Interview with Rouhangeze Baichoo: “Your values and your work will speak for themselves”
The Jazz FM presenter and jazz singer explores a huge range of music both on stage and on air – she spoke to Mike Flynn about her multi-faceted career to date
With a new show on Jazz FM, a solo debut album set to be released, and an all-star jazz fusion concert coming up at Ronnie Scott’s on May 31, Rouhangeze Baichoo is busier than ever – Jazzwise met her to find out more about all these projects…
How did you come to jazz?
My father’s cousin who lived in France sent him Jan Garbarek’s album from 1990 I took back the runes. I was eight years old and connected instantly. My dad exposed me to a range of music early on – classical, world, rock, pop, reggae. Years later, in my early teens, I discovered Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington. My passionate exploration continues today.
Was your education in Mauritius musical?
My music-loving family often sang and played at gatherings and parties – mostly outdoors and at the beach. None were professional musicians, but I have fond memories of my father and mother singing, uncles playing guitar. An uncle accompanied me in my shows. At the age of 5, I had the great honor of being the ambassador of the Baha’i community of Mauritius for UNICEF and other organizations. Performances for various charities supported campaigns for the protection and welfare of children’s and women’s rights. When I was 11, I won the national singing competition at the François Mitterrand conservatory. My parents and guardians guided me at national events and at State House throughout my teenage years. At 15, I joined an established female music/vocal group. “Rhythm and Voices” introduced me to the most established musicians of the Mauritian jazz scene. I had the impression, for the first time, of having rediscovered my entourage. Now I could blossom as a singer – broaden my musical horizons in the genres of jazz and improvised music. I was at least 20 years younger than my new friends and mentors whose musical life began after I went to bed. Undeterred, I attended many remarkable jam sessions and gatherings around the island. These secret nighttime musical escapades paved the way – here I am part of an elite group of musicians. They gave me a solid space to watch the masters at work, perform at jam sessions and then landed my first contracts to perform at various venues on the island.
Did you travel a lot before coming to the UK?
Before the UK, I had only ventured to a few islands in the Indian Ocean – Rodrigues, where I was born, and Reunion.
How long have you been in London and what projects are you working on at the moment?
London has been my home for 11 years. my scrapbook Escape is ready to go out. You will hear Sega music and Mauritian Creole pushed beyond its borders. You discover the bright colors of Africa and India, jazz and electro. The album features world-renowned Mauritian bassist and songwriter Linley Marthe, percussionist-vocalist and Sega pioneer Lelou Menwar, guitarist-composer Antonio Forcione, percussionists Bernhard Schimpelsberger and Kersley Sham, bassists Gino Chantoiseau and Vezio Bacci, pianist-composers Tomasz Bura and Meddy Gerville, tablatist Aref Durvesh and award-winning musician-producer Eric Appapoulay. I will have the first vinyls pressed with 6 of the 14 titles ready in 3 months to give them as gifts. They will be released digitally once they have the right label – the right house.
I recently joined The Third Orchestra – an ensemble from a mix of music makers from around the world, transcending generations, genres and cultures. We hope to share our own history and our rich global musical heritage. I hope to bring influences from my roots, my homeland Mauritius, Africa and India. The orchestra is led and conducted by British innovator, distinguished conductor and friend Peter Wiegold. We play at Grand Junction in London on May 5th.
You have an amazing gig coming up at Ronnie Scott’s with Tomasz Bura and Guthrie Govan – how did you meet Guthrie and what music will you be playing that night?
You can see us there on May 31. Tomasz Bura will be on piano and keyboards, Mark Mondesir on drums, Laurence Cottle on bass. Guthrie Govan – our guest that night – was featured at one of our gigs in 2019 (Spice Of Life in Soho) and later in 2021 at another gig. Tomasz and I will play compositions that we co-wrote.
You have been a presenter on Jazz FM since last year, tell us about your show Jazz Odyssey and what kind of music and musicians do you focus on?
