Hery Randriambololona (aka Ujjaya) is an ethno-ambient artist active since the 1990’s. Lucas Biela (LB) interviewed him for ISKC Radio Group.
1/ LB: Hi Hery! First, could you tell us where your nickname (Ujjaya) comes from?
For the common man Ujjaya is a yoga breathing exercise (a pranayama) to purify your body. But less known is that it is a word you whisper when mastering a yoga posture (an asana) to its full extent, not only the external form (the body), but also the hidden power that comes from the asana.
In good sanskrit the last syllab is mute so you have to pronounce it Udjay. But, 30 years later I’m so used to pronounce it the wrong way (the french way) I hope the great gods of hinduism will forgive me.
2/ LB: You made a name in the realm of ethno-ambient music, but your first love was with hard rock and heavy metal (especially NWOBHM). Could you tell us what picked your interest in ambient music?
Not really my first love when I was very young, maybe at the age of 7 was Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull then I fell into prog rock and jazz-rock (Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Jean-Michel Jarre and Kraftwerk) around 11, then into hard rock again (US: Ted Nugent , Blue Oyster Cult, Aerosmith were huge then) and into hard rock from Great Britain (Black Sab again and of course the NWOHBM). The NWOBHM opened the door to prog rock again with Marillion, and from Marillion to Genesis, Yes and ELP and from prog rock to space music (Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream). As I was listening to Motörhead, I went curious about Hawkwind the band from which Lemmy was fired. It was another road to space music also, and moreover I went out of my body for the first time listening to Space Ritual. It had a big impact on how I perceive the world around me, and how my music will sound 15 years later. All in all my musical tastes are just a cycle. But from space music I shift to every kind of music that could open my mind (indian raga, contemporary music, ECM jazz). Space music was the big opener, but Steve Roach with Dreamtime return was the shock. For the first time I could hear some ethno-ambient.
3/ LB: Regarding your music, even if you are part of the ethno-ambient scene, it’s hard to pigeonhole it, as atmospheres, instruments, field recordings can vary from one song to the other. Could you let us know what are your triggers for composition?
A composition comes from very a deep place within you. It has to mature, sometimes many years in order to come at the surface. You bear it like a child. Even if technically the music itself can be made very quickly (thanks to all the gears that I possess now), if it doesn’t match a vision – a word that I had for a long time in me – then it will not hold my attention. But it is very rare. All the process must be obvious, fluid, flawless: the sound, the title and the vision come together. I could spend hours on an instrument and suddenly this is it. But the music isn’t born from the music but from your life: how you conceive life, how deep were your emotions, what were your experiences. Music must convey life. You are listening to music in order to be a little more alive. You can’t convey what you doesn’t have. Technique, and instruments are secondary means, life is first. To be a good musician you must live first.
4/ LB: You are a guitarist at first, but you have an interest in many traditional instruments. Could you tell us how you learn to play them and which ones are the less common?
The guitar opens the gate to all the other instruments. It is easier at first to play the piano because the sound just falls from your fingers. On the contrary playing the guitar is a torture to you fingers.
But you have a very clear view of all the modes and intervals. The piano and the flute, even less the drums, can bring such a clear view. The secret of the music lies on one string. Once you have a clear view of where you are on an instrument then the next step is to gain speed. But as I play ambient music, I don’t use half of my maximum speed on an instrument.
5/ LB: You once told me you are not surprised many black metal artists play ambient music as, unlike death metal, black metal has no groove and is based on atmospheres. Do you follow the ambient-oriented black metal scene (such as Wolves In The Throne Room)? If yes, what do you think of it, are they faithful to the spirit of ambient music, is there something innovative when compared to traditional ambient music?
No I don’t follow the ambient-oriented black metal scene (happy that there is such a scene though). In fact I don’t listen to music as I used to do before. I don’ t have time. I’m just checking the new bands for a professional reason, to be aware of the main trend. As I’m surrounded by music freaks (you are one of them), I just ask them if there’s any interesting artist that they heard. But it is just professional.
