Introducing: Sifaka

Ahead of their gig at the Sunday joint tomorrow, we spoke to Leeds rock and blues band Sifaka about their globally-conscious sound.

Tell us a bit about how Sifaka formed.

We met at Leeds Uni. Danny (guitar) and I (Sam, keys, vocals) had been gigging and busking acoustically for a few years when we met Mike (drums) and Ted (bass) and had a monster jam! Over the next year we met Nicky (sax) and Alice (vocals) who are both fantastic musicians that really added to our sound. Our most recent addition is Jess on congas and vibes – so we’re complete for now!

How has Leeds influenced how you operate? Has it influenced your sound at all?

Leeds has had a massive influence. We’ve been exposed to so much music here from drum and bass at Beaverworks to dub at Chapeltown Carnival, to Malian blues at Howard Assembly Rooms. It’s opened our ears in that way. There’s also a really active art scene here that we’ve been involved in a bit, and would love to get more involved with. But the main influence is the people, friends, artists, musicians – they inspire us a huge amount.

How long was the process of producing the new EP?

Longer than we expected! We recorded the instruments in a week, the vocals took a little longer. But there was so much back and forth in the editing stage. We listened to so many versions of Beggarman, with the bass up, with the bass down, with the snare more snappy…on and on!

Your music has taken on more meaning since the migrant crisis and Brexit. Were you writing during the mass movement of refugees? Or was our nation’s relationship with other countries a concern for you anyway?

The treatment of refugees has been hugely concerning. You look at Calais and ask: is this the best our government can do, for people who are fleeing a country decimated by war? Undoubtedly there’s fantastic work being done there too, schools have been set up, health centres, legal offices. But the majority of people don’t think too much about the tragedy on their doorstep, for whatever reason. Music can raise awareness and make people think, so it can be useful in that way.

Your track ‘England’ is the most startling of the EP. Do you feel proud to be English/British? How did you feel addressing a nation with one of your tracks?

England’ asks for people to wake up to the suffering of refugees. It could have been called France, or Hungary or Leeds – more awareness and empathy is needed everywhere.

On this theme, do you think music should be political? Or is it inherently political?

It doesn’t have to be. But it can be very powerful. We’re really inspired by a lot of African musicians who use their songs to protest against injustice, and to give a voice to people who don’t have a voice in society.

You seem convinced that music can bring people together, and I would totally agree. Have you got any specific examples of this that stand out for you?

As a band we’ve played some fantastic refugee fundraisers in Leeds. These have involved musicians, artists, poets, a whole range of people coming together and collectively deciding to act. There’s lots of examples of the power of music to do this. There’s a great program called In Harmony run by Opera North at Windmill Primary School in Leeds – it teaches classical music to the kids there and its made a real difference. Their school work has improved as music’s given them better concentration, the kids are calmer and better behaved, and it has increased the pride of the area – so music can have real practical benefits for society too.

What was your point of access into the blues?

I remember my dad had a BB King album that we’d play in the kitchen. I was really tired one night but couldn’t sleep and ‘3 O’clock in the Morning’ came on, and it was perfect. It summed up everything about being alone and awake late at night. We’ve all listened to Hendrix and the British blues bands like Spencer Davis Group that reimagined blues in the 60’s, and recently African players like Bassekou Kouyate or Vieux Farke Toure who are reworking the blues again.

Would you say you are trying to modernise rock music? It’s an area of music that has historically been quite homogenous and white, with a predominantly white listenership.

Not really. But we’re trying to make our own sound, definitely. We’re inspired by the 60’s rock I mentioned and the new African blues players, but we’re doing our own thing.

How has your summer been so far, and what have you got planned for the rest of it?

Fantastic! We had a great time at Festivals, Live at Leeds, HowTheLightGetsIn, and Cheltenham Jazz – they were brilliant. We launched our new EP in June and threw a great night involving some of Leeds’ best bands, topped off by being BBC Introducing’s Gig of the Week – that was sweet. We’re playing at Northern Green Gathering in August then getting down to writing some new songs to record in the autumn.


Oliver Walkden