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17 September 2021

Nubya Garcia: cuts to arts funding will make music “very elitist”

The London saxophonist on playing the Proms and the importance of an affordable musical education.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The moment Nubya Garcia realised that she and her collaborators were on to something was when she heard the electronic producer Four Tet play Moses Boyd’s track “Rye Lane Shuffle” during a Boiler Room DJ set in 2015. The song, on which Garcia plays bass clarinet alongside Binker Golding on saxophone, Theon Cross on tuba and Boyd on drums, is at its core a jazz track. But it shook up dancefloors. 

“Seeing and hearing that track pop off on the dance floor!” Garcia says, shaking her head. “People are dancing to Binker, Theon and Moses’s groove – do you know what I mean? That was the shit. It popped off all over the world. It popped off every single time. We barely have vocals in our music. So to hear people singing back our tunes – that’s crazy. It’s like: you know this horn line?”

When I meet Garcia backstage at Green Man Festival in late August, she is having one of the busiest weekends of her life. Due to play a set on the main stage of the Welsh festival, warming up the crowd for Thundercat and Fontaines DC, she has just arrived from Cambridgeshire, where she performed at Gilles Peterson’s club-influenced event We Out Here. The previous night, she’d been in Birmingham for Mostly Jazz. Just two days earlier, she’d played her first Prom at London’s Royal Albert Hall. 

The 30-year-old Camden, London-born saxophonist is part of a flourishing jazz scene in the capital that exists, more and more, beyond the parameters of jazz. The vast sonic qualities of Garcia’s music – her debut record Source, which was nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize, combines dub and calypso rhythms with psychedelic soul and blues – makes her equally at home in a London jazz club and a field in the Brecon Beacons.

Being invited to play at the Proms, an institution that is traditionally overwhelmingly white, male and upper-middle class, was “very special”, says Garcia, who is wearing sunglasses with reflective lenses and a black Source hoodie when we speak. “It’s definitely not where we usually play, but I think it’s so important for them to invite bands like mine into the space, to diversify the situation. It’s a really beautiful thing to witness the change. You cannot realise what’s going on because you’re a part of it, and then you step out of it and you’re like, actually, this is a really big deal.”

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The Royal Albert Hall felt like a new kind of space for her, she says, but “I always feel at home wherever I go with my band. When you carry such a beautiful community with you, you can go anywhere and still feel like you’re not outside.”

For Garcia, music has always existed alongside community. She began her musical education aged four at the council-run Camden Music Service, where she played violin and viola. She played strings until she was 18, gaining a formal education at the London Schools Symphony Orchestra and junior Royal Academy, and then chose to focus on the saxophone, which she had started playing around the age of 12. At jazz youth projects in Camden’s Roundhouse music venue, she met Boyd and Cross, who she is still playing with now. “I played in lots of very different spaces, from very elite to very open and diverse. They all provided me with a musical and social education in different, wonderful ways.”

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But it was Tomorrow’s Warriors, an innovative jazz education programme specifically aimed at black musicians, female musicians and players without the finances to fund a career in music, “where I really found my community”, Garcia says. “That was our youth club. It was where 17-year-olds who wanted to learn about bebop would go. We’d all share tunes and write together. That was where I really started to come out of my shell.” She then studied jazz at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in Greenwich.

Garcia benefited from free music lessons, council-funded programmes and grants to go on music courses in the school holidays. But now, she says, “music education is completely different to how it was when I grew up”. Tomorrow’s Warriors is a charity. Since Garcia left, it has lost government funding and has had to crowdfund to keep its programme free. “When everything started changing, with people not giving a shit about music education, they switched to having to raise everything themselves,” she explains. In 2018, a grammar school in Yorkshire was criticised for charging pupils to attend after-school GCSE music classes. A 2019 report showed that children of families earning less than £28,000 a year were half as likely to learn a musical instrument as those from a family with an income above £48,000. In July this year, the government approved a 50 per cent funding cut to university arts and design courses.

Garcia emphasises that access to a musical education is expensive not simply because of the cost of lessons themselves. Programmes such as Tomorrow’s Warriors helped her with “all of this stuff that people forget about”: instrumental costs, the expense of travelling to music lessons and rehearsals, the need for a practice space outside of the home. Conservative Party cuts to arts funding, Garcia continues, will make the music industry “very elitist – even more elitist than music is already. It will dramatically affect the spread of diversity in the future, for young people coming up through music and wanting to continue. They won’t see it as a possibility, but as a struggle.

“I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had music lessons,” Garcia says, looking around backstage as her band prepare to soundcheck. “Playing music is a mode of expression that is so imperative, like dancing or singing or sport. All of this stuff is about finding different ways to express yourself, and that’s really important in the world that we live in because we don’t all want to be little worker bees for the system. You should be given the option to find out where your lane is. And if you never get sat in front of the path, you’ll never find it.”

“SOURCE ⧺ WE MOVE”, a remix album by Nubya Garcia, is released on Concord Jazz on 22 October.

[See also: Addictive and subversive, Lil Nas X’s Montero is a masterpiece of contemporary pop]