6/ LB: Given that you are in the ambient scene for quite some time, could you tell us what you think of its developments (drone, dungeon synth…) and its incorporation in other genres (pop, rock, metal, electronic music, movie soundtracks…).
Ambient is everywhere. You could hear it on every documentary on space, and on every horror movie soundtrack since the 80’s. It gives some new color to the other genres (Pink Floydish intros are countless). But still in its core it doesn’t evolve that much (like the heavy metal genre that gave birth to many sub genres): in its core, the metal sound is still Krang [(Kerrang), the sound of thunder as generated by a distorted guitar pushed to the maximum], and for the ambient it’s still bzzzz [buzzing of a synth drone].
7/ LB: Could you tell us which countries are the more receptive to your music? Do you know why these countries have more affinities with ambient music or ethno-ambient?
The Americans of course are receptive to my music, because the ethno-ambient genre was born there. California comes first, because the New Age scene gave birth to ambient music, a little bit like hard rock gave birth to heavy metal music. Then Oregon, with the city of Portland, which is a leftfield city very open to underground culture. In Western Europe, Italy comes first, because there is a solid branch of musicians inspired by Steve Roach there (Alio Die, Enten Hitti, Oophoï, etc). Eastern Europe like Russia or even Kyrgyzstan, because deep into the people lies a shamanic connection. Then comes Northern Europe (Germany included), many of them are simply some prog rock / space music listeners who have fallen into ambient like me.
France is quite hopeless. Even the word ambient is unknown to the crowd. Most of the listeners come from the yoga/ buddhist / meditation / New Age scene. Of course there are also some music lovers, but they are very few.
8/ LB: You organize each year the ambient festival in Paris. Could you tell us more about the genesis of the festival and if there are specific criteria to choose artists lined-up (follow a specific theme? New artists on the scene?…)?
In 2012 a friend (or I thought it was a friend) named Hakim Bouadi, proposed me to make an event in the East of France, gathering some prog and some ambient musicians. He knew the Ange manager, and knew a place to hire, an abandoned fort near Nancy where he made some shooting for a fantasy film. He flew away and disappeared into smoke when I realized he was a crook, just before we decided to made the pre-selling. Anyway I had already taken all the contacts, and even if I would not have a grandiose festival with Hawkwind and Robert Rich, at least I could manage to have an interesting event in a more tiny place in Paris. Then all the energy was not lost.
The story of how I found the place is also interesting. I was playing for the anniversary of the death of the parent of an artist (Lathifa Soualah, who is mainly a sculptress and a paintress). An old woman saw me there. She wanted to play and sing on my music as if she was 20 (she was nearly 80 then). The most ridiculous is that she wanted to dance. The woman was obviously manic depressive. She wanted to do that at the crypt of Martyrium, a sacred underground place in Paris where St Ignace de Loyola took the vow to serve the Christ (then the company of Jesus, the Jesuites, was born). She knew well the guardian of the crypt, Zygmunt Blazinsky. We came to meet him, and instantly we matched. Although he was polish and guarded a christian place, he was rather attracted by hinduism and the oriental philosophies. I made a first show with him in 2012 at l’Entrepot, a New Age place in Paris (around the first speech of the Buddha), then in 2013 I made the first Paris Ambient Festival at the crypt. Zygmunt died in 2018. Till then, the church only allowed christian religious events in this crypt.
We moved to the Ararat crypt then. Which will be re-opened in 2025 (due to some works in progress). We are now presenting the festival at la Maison Verte, a protestant temple in Paris (18th arrondissement, near metro Jules Joffrin).
9/ LB: Anything else you want to add?
AI is a real danger for the musician (and for the music), and ambient music is the first endangered music species. Just add some infinite reverb and delay to any synth pad and you have a reasonable ambient track. Since the late 90’s, Brian Eno has conceived some applications for generative ambient music. Drummers have been replaced by drum machine (at least in the electronic genre you have no drummer anymore). Soon ambient musician will be replaced by simple generative music application. And not only ambient musician. The AI will generate the right type of music according to your mental state. Only live music that offers a real experience will survive. Nurturing the sense of wonder and of the sacred is vital if we want to survive facing the AI.