- Words Alexia Radkiewicz
In a finely tuned alchemy of sound, space and energy, Steam Down have mastered the art of enriching human emotional, social and collective state of being through music.
Truly grasping the place of music in our communities means surveying the self-understanding articulated by the musicians who have made it, the symbolic use to which their music is put by other artists, and the social relations which have produced and reproduced the unique expressive culture in which music fills a central and foundational element. Steam Down embodies this sonic journey with a diasporic consciousness in its rawest and most honest form.
“When we all feel the energy of music at the same time, that becomes our perspective of each other and therefore we are unified. We treat each other with that positivity we feel no matter where we come from. That’s the most powerful thing.” Wayne Francis aka Ahnansé, founder of Steam Down, emulates the musical sanctuary that they have built over the last four years. Their SD Weekly jam sessions in Deptford, South East London, represent this perfect chemistry of music, space and energy where corporeal and sonic experience is intrinsically linked to “serve as a fruit for emotional transformation”, says Ahnansé.
They have nurtured an incredibly devoted community of Londoners from all walks of life who would return to the weekly Wednesday sessions and once again share the high ceilings of cathartic release under a railway arch — the vibrations of brass, keys, percussion and rhapsodic vocals excite every cell in sweaty bodies as internal organs resonate with collective feelings. Steam Down are uprooting and redefining traditional conceptions of the Jazz landscape with not only their space (perhaps more resemblant of a club night) but through a seamless genre-fluid sound. Hip-hop, Grime and R&B (I even witnessed Drill) flourish from a sound rooted in Jazz and instruments are stretched far beyond realms we know to cater for every ear entrenched in eclectic scenes across the city.
Steam Down’s latest EP Five Fruit encapsulates the transformational emotional sonic journey experienced by their community in the musical sanctuary of Matchstick Piehouse. The record unravels a labyrinthian narrative of emotions with finésse, each musician — Ahnansé, Afronaut Zu, Tinyman, Isobella Burnham, Theon Cross and Lady Shaynah — guides you through a part of the spiritual maze rooted in their own heritage, providing a remedial soundscape to encourage reflection and release.
I sat down with Ahnansé to lay bare the intricate foundations which give rise to the formidable force of Steam Down. We uncover the deep connections between roots, culture, music and consciousness and how to shape sound around emotional narratives. Read on for a revelation of art’s higher purpose and venture into Afro-Infinitism…
How and why was Steam Down born?
Steam Down was born in 2017 for two main reasons, one, I’ve always liked the idea of music bringing people together and that’s why we have our regular Wednesdays because you can come back again with your friends and it has that feeling of familiarity, there’s that opportunity to build a relationship with the space. That’s important. Secondly, it’s a place for the musicians to connect regularly who are part of the Steam Down project as well as our musical friends and peers, I guess it’s a way of us having a space for our musical friendships.
What does community mean to you and why is it important?
“It takes a village” — is what always comes to mind, it’s an ancient West African proverb. I think we all know this but don’t always apply it, we’re always stronger together. Also, you enjoy things more when you exchange with each other. Sharing and exchange are some of the most beautiful parts of life for me and I think music is a part of that. That’s one of the main reasons why music is important for me. I also think that in an age where things are very centred around individuals, especially in music, where it’s centred around solo artists — those solo artists have a massive team behind them, people that help them write and produce, tour managers, managers, band members — there are a lot of people that go into one space. I think it’s important to realise that an artist is an organisation a lot of the time, more than just an individual. The bigger you are the bigger your institution, Beyoncé is an institution! I just think it’s important to realise that, even if someone is just a face there are a lot of people behind it and involved in making it all come together.
How does it feel to be able to connect to your community on such a corporeal and conscious level? It’s a mad exchange of feelings between all the people in that room, how does it feel to make that connection?
It’s always beautiful. It reminds me of when I first got into music and I’d go to shows and I was fortunate enough that there were those musicians a bit older than me who would play regularly in spaces. I remember feeling that energy and electricity in the air. I guess later on I played with a lot of musicians from West Africa and that deepened the connection because they have much more of a communal mindset in terms of how they play music and how musicians get together. For me it was a combination of those experiences, also places like Passing Clouds when they were around, all of these experiences were the bedrock for me. They gave me some sort of an emotional foundation to tap into. I think at the Steam Down Weekly there is a combination of all those things and it never gets old, it’s always a beautiful moment and I don’t think connecting with people in a genuine way ever gets old. It’s one of the most beautiful things in life! Every week I’m blessed.
