2013 brings with it significant anniversaries for some major players in our music industry (the likes of NZ On Air, Rockquest and NZ Musician itself). By coincidence it also heralds 40 years as a professional musician for stand out solo blues guitarist Paul Ubana-Jones, he of the most impressive afro in NZ music. Ahead of his current national tour Paul talked with Richard Thorne about where his performing takes him and the cowboy pleasure of breaking in a new pair of boots, or in his case, a new Martin DCPA1 acoustic guitar.
Fair to say there’s little about Paul Ubana-Jones’ appearance, speaking or singing voice, to suggest that he’s a Kiwi, but he has made New Zealand his home since 1987, and by last count has recorded and released seven albums here. Born in London to parents of English (Yorkshire) and Nigerian origins, Paul is very much a man of the world, and fittingly plays that everyman’s music, acoustic blues, for his living.
This February he’s been playing it around NZ, mostly in small intimate venues like The Bent Horse Shoe Café in Tokomaru, 121 Cafe in Ponsonby, The Bay on Waiheke Island and Carey’s Bay Historic Hotel in Dunedin. And he plays it all around the world, visiting Europe almost annually, gigging and teaching in high schools in Switzerland, playing in France, Holland and other like-minded countries.
“I used to hitch-hike and busk in France and all those wonderful places when I was 16. So they are in me, just as much as anywhere. I need the smells, the landscapes, the languages. Forty years I’ve been a professional musician – I’m still doing what I do and I still believe in it.”
He played the Pistoia Blues Festival in Italy last July, sharing the bill with BB King and John Hiatt.
“It was in this wonderful town called Pistoia, about 10 kms from Florence, a fantastic, big festival. I opened up the show for BB King in this beautiful renaissance square. That was great.”
He played New Plymouth’s WOMAD in 2012 and early this year will perform at WOMADelaide over the ditch, having been there just a few months earlier for the Blues at Bridgetown festival in South Western Australia.
Arriving here from Switzerland some 25 years ago, Paul brought with him a Martin HD28 acoustic, a very special guitar that has enchanted his audiences since. It has held him in its thrall too for that time, and is only now facing a challenge for his musical affections.
“I got the one out of a thousand that was so awesome! It was pretty obvious to listeners too. It’s 30 years of age now and it still just sounds ridiculously good. I’ve played at some top notch festivals around the world and people would say, ‘Hey, what kind of system are you using in that?’
“I’d tell them it’s just a straight Fishman pickup, under the bridge, and they’d be shaking their heads. I wrote these wonderful songs in open tunings which really amplified its character – and I don’t mean with wattage. Just that organic compositional thing of the wood and the strings and the age.”
When we talk however, it’s a near new Martin DCPA1 dreadnought that he’s proudly flourishing, the product of his new appointment, through local distributors, Lyn McAllister Music Ltd, as an ambassador for Martin guitars in this country. He’s currently breaking it in.
“I’ve now got this new Concert Performing Artist dreadnought model with an amazing miniature system on board that has nine studio mics pre-recorded. You blend that with your pickup sound.
“I’ll work twixt the two worlds, with this and with the old one. This is like a brand new pair of leather boots – you gotta wear it in. The worst sound you’ll ever get is when you first buy it. From then on, when you’re playing it every day the wood will start to react, it will age and improve, it starts to breath – and that’s starting to happen already after just a couple of months. It’s the timbre, that depth of tone that you get from the bass. It already has a malleability, a depth in its chords and its arpeggios. Boy it’s a great guitar.”
Treating me to a 90-second virtuoso burst, Paul closes his eyes in concentration, as he typically does when performing. I ask what’s happening for him then?
“I guess it’s part about focus, because you know what you’ve got to deliver and what you’ve practised, but at the same time you are bringing these other things on board that require an even finer intuitive kind of antenna. That’s the one of delivery, sound, tempo, articulation – hard to define – and that’s the one you’re aiming for on everything that you do. Even if it’s a straight strum, you want that strum to have depth and character. Take the time out of one bar and give it back in another. There’s this internal rolling screen that you are constantly throwing images at, trying to get clarity of the visual and sound.”
He has a signature sound that is so recognisably Paul Ubana-Jones. Using the side of his thumb and inverted index finger allows him to attack the strings and get a percussive sound, knocking the guitar with the heel of his thumb. It’s a self-taught technique that he says took on some of the rigid disciplines of classical music (he trained in classical guitar and cello in Chiswick, London, graduating in 1973) and subsequently morphed into his own musical identity.
“I love the blues but I’m not restricted by its form or structures. Usually when I’ve played a real blues festival I get, ‘Oh you’re not a real blues man’. They miss the point, as Duke Ellington and all that lot said, ‘Blues, first of all is a feeling’. That’s always been my edict.”