Forging connections through music

Attempting to get to know artist Fantastic Negrito before our interview, I delve into a life filled with emotions, circumstances, reactions and perseverance, linked to a persona who, having recently won a Grammy award, and as a self-taught musician from the realms of Oakland, California, is a personality that will headline this year’s Fengaros Festival, set to take place at the very beginning of August in the picturesque village of Kato Drys.

When the organisers of the annual festival were setting out to put together their annual multi-dimensional, musically and aesthetically uncompromising line-up, their aspiration to invite Fantastic Negrito to headline the gathering’s Field Stage may have been deemed as somewhat ambitious.

Yet, even as Fantastic Negrito won this year’s Best Contemporary Blues Album winner at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards, he also accepted to join the Cyprus fest on August 5, as part of his European tour and will feature his debut, full-length album ‘The Last Days of Oackland’.

“When my Grammy arrived a couple of days ago, I took my guitar and I went and played out in the train station,” Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz tells me, as I begin to encounter the real person behind Fantastic Negrito.

“Of course, people recognise me, but I took the Grammy, put it on the ground, and I just played music, because that’s when I feel the power and the strength and the passion – it’s when I’m playing.”
I’m humbled by this. Not just because of his attitude towards his accomplishments and music himself, but, having read about him, I also know that he’s currently in something of a rebirth, after recovering from a near-fatal car accident that put him in a four-week coma, and having had to endure a mangled playing hand.

As an African-American singer-songwriter in his late 40s, whose repertoire has spanned blues, R&B, and roots music, Xavier began to return to his passion on the streets of Oakland a couple of years ago until, as Fantastic Negrito, he arrived on the national stage in 2015, winning the NPR Tiny Desk Contest and watching his self-titled EP rise to #1 in Blues in the US, UK, Germany and Asia.

In 2016, he followed this up with extensive tours throughout Europe and North America, accompanied by Chris Cornell, and legendary Seattle supergroup Temple of the Dog, and released his debut, full-length album, which went on to win Best Contemporary Blues Album at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards.

“It’s just about connecting with people, I feel that that’s what’s it really all about,” repeats Xavier. It seems that that’s where it all reverts back to for him. It almost feels as though it’s his calling to share his music, but also his lyrics which, in each song, have something to convey. I probe further into his need to make use of language in his music and, in turn, turn through his music.

“I think it’s my role, I think it’s the role of creative people; for people that have the talent and are artists, I think it’s our role to connect with humanity. I think artists have been doing this since the beginning of time; connecting with people, assisting people and contributing something to humanity and it’s important,” he says.

“We all have a role: musicians have a role, journalists have a role, doctors have a role, artists have a role, everyone does, it’s a team – it’s a human team,” he adds.

I repeat the question somehow, and try and make him grasp the power he exudes by merely sharing his experiences on stage.

“I think that we’ve all gone through challenges in our lives, we’ve all lived up and down and we’re in various positions, we’re going through different things and I think these things all colour your life and personality.

“The events that we’ve all survived, they really make us who we are, and so, as artists, we all can hopefully take those events and express them to people so that they can also say, wow, you went through that? Me too. And they can kind of feel not so isolated – that’s how I understand the arts.”

Describing his current musical style as ‘black roots music for everyone’ inspired by his forefathers: the blues musicians of the Delta, Xavier has been through all sorts of genres, phases and callings in his life and, thus, in his music.

“I’ve always shifted; from when I was first starting in the Nineties I was always shifting, from my solo projects to Chocolate Butterfly to Blood Sugar, Blood Sugar X, Me & this Japanese Guy… it’s all these different incarnations of myself; I think I like to live that way, it gets boring doing the same thing,” he laughs.

“I love the metamorphosis, I don’t think: ‘now I’m rapping, now I’m singing, now I’m doing pop, now I’m doing blues’ – it’s just all these expressions without boundaries, and I think that’s one of the amazing, challenging things about being an artist: we are fortunate and there are no boundaries, its just different phases of living, I don’t do the same things I did when I was 16, or 30.”

Yet, as a listener, I feel that he’s more at home with what he’s producing and doing right now.

“It’s just age,” he says. “When you’re older, you just feel like you don’t have to try so hard, you just do it.

“Because I’ve matured, this does feel good, I think it’s got something to do with where I am in life. Yes, it’s beautiful blues, black roots, gospel funk, soul… feelings – there’s a beauty in it,” he admits.

But in order to get here, and through his different incarnations, Xavier went through an array of experiences and challenges attempting to make it in the music industry, and life, perhaps, was a ride that I characterise as not having been an easy one. I wonder what impression the music industry has left on him, especially now that he has made his way back to it, with recognition.

“It’s a good question, I don’t really think about the music industry very much, I think, sure, I’ve had ups and downs in the business of music, but I think when I stopped thinking about it, when I stopped trying to attain it, stopped trying to be a part of it, stopped trying to think about fame or stopped thinking about hit songs, I guess that’s when it all started. When I stopped thinking about it and the only thing about it now is just songs and music; I played in the streets and that helped me to redefine and reinvent my approach to music,” he reflects.

“I don’t want a wall, I don’t want boundaries, I’ve no interest in being a celebrity, being famous, I’ve an interest in playing music and experiencing, feeling and sharing. That’s everything – the connection.”

Fantastic Negrito will be playing on August 5 at the Fengaros Festival. More information at: louvanarecords.com

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