Describe the energy in the room at Steam Down Weekly in three words.
Emotive… Introspective… Energetic…
You describe the space as a “spontaneous sonic soundscape” — what is its evolution and how have you constructed it over the years?
The first part of curating the space is finding the right musicians to work with. I think every musician left to their own devices has some sort of unique personality that comes through in how they play and their energy, their demeanour. I think it’s about finding people that fit together musically and that will cater for their different musical influences and with enough experience, you can really pick out these influences and understand where people’s roots are within music — that can be what they play but it also relates to their cultures, you can hear their threads. My job within the project is to assemble those threads together which is a lot about listening to people and understanding how they fit together as a whole and does this allow for the spectrum of sound and the genre fluidity that we have in the space.
It’s so fluid! You cross through every genre and it’s so fantastic that you’re able to do it, it’s not easy for one group of musicians to be so in tune with one another and refine such a variety of genres.
Yeah, I think that for me has always been the beauty of music — the different moods and different emotions you feel from the music. Genres are mood sets, in a way, for me, you can just fluidly move between them and the fun is also telling a story through those different spaces.
The themes, thoughts and feelings projected in Matchstick Piehouse which are reflected in the EP weave through an extraordinary narrative of self-transformation. How do you all feel when you’re performing in that precious space and how do you feel after?
I would say that on one hand, it is personal but also within most people’s personal experience there is something that’s relatable to others. I think within the writing there’s a space of how do you connect to others through your own experiences so that it can be truly emotive? How does that relate to everybody coming into the space and what’s useful to say from those spaces? I think in the space of writing music, specifically lyrics, it goes in two ways — there’s a space of reflection when you think of ideas and concepts that mean something to you, then there’s also a space of imagination, what are the possibilities? I think the imagination and possibilities in the space of inspiration and motivation, like when we set goals and are really hyped up and psyched then there’s that imagining of what it will be like when we get to the space.
There’s also the retrospective side — how do I feel about the things that have just happened to me that might be very prevalent in this moment of time? I feel that the process is travelling from the past to the present to the future within that space, there’s a bit of time travelling going on when you’re writing. I think bringing people into those narratives is important because there’s always something to be learnt and I think music can teach in a way that I don’t think you can traditionally learn within the academic system which is very kind of head-heavy.
It’s so special! It brings to mind a Paul Girloy quote that “music can be used to challenge the privileged conceptions of both language and writing as preeminent expressions of human consciousness”, I feel that Steam Down truly embodies music as an art form that has the capacity to express this consciousness and internal human emotion.
I appreciate that!
How does your sound emulate the narrative through the EP and your performances?
If you think about it, words are a form of energy and we can say things that have an effect on others emotionally but it’s only because we have an agreement on that definition but that definition is not just a cognitive one, it’s also something that has an emotional current underneath it. It’s that multitude of human dynamics, all the different emotions, that love connecting with all the frictions and tensions that we all have is because we’ve agreed on what these words mean. Often when they are verbalised in a particular tone they also have a kind of energy. I don’t think the energy in the dialogue that we have with people, especially face to face when you can hear people’s tone of voice, is so far from the emotional energetic tone of music. I feel like sound is vibration and music is vibration. I always say this to artists in the group — you know when a dog is happy or sad, you can feel the energy from that animal and you don’t speak through words but you completely understand. Same with babies, you completely understand each other because these sounds are codified information, it’s information that is uncovered before words. When you’re with a baby before you’ve even filled up the verbal space, there’s a feeling, an energetic interchange that’s happening.
I think that within music my question is always, what am I saying and what is the energetic tonal mood that I want to go with what I’m saying? I think sometimes those things you can match together or sometimes you juxtapose them and they can bring different things. Often when I’m talking about things from my past or trauma, brutality or oppression in different ways, when you contrast the sound it can often make people more open to the context. I think someone that is really good at doing that is Fela Kuti who speaks about pretty heavy topics but the music doesn’t allow you to feel low and depressed when you’re going through it. I think it’s a lot easier to digest actually, it also releases a sense of optimism to overcome it because the music makes you feel energetic, that adjustment position is very powerful.
It’s extremely powerful. That’s a really interesting concept to unravel and not something that is obvious to a listener. There is such a deep relationship between sound and consciousness, how vibrations can actually mobilize your body to feel certain ways and shift feelings. When you have a community of people sharing those vibrations and feelings there is a potential to shift culture, the journey of those sounds goes far beyond the instruments.
