Our Guest Interview with The Congo Faith Healers by Monica Yasher

Posted on 6/30/2010 by Monica Yasher

Today, America, we are going to London and meeting up with the Congo Faith Healers!  The band has credits of working with industry producers such as Chris Kimsey (who has recorded albums for the Rolling Stones, the Gypsy Kings ,Jimmy Cliff, New Model Army) and also with Grammy Award winner Cameron Craig (who has worked with Tina Turner, Robbie Williams, Amy Winehouse). The band is creating quite a buzz in the European markets and is currently setting their eyes across the big pond to America. They wanted me to share they are currently reviewing potential working relationships for here in the US. So, please use their contact information, if you are interested in their music! The Congo Faith Healers consists of Guitars, Harmonica and Vocals - Sonny West, Bass - Tomislav Benzon, Trumpet - Si Lips Taylor, and Drums - Jay Tubsman.   Sonny West speaks of this experience plus a whole lot more!

Monica:  How did you come about your name, The Congo Faith Healers?

Sonny West:  The name Congo Faith Healers came about as an acknowledgement to the famous New Orleans Congo Square, where at the turn of the last century, slaves gathered on a Sunday, that being the only free day a week, to worship their Gods (mainly Voodoo as many were Haitian), and to celebrate and play music. This place was a big melting pot, and is said to be the birthplace of Jazz. So Congo being Congo Square, Faith as in “we all have to believe in something”, and Healers as we all have to heal sometime and music helps us do this on a daily basis.

M:  Where does the band get their inspiration from?

SW:  The band gets their inspiration from each others musical diversity – a melting pot of different directions and different cultural influences, which when put together are stronger than a single individual influence.

Obviously the Blues, Jazz, Latin, Gypsy – anything that is not derivative.

Music from the soul and the root, complex or simple.

Lyrically I like to try and tell a story of a place and a time that can't be pinned down, but people can use the descriptions to make up their own picture in their mind.

M:  Tell me a bit about your band, what makes this partnership work?

SW:  What makes it work is the fact that everybody is having their freedom and input, but never straying from the original concept. We all are not driven or controlled by the pressures of media success or controlled by the power of money. This gives us complete creative freedom.

M:  What subjects do your songs address?

SW:  All subjects of life and all streams of consciousness and sub-consciousness. I like to write mainly as a story in narratives and metaphors, letting the listener use their own imagination when they read the lyrics to take them somewhere else. This is the reason why we printed the lyrics on our album cover. I see us as a live band, as a live experience when many of the lyrics will move by so fast they go unnoticed, whereas to listen to a CD in your own privacy it is a different experience when you are able to reach and read the lyrics of the CD cover, bringing another dimension to the music.

M:  Which song is the bands favorite and which song is the fan’s favorite?

SW:  It continually changes and it seems to be different for each person. As a songwriter I am usually quite excited with a new piece of work that goes into the rehearsal room for the band to hear, if it gets past the boys it usually goes into the repertoire. I find things in everyday life and inspiration. Hopefully this will continue to inspire my writing and keep it fresh for the fans.

M:  Tell me what it is like to work with people such as Chris Kimsey (who has recorded albums for the Rolling Stones, the Gypsy Kings ,Jimmy Cliff, New Model Army) and also with Grammy Award winner Cameron Craig (who has worked with Tina Turner, Robbie Williams, Amy Winehouse). Is it easy to let yourself be guided.? Do you lose any of your artistic freedom?

SW:  It's been a great learning curve and a pleasure to work with these top producers, especially the ones mentioned, as they all saw the band live first before we went into the studio, and appreciated us all as musicians and a tight outfit of people that had mastered their craft, and we were encouraged in the studio to capture a live no nonsense rough edged powerful performance, rather than a polished pop record. Working with Chris Kimsey on his recordings and subsequently our album Ju Ju Mix, we did everything in a very unconventional manner. Most bands will go in and record bass and drums and a guide vocal and build up from there to get a perfect performance, which can loose an energy of a performance from a band, and once that’s done, which is a lengthy process, everybody will go in again individually and replay each part to perfection, and then the whole thing is stuck together. This process usually takes months, in some cases years before you have a finished record.

