I’ve been given the Spanish inquisition in a hip online magazine that publishes online.
Read the interview in Spanish here, which covers punk rock, rude women, gospel, fighting fears and living large. And it starts off calling me a Mestiza (translation: “Of a mongrel breed, hybrid, hybridous”), which I LOVE.
Not fluent in Spanish? Read the English below. Thanks Max and Johnny Dobbyn for the translation. Thanks Vicki Couchman for the photo.
A Mestiza both in her colour and in her influences, Mama Tokus’ attitude is refreshing in these times of musical apocalypse: when the muses come to visit her they always find her busy. Her restless life is divided between her music career, her comic performances – often a combination of the two – promoting other shows and whatever else comes up. She claims not to identify herself with Punk, not with its aesthetics or sounds, but there are few more obvious examples amongst current English DIY-type performers than this irreverent show-woman who emerged from the years of Oasis and Blur without them affecting even the tiniest ringlet of her afro. Tokus is clear: the mountains won’t come to Mohammed so you have to move your arse! Ah and long live Ray Charles!
How was the character of Mama Tokus born?
Well, I’d always loved jazz, blues, gospel and soul. So I decided one day, while I was looking in the mirror pondering the possibility of starting a solo career after having been singing for other people or working as a DJ. I would have called myself Mixy Miss Tokus – Tokus is my surname – but t didn’t really suit me and I thought I was too old to be Miss anything. Then this name came into my head: Mama Tokus. It suggests a woman of character, who wasn’t afraid to say what she thought or deal with tricky issues and that is – I hope – funny. It’s paradoxical that it’s a maternal name because I’m not a mother – I’m far too busy to reproduce – but I could be a Mama! Also, people associate the term Mama with black female gospel singers… So in this way it works on lots of different levels… And though I’m not religious I am spiritual.
“The Sons of Bitches” is a very ‘punk’ name. At least that’s what I thought the first time I saw it. Later I came across your rewrite of “Anarchy in the UK” – would you say that Mama Tokus’ history has its roots in punk culture?
The truth is that for me it’s more a blues or a soul-type name! (Laughs). I don’t consider myself a punk, although all the “do-it-yourself” stuff can be apply to me. The “Anarchy in the UK” stuff just came to me. Subconsciously I started to mix it with “I just want to make love to you” and it sounded much better to me. I’ve always thought that punk lacked melodies.
What is the magic formula for being funny whilst at the same time being faithful and respectful to the music you play and the artists you admire? Some purists must think – Oi! This heretic is making jokes with a Ray Charles song?
Heretic? Purism? Anyone would think you were from a Catholic country… (Laughs) Let’s see, I’m respectful with those musicians who deserve eternal respect – and Ray Charles is one of those. Humour and music, however, have gone hand-in-hand for a long time and that’s where I come in. But I hope to be making good music, regardless of whether it’s funny or not. In terms of the purists: I’m not a purist, and music has never been pure either. It’s a constant mixture of influences, styles and emotions. Ray, for example, was a great example of how you fuse pop, soul, country and gospel and it caused him a few problems.
To the casual observer it might seem a bit odd that in Britain there’s only room for indie music and cheap R&B but Tom Waits once sang “there’s a world going on underground”. Was he right? What the club-scene like over there for a show like yours?
Of course there are lots of TV panel shows, talent shows etcetera which dominate the market, and the club scene is pretty middling. People now have so many ways to entertain themselves: facebook, playstation, films, television… All this without needing to leave their houses. Anyway, in spite of this there’s been a certain resurgence of cabaret and burlesque, and also of rockabilly and blues clubs. I think that the more our lives are linked to a computer screen or a phone the more important it is for us to have “real” experiences, like a good concert. That’s why I like to put on my own shows and concentrate on entertaining the public.
I suppose when you were a teenager people were most interested in brit-pop. How did you come to be introduced, then, to “black” music? Who told you about Dinah Washington or Sister Rosetta?
What a gentleman you are! (Laughs). I was brought up in a kind of musical time capsule by my grandmother, who loved Dinah. Rosetta I discovered later. I started to collect vinyls when I was 16 years old; there’s no doubt that going around rummaging in second-hand shops was fantastic for my musical journey. I didn’t really like pop music, so school was a bit tricky, but now I’m proud to have lost all contact with modern music. I use spotify to explore early jazz and blues. It’s the perfect fusion of past and present.
In 2011 Amy Winehouse was all over the news, but not for her music. Here that’s what matters so do you think she was as exceptional as they say? There’s no doubt she had a great voice and a lot of charisma, but perhaps she still had a lot to prove. In other words, she wasn’t an Aretha Franklin or an Ella Fitzgerald. At least she hadn’t reached that level when she died…
Amy’s sound was pure soul, unadulterated, raw… It was authentic. Yeah she didn’t become another Aretha or Ella but that’s because she didn’t live long enough. It’s a shame. But instead of comparing her to other artists or trying to give her some kind of ranking, we should just enjoy the music she recorded and remember her. However small, she’s left a great legacy behind her.
And speaking of Aretha, Ella, Tina Turner one gets the feeling that there won’t be many more legends of that calibre. Artists are no longer allowed to mature, to grow. You record a few cd’s and you’re history…
I feel the same way. That’s why I live in the past – with a sprinkling of the present. And that’s also what led to all the “do it yourself” stuff. If you’re authentic and you have talent I believe you can reach people without relying on labels that are only driven by fads and fashions. If you respect your fans and you communicate with them, you can have a long and full career. These legends you mentioned weren’t made by any label. They already had that “feel”, and that’s eternal.
