To the beat of his own drum: Nathan Daems talks variety


The multi-instrumentalist from Mechelen talks about his love of music and how the many creative outlets he has for it keep him focused

Brainwashed and happy

“I prefer playing in five different bands to playing in just one that’s continually on tour,” says musician Nathan Daems. “I need the diversity. Not having to stick to one style keeps me focused as a musician.”

Daems, 33, grew up in Mechelen and lives in Brussels. He’s one-third of the Ragini Trio, which plays a mix of Indian music and jazz, and he heads the fivesome Black Flower, which trades in Ethiopian-style jazz.

Besides that, he does odd jobs with a plethora of other groups. He used to play in the festive brass band Orchestra National du Vetex, the Antwerp Gipsy-Ska Orchestra and his own Nathan Daems Quintet.

But that’s enough names. Let’s talk music and, more precisely, musical instruments.

Saxophone wasn’t Daems’ first love. From the age of three to six he played the violin. Or at least he went along to his mother’s violin classes with her, and then started playing it himself.

“Strangely, I can’t remember any of that,” he says. “Even my mother can’t say for sure why I stopped playing.”

The joy of music

He does remember his first years playing the saxophone, though. He went to a music academy between the ages of 10 and 14, but then grew tired of it.

“It was because of my teacher,” he explains. “I learned a lot from him, but he had a very classical, orthodox approach. There was no emotional connection with music.”

At 14, he tossed his saxophone aside, he says, “and started playing Rage Against the Machine songs with my friends. For years, I only played guitar, and I discovered the joy of making music in a group”.

It’s sometimes called the most difficult instrument in the world, and for the first few weeks I couldn’t get a single note out of it

- Nathan Daems

In the meantime, at home he played along with his favourite records, over and over. “Unconsciously, this was an intense training of my hearing,” he says.

While playing in a reggae band at 22 he realised the group needed a saxophone player, so he picked up the instrument himself again. He eventually enrolled at the Ghent Conservatory to study jazz, having already studied social work. Since graduation, he’s been a professional musician – something he says he is thankful for.

Always wanting to develop, Daems has just headed to Crete to study for a week with a Turkish musician renowned for his skills on the ney, a Middle Eastern flute. “I loved the sound of the ney, but I only started playing it after I got one as a birthday present,” he says. “It’s sometimes called the most difficult instrument in the world and I must admit, for the first few weeks I couldn’t get a single note out of it, no matter what I did. I just got dizzy from lack of oxygen.” 

Unfamiliar rhythms

Step by step he progressed, and he still practises a few hours a day. Daems still plays the saxophone, of course, and he also plays flute and the kaval, a wind instrument from the Balkans.

It’s clear he constantly needs a challenge. Take the time he played with renowned Flemish flamenco guitarist Myrddin.

“Three years ago, those rhythms were really strange to me,” he says. “When we played, I constantly had to count, and even as I did, I sometimes lost the rhythm. Then recently, I realised that I made it through almost an entire show without having to count.”

In the beginning, he says, “I played what Myrddin told me to, but today we compose together. It shows, again, how enriching a collaboration can be”.

Jazz seems to be the thread that hold Daems’ work together, but he prefers to call it improvisation. “Jazz used to be a musical style – swing in the 1930s – that had a typical groove, like hip-hop or reggae,” he says. “Visit a jazz festival these days, and you’ll hear that jazz is more than a way of making music; it’s an approach of how to play music live. In that sense, classical Indian music is more ‘jazz’ than for instance Glenn Miller, where the solos were fully composed.”

1,000 times

Still, if people categorise him as a jazz musician, he takes it as a compliment. “But I have no idea how the jazz scene is evolving because there is so much interesting music in other genres, too,” he says. “When I listen to music, I must admit, it’s always with a professional ear. I try to condition my brain into a specific musical style.”

It means he listens for a full year to only two or three albums, all of a certain style. Not 10 times, not 100 times, but like 1,000 times, with the idea of “brainwashing” himself.

“Most styles of ethnic music you can’t copy as a westerner because you don’t have it in your blood,” he explains. “A few older musicians who I admire taught me that the only option is to brainwash yourself. In the end you’re hearing that music on a microscopic level. And despite what you might think, it’s absolutely not tedious.”

You know what’s cool about music? You have to find a balance between the left and the right side of your brain

- Nathan Daems

Last year, Black Flower released two albums: Ghost Radio in the spring and Artifacts in the autumn. They are totally different from each other, and from Black Flower’s 2014 debut, Abyssinia Afterlife.

“I wanted to make an album that was less composed and leaned much more towards improvisation,” he says. “And that ends up as different result: The music is much less danceable. It’s something we’d wanted to do for some time, but it would have been weird to mix it with the composed music.”

Although the lack of emotional input from his first saxophone teacher made him turn away from the saxophone for a while, Daems doesn’t see music as only about emotion.

“You know what’s cool about music? You have to find a balance between the left and the right side of your brain. If you attack it 100% rationally, people will say you’re a virtuoso – but that sounds like an exercise. But if I incline too much to the emotional side of the spectrum, I become physically unable to play. A lump in my throat blocks my air supply, and my sound dies. There’s a fine line between emotion and control.”

More new albums this week

Orazio Vecchi: Requiem
On 2 June 1640, Pieter Paul Rubens’ funeral was held at Antwerp’s Sint-Jacobs church. On this new album, Graindelavoix, the singing collective headed by Björn Schmelzer, presents the music that might have been heard at the funeral. The central piece is the requiem by the Italian Renaissance composer Orazio Vecchi. As usual, the voices of Graindelavoix defy orthodox music practice and instead present these spiritual pieces with an unorthodox emotion. ★★★☆

g a b b r o
g a b b r o
The rich, deep tone of the baritone sax is one of music’s most beautiful sounds, and the two intertwined that make up the Flemish duo g a b b r o (the name refers to a form of magmatic rock) are a prime example. The seven tracks that Hanne De Backer and Marc De Maeseneer play on their debut are hard to categorise, though there are obvious links with (free) jazz and contemporary classical music. Both frivolous and daring, this beguiling album reveals a great talent. ★★★☆