This usually is done as a band will have a tendency to either not be able to guarantee a good performance on the days, i.e. if the drummer speeds up/slows down, or the singer sings out of tune ( a lot of singers will go back in and re-sing the song line by line to get the performance.).

The Congo Faith Healers did the absolute opposite of recording this way. Chris Kimsey saw the bands ability and their musical virtuosity to be able to record as a whole band and play all together. So the album was recorded live in just one day. Mics were set up in the room, the band played the songs a few times, and the best take was kept of each individual song. So everything you hear on the album is a true representation of the band and the bands energy. All songs were recorded the first day, and on the second day I decided to add an acoustic guitar as an overdub on some tracks, a few trumpet parts were overdubbed, and the whole thing was mixed down the second day, and that’s the sound you hear on CD.

All the vocals were sung live, everything as kept, and only them two things added, capturing the true sound of the band, rather than straying from the original concepts and live shows. We are very proud to have done it this way, and we knew this is what we and our fans wanted to hear.

The whole album was previously recorded with Chris Kimsey, with lots of overdubs and lots of editing.

We decided as a band , that as fantastic as it would be to put out our first album with recordings done by Chris Kimsey, who recorded albums for the Rolling Stones and Gypsy Kings, that we would forfeit the benefits that would have bought us in the industry, to release our own produced album as it was a truer representation and had a more edgier dynamic feel to it. A big decision to make for a band without a record contract to reject these recordings by Chris Kimsey, but as artists we had to go with what we thought sounded better and with what we felt people wanted from us. We are really really happy with the result.

M:  Are you having a blast or is this hard work?

SW:  This band and the music is a lifestyle which obviously a lot of sacrifices have to be made for by each member personally, as with most musicians, this is our life and we're not carpenters or solicitors in the day time. It's tough times financially to keep a band like this going, as we need to eat and pay bills.

99% of the band live on the poverty line and sometimes even struggle to find the bus fare to the gigs. It would be easier to be more financially secure, and to secure the future for the band, but also we don't want to be controlled or mis-focused by money. It's such a fine line. On the other side of the coin, when we play, the music is the only thing that matters. We can only hope we will be able to find a way through. In the meantime we are having a blast and have amazing support from people around us and our fans.

M:  For those that are unfamiliar with your work, if I walked into a room, describe the experience.

SW:  I cant be objective about this so I am going to pass that question over to our manager.

The first time I came across the band was when they came into the recording studio I was working in at the time.

I had previously worked with people like Gary Moore, Duran Duran and many of Simon Cowell's shows such as Xfactor.

The Congo Faith Healers were the first unsigned and unknown act that came into the studio to record, as we only worked with well known and established acts.

As soon as they started playing I was impressed by the quality of the songwriting and their performance. During the recording session they were racing through the songs, I had never come across a band so accurate, it only took them a maximum of two takes per song.

Now as a manager, I see the band play at all their shows, and they still never fail to impress me! If you walked into a room and had never heard the band before, you would be instantly captured by an unfamiliar sound and the charisma of the band. There would be people of all age groups across the dance floor, gazing with amazement, a certain glow and look of disbelief in their eyes and a big smile on their faces as the band play through an eclectic set of songs that send the listener on a journey right across the world.

Their live show is just so unique and unpredictable, no two sets are the same as the band are constantly changing and improvising, making every show different.

When you listen to the album, every song is a “single” in my opinion. There aren't just three songs that people like and the rest of the album gets skipped through – every song is amazing and has something unique to offer to the listener.

The CFH are by far the best band I have ever seen or heard – it's an experience not to be missed.

M:  What was your best stage moment?

SW:  Best stage moment was on stage in London and supporting Mick Jones (The Clash), and him leaning over to our manager with a big smile on his face saying “ Those guys look like a bunch op gypsies!” He meant it in the most complimentary way! Funny, one of the most legendary top punk band leaders was actually shocked by us! He followed that up by saying “This band is great”.

