea of the movement of people, how you can all be connected by various points and have these loose connections from around the globe. It comes down to that whole idea — just the effect that people have on their spaces and how people take their culture, travel with it, and then plant it elsewhere."

For Bonobo and immigrants around the globe, it raises questions: Is home simply where you lay your head? Is it where you've been for a certain length of time? Will it always be where you came from?

"That was the thing about getting here to L.A. — this is where I live, this is where my house is, this is where my home is, but then I go 'home' to London, where I don't really have a solid root anymore, so which one is it?"

As a self-confessed nomad too, the ambiguity of home is doubly hard to define for Bonobo. Between this latest record and his previous one, he was a veritable vagrant. He travelled from sold-out Australian tours to 10-day breathers in the Cambodian jungle and then back to a slew of DJ sets in Asia. This went on for over two years, throughout which he never had a solid place of residence.

With all that travelling, it makes sense then that a lot of the tracks have roots in different parts of the world. "Kerala" is a nod to the South Indian state, "Bambro Koyo Ganda" has its Moroccan origins and there's even a track called "Ontario" on the album — although before anyone swells with Canadian pride, the connection is a tenuous one.

"It would be nice to say that the track is an ode to the beautiful province of Ontario," says Green, "but it's probably just because I was either flying over it or sat in a hotel there at the time when that song came about."

Bonobo may not have been so floored by Ontario that he needed to eternalize it in song, but his connection to Canada runs deep nonetheless. "I feel like Canada's almost a second home at this point," says Green. "Out on the West Coast, I learned to snowboard in Whistler, and I've been to festivals in British Columbia, and played in Toronto so many times I can't remember each one. Montreal too, is just one of my favourite cities on earth. I've played in Calgary, Winnipeg, Saskatoon..."

Talking to Bonobo is almost like a geography lesson. The world at large seems to be as much a part of his music as the equipment he records on. Occasionally, it's quite literally part of the music.

"That whole period where I wasn't living anywhere, I just started recording things all around me: on the streets in New Orleans, or Hong Kong, anywhere that had an interesting sound," Green explains. "There's even bits of audio from strangers I've met in bars who just sung into the phone."

As always, Bonobo has a bunch of perfectly chosen collaborators complementing his largely instrumental tracks. Among the roster for Migration are Nicole Miglis of Hundred Waters, singer-songwriter Nick Murphy (f.k.a. Chet Faker) and the androgynous vocals of Michael Milosh, the Canadian half of downtempo soul duo Rhye. Perhaps most interesting though, is New York group Innov Gnawa, who add North African flair to the album.

"The style is called gnawa," Green explains. "It's traditional Moroccan party music, really. The band I recorded on that was four people: so, you get one dude doing the main vocals and sintir [a.k.a. the guembri or hejhouj], which is a funky two-string bass, and the rest of them are chanting and clapping. So it's kind of like a call-and-response thing.

"There's been dialogues [between] dance music and African music for a few years now, and I think that the beat I made had a very loose, wonky, almost boogie tempo. I thought that it really needed something — it didn't need a full vocal but it needed something to push it along. I had been listening to a lot of gnawa stuff and just realizing how bloody funky it was."

As Moroccans in the U.S., Innov Gnawa fit snugly into Migration's overarching theme of cultural diaspora. And after chatting with an old friend back in London from his new home base of L.A., Green came to realize just how many of his pals ended up in different corners of the earth.

Yet his musical connections and travels came together to form a reflection of the person he's become. By recording his own experiences, Bonobo has taken the impersonality of instrumental music and made it personal. From the field recordings to the geographical references and musings on the concept of home, Migration is about as Simon Green as an album is likely to get.

"Why not just make a collage of your life?" he ponders. "Why not put a bit of yourself in there, a bit of the real world? Then you can listen back to the record in a sort of diary format, where different sounds trigger different memories. A lot of music is like a diary for me. I listen to records I made years ago and it takes me back to that time, so why not actually put a bit of the life that you're living at the time into the music?"

Migration is out Friday (January 13) via Ninja Tune. As previously reported, he's set to take the album out on a North American tour, and you can find all the dates here.

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