Today on Mics And Beats we feature Marcus James Jozee. James Jozee aka James Gogo is a multi-talented musician and vocalist. James, of Congolese, French and Kenyan heritage, was raised in the coastal town of Mombasa. He has thrilled audiences with his distinctive, playful and magical vocals and sound on the keyboard.
James was the pianist for Safari Sounds for a couple of years and toured Europe. In 2002 he started a duo singing group and his own seven-piece band named Gogosimo. James is the lead vocalist, composer, lyricist, producer and director of the Gogosimo Band. James calls his original music Afro smooth sounds – easy listening and danceable, it is music that is a rich blend of coastal music, African beats and western instrumentation creating a unique East African sound. He also performs conversions of different genres of music from soul, jazz, rhumba, salsa, afro-beat, funk, pop and soft rock.
He has performed at several Safaricom Jazz Festivals where he has curtain raised for Salif Keita, and performed with Jonathan Butler, Jimmy Dludlu, Richard Bona, and Isaiah Katumwa. He performed with Hugh Masekela in Uganda in 2015. He has collaborated, recorded and performed with Isaiah Katumwa in Uganda in 2012 and 2013. He also performed at the Erika Badou Tusker Light concert in 2012 and performed with Bono in 2012. In 2008 he did some recordings with Papa Wemba.
He has recorded several albums including Susan & James Gogosimo (2004), Finding the Keys (2014) and Hope (2014). He composed songs for the film The Ragged Priest (2012). He has done collaborations with various artists including Suzanna Owiyo, Ulopa, Collo, Dan Chizi Aceda, and Papa Wemba.
When and why did you start playing/singing? Which instruments do you play?
Having grown up in a musical family, I developed a strong passion and exposure to not only singing but also playing various instruments. This period was in my teens and music was my main hobby.
I have always sung and I started playing instruments from an early age. The first instrument I played fluently was the saxophone from age 9. When I was 13 my father died and I had to give up the saxophone because my mum said buying reeds was expensive (in those days they were expensive). I asked if I could play the guitar and she said they needed strings as well. Drums also needed sticks. So, I ended up playing the piano because I could play it in church for free.
I can play the guitar, the bass guitar, the drums, the piano and the saxophone.
I learnt how to play drums in high school because the guy who was playing the drums wasnt that good and he was better at playing the bass guitar so I switched with him. I could play instruments which other people found difficult.
Do you have a formal musical education?
When I was playing with the Safari Sounds in Europe I got a chance to study music for three years. Composition writing and music engineering were the two main subjects in music school when I studied in Switzerland. I studied for 3 years but it was part time. The African safari club had an airline Asa and also a ship – Royal Style so it was easy for me to go and come back.
Tell us a little about the sound engineering
(laughs) I only do sound engineering for people I really like. But I am a producer, a registered producer. I am the producer not just for my own music but also my brother, and I also do some work for Bruce Othiambo. I also produce jingles for Safaricom and other companies like Johari.
I want to now focus on production seriously. I am currently working on stuff for my brother, and Noah my sax player. I want to work with my drummer and my new singer and other musicians.
Is your brother good enough to do stuff on his own? Is he better than you?
I am not producing him because he is my brother. Mike my brother is an instrumentalist and singer as well. He is younger and he has the potential to be much better than me, which as an elder brother I encourage him to be. My intention is for him to do better than me.
Thinking back to early childhood what was your first experience with music for the first time like. What song do you remember most as a child?
My dad used to play (desa-fenado) meaning love is like a never-ending melody. The song is called slightly out of tune. My father was a saxophonist so I got to learn a lot from him. I also got to listen to a lot of live music from my dad, radio and records like Mzee Ngala, Mbilia Bel, Nat King Cole, Stevie wonder and Ray Charles.
Did what you listened to affect how you play now? The live bands?
