A jazz pianist, producer and sometime rapper, Alfa Mist has recently been described as ‘a shining light of the London jazz scene’ and it’s not hard to see why. Alfa’s music speaks to many; especially the rising number of young fans sparking a UK jazz renaissance.
Self-taught by sheer ‘stubbornness’, Alfa came to learn the piano quite late in the game aged 18, but he modestly puts his obvious talent down to just having too much time on his hands!
Fresh from a sold out show at Southbank’s Meltdown Festival (curated by Nile Rodgers), we caught up with Alfa to chat music education, the highs and lows of the music industry, and top tips for aspiring musicians…
Interviewed by Sophie Ogunyemi & Renée Jackson
So, what made up the moment you decided to start music and pick up an instrument?
Basically, I was making beats in secondary school which was just part of our culture; everyone at that time was rapping and making beats. I used to sample other songs to make my own hip hop beats and it was by looking for samples that I discovered other genres.
I realised I quite liked the indie, classical and jazz music I was coming across but found I didn’t really understand what these musicians were doing within the music. So, I decided to pick up an instrument so that I could fully understand the music.
So yeah, I started taking piano seriously when I decided I wanted to understand this whole range of music I was discovering. I liked what I was hearing but I didn’t really know what was going on which made me determined to work it out and learn.
You don’t need to be a Beyoncé or Adele to live off being a musician or even to be seen as having a successful career.
It sounds like it was a very determined decision for you to learn but who was most influential in your musical education?
There wasn’t anyone really. There’s no musicians in my family and I didn’t have a specific music teacher. There were some cool more general A-level teachers but no particularly tangible musical role models. I did look up to artists and songs and that but yeah, mainly my own determination!
Do you think it would have been easier if you did?
It definitely would have been easier but now that I’m here, I prefer the way I did it. It was hard though and it definitely would have been easier to have other people around to push each other to get better.
It was great that I had my mates doing hip-hop stuff and making music that way but in terms of learning my instrument, my stubbornness definitely pushed me through.
Alfa Mist performing at Village Underground, London
Do you think you have to study music to get into it?
No way. At college, I didn’t do A-level music so I wasn’t allowed music lessons for free which I found frustrating. But this meant I actively chose to teach myself how to play piano. I learnt by ear so listened to a lot of songs and recreated what I heard.
By the time it got to the point that I could have afforded to pay for music lessons, I was already so used to teaching myself that I was happy with my own way of doing things and it didn’t really matter.
I didn’t want to go to uni but you know, African household = I had to! I studied a music composition course which I knew I would be happy doing for three years but I don’t think it was that useful for me. I didn’t know about conservatoires at the time which I wish I had known about as I think they are really useful in terms of setting you up to be a musician.
What does it mean to you to be a contemporary musician in the world today?
It’s my work! It’s how I make a living. Yes it’s hard work, but there are different levels of success – you don’t need to be a Beyoncé or Adele to live off being a musician or to be seen as having a successful career. I think a lot of people are mistaken about this – you can definitely have a career in music and be largely unknown.
There’s a lot of luck involved in the music world but I like being in control of my destiny as cliché as it sounds!
What’s been the hardest thing to overcome, in your experience, in the music industry and how have you worked round it?
I’ve largely done most things myself thanks to the internet. This has been up to a certain point though. You either need some sort of external push to get further or else you find there’s companies/corporations that won’t let a singular artist break through.
The hardest thing is progressing and understanding that you are progressing and not feeling like you’re stagnant. I have to keep reminding myself that every step I take is a step forward.
What do you enjoy most about being a professional musician?
I like the ball being in my court. I can mostly pick when I work and everything is on my terms. If I don’t do well, it’s largely because I didn’t work hard enough or there were things that I could have done to progress.
I like taking responsibility for myself. There’s a lot of luck involved in the music world but I like being in control of my destiny, as cliché as it sounds!
Alfa Mist performing at Blue Note Japan
What would you say to the government to prevent further cuts in musical education?
You shouldn’t have cut anything to do with music and the arts in the first place! Young people need options available to them and they shouldn’t be deprived of music as they won’t necessarily come and look for it. People don’t know they like singing until you give them the opportunity to sing. Give everyone the choice.
Creativity is one of the most sought after skills in all sectors so if you take away these options at a young age you’ll be stifling this. Give people the space to express themselves. You don’t know what you don’t know or can’t see.
Do you think a scheme like Take it Away is beneficial to young people interested in learning an instrument?
I 100% think it’s beneficial and definitely a good option to have. I wouldn’t have even looked twice at a £1,000 instrument when I was younger because I just thought it was out of my reach.
It’s a great way to get access to a good instrument, especially when you need a new instrument that isn’t one that’s just been passed on to you or rented.
Do you think music has impacted your life? If so, in what way?
Put it this way, I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t doing music. Music is such a huge part of my existence!
What’s your favourite track at the moment?
Can I look at my phone? Yes, you’re allowed! That’s probably the hardest question in the world! But one I’m really loving at the moment is Night Song by Noel Pointer.
And finally, what piece of advice would you offer to aspiring musicians?
Make something and put it on the internet! It might be simple but you don’t know how something is going to pan out unless you put it out there. There’s never going to be a perfect scenario so just go for it, put something out there. Don’t wait around!