By: Sam Murray
17 December 2013
Merope (Pronounced: Meh-row-pay) are a group from 5 corners of Europe: France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Lithuania and I can promise whole-heartedly that you will have never heard anything as beautifully original and as connected to nature like Merope. I first came across the group on a compilation of Lithuanian music I was given at WOMEX and found the song Sodai (Gardens) to be the stand out track. I ventured more into their internet archives of music and became lost in a different exciting musical world that drew pictures inside my head and at the same time let me just breathe. The group is inspired by nature combined with all their backgrounds, for example Indre Jurgeleviciute, who sings and plays the Kankles (Lithuanian zither), brings Lithuanian folk melodies to the group hence their inclusion on the compilation. I caught up with three members of Merope, Jean-Christophe Bonnafous, Indre Jurgeleviciute and Marcello Windolph on Skype to talk about their record 9 Days and to find out what lies behind the music.
Secretly Rad: If I could start of by asking you guys what is your musical background. How did you first come to collaborate and form the group?
Jean Christophe: We all have different music backgrounds. We all met in World Music Academy at Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I was there studying for six years Indian classical music. With his teacher who is a flute player called Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. So he was my teacher there for six years. Then there is Miguel from Spain he also studied at the same school but more Latin percussion and Flamenco. He grew up in the south of Spain so he was knew flamenco, he played Cajon. They grew up there I think so that’s how they started playing, I mean if you ask backgrounds. Miguel is from the Alpujarra Mountains near Grenada. And then we have Bert Cools who is the guitar player from Antwerpen and he also studied jazz at Rotterdam. And Marcello studies also double bass jazz in Amsterdam then came to Rotterdam to specialize in Indian classical music also with a double bass. That’s how we found each other actually, studying all together. I had never met Indre before, I had played once with Miguel and played once with Bert so we didn’t really know each other and I think this is a nice mixture. When we went to record the album not everybody knew each other so it was beautiful sort of jump in the deep end.
Indre – And my background is that I played Lithuanian folk music from a very young based on childhood and I studied jazz music singing and instruments and I came to Rotterdam also to check Indian classical music so that’s how I met Jean. And then he had this idea because he knew us all 5 separately, he thought some how our spirits would fit together and he put us all to Spain to make a recording there. So we all came there last summer and we made this music and this recording, and this band, and now we keep on going because is nice for us and it gives a good spirit.
Jean-Christophe: And to go more in details the idea was to bring these four really nice people together with me and to have a different experience as musicians because usually you play your gigs, we live in the cities we can follow one person to another we are busy and then giving a class somewhere and I thought I’d like to bring five people with good spirit together and disconnect from the usual world.
Marcello: Go into nature and spend like ten days sharing the life together sleeping at the same time that’s known for hippies but for us it was quite an experience.
Jean-Christophe: What kind of music would come out from that being disconnected from the material world a bit and just spending ten days creating music together and recording with a company who specializes in the recording with solar energy so they have a mobile studio and the installed all the stuff solar panels, batteries
Marcello: so we could record outside in the night time. With the sound of the cicadas and that really changed the music also, so that was nice.
Jean-Christophe: So the idea is what kind of music can we create in a very particular setting and connect with nature. So we spent the first nine days together. In these nine days we got to know each other most of us didn’t know each other I only knew every body. We spent time playing, composing also, really together it was not like someone one musical idea we followed, we really created together. Everything was made in nine days. We went with the van to central Spain and we spent nine days creating the music and recording the thing, our composition. That’s why our album is called Nine Days.
Indre: We all met there and there is not actually one leader we do everything together equally so it also gives a very good vibe and many ideas in music but its also kind of difficult because we are all equally there and we all decide everything together
Marcello: And we all have a different opinion. So it’s a bit of a psychological experiment we’re also still alive.
Perhaps you could talk about your compositional process. Do you have a set way you go about creating a song? Does somebody come with a shell of an idea and you work with it or do you all just mess about with ideas?