I never went to the bars to listen to live music. My parents would have killed me. My father practiced a lot. He would listen to a song so many times that he wanted to play so that he would get it right. He played the saxophone, but he also played piano and guitar. Those days you had to play piano and other instruments. You need to play piano to be a good instrumentalist, it is the basics even for singing. It will help you to understand what you are doing. It is a problem that musicians don’t play instruments now. But maybe they are not doing it for the long haul
I am working to make sure my music is remembered. Like Hugh Masekela, Mzee Ngala, and Oscar Peterson. I don’t want to create shooting stars, I don’t want to be forgotten. I want to make music that will be remembered and stay forever like the late Bob Marley.
Do you think you have created music that will outlast you?
Yes. I have 5 albums, go listen to them. And I have two albums coming up – music I believe will stay. People had problems understanding me, they wanted me to play kapuka but now they understand me. Now is when they are appreciating it. When I started I didn’t classify it as jazz I do world music even though people here classify it as jazz. For now, let’s call it jazz until they understand.
Growing up did your family support your talent and your career as a musician?
Fortunately, my parents were 100% behind me on my decision to pursue music.
What musical influences did you have a child?
In the 1980s my dad Mr. Jozee played in a band called Les Noirs. He was also a jazz music teacher and played the saxophone. I grew up listening to Oscar Peterson, he was my piano teacher. I love that guy. I also listened to Mzee Ngala, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Papa Wemba, Salif Keita and Manu Dibando.
I shared a stage with Salif Keita and I was so excited. He didn’t know how excited I was. The only guys I have gotten to talk to are the late Papa Wemba who was a personal friend and Hugh Masekela. I have played with Hugh Masekela, he is more of a father to me. I played with him during a concert for Isaiah Katumwa in Uganda. He even asked for me when he came to Kenya.
How is the music different from what you listen to now?
I listen to the same music I used to listen to. Today, music has become mainstream and highly commercialized. In the past music was educational. It had profound meaning; it had content.
I learn every day from the same musicians I used to listen to. I am wowed by their music and I am like it is so amazing that they did the albums decades ago yet it still sounds so good.
What made you first realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
To be honest even though I grew up playing I wanted to be a doctor and heal people. But when my father passed away I realized school fees would be an issue. My priorities changed because of finances. I am a good cook so my mother thought I might become a chef. I can prepare anything just from reading a recipe. I cook for fun.
Now when I look back I wouldn’t change anything. I love being a musician, being an entertainer.
Who are your favourite musicians now? Groups? CD’s?
Some of my favourite musicians whom I have great admiration for are: Hugh Masekela, Mzee Ngala, George Harrison, Stevie Wonder, Richard Bona, Oscar Peterson to name a few. I still listen to my father’s music as well.
So do your children play?
Yes. Jason is a musician, we have to fight for him to do his homework. He plays the piano. Sean also plays piano and drums, and Nathan plays piano.
Do you encourage them to do music? To have a musical career?
I would encourage them to know music. For me when I was a teenager I had to think about school fees. I want them to do various things so that if things go bad they can still come back to it. I don’t want them to do music because I am doing music. Music is at home; all instruments are at home and we also have books so they don’t have to go out to learn music. My brother and I are teaching them. Jason has done grade one and two but I want him to concentrate on school so he will finish after high school. They are all musical and they have gotten it from me and their mother.
How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
Whenever a mistake occurs on stage I usually smile and correct it during our practice session. I try to turn everything to fun. I don’t react but it affects me after. I am trying to learn to not let it affect me.
What advice would you give to beginners who are nervous?
My advice to aspiring musicians is to do lots of practice so that your confidence level is high. That also controls nervousness.
Opportunities will come at any time, when you are 10, 15 or 50 and you need to practice before opportunities come, prepare yourself fully so that when you perform you represent yourself to the fullest. If you have practiced you may be nervous but you will have an excellent performance. But if you haven’t then you may mess up. I grew up in a musical family so we performed all the time. That doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous, but I make sure that I have practiced so that the nervousness is kept under control.
How often and for how long do you practice?
Practice is a big part of my daily routine. I practice 5-6 hours daily. Music is my life.
Do you teach music?
I am currently mentoring seven musicians. That’s always been a great way for me to give back and pass the baton to the next generation.
How would you describe your music to somebody who has never heard you play before?
