Hi Ivan, wonderful to speak with you! We love your playing and music! Your career has been hugely interesting and successful over the years from independent, acoustic music with influences from around the world, to classical technique and training, and also to major worlds of pop working with one of the most groundbreaking pop orchestral outfits The Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s great to catch up with you about your fascinating career and new music releases!
How did ‘Celloman’ come about, alongside your projects as an electric band, a string trio, and a solo cello show. How would you describe yourself in a nutshell?
Well, actually the electric band came first under the name Celloman, then much later I began doing acoustic music under the same name.
I started my session career at 17, so it was quite early. I knew that I wanted to do my own project but felt that I hadn’t lived enough, in a musical sense, so I spent the next decade as a session player, working with mostly chart bands, touring and recording and building myself as both a player and musician. I am fortunate to have played on over 300 records and played with so many different artists both on record and in live perfomance.
I ran a few bands before I started Celloman. This mostly involved me fronting a band as a singer whilst playing the cello. But, the cello was always secondary to the voice.
When I started Celloman in 1999, I flipped this idea and put the Cello first and vocals second. The first album, Aquador, released in 2001, was a picture of my life up until then. A sonic representation of where I was in life at that time.
Your music is described as a fusion of world, jazz and classical, with African and Middle Eastern rhythms. Different music styles in life and technique can open our minds as an invaluable way to improve our experience with music and creativity. How did these different explorations styles come about and influence your work?
The music is very hard to define as I take influences from all musics and traditions. ’A fusion of Classical, Jazz and World music’ does not clearly define the music of Celloman, but it is correct in that I take influences from all those worlds. Classical, in that I was classially trained and studied with a Professor at the Guildhall until my early twenties. Jazz, in its promotion of the instrument as the lead character through melody and improvisation, and World Music, in both rhythmic and melodic inflections taken from both Africa & the Middle East. Africa, as my roots are African and the Middle East, as I lived there in my twenties and absorbed the styles of the region, particularly arabic music.
You are known for using Arpezzato fingerstyle (combining the approaches of ‘Arpeggio’ and ‘Pizzicato’) in your works. When did you first start exploring this new technique you’ve created, and how does it develop in your musical creativity?
Arpezzato is a style of cello playing that uses various playing techniques usually found in Jazz, World Music & Rock/ Pop, on instruments such as electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and bass. Using both right hand and left hand techniques including slides, strum, slap, pop, arpeggio, hammer on, hammer off and many others. Employing them on classical instruments is not usual, but I want it to be more than just a gimmick so have designed a whole style with nearly forty techniques. This I call Arpezzato.
I first started experimenting with this style on my debut album, where I built up small textural loops to enhance the music. I was using a loop pedal live on stage so all the tracks on the first three albums contained these little ‘arpezzato’ loops.
At that time I hadn’t coined the word ‘Arpezzato’. That came much later with an album that I released under my own name entitled ‘Moods, Broods & Interludes’ where I was using the cello as a harmonic instrument (much like a guitar) in much more developed ways. On top of these arpezzato parts, the melody was played by violin.
In 2019, you released the first album of Arpezzato compositions. Was it after the release of ‘Arepezzato Cello’ that you decided to popularise and teach others the Arpezzato style?
I was already teaching and presenting the Arpezzato style before I released that album. That album was a marker for the style. The frst full set of compositions in that style under that style name.
I have given workshops in the arpezzato style with both the London Cello Society and Suzuki Music since 2015.
In 2015 & 2016, The London Cello Society (LCS) ran a festival called ‘Beyond Cello’ at Kings Place in London. This was attended by students of cello from the various conservatoires. They found the workshops in Arpezzato very fresh.
This April, I will be presenting Arpezzato workshops at a further LCS event at Trinity Laban Conservatoire.
How does it feel hearing people explore and study a technical approach that you’ve developed?
I know that young cellists not only enjoy working on the style, but also, benefit from it greatly, as it opens the eyes to different styles of music, rhythmic understandings and also use of tonal effects. It is also great fun to play, as it allows the cello to become a harmony instrument which gives another level of satisfaction for the ear.
It may take a lifetime of work to get arpezzato into the pedagogy mainstream and for it to catch on it will need a lot of focus from me and maybe otehrs too. I am beginning to devote more time to it with that aim.
