Grace Barbé talks about singing in Creole in Australia, an award nomination and surviving the COVID-19 lockdown
BY RHONDA CHAPMAN
Let’s hop over to Western Australia where thousands of people are already hitting Perth’s clubs, pubs and live music venues now that coronavirus restrictions have been relaxed. One musician that many people look forward to seeing in person is the local multiple award-winning Seychellois Grace Barbé, even though some of them don’t understand a word she’s singing. Rhonda Chapman interviews Grace as the performer prepares to launch her first post-lockdown single.
What has your music industry experience been like as Seychellois living in Australia? I grew up learning music, singing in the school choir in primary school in Perth and just really loved being in my little creative bubble. I first came to Perth at the age of 6 when my mum undertook a scholarship at university. We went back to Seychelles after the completion of her studies and when I was 16 my family immigrated to Perth.
I became involved with the Seychelles community band in Perth in my late teens as a vocalist and bass player. Both my sister Joelle Barbé on drums and myself on bass started performing in the community band with Perley Hoareau, one of the original musicians from the 70s band back home called Le Boys. Community is where it all started and for that I am very grateful.
I branched out a bit in my early 20s and started performing as a backing vocalist for Seychellois songwriter and musician Sonny Morgan. This lasted for a few years while I was discovering and developing myself as a performer, singer-songwriter and musician.
From there, I performed, toured and recorded with different bands for several years before I decided to pursue my own career as an independent performing, recording and touring artist. Those years have been such valuable experiences forming my career, from community to branching out commercially, to reconnecting with community again all while pursuing University studies, running a music business and teaching.
What does it feel like to have a voice for the Seychellois-Australian community? I started out performing in the community. That experience grounded me and showed me how important it is to stay true to who you are and where you come from. It was important for me to stay authentic. Initially I wasn’t really sure of my direction musically. But with time, maturity, growth and experience in the industry, you develop your own voice and stance. I am a supporter of community advocacy and as a Seychellois-Australian involved with the Seychelles community here in Perth, my role is an extension of who I really am as a human being.
There is still a lot of work to be done, but I feel when I put my music out there, when I talk about where I come from, I am representing the Indian Ocean Creole community, culture and its diversity. I feel this is a responsibility, not just being an artist.
Many of your fans don’t speak Creole, yet they love Creole music and the songs that you sing. I think it’s because of the authenticity. It’s different. Foreigners love the rhythms and it makes them get up and dance, no matter the language. I don’t remember one show where people didn’t get to dance to my music. I feel when I’m in my element of authenticity, the audience vibrates with it and it makes everyone feel good.
What does the typical week looks like in Grace’s life when you have shows coming up? When I have shows coming up, the band will lock in rehearsals leading up to the shows. The team will get marketing assets organised, and promotions ready. Usually if it’s a launch, we would also have a storyboard organised in advance for a music video to launch at the same time or shortly after. We work with a release schedule to time our releases and organise promo and marketing around that. The releases have to be ready and available in time for the launch. All this is weeks to months in planning, but a typical week will involve rehearsals and lots of admin work. We spend a lot of hours behind the scene doing administrative work and building the business and our network while trying to find a balance to also write and record new materials.
Talking about marketing, how did you build the Grace Barbé brand to the point that you’re quite popular in Australia, so well booked and are frequently in line-ups for numerous events? It’s about the music first. I’ve always believed in getting very good at your craft, developing it, and practising heaps. It was important for me to define my sound, have decent songs, develop an awesome band and team, and stay authentic. Here in Australia, I believe I stand out as an artist because my music is different and there is an advantage to that. I didn’t allow my style to limit me with a need to fit in. I just needed to be very good at what I do and work with great musicians and have a good team. When you are good at your craft, no matter what language you’re singing in or what rhythm you’re playing, people take notice. The industry takes notice. You are now developing your brand.
I am also very grateful to work with some wonderful human beings, and develop a record label ‘Afrotropik Records’ with, to make all this possible. The label comprise myself, musical director, producer, guitarist and long-term business partner Jamie Searle, award-winning videographer David Le May, who is in charge of the production and visual department, and administrator Carla Steele. We also work with an accountant, a lawyer, a publisher and a distributor, as well as all the venues and festivals we have built a relationship with over the years. Your team is super important as you have a business to run, a brand to build, and you need to share similar vision.
Music to me is life, but it is also a business. I’m glad I pursued a Commerce Degree when I did, as I gained a lot of knowledge and understanding into how business works. I could apply what I have learnt as I go although I also made mistakes. But that’s part of the growth process and I do love the challenge. It’s not easy doing all this while being an artist and you certainly can’t do it all on your own.