Marcello: I would say that since we started it’s been an ongoing dynamic to also feel with each other who is really good at what. It’s my perspective I think we slowly built trust that’s what you need I think and slowly we find out who’s really good at what. Maybe somebody doesn’t open his mouth much but when he does its like okay maybe there’s something here. And others are good at harmonic arrangements.
Indre: I think it depends on the instruments like sometimes I have some very old Lithuanian folk melody but then everything comes together. Like Marcello comes with a bass groove, Bert comes with a chorus and Marcello has some line and we all come together. Or sometimes we just jam and something comes, so it’s always a process of doing things it’s not that somebody comes with a song and whole arrangement and says “guys we do it like this.” It’s always a process of making things. There are some folk tunes but mainly it’s a process of everybody.
Marcello: And often it’s like these Russian dolls you have a nut, you have a seed and then we play for a bit and somebody will come up with an outer shell. Like hey guys what about this part, this kind of fits to it,” and then we all go in if we agree and since this next shell often comes from a different person in the group we get all some particular mixtures of musical styles in different songs. So if there’s a song that was brought to the band by the guitar player and then the flutist had the b part, yhat would be a completely different musical background than if Indre comes with a song. And I would come up with a bass line and that would be the same.
Indre – And because we all live in a different countries we like plan some kind of camps always. Every two months we get everyone a spot and we stay there for one week. We work, we have some concerts, we do new things, we create we record something and that’s how the process is going so we’re always keeping each other in touch and we always meet. But mainly other times we all have other things to do like traveling, working, doing other music projects but Merope is like our family.
So with the compositions and songs that you make do you write them down at all or do you it all by ear and orally?
Indre – There’s nothing written so it’s impossible to replace any member of the band. We do everything on the spot and we just remember it and we have some structures but we improvise so it’s really important that we are with the same people.
Marcello: Yeah and it keeps you fresh so if you go to a concert and you have to think oh my god what did I play in that song again?
Jean-Christophe: It’s also what I can say is for us it’s always a surprise what comes out of it because it’s very new. We have many concerts in between to the music really fresh and evolving very fast and for my part is always amazing surprise was what is coming out and people ask me what style of music is it and I think not one of us can reply.
Marcello: You could maybe find words for that
So you’ve talked about a few of your inspirations, you’ve mentioned Lithuania folk music. I wonder if you could perhaps talk a bit more about what inspires you as musicians to compose and what inspires you to perform?
Indre: Nature inspires us a lot. I think its one of the main things for us and the most important is to bring a good spirit, a good feeling, a good energy and we respect the nature. We will record the second album next year and we want to dedicate it to the oceans and seas of the world.
Marcello: So it’s really funny if we all had dreadlocks and white trousers… No but really it’s important that nowadays that this image can change. Like using the word consciousness you immediately place yourself in an esoteric corner and I think that really needs to change. That’s really what we need or we’re going to crash into a very big wall, if we haven’t already. So I think, yeah, for me now that’s an inspiration. I mean the Pacific Ocean is completely contaminated, what other word than conciseness should you use? So for me that’s a really big inspiration to make music and not to put this big label on it – nature or heal the world and everything. But it is really important and I think maybe art or music does have a place in being like a megaphone for that. It has some sort of power because you just reach people in their own privacy and there own intimacy. That’s where you reach them. Because you are listening to the music the individual is listening and perceiving so reach them in the intimacy. And so there’s a little hope there for me personally
Indre: I think it’s also in general with energy to spread like some bright and peaceful feeling. This is very important for us.
Marcello: And not to be afraid to make something beautiful because it’s not ok anymore to make something beautiful, everything has to be new and never happened before but that’s already impossible. And then also it has to be interesting rather than beautiful because we have impressionism, we don’t need beauty anymore – I disagree with that. I think beautiful is still okay I think its part of the human that resonates with a simple melody or a lullaby and coming from a jazz background I don’t know how many hours I spent on stage or in the studio playing music that just made my whole system think WHAT?! You know? Reading complicated music and everything was very, very interesting but it didn’t really make a resonance. I don’t want to down all of that, there’s some really good things, but ya know just some background of thinking about simple old ancient melodies and what we can do with them. What they can say to us from the past through us and maybe into the future a little bit like that. It all sounds a bit dreamy but it’s really an actuality, it’s really a lived experience. For me we realize that the music of Merope it really brings more awareness through the power of the music. It brings more awareness about yourself, or as a listener, and also about the serenity. Where we are in this planet and situation out we are to relate. We believe that music can change things and its not only to enjoy to relax but it can really create a kind of movement inner movement and changes in life.
