Black Jesus Experience is a twelve-piece band that play an irresistible dance alloy of traditional Ethiopian song and 21st century groove. Their music reflects the multicultural vibrancy of the band’s hometown, Melbourne, Australia. BJX recently released their seventh studio album, Good Evening Black Buddha. They are performing in Footscray in October as part of the West Set music festival. Peter Harper and Ian Dixon spoke to the Westsider about the inspiration for their music and the importance of community.

    You are performing in Footscray next month as part of the West Set music festival. Does the band have connections to the west of Melbourne?

    Ian: The person who designs our album covers, John Ryrie, lives in the west so we’ve had long connections with the area. And obviously there is a big Ethiopian community there. Pete and I used to import beers from Ethiopia on the back of the tours we’ve done there so we’ve spent a lot of time in Footscray selling beer! The first time I lived in Melbourne I lived in Newport, and I loved it. It’s lively, that’s the great part about it.

    Peter: John lives in Yarraville, I’ve known him for 40 years and he’s done all our covers. He is just absolutely incredible. I keep in touch with everything he does, and I knew that was the picture that we needed. So, it was in a gallery and now it’s hanging on the wall at my place, The Horn African Café.

    Your latest album Good Evening Black Buddha just launched on Friday. Is your residency at the Horn important in the development of your music?

    Peter: The Horn is where our home base is. We perform and workshop on Sunday nights and it’s a great night for us. It’s the best possible thing if you want to develop a band, to have a regular place to play each week. Our albums would not be possible if we were only playing together every couple of months. That’s the heart of what we’ve been doing and how we’ve been able to do it. People know where we are, and we can get a following from this place.

    So, is it the connection that you get from playing together regularly that facilitates the creative process?

    Peter: Definitely. We eat together every week here at the Horn before we play. That’s a big part of the unity and the community because music is about people. We have longstanding ties with everyone in the band. We’ve all toured together including to Africa five times and through Europe. Those experiences bring us very close together. The music holds us together.

    Living in a capitalist society is it a challenge balancing integrity around the creative process with the desire for your music to be received well by a wider audience? Do you have to make compromises?

    Ian: Being a musician in the modern world is very much about being outside of the capitalist system (laughs). In reality, on the one hand musicians have to be entrepreneurs to survive while at the same time great socialist institutions like The Australia Council keep the arts afloat. It’s also important to us to make sure that everyone in the band feels they are valued and can contribute, and that we are working together. We want to make sure everyone is happy.

    Peter: If we want to be creatively happy on a pure level we would just go and play music in the bush. But this is about people, it’s about the audience, it’s about all the band members. So, you create an environment where they can all be heard. And you create music that accommodates everybody, and that the audience can relate to. It has to be a relationship with everybody, with the music. This project is about people and community, and everybody in a community is important. 

    Ian: The music really grows out of where it is. The reason Melbourne is so wonderful is the circular nature of the energy and inspiration. Compromise has these negative connotations, but what we do is bring the work and the ideas together. For some that might feel uncomfortable at times or like you are giving up your own autonomy, but it’s not about that.

    Peter: The negativity around compromise really hits the nail on the head about what is wrong with our society because we see ‘fitting in’ as a compromise. To be part of a community can’t possibly be a compromise. In Africa or any tribal culture there is freedom in actually ‘fitting in’. Trying to escape ‘fitting in’ is a Western idea of freedom. You end up with a single cell, living in a box, and it just breeds selfishness and loneliness.

    So, do the band’s Ethiopian roots not only influence the music but your whole approach to creativity?

    Ian: Absolutely. Enushu our singer, is not only a great friend but the core of this band. She is in Ethiopia at the moment.

    Peter: Enushu is the heart of this band being a community and she brings this incredible warmth and incredible intelligence. We write a lot of music, and she will integrate herself into it and we will integrate ourselves into what she puts into it. There is no compromise, it’s just a really nice formula for community. 

    I have been listening to your 2020 album “To Know without Knowing”. In an era focused on the acquisition of knowledge, can you talk about the idea of innate knowing?

    Peter: It’s quite simple. I feel that all knowledge is ever present, it’s just a matter of how you slow the brain down to actually know things. Sometimes you just know something but there is no way of knowing how you know. It’s the deep connection with everything that we have, but it’s clouded by the way we live and the busyness of our lives. We miss what is right in front of us and what is important. The real things that are important are the simple things, like the beauty between you and your children. I try to rely on those gut feelings more than anything. 

    A few fast questions to finish.

    Do you have a musical guilty pleasure?

    Ian: There is not guilt in music. There is no music I listen to that I feel guilty about.

    Peter: Music is totally inherent. My guilt is that, like everyone else, I’m just human and I wish I could get back into that knowing without knowing part and put that into the music. It’s always held me in good stead when we’re writing and performing and recording.

    Do you have a career highlight (or several)?

    Ian: My highlight is basically the whole creative process of music and being a musician. Getting people to think in different ways and see things in different ways, and to be part of the whole community of music.

    Peter: There have been a million amazing times and it’s been a very lucky life for me. All the people I know and everyone I’ve played with; the highlights are all associated with them.

    What do you want the audience to take to the music?

    Peter: Whatever you take to music you will get back just like looking in a mirror. It’s a reflection of everything you bring to it. Music is a vehicle for expression.

    Are there any new or emerging artists that you are inspired by?

    Peter: There are so many young artists in Melbourne and I’m lucky to be surrounded by so many of them in the jazz idiom, they never cease to amaze me. Melbourne is a wonderful place to create music and the future looks really good for us here because of the support of the community.

    Ian: I would say, get out and see the musicians you like, live. When people first came back out to see live shows after the long COVID lockdowns it was remarkable, people were just so thrilled to be back out hearing music. Again, it’s about people being together in person. So go out and see live music and support the musicians in your community. 

    MIJF 2022_Black Jesus Experience_ Image credit-Francesco Vicenzi
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