Jazz Odyssey is an exploration of the cross-pollination of jazz and beyond. I strive to promote “unity in diversity” in my shows. Beautiful things happen when artists from different backgrounds, countries and ethnicities join forces to mix and fold cultures and traditions – all in the hope of creating music that takes the listener into the world. whole and in unexpected places. I think many would agree – music that touches the heart and soul, that takes us on a journey, songs that tell a story and express freedom are essential. The care and production know-how invested are also critical. I appreciate refinement in composition, melody, instrumentation and improvisation. I listen to music with my eyes closed even though I love beautifully crafted artwork. I like to read the liner notes and stories associated with the music or the project. I chose pieces regardless of gender, demographics, age, race, or release date. What’s happening in the world also feeds into many of my thematic shows.
As a woman in jazz, how do you think the scene deals with having more female musicians in bandstands and better representing them in clubs and festivals?
There are more women than ever at the bandstand. Quality should trump quantity every time. My concern is whether those who make the decisions are really qualified. Promoting a gender or a race at the expense of exceptional craftsmanship is not the best strategy. We will see more women when more of them create music and perform at a high level.
The opportunities that women have here in London, Europe, are incredible. In the end, your values and your work will speak for themselves. There are many great women in jazz to look up to. Hard work helps them master their craft, allowing them to claim their place in the spotlight. When you truly love what you do, “hard work” doesn’t need to be emphasized. I had an army of incredible men behind me throughout my career, especially with my album. Musicians and producers – all men. Their support has been truly amazing. They believed in my music. They cooperated wholeheartedly and treated me as their equal.
Will you be releasing new music soon?
Yes, “Planet 9” will be released on May 6. Pianist-composer Tomasz Bura co-wrote/co-produced it. Laurence Cottle plays bass and Mark Mondesir drums.
In June I release my first single – a traditional Mauritian folk piece sung in Creole, rearranged and performed by myself and bassist Linley Marthe (who plays Rhodes interestingly on this track). It’s the first song we recorded together.
How does life in the UK suit you and what are the best aspects of the music scene and creative industries here?
I love London and I love England. The diversity of people amazes me. I am very grateful for all the many opportunities. Being in the UK, you can study whatever you want, develop your career at any time in your life, and travel quickly and easily to other European countries. I come from a country without a thriving music industry – where the rights of creators and songwriters are not protected, a country that denies artists employment status, pay controls, legal representation, unions, etc. The UK has given me unimaginable blessings.
Although there are many aspects of life in the UK that I can rave about, there are some realities that do not escape me. Stoicism, reserve, lack of emotion and the fast pace of modern life can affect our daily lives. Eager to please – without really intruding, our conversations can be filled with trivia and we avoid the most important topics. I’m not alone when I say this: the days go by and even though I interact with an array of dynamic people, I can sometimes feel quite alone.
I am blessed to have a platform where I can share and inspire others to discuss the importance of unity, equality, justice, unity and peace, and yet the conversations themselves are not easy to have. Political questions aside, I’ve been thinking about an idea a lot lately. What power can foster the stirrings of conscience and the real connection between human hearts? What drives the stranger to become a friend? My name Rouhangeze means “the spirit that inspires”. My parents, who are Baha’is, gave me that name. But is it enough to inspire? Is it enough to be a benefactor of humanity, to have a praiseworthy character, to show love and kindness to all, to care for the poor and to work for universal peace? I have come to realize that these ALONE are not enough. My good deeds – and those of others – will become perfect and complete only after I have acquired the knowledge of God, manifested the love of God, and attained spiritual attractions and good motives. It is these universal powers that promote the greatest love and brotherhood. It is these powers proclaimed in the Baha’i teachings that compel me. They help me stay hopeful in the face of adversity, promote the best interests of humanity, and creatively strive to open hearts.
Learn more at www.rouhangeze.com
Rouhangeze Baichoo at Ronnie Scott: www.ronniescotts.co.uk