Hip Hop Skip Jump – An Interview with Maga Bo


Producer, DJ and musician, Maga Bo is from Seattle but has been living in Brazil for the last fourteen years. He has worked in over 40 countries, in several languages. His latest record Quilombo do Futuro mixes urban music genres from around the world with Afro-Brazilian rhythms and explores the theme of cultural resistance.

At Jodhpur Riff, he collaborates with Rajasthani folk musicians. Back this year for the 3rd time, Maga Bo is a favourite with them.


This is your third year at Jodhpur Riff. You first came to India when you left Seattle and travelled widely, spending nine months between Sri Lanka and India. Did you record and experiment with the music here then?

Yeah I travelled all my life, trying to find music everywhere, wherever I found myself. I was first here in 1998 or 1999. And I just kept coming back.


But this is the first time that you are collaborating with the Rajasthani folk musicians? You have worked on the film Patang and collaborated with Shilpa Rao for one track…

This is my third time at (Jodhpur) Riff and for the first time we have managed to get musicians here (to play with me). A kind of collaboration. So today will be the first rehearsal.


Have you met them before? In the previous years you were here?

Some of them I have, I think, but I’m not sure. I’ve met the morchang player, Rais Khan. I think he can play virtually anything. He can play the ground. He can play the wall. He is a very versatile person. So I will be working with them as well and then there will be several other musicians coming. There maybe be surprises as well. I don’t really know because not everyone is here yet.


When you decided to do this collaboration, did you have particular sounds in mind that you wanted? Any particular instrument?

I wanted the harmonium, the dholak, the khartal and the morchang. Kind of the basic (Rajasthani folk) sounds.


Did you listen to a lot of Rajasthani music? Do you know what you are looking for in the collaboration?

Yes and no. That is part of the excitement of it. Some musicians I work with— I know their sound, I know what they are interested in, I know their vibe. But with anyone, even people I have worked with for a long, long time, they may surprise me. That’s beautiful. So, yes, in a general sense, I know what I’m looking for but I’m sure there are surprises that are going to happen.


You did a show in Brazil called Sambacana and you said that you learnt more about old and new Brazilian music ‘on the go’, as you did the show…

I began working with Brazilian music before I went to Brazil. Almost 20 years ago. For me, learning about music is a process. I think that is the best way to learn. You can study music. I mean,I studied music in University. But that doesn’t prepare you for playing music live or working with musicians. So, yes, you learn on the go.


You said you can’t answer the question “Where are you from?” But really, where do you say you are from if someone asks?

Depends on how interested the person who is asking me is. In India, I’m always a foreigner. On the streets people ask me where I am from, and so I say Russia, from Japan. Sometimes I say I’m from Ethiopia, in a jokey sort of way. I say, actually, that I’m from the US but I’ve lived in Brazil for a long, long time. So I’m turning into a mixed person in a way.


You mix a lot of different styles of music. And you travel extensively. How intrinsic are these to your creative process?

It’s very important because for me to work with a Rajasthani musician, for example, to do that in Brazil is almost impossible. If you want to listen to Hindi music in Brazil there is almost nowhere to go really. Maybe one artist will come once a year. You just can’t find musicians who know about this sort of thing. Maybe it’s a similar thing if you wanted to work with Brazilian music in India; there are very few Brazilians who play here. So to get access to that kind of information and the people that work with that music you need to go there. And the other thing is that, especially with electronic music and electronic production around the world, people tend to use pre-recorded samples or things that they download from the internet to create music. So you’ll find that with Brazilian music— a lot of people who haven’t been to Brazil, haven’t worked with Brazilian musicians and who don’t know Brazilian music really are making something that they call Brazilian music. I don’t mean to criticize what they are doing because it’s part of the evolution of music in general, but it’s a very shallow way of making music. I think the way to do it is to go after it and go to the source of the music.


I wanted to ask you about that because you work with a lot of styles and the music you use is from a lot of different countries. Are you worried about cultural appropriation? How do you negotiate that line?

It depends on the situation. For example, I’ve come here a couple of times; a relationship has been developed with the festival over time. And I’m not here to record and sell something commercially. We’re here to create a performance for one day and one time. Cultural appropriation happens with very specific, very subtle things. It’s hard to generalize it but I think working with the person on an equal level is necessary. It’s very different from, say, recording someone and selling it. It’s like taking a photo of someone. When you take a photo of someone you don’t know, you need to take permission. I remember a flute player I wanted to record in Kerala, the first time I came to India, complaining that I was going to record him and sell it for a lot of money. So what we’re really talking about is respect. It’s about the communication and the exchange. If the person you are collaborating with is not coming from the same point of view, then it’s obvious very quickly.


How important is it for you to understand the lyrics when you work with artists singing in different languages?

The lyrics are very important. I think, mostly, because I work with a lot of hip hop and a lot of hip hop is superficial, bling bling, which is not interesting for me. I’m interested in more profound subjects that are spiritually positive and uplifting, critical, that are deeper than talking about what car you drive or who that sexy girl is or whatever.
When working with other artists, I always ask them. Normally I ask for all the lyrics written out and get them translated. Sometimes the characters are not Roman. Usually there is someone around who can translate it. So I get an idea of what’s being sung about. Because if the song is a love song about how happy the guy is that he met the woman, or whatever, then probably we don’t want to create some sort of depressing, noisy, loud, industrial kind of sound to go with it.


In another interview, you talked about ‘conscious lyrics’. You said you liked them because they are challenging. What did you mean by that?

‘Conscious lyrics’ is kind of a catch all phrase in hip hop. ‘Conscious hip hop’ would talk about things that would matter, that benefit humanity. It would talk about racism, sexism, social justice or have lyrics that are political. Lyrics that involve critical thinking. Not ‘My Ferrari… ’ or ‘My sexy… ’ whatever. I don’t mean to say that those should not exist, because there is a definitely a time when everyone should stand up and put your hands in the air and dance and have fun. There is a time and place for that. I’m not necessarily the artist that needs to make that kind of music. What’s interesting for me is conscious critical thinking.


You record and use a lot of live vocals and instruments. You don’t use pre-recorded sounds.

In the sense of using pre-recorded, pre-produced samples, from some sort of sample library or something like that— no I don’t use that. Because that’s the kind of “Brazilian” or “Indian” or “African” or whatever kind of music, which… Basically if you have a $ 100, you can buy a CD with all these recordings and make ‘Indian music’. There is no human interaction in that. It’s pre- fabricated. It’s like buying a hamburger. There’s no soul in it. There is no artistry. No, I shouldn’t say that. Because someone did play that, someone did make that. But it’s something that everyone has access to. There is nothing special about it. So I want to make something special. I want to make something new that doesn’t exist. Like, I can play percussion but I can’t play the dholak or the harmonium. Sure, I can make music from them but I’m not a master of these instruments. So if I say I want a dholak at this rhythm, then it makes sense that I find a dholak player who spends his whole life playing that instrument and has mastered the instrument. Someone who can say: “Oh that’s the idea? So what about this? Something like this?” Then all of a sudden you’re collaborating. You’re doing something that is greater than the sum of its parts. With a sample CD, it’s only the sum of the parts.


(Image: Maga Bo. By Shantenu Tilwanker for Jodhpur Riff / Oijo.)