Yeah, I always feel in the SDWeeklys that by the time we get to the end there’s this convergence of hearts and minds. When you get to that point it’s amazing because that is the space when you exist in unity with each other.
What is your meaning of Afro-Infinitism and how do you explore this through sound?
A lot of people know the term Afrofuturism. The godfather of Afrofuturism really is Sun Ra and I was very much inspired by him in my youth. I was very much inspired by his project and him as a musician because he really travelled from the past to the present to the future. If you listen to his projects there’s lots of traditional stuff, some of the songs are just played on percussion and vocals which is probably the most organic and centred form of music where people can just clap their hands and sing. Rhythm and singing are cross-cultures, they’re everywhere. It’s ancient. Also, he’d sonically express the period in which he was born, the Jazz era. He grew up with a musician called Fletcher Henderson in the twenties and thirties, but then later on as he moved into the fifties and sixties he started experimenting with other instruments. He was the first person to play a synthesiser in Jazz music ever, there’s that idea of what does music look like in the future, how do I imagine that and how do you use all of the new tools? Or how do you stretch your instrument to play it in a completely different way? There was this real space of ok we’ll play the Jazz sounds, we’ll play relating to traditions but we’ll also explore the future and that’s not just Futurism for me it’s also going back into the past, it’s also being in the present — I see infinity as going as far forward into the future as possible and as far backwards into the past or as deep into the present as you can possibly be — you’re exploring all of those spaces simultaneously.
The Afro side of it for me is related to the heritage and culture that I come from and a lot of the musicians in the project come from. When I performed in my earlier days with a lot of the West African musicians, there was a lot of music that I didn’t know but it really felt like I knew and it related back to my Caribbean heritage, it was a cross between those rhythms. I can’t explain it other than it felt like remembering something that I already knew. That was a really profound moment. Altogether in my mind, I saw this connection between African American music, music from the Caribbean, music from Africa and then the Black British sub-genres that emerged like Jungle, Garage, Drum and Bass etc. Somehow they all fit into one for me, I was exposed to all of them and it all connected in a deeply emotional way, I can’t really explain. It was a very transformative experience and part of my life. It was always the music I would go back to, it was really rooted in me and felt important that Afro-culture was at the centre of what I do. I think we definitely explore things outside of that but the core foundation of it is within the Afro-diaspora.
How would you describe the relationship between you all and how does it affect your creative process?
The beauty of performing with such amazing musicians is each person will always do something that surprises the audience and at that moment in time, everybody is cheering on that person. In musical spaces, there’s real support for each other in that journey to finding your stride and you feel it because everybody expresses it to each other and we’re all comfortable to express it in the moment. That also goes for the audience, there’s that moment when the audience expresses it. I think we do that internally with each other when we hear something, you don’t hold that reaction to the sound back you just let it out. I think that support for each other is really important because it creates a safe space to explore and try new things, to feel comfortable around each other. I think that’s very important in being able to freely express what’s inside your creative self and letting that all out. I would say that is one of the main things I really enjoy about being in that space with everybody.
What are your hopes and dreams for Steam Down in the future?
There are two sides to it, there are our hopes and dreams then there’s what we’re doing next. So going onto next year we’re working more on recorded music. I think we’ve been in a very physical project and space so we will definitely be spending more time writing outside of that physical space which I think is really good. We create so many ideas in the Weekly and I know different people always want to develop different ones, so I think it’s very healthy. But in terms of aspirations for me personally, when I set up the project it really came with a vision of us as people being able to interact with music in a slightly different way than we do generally. It’s essentially that space of connection within Steam Down, the space of unity you can feel in sharing the same emotions at the same time. When we’re all sharing that moment I think there’s a power in artists, musicians and creatives thinking about creating those spaces for people because then music, for me, serves a purpose.
I always struggled with this question when I was younger which was, “what is the point of art, is art for art’s sake?”, but I go against that. I don’t think art is for art’s sake, I think we have emotional responses to art and creativity and I think that creativity should be used to enhance our state of being. Our emotional state of being, our mental state of being, our communal collective state of being, our social state of being et cetera, et cetera. I think that if we as creators took that on as our contribution to society then we would be contributing positively to everybody’s lives and that for me would be my hope — that Steam Down can inspire people to think in those ways and explore that going forward in their own musical journeys, musical communities and groups of musical friends that they create.