So what do you want listeners to get out of your music what do you want them to feel that your music means?
Indre: I think we would want them to feel peaceful inside.
Marcello: Yeah something like that. Sometimes I put a CD on I don’t now about you, you listen to so much music, but sometimes I’ll put a CD on and have it on a low volume and playing on repeat. Maybe the whole day. Maybe half of the day. I would like people, if they did that every now and then with this CD that we produced I would be very happy. Because it’s just giving shape to their inner silence. Something like that.
Jean-Christophe: Maybe the feeling of oneness, like feeling human emotions and feeling that you share the emotion with the rest of the audience with the performers. This kind of thing. This kind of feeling but then everyone has his own feeling of course.
So how do you feel that your music translates between recordings and the live experience?
Jean-Christophe: Oh that’s a good question, haha. It’s a bit well, I can say as a result of the concert in the past surprisingly when we meet the audience after the show very often they come with a poem or with a drawing they make during the concert. We are surprised by that and people want hugs! It seems what happens during our performance is that the people get creative and they start doing stuff. We have a lot of drawings.
Marcello: And the audience is not just teenagers! Yeah that happens from a mixed audience not only teenagers. I was surprised, I don’t know all sorts of people, all sorts of directions. Could be a more gloomy looking person with dark makeup and black clothes just coming and saying “oh wow that really touched me” and then somebody looking like a professor type of person would come and say that. It’s really nice.
Jean-Christophe: I think when we perform we really try to create one space. It’s not us on the stage performing and people listening; we try to make one band with everybody in.
Indre: In general as a band we try to do this, there’s not like one singer or one flute player soloing We try as we are in one bubble all equally tied together.
Marcello: Also, what strikes me having lots of bands and things like that, is that we go on stage I feel particularly calm. Not that I’ve been so stressed in other bands. But I just come on stage because we give space to silence, we say hey let’s start today with a G chord just a G major chord let’s keep this chord for about ten minutes and start however you want. We say to the guitarist “you start it up with some electronics.” And then we go on stage and you just stand there and he’s not stressed to start. There’s just silence and we sort of look each other and you have time to settle in your body. You settle with your instrument, you look at the people, and it’s like okay this is the magic time when you create one body in the space. And this is the magic time you need. If you come on stage and you’re like “okay what’s the first song one two three four bop!” that’s maybe another technique. But what strikes me with this group is how we deal with silence. I personally like that very much.
Indre: Yes we respect the silence and also in the concert we try to make a one story in general. Not like one song, second song, you know? We try to make it a general slow whole thing.
Marcello: And this is very different in that regard to the CD which is also a one trip for me personally anyway It’s ok to be personal and subjective right The whole CD is sort of one sound. So it has a unity thee but the songs are more like we had to distill the songs to press them on the CD and we had 9 days and we knew that. So that’s a very different approach so now when we play these songs live there’s more space more breathing, solos can take however long they take, whatever fits with this one body of the moment.
Indre: Yes it’s a different thing to be in live performance but it’s both experience.
Jean-Christophe: So I would say the live is probably a dynamic process of reciprocity with the audience. It’s the audience reaction will influence the song, will influence how long it is. The audience and the space will influence us. If we’re playing it a bit edgy and really trying to reach somewhere with more vigor let’s say. The CD is the starting point, we just meet and record. Like nobody does that! Usually you meet and you play for six months and when you’re ready you play. We are not ready but we do a CD. We went opposite. We never played together and in 9 days we do a CD. It’s like the birth of Merope. And from that it’s now growing and evolving and improving.
So do you feel that he audience is perhaps an extra band member? That it has a part in the performance?
Jean-Christophe: Oh Yeah! That is what I meant to say. There’s really a relationship there I really feel like. And because also we give it space to have that relationship. For me personally, I like that very much.