The combination that brings out the afro smooth in James Gogo consists of various coastal sounds such as chakacha, taarab, mendiko, nzele, sega, salsa and jazz. This all came together while I grew up at the coast an old town called Kibokoni. It is easy on the ears and sweet, and you can appreciate it even if you don’t understand it.
What can people expect to see at your live performance?
My live performances are full of entertainment and inspiration for young and upcoming artists. I am an entertainer plus one so people can expect good music and entertainment. I want people to feel they are there for something.
Some of your music has a coastal feel. Tell us more about that?
Having been born and raised in Mombasa, I was influenced and exposed to the different ethnic groups at the coast. It comes out in my music.
Out of the songs you have performed which is your favourite song? (If you have your own music which song of yours)
Asking me to pick a favourite song is like asking me to pick my favourite son. I love them all equally. I love playing kibe, ngoma, mpenzi biggy pakuwa and many more.
What do you think your biggest break or greatest opportunity has been so far in your musical career?
So far in my career, my big break was when I recorded with the late Papa Wemba on my second album. Also, I had the opportunity to play with Hugh Masekela at the Koroga festival. I have also performed at the Safaricom Jazz Festival three times in a row. I have also opened for Erykah Badu and many more.
How much creative control do you have over what you perform?
I play what I want to play and I play my own music. I leave time for creativity – for other ideas and collaborations with other musicians. 90% of our music is written by me. I also do covers.
Are you mentoring any young musicians?
I am currently mentoring my brother Michael Jozee, Noah Saha on Saxophone, Meshack on drums David on guitar, Mad Max on piano, Karanja on bass and many more.
If you had a chance to change something in the music industry what would it be?
If I could change anything on radio today it would be the quality of music that is being played. The music that is playing today is not necessarily good music. We need more good music. There is a Kiswahili saying that chakula kikiwa kwa wingi inaweza kuwa kibaya – If It is too much it can lose value.
Good musicians need to create good music so that people can be able to choose. Also not all presenters want to play our kind of music. You will not find music by people like Eric Wainaina, Susan Awiyo, Late Achieng Abura, and Atemi playing on the radio. Although Atemi is now doing some music that is club music that is being played but her really good music is not being played. We need to educate presenters on good music. But sometimes they are just following what their bosses say. So, you find good music has no airtime and of course that affects royalties. Bad music has airplay. We have to thrive on live shows.
Has this affected your music? Have you thought of “selling out” and doing a club banger just for the hits?
I will do some club hits but differently. Not really a club banger but definitely not kapuka. No. I will not sacrifice the kind of music I make and the time I have spent on it. But I am working on doing some two songs that are funky, in one of my two upcoming albums called Hatua – it is more of a club banger. Zabibu is more jazz/vocal.
Were you in other band/s before you started GogoSimo? How was it?
I was fortunate to have been part of the Safari Sound. It was an amazing experience touring all over Europe. We used to play in clubs and we got to perform at places like the African Safari Club.
They taught me that you can have club bangers but also make good records. One of my bandmates Jonny Zungu told me “you will be nobody if you don’t record your music. You need to discover how to be the artist you are.” 3 years after that I recorded my first album and it was frustrating. People didn’t understand why I was doing it, they made fun about me wanting to be an artist. Things got better when we moved to Nairobi after Susan Gachukia advised us to do so.
Has Nairobi been good to you?
Yes, in terms of appreciating work. Not only as a band but also as a producer. I am able to do a lot of stuff.
Many of the musicians from the coast are here. What are you doing to develop music at the coast?
Mushrooms, Pressmen band, Juma Tutu etc. came here and stayed. I will go and record, and help teach live performance and business in Mombasa. Mombasa needs to grow in terms of business opportunities for musicians. There is Kilele records where I recorded my first album. There are many small studios, but I call them hip hop studios. Kilele was the only proper studio.
What are the lessons you have learnt being part of a band?
it is crucial to be a team player and have proper group dynamics. You also have to practice to become great- practice is everything so that you a good combination with the band, and even the band members individually have to over practice. Generally, you must have discipline.
