When the world refuses to make a space for your work, sometimes you just have to make your own.
Born in London, raised in Christchurch, New Zealand and of Ghanaian descent, the multi-genre musician Leila Adu’s early childhood already spanned continents. The whole time I've known her, she's never sat still for long, geographically or artistically. Her music defies categories; critics’ descriptions of her sound include comparisons to Nina Simone, Joanna Newsom and PJ Harvey. She’s released jazz records, composed music for orchestras and percussion groups, taught music in prisons, and most recently has reinvented herself as DJ Black Rainbow, a socially conscious party-starter.
I first met Leila as a teenager at a bar a mutual friend had opened as a venue for avant-garde musicians and artists who’d been squeezed out of every other profit-driven space in town. At that point, she was heavily involved in the free jazz/experimental music scene in Wellington and through working on various theater productions together, soon became the cool older sister I’d never had. I’ve come to conceive of her over our many years of friendship as someone who is constantly battling expectations of who she should be.
It’s been a blessing to reconnect in the lonely metropolis that is New York while she’s been working towards a PhD in music composition at Princeton University. With few employment prospects available upon graduating, Leila has once again decided to move on, this time to Paris, and as always, she leaves a trail of broken bands in her midst. I got to sit down with her for Mask Magazine (her favorite magazine, she claims) before she leaves.
Leila, I’ve known you since I was 16 and it seems you cannot sit still! Why the constant ants in your pants? What are some of the best things about constantly traveling? What do you find exhausting about it?
I’m baby of people from different continents and was born in another. Traveling is part of my anatomy. I find a lot of time for stillness though –I prioritize it. The best things are seeing the faces of people you don’t know and somehow knowing them, feeling human kindness and smiling. Saying “yes” to a new experience because you are somewhere new and it makes sense. Eating new food. Collaborating with musicians and artists. Bureaucracy is exhausting and after a while the newness becomes exhausting too. Then you want to be home and quiet. I cherish silence.
Aside from shifting location, you also alternate between different music styles. In New Zealand, you were heavily embedded in the experimental/free jazz scene. Last week, an orchestra played one of your compositions at St Paul’s Cathedral. What sorts of things inspire or motivate your musical transitions?
When I write a score, or words, I always end up color coding them. I think musically in colors and feels, maybe a bit like a Kandinsky painting. For me, an orchestra is a color but so is a Moog synth. The notes call for different colors. Sometimes there is just a piano and that’s fine too.