And how about your live relationship with space as you’re performing? Do you have a certain kind of space you prefer to perform in? Does a stage make a difference if you’re performing in a place with a raised stage?
Marcello: Well it certainly makes a huge difference. But how to pinpoint that, if we have a good sound guy or good sound woman that’s half the battle. I you can communicate and they know what they’re doing you can make any room sound adequate. The sound person is really important.
Indre: Also, we always try to make the place cozy. Not just for us but for the audience. I think everybody should feel cozy
Jean-Christophe: So for example the last concert we asked the people to bring a pillow that they can sit on. But it was also a bit of a harder space that is often used for house parties and DJs. So that was appropriate to warm it up a bit. We had candles, and we went to the market to bring some candles. Not just to make it all fluffy duffy but to just sort of bring it down a bit because it was a black painted square you know like a cubus. A place for house music and that was just like ahhh. It’s a good space but let’s soften it.
And do you have a favorite place that you’ve performed in that you’d like to return to or perhaps any places that you know of that you’d really like to perform in and haven’t yet.
Jean-Christophe: The middle of nature would be the best place
Marcello: I would like to play an acoustic set in an amphitheater atmosphere like a Greek or Roman thing. Yeah so that everybody really listens then because the audience as a band member. I love this presence. That feeds me. It’s not only “oh they’re listening” or “shut up and listen” but it’s their participation. And if you play acoustic it asks more attention. They have to be more active as listeners. You’re not just blown away by huge speakers. Whether you want it or not you’re going to hear it; you have to actively be part of it and interpret it. As a musician I can feel this quality of attention, this quality of silence.
Jean-Christophe: But let’s say whatever place you are you try to make it the best possible.
Indre: And what I said, the silence. If you take care of silence and try to bring your good energy there, the whole atmosphere in the place can change very fast and you’re really all together.
Marcello: These kinds of things are for many people I don’t know a bit vague or mystical or esoteric but it can be a lived experience. It’s really happening. It’s not just in your head, it’s really there. You come on stage with the five of us and were like “ok let’s settle in here” and for everyone it’s like that. Even for the audience they’re like “oh wow you guys came on and I was in a different world.”
Indre: I think that’s the general power of music. Every band brings its own energy around and the place is changed.
So just to throw a massive, potentially existential question at you – do you think music is a universal language.
Jean Christophe: Yes.
There we go then!
Bert: Universal language… I don’t know if we can have a conversation with just particles, but I mean among most humans.
Indre: I think music is a wave and it’s a movement and it makes a wave everything can be general music. If you think like this it’s universal because every movement makes some kind of sound.
Jean-Christophe: I think the proof is that we all have 5 different nationalities and can communicate in this language
Indre: Yeah true!
Marcello: And some scientist have actually record and analyzed that most waterfalls can be analyzed down to the wavelength and they come out at an F or a C. And rustling of trees can also be put through certain filters that will give it a certain pitch. The planets’ rotations have a pitch. Everything is frequency. So it just depends on the span and the register of your consciousness. How deep do you go with your microscope? Or how large? Everything’s frequency. And music would just be in a limited frequency range. It’s very limited amplitude that we have; our tuned instruments and whatever.
Indre: But also as we don’t have English as our first language, nobody of us, I feel like we can communicate in music better than in words.
Well you’re doing a great job here!
Indre: No really sometimes some of us we go in discussions and it sometimes we just lose the words and in music it goes more fluently.
So if I could just finally ask you guys what do you feel is the future for your group? Do you have anything in the works anymore recording, anymore touring?
Jean-Christophe: Yeah, the future plan is to spread some love around.
Marcello: No, no that’s not what he asked!
SR – Well that’s a pretty good future plan if you ask me
Marcello: He didn’t ask about your love life, he wants to know about the group!
Jean-Christophe: Well we play next week, in ten days in Spain. Then end of November we play in Amsterdam. We’ll have two gigs there. And then we are going on tour in Mexico at the end of March.
Indre: Also we have a tour in Belgium next April and then in September we’re going to record a second CD in Spain.