Dealing with star mentality. The challenge is to teach people to respect time. People sometimes start to think they are stars and start misbehaving. It takes discipline to stay in the game for a long time like Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder.
My father had a saying which I also took up. “If you are early, you are on time, if you are on time then you are late and if you are late you are fired.” If you are late to practice or a performance how will you get over your nervousness and play your best. If you are early you are able to plan and you don’t feel the pressure. There are people who don’t get it but its ok, they will learn the lesson elsewhere when they leave because they think you are too strict. In life, there are no shortcuts.
How is it being the main singer in the band?
Being a main singer is where I fit best. I get to express myself fully and to own my sound. On the other hand, being a backup you are supporting so you need to know where you are needed.
One of the challenges of having your own band is that it is your name out there. If you fail to deliver, you are killing your brand. In the beginning, I used to do everything but now I delegate and the guys are doing a good job. I have somebody to do online marketing and emails. I do my own sound though. Unless I am going for Safaricom Jazz because I know they will be on point with sound.
It takes a team to win and not just individuals but when things don’t work. You have to keep going on, and sometimes plans fail so you have to have a plan A, B, and C.
I love that I have a platform like this to make money. That I can feed my kids etc.
Are there challenges of being a musician in Nairobi when you are from the coast?
People think that coastarians are very slow, not educated, and not good musically and say that we can’t play jazz.
Do you have to work twice as hard to prove it not so?
I work hard anywhere I am so that does not affect me. People may think you are slow or you don’t know what you are doing. People tell me that I can’t have grown up in coasto or it is because I went abroad that I am successful. But I grew up in coast until after I was 18. I was born in Kibokoni.
What is your favourite type of music and is it different from what you play now?
Jazz is my favourite genre and it’s not so far off from what I am doing now. It’s more soft and smooth.
What are your other interests outside of music? What do you do to relax outside of music?
Outside of my music, I enjoy cooking, spending time with my children and my better half.
What keeps you going as a musician?
I have the will to become a legendary artist with a great legacy to inspire future musicians.
Where would you like to see yourself within the next five years as an artist? What are your long-term career goals?
Within the next five years, I would like to tour around the world and get my music out there. To be an internationally recognized musician and to be able to push my music globally.
If you were to perform with anybody/group in the world, either dead, alive who would it be? (You can name a couple of people)
I would love to work with my dad, Stevie Wonder, Richard Bona, Lokua Kanza, Bob McFerran, Ali Kiba, Sauti Sol, and Jacob Asiyo just to name a few.
What are your up to date performance plans? New releases? Tours? News
Look out for my two upcoming videos Zabibu and Hatua. Zabibu will be out soon, I had planned to release it but now I will wait until after elections.
I am releasing my video for lete hara. Hatua – step ahead will be a video album and it will have 14 videos. One video will be out after Safaricom Jazz. I am going to be releasing videos one at a time.
How has Safaricom Jazz impacted you? You have played at a couple of them, has it changed anything for you?
It has created awareness of the brand Gogo Simo. It has helped in terms of awareness and getting gigs. It has opened eyes to international acts and thinking in terms of music business. As Kenyans, we like selling CDs but people don’t buy CDs no more. Bob Collymore told me you have to put it on YouTube and other channels. I wouldn’t buy a CD maybe at a festival. When I am in my office I need to be able to download your music and listen to it.
It has also allowed me to get one on one with musicians like David Sanborn, Richard Bona, Jonathan Butler and Hugh Maseleka. I have been able to ask candid questions to the musicians who I have come to meet on a personal level. It has opened my eyes and my thinking about the music business.
I want to thank Safaricom for being there and creating that awareness for me and so many other musicians. They are doing an excellent job with Ghetto classics. There are still many musicians they are trying to help and trying to make them noticed out there. They have been able to push Kenyan jazz. Kenyan music is not appreciated out there and even not known and Safaricom has really helped with this. They have helped so many musicians some of whom would probably not acknowledge it.
Potentash Founder. A creative writer. The Managing Editor at Potentash. Passionate about telling African stories and stories about the inclusion of minorities. Find me at email@example.com.
“We're all stories, in the end.” ― Steven Moffat