What advice do you have for Seychellois women who are considering performing Creole music in non-Creole countries? I strongly encourage it. My recent album is called FANM:WOMAN. Audiences outside of the Creole countries appreciate and embrace our music and style. It’s different. Seychelles music or music from the Indian Ocean island region is so rich and diverse. Did I say beautiful? We have so much to offer in regards to our music, tradition, culture, language, food, arts and craft to the world. Stay true and authentic, write and record good songs. Find the right people to work with and who will respect you. Practice, develop those skills, make sure your recordings are up to standard. Understand how music law, copyright and contracts work. Build your network and team of people who share a similar vision to you. Don’t be afraid, but be passionate and fearless. Be prepared to make mistakes. That’s how we learn and grow. Keep your integrity intact. The music industry is one of the toughest industries to work in and it can be ruthless, but it is also rewarding and inspiring. Humility is important and we need to stay grounded. Reach out to other fellow female artists doing it and connect, not just with Seychellois female artists. You’ll be surprised what a simple email, Facebook or Instagram message introducing yourself to another artist across the globe can do to create connection and change, regardless of where you are. Support and encourage one another. Be kind and look after yourself. As women in music business, it can get competitive and it comes with its challenges. Don’t let that discourage you. I think it’s a beautiful thing to see women from different cultures taking music from their birthplace to a new height. That is powerful.
Congratulations on your song ‘Mardilo’ being nominated in 2020 for the WAM (West Australian Music) Song of the Year in the Global category. What’s the meaning behind this song? Mardilo is a tribute and a celebration of the Mardilo traditional dance from Seychelles. The dance originated from La Digue Island and performed by the Masezarin family group, which I later found out I am related to (roots run deep!). I met the Masezarin Group on one of my trips back home and was lucky to catch one of their performances on La Digue. It was amazing and soul moving. It wasn’t until a few years later that I decided to write a song based on the Mardilo dance and spoke to one of the aunties via a phone call to the Seychelles to ask her about the tradition and the family. The Mardilo tradition has been passed on from generation to generation. It was important for me to write about preserving and celebrating tradition through dance and song.
This isn’t the first time you’ve been nominated for an award. What does a nomination or a win outside the Seychelles mean to you and your roots? It is an acknowledgement of the hard work you have put in over the years. I feel proud of the representation not only as an artist, but as a Seychellois representing us all.
Was there anything you felt you just couldn’t leave out of the ‘Mardilo’ video? The concept of the video was interesting. Being based here in Australia, I wanted to capture elements of home, Seychelles. I linked up with a friend from Praslin who captured images and video footage for me back home. The original idea was to capture the Masezarin Group doing the Mardilo dance, but that was not possible at the time. So, we had to work with plan B. Over here in Perth, the cinematographer I work with came up with the concept and story to what you see in the video. We had to make do with what we had, and the space, while keeping true to the song. It is a beautifully shot video merged with footage from back home. I had a great team working on this one and, I must mention, the star of the video is my goddaughter Preya who did such a brilliant job in her first ever music video [laughs].
Let’s talk about Covid-19 and its impact on you as a performer. What was it like for you when the venues were under lockdown? We panicked! I lost all my shows for almost 3 months. It was very uncertain times. It still is. We all questioned our career. Everyone was in the same boat. I’m an optimist and believe there is a reason for all things and this, too, shall pass. But in time. So, I decided to accept the circumstance, not stress too much, and made my peace with it to get through challenging times ahead.
How did you adjust? Artists and creatives are very skilful when it comes to adjusting and adapting. That is how we survive the music business. Our hustle is unique [laughs]. The times we are in right now is very testing, and everyone around the world is feeling the impact very heavily. For me, as mentioned, the band lost shows, venues went into lockdown and only recently restrictions have been lifted into phase 4. We are very lucky in Western Australia to be back performing again. Although, anything can change. There’s still a lot of uncertainty. We used these times to take a break, revisit unfinished projects, re-assess, and reflect. I used this time to also focus on well-being, health, family, gardening, and songwriting. I also teach, so I wasn’t able to teach at school during lockdown and had to adapt and adjust to the online teaching method at home. At least I can say I acquired some new skills!
How did you stay connected to fans, other musicians, and venues? We did a couple of live streaming shows. Something I’d never done before, so it was really interesting to do our first live stream in the middle of lockdown. We had to take precautions with distancing, but as a 3-piece band, plus camera crew, it was possible to make it happen. Again, learnt something new during lockdown and we adapted.
What should we expect from you soon now that WA venues have started to open? I have a single launch coming up August 14th at Mojo’s Bar in Fremantle. During lockdown, I teamed up with a local crew called Charlies Flat and they specialise in dub remixes. They remixed the track FANM from my FANM:WOMAN album released last year and have given the track an Afro House feel with lots of delays! In regards to the rest of the year, Afrotropik Records will be releasing more music from the other acts on the label’s roster. We will obviously remain in WA and take advantage to explore our own backyard. WA is a huge state and there is a lot to discover. Now that venues here have opened, bands are doing regional tours which is great for the state. We’ve also had festivals offers come in for 2021, but we’ll see what happens.
BREAKING NEWS: Grace’s song Mardilo won the ‘Song of the Year Global Awards’ 2020 on Wednesday 29 July, Congratulations, Grace, we’re so proud of you!
Like the Grace Barbé Facebook page to follow Grace and her band members, including guitarist Jamie Searle (from UK) and drummer Hardy Perrine (from Rodrigues Island).
If you are based in Perth, join Grace for her FANM REMIX Launch on Friday 14 August in Fremantle. Tickets are on sale at http://www.gracebarbe.com/shows/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rhonda worked for the Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation before moving to Australia. She now runs her own business as a copywriter and articles writer in Western Australia – while doing her PhD at Curtin University. In her spare time, she volunteers as a community radio presenter at RTRFM 92.1 and a sub-editor for the student magazine at Curtin.