You have made an arrangement for cello sextet of a very well known piece ‘Moonlight Sonata’ by Beethoven. While working on the arrangement, would you say you genuinely followed the ‘established classical music rules’ or was there some space for freedom and improvisation? If yes, how did you go about and explore this?
I was quite straight with the transcription of the notes from piano to cello. I knew that this piece had the potential of sounding so powerful as a cello arrangement, so I wanted it to be as close as possible. I followed the standard classical approach for an expansion arrangement wherby I took the score and notated the different ranges of the piano part across multiple celli. Once that was done, the really interesting work begins of making it work for Cello sextet.
We love your extended band lineup and ‘sound’ in your live electric band (drums, bass, percussion, violin, and cello). Some people will be surprised and inspired by having Cello as the lead frontline in contemporary acoustic pop sounds. What led you to your whole band lineup?
When I started Celloman, I knew that I wanted a band and a sound that could work on mainstages of festivals. I wanted a big sound with lots of action on stage. I guess I wanted to be a kind of Hendrix or Santana of the cello.
Celloman began as a duo over a music sequencer, but after the release of the debut album in 2001, things went very well and I was able to put a full band together for both gigs and festivals.
I had the same band for over 8 years. Cosimo Cadore on drums, Oroh Angiama on Bass, Oli Savill on Percussion and Samy Bishai on Violin. It was a great band and we played all over the UK and abroad including performing four years in a row at Glastonbury Festival. One written review of the band at a festival called me ‘Hendrix of the cello’ so I got my wish!
After the release of the 4th album, ‘Sharptown’ in 2009 I changed directiona and began to relaese acoustic albums. I have released four since then.
But…as we speak, I am in the middle of planning a full band tour to celebrate the release of the first Celloman electric album since ‘Sharptown’. The tour will start in Oct this year to promote the album entitled ‘Panacea’. I hope the same band will accompany me on that tour. I know they want to, but they are all hugely in demand, so we will have to see.
Your experience in mixing ‘classical instruments’ with the POP world is clear throughout your career in many ways. Do let us know about your love of this and your journey in this sound world.
From about age 14, I already knew that I wanted to be a cellist and spend my life in music. At that time, I was only learning and playing classical music. But at 17, I was offered a job in a very exciting band called The Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO). They had just had a top 40 hit and were building the Orchestra for live dates. Before long, I was well and truly starstruck by both the industry and the lifestyle. That was it. I was hooked.
Since then, as a session player, I have always worked in the Pop/ Rock side of the industry. But, as an artist, I went much more niche.
Classical strings have a particular use in records. They are usually employed to add a smooth texture or tension, but sometimes the opposite is true, where the techniques are used to add bite and drive. This made my career as a session player quite straight forward. What was more challenging was working on my own sound for celloman. To have a sound that would cut through, to have a style of playing and look that would be worthy of a band leader. For example, I knew that I wanted to stand up to front the band, but I didin’t want to be physicall restricted by the instrument. In the end, I chose to mount an electric cello on a drum stand and play through effect processor. This worked both visually and sonically. I still have basically the same set-up 20 years later!
We’d love to hear about ‘Jambila Music’ where you produced all of your albums. What led you to setting up this outfit?
When I had completed ‘Aquador’, my debut album, I had interest from two independent labels, but I suddenly found myself deciding to self-release. Back in 2000 this was a crazy decision as there was no online distribution, no social media and no youtube. You needed lots of things in place, including physical distribution and finance. Well, I was naive and optimistic so started my own label called SPI Music. I had a business parter and together we worked tirelessly to grow both the band and label. To begin with, Celloman was the only band on the label. Things went well, we found a physical distributor and released three Celloman albums over the next three years and did loads of gigs. But the chicken came home to roost eventually and the label folded in 2005 through too much debt.
In 2008, dejavu! I was looking at releasing a new album through a label and was in discussion with them regarding details. This fell through and I found myself planning to self-release again.
I started the new label, Jambila Music, together with my brother, Paul, who is a producer, creator, and now, a spiritual flute player. We decided that Jambila music would be a home where we could release our own productions. We now have over 250 tracks released. Jambila Music releases Reggae and World Music, whilst its sister label, Jambila Muisc Classics, releases acoustic music.
