Thanks to Jean de la Fontaine, everybody now knows the difference between the oak and the reed. One boasts a certain virile majesty, a welcoming shade, an apparent strength and solidity. The other is seemingly so fragile, yet of a suppleness that allows it to bend without ever breaking.
A symbol of the ability to endure everything and anything, of being able to stand fast during even the toughest of times, Roseaux (Reeds) is a musical project that is understated, yet impassioned and utterly compelling, born amidst the stormiest times yet seen in the annals of the recorded music industry. Roseaux is a collective that brings together a radio music scheduler (who’s also a DJ) and various musicians, artfully blending the skills of a guardian of musical knowledge and all the artistic feeling that characterizes a group of musicians who have each taken many different paths in the pursuit of their passion.
Roseaux began with Emile Omar, a music-lover with tastes as diverse as they are insatiable who sniffs out sounds without regard for the dictates of musical convention and genre. Some ten years ago his musical inquisitiveness led him to take on the management of Radio Nova’s record collection and then to play his part in finding the musical ingredients for the station’s celebrated ‘Grand Mix’ of innovative sounds. This gave him the opportunity to create Nova Tunes compilations and box sets – an eclectic essence of rare refinement drawn from a selection of new sounds and past musical wonders. Ever since his teenage years, Emile has also been adept at getting people on the dance floor – so adept, in fact, that he now DJs at themed evenings, delving into a repertoire of classic soul, house, reggae, disco and tropical music. In this way Roseaux’s roots are firmly anchored in a cultural subsoil that comes straight from the racks of record dealers who specialize in a very unusual type of music – that which is able to delight the body and fire the soul at the same time.
About 5 years ago Emile developed the desire to venture where it seemed that his status as a non-musician must surely bar him: the field of making music.
Ever since Brian Eno knocked the ivory-tower idea of the existence of such a thing as musical legitimacy on the head, ever since Lee Perry, King Tubby and Tom Moulton turned the mixing table into an integral part of the creative process, ever since hip hop and electro DJs were able to demonstrate that creativity could be channelled through turntables and samplers in a kind of musical collage, the definition of what it is to be a musician has radically changed.
He contacted 2 musician friends (musicians in the traditional sense of the word), cellist Clément Petit and multi-instrumentalist Alex Finkin, to ask them if they wanted to join with him in creating an album that would be based on the arrangement of ten or so of his favourite songs taken from a whole range of different genres.
The three got down to work, with Emile discovering Aloe Blacc, long before the American singer made the headlines with the hit I Need A Dollar.
Although Aloe Blacc had little singing experience at the time, he launched himself into Emile’s project with enthusiasm and open-mindedness in equal measure.
Roseaux is therefore the product of a meeting of minds and hearts between an enlightened amateur and a group of musicians whose talent and adaptability made this project possible and gave it its artistic unity.
The same lack of musical dogmatism as evinced by Emile’s choice of music for the Radio Nova playlist and his evenings on the turntables is on display here in the shape of such little-known gems as Strange Things by the Jamaican John Holt, Indifference by grunge band Pearl Jam, Patti Labelle’s More Than Material, Try Me by Esther Phillips and Clarao da Lua by Brazil’s Nazaré Peirera. The most famous track is undoubtedly Walking On The Moon by The Police. A world away from ‘carbon copy’ style cover versions, each of the ‘guest tracks’ gets its own special treatment whereby it metamorphoses into something completely different (in the eyes of anyone who is familiar with the original version) and utterly enchanting. These are not covers in the narrow, generally accepted meaning of the word – they can best be classified as reinterpretations or even complete rewritings of songs. So, the Jamaican feel of Rad Bryan’s Girl you rock my soul gives way to polished folk guitar arrangements and string instruments, the swaying rhythm of Walking On The Moon falls into line with the jazzy footsteps of Nina Simone, John Holt’s rocksteady Strange Things takes the road to Rio, Missing You, the 90s underground house hit from Kim English is transformed into a soul ballad, before dropping into a long, cross-fade on the Fender Rhodes electric piano, Bill Evans style.
Could it be this way of gently bending these songs to their will that was the inspiration behind the name ‘Roseaux’? Or perhaps it’s the air of elegance that emanates from the album as a whole, a melancholy tide of post-soul and nocturnal jazz lapping against the shores of this scattering of songs through which the gentle, caressing tones of Aloe Blacc wend their way? One thing is certain, with Roseaux, Emile Omar and his partners have succeeded in investing this project with more than just a certain unity, more even than an identity – they have given it a soul.