Nabou Claerhout celebrated the release of her band’s debut EP, Hubert, at the end of 2019. Her band NΔBOU have been together since 2016 and are working on releasing a full album in 2021. Ahead of International Women’s Day, Nabou spoke to Amy Sibley-Allen about what it’s like to be one of the few women playing the trombone, her musical influences and how she composes.
LondonJazz News: Did you always want to be a musician and composer?
Nabou Claerhout: No, I wanted to be an actor but my teachers kept telling me I was good at music. I started playing the trombone when I was eight. I would play in lessons but then never touched it at home! But then I realised not many musicians were playing the trombone or were composing for the instrument. That’s where it all started – I felt people liked what I was doing so I thought, let’s keep going.
LJN: Why the trombone?
NC: My mother told me I had to fall in love with an instrument. I wanted to play the harp but it was too expensive, then I wanted to play the drums but that was too loud – so I ended up with the trombone. My mum always dreamt of a son who played the trumpet, so a daughter who played the trombone was close. In the beginning, I wanted to play it because I wanted to be the only girl but I really hope that more women, and men, will learn to play.
LJN: You studied with fourteen trombonists at Codarts in Rotterdam, was there a mix of men and women?
NC: There were a few women as well as me: Ebba Åsman, Sonja Beeh and Els Verbruggen – who are all great! I never felt I was ‘the girl,’ I was just another trombone player with the same scales to practise! Outside of that circle, people would notice it: ‘oh, you’re a girl, you’re special.’ People find me ‘special’ for many reasons – I’m a trombone player, I’m a woman and I’m black. But I practise because I want to be a great trombone player. I want people to listen to me because I’m a great trombone player or a great composer. I’m lucky to be managed by two women and a man. I grew up with just my mother, so I know I don’t need men to be strong. As a female trombone player, you are always in the publicity photographs – I am on the side of a Codarts truck, for example, which is pretty weird.
LJN: Are there any female musicians, trombone players or composers who have inspired you?
NC: Not really, except maybe Erykah Badu and Esperanza Spalding. They are women but that is not the reason why I like their music. I think they are both good examples of women who don’t use their gender. It is always amazing to see a talented woman playing or composing. Female conductors are always super cool!
LJN: You mentioned in a previous interview that as a kid you wanted to marry jazz and funk trombonist Fred Wesley. Your sound is very different, tell me about finding your own way with the trombone.
NC: I try to find a different way, everyone does. I had this conversation with a guitar player in London recently. It’s harder to find a new sound with the guitar because there have been so many players who’ve gone before. With the trombone, lots of things haven’t happened yet. Of course, not everything I do is new but for us trombone players we are lucky, there are fewer of us. People always ask me what genre NΔBOU is. I grew up with music from Earth, Wind and Fire, Prince, Maceo Parker, Erykah Badu. My brother listened to lots of classical music and opera so I already had a very rich musical family. These things made me Nabou Claerhout before I even started playing and writing music.
LJN: You don’t want your music to be put in a box?
NC: You can put me in a box but I am surprised when I see that. I see that my vinyl is in the modern jazz ‘box’ and I am like wow, I didn’t know I was making modern jazz (laughs).
LJN: Congratulations on your recent debut EP, Hubert, from your band NΔBOU. It’s a great four-piece featuring yourself, Mathias Vercammen (drums), Trui Amerlinck (bass) and Roeland Celis (guitar). You must be very happy with it?
NC: Thanks for listening! It’s great to hear people like what I’m writing in my room. When we started in 2016 we mostly played covers of songs from other jazz musicians. Then I started to write music so it’s changed a lot, I’ve personally changed a lot – I was young, I am still young (laughs).
LJN: You’ve composed everything on the EP?
NC: Yes, one song, Components, was written before my time at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). Everything else was composed during my time in the UK.
LJN: Your time in London really influenced your music and composing. Can you tell me about your writing process and how it has developed?
NC: It’s been two years since I was in London and the music I write today is definitely different, you can hear a before and after. I write on the piano, never on trombone. Perhaps you shouldn’t include this but I don’t really like writing for trombone! I like to focus on other instruments, like the guitar, as it gives me another influence. My theory lessons at RAM gave me a whole new perspective. I’ve been researching Mark Guiliana’s D.R.O.P system, which stands for Dynamic, Rate, Orchestration and Phrasing. It looks at how to improvise on a drum set, how to be more flexible with these four elements. I still write music on the piano but I have started using D.R.O.P in my compositions as a fundamental building block. Now I often start from a technical place.
LJN: Are you having a break at the moment? What are your plans for the future?
NC: Yes, but I am supposed to be writing some new music. We plan to record a full album for release in 2021. NΔBOU have been together for four years and we’ve been playing the same music, we’re excited about fresh pieces to work on. We’ve 10-15 gigs in the diary at the moment and we’re looking for summer festivals. I’m also working on a duo project with Mathias Vercammen, the drummer from NΔBOU. We’re recording demos currently but that is something we’ll try to put out. It helps you to grow stronger as a musician when there are just two of you.
LJN: No London plans at the moment?
NC: No, but I’d love to play in London with NΔBOU. Perhaps I could also play with some old friends – London has amazing musicians!
LINK: Hubert on Soundcloud