Also, after coming off stage from supporting KT Tunstall, KT saying that she wished she could write songs with the same integrity as the Congo Faith Healers, and how great the band was. She mentioned later on a TV interview CFH as one of her favorite bands in the world, and if she had a festival line-up, we would be headlining. Another great stage moment is coming of stage and another top producer, Steve Booker, who had had a number one at the time, a song he'd written for Duffy called Mercy, saying that Sonnys songwriting was prolific and not to change a thing. These are great compliments and great moments from successful people who are respected in the industry. Having that tip of the hat and nod of approval, confirms we're doing something right.

M:  Any other special memories from the tours you did? T

SW:  There was a great moment in Dubai, where we were called over to do a Jack Daniels anniversary in conjunction with Fender guitars. It was a big event, there were a lot of famous and known bands on and we were right near the bottom of the bill being unknown. We did a great show and when we came of stage, at the end of the evening the managing director and promotions manager for Jack Daniels and Fender presented me with a one off special anniversary Fender Stratocaster guitar with Jack Daniels logos. This was kept in a big glass case, actually in the venue. The guitar was to be awarded as a gift and a momentum to their favorite band. They were so impressed with the band, even though they had never heard of us, they took us over to the glass case where the guitar was on display and awarded it to me and the Congo Faith Healers.

M:  Tell me about your tour in Dubai.

SW:  It went from a 5 star experience to nearly being killed on the road traveling from shows from Abu Dhabi to Dubai when the rear tire blew out at 150km/h. Then we got stranded because of the volcanic ash, but as usual you drop the Congo Faith Healers anywhere in the world and everyone will have a good time.

M:  How would you describe the band in 5 words?

SW:  unique, powerful, truthful, eclectic, accessible

M:  I noticed Sonny exclusively uses Ozark guitars? How did that come about?

SW:  I was looking for a unique sound, a crossover between an acoustic and electric guitar. I tried every model and make out, and Ozark ticked all the boxes for what I needed. Simple, straightforward single lipstick pickup with a crossover electric acoustic sound, with a low action and single cutaway for fast playing and accuracy. These guitars are great, and after using them for three years, I have been made an ambassador for Ozark. I have a real straightforward no nonsense sound, no processors or complicated effects. I just plug straight into my vintage Roland Jazz Chorus. After one of the executive for Gibson guitars saw us play in London, I was offered a sponsorship with them and was asked to come down to their headquarters here in central London. There were four floors of Gibson guitars and amps and I could have walked away with anything I needed. The guys were really helpful down there, but after two and a half hours of trying everything, I turned the offer down and stuck with my Ozark, even though at that time I wasn't an ambassador. Ozark is fairly unknown and an unprestigious make compared to Gibson, but as a working musician I put the Ozark through rigorous recording and touring and they more than proved themselves as a great instrument, taking night after night of punishment, I rarely break strings and it rarely goes out of tune, and I play hard. Other guitars would just fall apart after a while, or the necks would twist, wear out and loose their ability to stay in tune. I will be sticking with Ozark and be telling the world.

M:  Will there be a second album?

SW:  There definitely will be a second album. We already have all the songs written and are performing them in our live set at the moment. I am actually working on the third album. The second album will hopefully be recorded this year. We will have the same approach as the first album, recording it live again, and capturing some more Congo moments.

M:  The band have a very strong image and dress style. Where does that come from?

SW:  Our image and style is a mix of contemporary and vintage, and is really influenced by what we can find from thrift stores. We like suits, but find them too hot to play in so we just wear the waistcoats. I have an old pair of snakeskin boots that I have had over 25 years that I just love. I almost always wear them on stage and off stage, they are so comfortable but there's not much left of them now.

The hats are kind of a retro feel, but in the last couple of years we've noticed they seem to have come round in fashion again, a lot of contemporary artists/rappers also seem to wear hats which makes them easier to buy now. Before you could only get them from thrift stores. We customize some of our clothes, we add bits on and cut bits off. We like to adapt things and maybe even one day we'd like to experiment a bit more and have our own clothing label. Just recently, Blaqua Clothing, who make very fine quality tailored clothing and have a shop in London’s Carnaby Street, have teamed up with us and we're working on some new designs and they also supplied some clothes for our Street Robbery Video. We'd really like to explore this avenue a bit more, being another extension of our creativity.

Copyright © 2010 Copyright Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.

Photographs used by permission. All Rights Reserved.

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