When you’re lost, it’s a good idea to retrace your footsteps.
In EXIT ABOVE, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker returns to the primary form of human movement – walking – and to the origins of Western pop music: the Blues. She is flanked musically by singer-songwriter Meskerem Mees (1999) and producer/guitarist Jean-Marie Aerts (1951).
Anne Teresa, how did the collaboration come about?
De Keersmaeker: Actually by chance. While sorting out my LP’s, I stumbled upon a black vinyl record. A note dropped out of its cover that I had never read before, signed: Jean-Marie Aerts. It said: Could you listen to this? That was in 1996. TC Matic – the band of Jean-Marie and Arno - that was the music we danced to in Brussels around the time that I made my first production in 1982. The note included only a landline. I called it and Jean-Marie answered.
Jean-Marie Aerts: It was quite a shock. I wasn’t expecting that call.
De Keersmaeker: We started talking, about blues, about Robert Johnson. I quickly realized that the music I was looking for had to include a voice; pop music is storytelling, and I wanted to tell a story. I’d seen YouTube videos of Meskerem Mees and thought: yes, that’s real, that’s authentic.
Aerts: Meskerem stands out. There are a lot of beautiful new female voices at the moment but there is something special about Meskerem.
Meskerem Mees: Thank you.
Aerts: I remember a clip that shows Meskerem singing while Pete Doherty is watching from backstage. You could see he was very impressed.
Mees: He was also very much under the influence at the time. (laughs)
De Keersmaeker: The three of us started working in Jean-Marie’s studio, starting from the blues but also using beats and BPMs (beats per minute). In search of lyrics, we pretty quickly turned to Shakespeare. Not an obvious combination but it worked. (To Meskerem:) What did you think when I called you?
Mees: I was really happy. Especially when I heard it was about the blues. I grew up with my father’s music: Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson.
De Keersmaeker: Originally, the idea was for Meskerem and Jean-Marie to make a recorded soundtrack.
Mees: But I wanted to dance and sing live too.
De Keersmaeker: Why was that?
Mees: I had the opportunity to tour for two years with my own project, always with the same material. That was great, and I’m very grateful. But in order to make new music one has to be able to step back from the material that is already there, and that isn’t possible while touring. I was missing a challenge – and I know that sounds like a luxury problem. But this – singing and dancing in a Rosas performance – is exactly what I need right now: something I’ve never done before, and that I may not be able to do yet, although I want to give it my all.
De Keersmaeker: On stage Meskerem is accompanied by Carlos Garbin, ex-Rosas dancer and blues guitarist. We juxtapose minimal blues – guitar and voice – with dance-oriented backing tracks. This tension is, I believe, also typical for the history of pop music, which is also the history of the recording of music. There is always a longing for a kind of presence, for what the music sounds like when it is performed live.
How does it feel to dance with the Rosas dancers, Meskerem?
Mees: Very painful at the moment (laughs). But I love it: the discipline, the warm-up, then dancing for hours and nothing else. I’m feeling at the moment: I don’t have the body of a trained dancer, but I want to work towards that in the months ahead: to be able to dance for two hours straight without having to deal with painful arms or legs. At the same time, I find it incredibly inspiring to be out of my comfort zone like this. Although I also feel that dancing is not that different from making music, they are two different ways of dealing with very similar impulses. The difference is that dancing makes one focus entirely on one’s own body, or, in any case, takes one out of one’s head. That’s wonderful.
Jean-Marie, how did Robert Johnson and the blues cross the path of a boy from Zeebrugge?
Aerts: In Zeebrugge, England was very close. Just hop on the ferry and a few hours later we were in a record shop in London, browsing the vinyl. And then we brought back records by The Cream, with Eric Clapton, and the blues of John Mayall and Peter Green. When one starts digging into their influences, one automatically arrives at the American blues. In my studio I have two posters: one of Billie Holiday and one of Robert Johnson. My two guardian angels. To stop me from messing up when making music. They keep me on the right track, they make sure that what I do is authentic, that it’s real, and that it’s enjoyable too. But Robert Johnson led a very different life to my own: more dangerous and shorter too. He was a ladies’ man; that’s clear in the photographs, with his suit and his guitar. He was poisoned by a jealous husband.
Anne Teresa, what is that makes blues a good starting point for a dance performance?
De Keersmaeker: Less is more, I increasingly think. For me that means going back to the source, to the real thing. Blues goes all the way back to that essence, also content wise: it is about sorrow and joy, my sorrow, my joy but also our sorrow, our joy. Both individual and collective: that tension is crucial to me. Blues the ultimate emotional alchemy: we sing about our sadness, but by singing about it with others we transform it into a strength, something joyful. Singing about sorrow immediately contains the consolation for that sorrow. Isn’t this ultimately why we make art? To mourn together and to celebrate joy together. Beauty and solace. I know that beauty is considered to be old-fashioned, but we need it more than ever: our relationship with nature is disturbed, we are living on the edge of an ecological catastrophe. When you’re lost, it’s a good idea to retrace your footsteps.
Wannes Gyselinck (dramaturg)
Recorded for Concertgebouw Bruges on January 9, 2023