Returning to Mama Tokus’ punk stylings… I ask myself if the philosophy of “there’s no tomorrow” would be more appropriate for these times in which we live in than for the 70s. Or the “DIY” stuff of which you’re so proud…
I’m not into that kind of punk nihilism – I’m very positive! Although I agree that there is a certain atmosphere of fear and sadness. But why chose fear when we can chose love? It’s a choice we can make to move forward without fear. We don’t need to look to politicians, bankers, televisions and newspapers who’ll only spread more anxiety and pain. So, therefore – “Do it yourself”. In 2012 and whenever else…
Was it complicated to complete “on the Ragtime”? Because, despite what people seem to believe as they download hundreds of songs for free, recording an album still costs money. Perhaps if you dedicate yourself to folk music it wouldn’t be so expensive, but a singer like you needs more than a microphone and a two-track tape recorder. You need a load of sum’bitches!
Right – those sum’bitches aren’t cheap! (Laughs). As co-producer I surrounded myself with some very brilliant people who helped me so much. The truth is we did “On the Ragtime” in a few weeks, with the various recordings happening over five months. It all went incredibly well, really easily, as if the record was destined to be born. And I’m very grateful. Amen! (Laughs)
What would be the female perspective on rude blues, funk and gospel?
I’m not the first woman who’s sung in these genres! There’s Barrel House Annie, Millie Jackson and Dinah Washington herself. Sometimes “rude” means direct. To tell it like it is. And we all need to work on that. Great Britain remains quite reserved so I try to lead by example. Whether you’re a man or a woman – you have to be rude! (Laughs)
In Spain, as in the majority of the supposedly civilised world, we are shackled by political correctness. You will understand that the mere mention of “beating your wife” which is one of the recurring themes in your imagination can raise a lot of controversy among those who believe that reality must determine where we’re going with our jokes and jibes. Is it the same in Great Britain? Because over there you can’t ask for a black coffee without being accused of being racist…
This political correctness exists in Great Britain too and is often heavily criticised but I comment on what can and can’t be said. But this trend arose because, for a long time, racism and sexism were common currency – and that is still the case for some people. As a mixed-race person I had to deal with racism and sexism on TV when TV comedians deemed racist and sexist jokes appropriate. However when you mix people of different races and sexes amusing situations tend to arise. It’s a question of balance – as a Libra I want to make that clear! (Laughs) And yes, it’s still weird to talk about domestic violence as I do in “WifeBeater”, but I’m trying to shatter a taboo. For a long time domestic violence was something that nobody spoke about. Bit by bit this problem came to light, and that really benefits victims of it, but make no mistake my song is done humorously. I don’t want anybody to start fires to combat this problem. All you have to do is denounce the abuser and seek help… But it’s definitely not true that you’ll be called a racist if you order a black coffee here. It’s just a way to describe coffee without milk. It’s not racists. Of course it’s not. And I love black humour (laughs), I don’t know if you’ve noticed.
You encourage your fans to leave their comments about “On the Ragtime” on your website but “only if they’re positive. I like that – a little bit of honesty, finally! Because, what use is a bad review? Although you don’t seem to be the type to go to pieces over something like that…
I think critics who only say negative things should shut up and get another job. I’ve worked as a journalist, so I know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen the damage that negative publicity can do. Sometimes this culture of negative criticism is propagated: instead of arguing insightfully and with intelligence and bringing ideas to light as good critics used to – and the internet has made this worse. Now you can sling mud at whoever with the click of a mouse, without thinking twice. It would be better if people only spoke about what they liked and didn’t say anything about what they didn’t like. Why not do that? I think it would be more constructive don’t you?
Billie holiday said that no two people on this planet are the same, and this should also apply to music. What makes Mama Tokus different to everybody else?
Individualism is fine, as long as companionship isn’t put to one side. It’s brilliant to be different from the rest and, at the same time to be a part of the great family of music. Both the yin and the yang are necessary to have a whole. I – Mama Tokus – am half white, half black. I’m the yin and yang. Or a mixture, or both at the same time…
You’re not just a singer and composer, you’re also a promoter… And who knows what else – are you a workaholics? Do you ever put the brakes on and relax?
I’m a dilettante and there was a time when I thought that was a bad thing, but not anymore. I am dedicated to providing a selection of services, that’s all. Of course I try to find time to relax, but the addiction to work is always there. But now I don’t smoke or drink, so I have a lot of energy. What do I do to unwind? Normal things really – I cook, listen to music, I don’t know if we consider that work as well., In my case I do yoga I take care of my garden… I do a lot of things in order to relax. A lot! Ok I don’t relax much. (Laughs).
We should finish with a “depth charge”. The western world doesn’t look so good; though we know where we came from… where are we going?
That’s a big question to end on (laughs). Well, i’m not the one you should be asking but since you have… I propose that instead of going on being so down and worried we should, together, try to visualise a better world. That’s what “Yes We Can” which is the phrase the song “On the ragtime” ends on was all about – choosing optimism, none of this anxiety or fear. With respect to the western world, there is only the world and we need to be building bridges between us rather than blowing them up. It’s like that song says “get ready because change is coming…”