In the end I’m glad that I self-released. Being with another label may have got me further in terms of being known, but having my own label has meant that I have full control over my creative output… and I can’t be dropped by the label!
How do you feel about the role of independent labels in today’s music industry?
Nowadays it is usual and straight forward to self-release through online distribution using social media to promote the product. This has meant that many more independent labels are in existence. But they are not labels in the way that the independents were before the business went online. Independents had so much more to lose with the manufacturing and marketing of both vinyls and CD’s. Of course, some independent labels still do that and risk is part of the business.
My feeling is that Independent labels are the heart of the industry now, especially that the major labels are more like entertainment conglomerates. Power to the independents!
How do you feel about the ever challenging distribution processes including streaming?
Ah. Well this is complicated. As a consumer, streaming is so easy and so comfortable. I use it all the time. As an artist or independent label it has been a killer.
The streaming royalties are so low that it is impossible to survive as either a label or as a performer without doing other activities such as gigs, teaching or selling merchandise. This is essentually wrong. Streaming has de-valued recorded music and has promoted the expectation that music should be free.
I think that the International collecting societes, such as PRS and Sacem should get together and start their own streaming service. They could pay a much more reasonable royalty and they would already have all the data for collection.
I think a lot of independents would jump at that idea.
Could you tell us about your most recent and the most memorable project?
I have been working on a few different albums over the various lockdowns. Creatively, this time has been great for me. Last year I released an album of guitar and cello duets under the name Hussey Marwood. There is something so nice about this album, even if I say so myself!
I have also completed two other albums due for release this year. One for a trio of celli and one for the Celloman electric band.
The first four years of running Celloman were so memorable. Where you have all that energy that you get when stating a project, where you watch the project grow and you follow a wave and where hope is in full bloom. That was so much fun.
As a session player, one of my most memorable times was spending eight months on the road with Duran Duran as part of their 1993 World tour. It was such an eye opener and such a privalege to have done a world tour. They are far and few between for cellists.
What are your greatest musical influences, do they span many genres?
I knew that I wanted to front a band with the cello years before I started Celloman. One of albums that allowed me to believe that this was possible was the album Tutu by Miles Davis. It showed me that I didn’t have to do straight ahead Jazz in order to be a instrumental band leader I loved the grooves on that album, and the arrangements. I even got to see him perform it live at Nice Jazz festival in 1989, where I was performing with the RPO.
I think I am influenced more by the mood or emotion of music rather than by particular artists. I mean, I love listening to so many different artists from soul to classical to country, but they don’t always influence me directly. When I was a teenager, I loved rare groove and funky stuff. This forms tha basis of Celloman, which always has a groove that you can nod your head to…at the very least.
North African and Middle Eastern flavours have been an influence to me since I lived in that region, particularly the use of percussion such as the Darbuka, and I have always loved certain eras of Classical music such as the Baroque period and the Romantic period. I am not such a modernist.
Going back to your performances, we would love to know what is planned for 2022, where can people come and hear you or your band live?
This year is definitely exciting for me, due to the live performances that I have planned for Celloman. From June onwards I will be presenting a solo cello show that discusses and demonstrates the Arpezzato style. The show also promotes a new album that will be out in June entitled ‘Cello Moods & Broods’ featuring compositions for three celli. In the live show I will play all parts with the help of a computer and projections. I am in the process of recording that album now.
As I mentioned earlier, I will be touring with the electric band. It is over 10 years since we last gigged together properly. The album being promoted is a fusion of styles as all my albums are, but ‘Panacea’ adds baroque music to the mix of African, Middle eastern and Jazz fusion. We will have dates all around the country between October and December.
As a session player, I am also involved in some interesting shows. The Freedom Road Re-imagined tour, between March and August is a performance that combines music, photography and filmed footage to call attention to the resilience, determination and pride of Black British Communities. That is together with a good friend of mine, Sabina Desir, who was at the same secondary school as me, as was Emily Saunders, who interviewed me here. A lot of talented musicians came out of Pimlico School.
I will also be doing a number of shows with the Urban Soul Orchestra (USO), who’s Classic Ibiza project is an Orchestral & DJ performance of classic dance hits that takes place in the grounds of stately homes to thousands of people. The USO is my brother Stephen’s project, so it’s always fun to do.
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