Beats for a Better World

Published in the August 2020 issue of Jazzwise

Up-and-coming drummer Jas Kayser subscribes to her hero Fela Kuti’s belief that art should serve the greater good as far as possible. As her new EP hit the streets, Christine Hannigan caught up with her to talk Afrobeat and political engagement.

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Image by Andie Rueda

When Jas Kayser was just 17, she travelled from her home in Southwest England to Boston, Massachusetts, for a summer course at Berklee College of Music. She didn’t know until she arrived that she could audition to study there as an undergraduate, but quickly prepared and left the course with a full scholarship.

“All these incredible musicians become your mentors,” she says. “Teachers like Terri Lyne Carrington, Danilo Pérez, and Ralph Peterson taught students in the tradition of their own mentors, like Wayne Shorter, and passed on his ethos ‘don’t play music, play life.’”

Kayser began learning drums and piano at age nine. She was initially trained in classical percussion, but gravitated towards jazz drumming after hearing Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters. Later, while at Berklee, she was first introduced to Afrobeat.

“I had never heard of Tony Allen or Fela Kuti,” she says. “The claves and grooves in the African traditional rhythms made so much sense to me. I did a lot of research studying African tribal music, because that’s the root of rhythm. They communicate and connect through rhythm, dancing, and singing. It helped me understand jazz even more.”

Afrobeat “enlightened her practice”, she says. Besides his sound, she was inspired by Fela’s contribution to civil rights and political change in post-colonial Nigeria. “Learning more about history, I feel more responsibility. It’s a lot of pressure I feel heavily now.” She also refers to Nina Simone’s belief that musicians must use their art for the greater good – the American pianist was a prominent voice in her country’s civil rights movement.

Kayser’s EP, Unforced Rhythm of Grace, was released in June. Her compositions have hard-driving basslines, sharp, punchy piano, and woozy, droning horns that tint brighter Afrobeat rhythms and grooves. The title track opens and closes with nine drummers playing a chorus of Pajambel and Guadalupe rhythms.

“It represents different people coming together,” she says. “Drum circles are free spaces to express yourself and release endorphins and negative energy”. The track also samples an interview in which Fela mandates musicians to reflect their political and social environments in such a way that offers alternatives to injustice, oppression, and the status quo.

Kayser has also studied the neurological and social impacts of music, including its benefits on children’s development. After finishing her master’s at Berklee, Kayser travelled to Panama to teach at the Danilo Pérez Foundation, “a music school for talented, underprivileged young musicians that uses jazz as a platform to create a better society through education.” Before she left for what was only supposed to be three months, she appeared in Lenny Kravitz’s music video for his single “Low.” She ended up spending a year in Panama, returning to North America and Europe to play in various festivals like the London Jazz Festival and RISE in Boston.

Her studies and time as an educator have also led her to believe that the creation of music, in and of itself, can reveal truths to the individual: “You have to have the spiritual side with the scientific side… music is a way of connecting and exposing you to your true beliefs and reinforcing what you already know intuitively. Drumming and movement create a ‘sink’ in your brain where the lower nonverbal part integrates with the front lobe, where you think and it solidifies certainty and influences your understanding of what’s true to you.” Unforced Rhythm of Grace last track, ‘Feel It’, captures this philosophy in its whispery incantation: ‘The music represents our life’.

The same creative latitude that fosters individual expression leads to communal bonding, both of which can be leveraged for social and political change. “Individual practice and societal practice all relate. Bringing the music to an audience is the whole experience,” Kayser says. “The audience clapping after you play is their contribution [to the music]. The goal for myself is that the listeners will relate to the process, and come away with a broadened perspective.”

Kayser also believes in the necessity of playing just for joy’s sake. She wrote her 2017 single, ‘Stupid on the Beat’, because she “a bit tired of songs often being about love or politics,” and wanted a song that was ‘lighthearted and happier.’ It’s as rousing as her pieces on Unforced Rhythm of Grace, and impossible not to obey the lyrics’ commands to move your body.

Jazzwise interviewed Kayser in June, as anti-racist activism swelled in the UK. Kayser subscribes to the obligation Kuti said musicians have: “Using the psychology of dancing and drums to shake the minds of people. It’s a constant learning process for me. What I’ve learned through my mentors is that it’s not necessarily about the end goal, but the process. I think social change comes in many forms. Even now, people are suddenly realising that even if things are going to change suddenly, we have to work on the process.”

“Learning about Fela Kuti’s contribution to political change and Nigeria’s civil rights movement, I never thought of the connection before. It touched me more than I expected. Following Tony Allen’s journey, learning about Fela Kuti’s contribution to political change and civil rights movement in Nigeria.”