Nubya Garcia and music as freedom

Nubya Garcia has rapidly ascended in the British and global jazz scene since her debut mini-album, Nubya’s 5ive, which sold out its entire vinyl edition in a day. Starting music at age five and focusing on the saxophone from age ten, she graduated in jazz performance from the Trinity Laban Conservatory in London. Influenced by Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane, Garcia doesn’t shy from blending jazz with various genres. However, what sets her apart is the ability to weave in grooves that drew equally from classic soul, R&B, and reggae/dub, showcasing a fusion beyond traditional jazz influences.

In 2018, her single When We Are explored a mix of jazz and electronica. Notably, she played on five tracks of the Brownswood compilation of the new London jazz heroes We Out Here and received the Jazz FM radio station’s UK Breakthrough Act award, followed by the UK Jazz Act of the Year in 2019. Her 2020 debut album, Source on Concord Jazz, gained recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2021, she was named the greatest talent among tenor saxophonists by DownBeat magazine, received the Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year award at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, and earned nominations for various prestigious accolades, including the Mercury Prize for Album of the Year in Britain.

Following her concert at the Belgrade Jazz Festival, we caught up and delved into conversations about the significance of one’s community and the stories she aspires to share through her music.

How do you feel after the concert? Tired, I imagine? Is there some other feeling?

Nubya: Exhilarated. It’s a better way of putting exhaustion. No, I’m joking, I’m very uplifted and exuberant after every show. It’s an honor to play with my band.

How do you want your audience to feel after visiting your concerts?

Nubya: Exuberant and exhilarated! Hopefully, you get to take a pause from your life and just go into the world of something else that has no words to instruct you how to feel or how to think. You get to be 100% free in what comes up in your mind.

Is this the way you approach making music as well, as an expression of freedom? 

Nubya: I try.

Do you have some rituals to jumpstart the creative process when you’re in need of inspiration?

Nubya: Inspiration for me comes from loads of different places. I like to go to galleries, to read literature, poetry. I like to go to other musician’s gigs of all kinds of styles. I like to travel. I like to be with my community and my friends to cook etc. You know, you can draw so much inspiration from so many different areas of life if you look for it, if you’re open to it. It’s about learning to continually open yourself. 

What stories would you like to tell with your music?

Nubya: Good question. So far, it’s been about my experience in life and getting to know who I am now as a 30-year-old woman, as a 30-year-old black woman who grew up in London. It’s just that, it’s little introductions to who I am, who we are as a community – people who look like me and sound like me and explorations into my history, my family’s history and comments on what I’m exposed to, what I want to share. It’s always developing and always growing into new spaces and new ideas.

It’s beautiful how you and other performers from the East London new jazz scene like Theon Cross are supportive of each other. We met some time ago and talked about how supportive this community is. How it’s not about competition, but being happy about other’s success?

Nubya: We grew up together.  And yes, even happier for the other, probably.

What do you think, where does this come from?

Nubya: Shared experience. A lot of our parents are immigrants. But we also had the privilege, you could say, to grow up in London and have a lot more opportunities than maybe people from other places and to be introduced to lots of different types of music. Being into jazz as a teenager, it’s kind of weird, it’s kind of rare. We found each other in this youth organisation Tomorrow’s Warriors. For me personally, I’m Caribbean, so Caribbean culture is a huge element of my life and what I want my music to emulate and breathe into. I found that community – a lot of children of Caribbean descendants, amongst so many other communities from so many other parts of the world.

And it’s an immediate understanding of like: “Oh yeah, yeah, my parents do that” or “Yeah, we did this as a kid” or “Oh yeah, you know this tune, that’s crazy”, you know? So yeah, the experience and love of the culture that we know and love in a very different way than if we had grown up in the Caribbean and the experience of discovering that culture, is something we share. I’m so involved in trying to be more involved in this. Feeling that around you is so inviting and communal and it makes you feel less isolated as a teenager who loves jazz and reggae and dub and garage and drum’n’bass and grime. All of these things make you feel at home, the way that you do in your own yard.

When you compose a piece how do you know that it’s finished?

Nubya: You never know. I don’t!

How do you know then when to stop? 

Nubya: That’s the question of life, right? I’m still changing things, well not at this moment, but yeah, things develop. Like that last piece of the concert, it was a tag onto an already existing tune pace. We were just in soundcheck and it just developed, it just happened. I was like, “Well, let me just try this thing” and it just grows. I think it doesn’t have to end if you don’t want it to. And if you want it to, then it’s done.  It’s simple. So that’s how I try to be anyway. And sometimes you leave things for a couple of years. It’s just that you don’t have the next sentence right now. I put them in a drawer and come back to it when I’m looking for something, for this B section or whatever and there you go.

It was very obvious on the stage that your band and you were enjoying and having fun. The audience can feel the synergy and the exhilaration between you. Speaking of this, how was the process not only of surrounding yourself with such talented musicians, but finding your musicians, your band, your people?

Nubya: I kind of grew up with a lot of them. London is big, but it’s small, you know. Everybody knows everyone. You see people playing and you’re like, “Oh, so and so can’t make it for this gig”. So they’re like, “Oh, let me see if I can find someone else”. And then that someone else just slots in and it is a shared understanding in another way. I would just say they’re from within the community.

Are you able to create music when you’re on the road? Totally new music. 

Nubya: Sometimes. This whole album for example is written on the road. Now I’m trying a different approach – of being at home and writing.

One last question. What do you prefer, watermelon or melon?

Nubya: Watermelon, 100%. I love it, it’s my favorite. Melon is great, but watermelon is better.


interview and images: Sofia Hussein for Dinya

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