Nubya Garcia is a musician pushing the limits of genre

Nubya Garcia is a musician pushing the limits of genre

Future sound — As a leading light in the lauded London jazz scene, the Camden-born artist has helped shape one of the most exciting musical movements to spring out of the city in the past decade. Now that the world is beginning to reopen, she is determined to pick up where she left off: driving things forward, and uplifting others to do the same.

A version of this story appears in Huck Issue 75. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue. 

Nubya Garcia recently made a vow to herself: stop wearing busyness as a badge of honour.

The non-stop nature of life as a touring musician was something the 29-year-old had been reckoning with for the past year or so. The focus began with ‘Pace’, a single she released in May 2020, and continued in her own time throughout the various stages of lockdown that followed. In many ways, it took the stillness that came with that period for the saxophonist, composer and bandleader to recognise how intense her routine had really been.

“It was just go, go, go, go – and be thankful that you’re going,” she says of her pre-Covid reality. “But times that by 365 days and that equals a burnout. I didn’t realise how much I put myself through.”

One of the most respected names in the new London jazz scene, Nubya has been at the forefront of the genre for the past five years. As a key part of a flourishing community of young instrumentalists – few of whom are women – her versatility and skill has seen her in high demand, with her imprint felt on an impressive list of projects on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alongside her collaborations, she’s garnered an impassioned fanbase of her own, thanks in part to a series of lauded live shows. I for one vividly remember the first time I saw her perform, despite the fact it was over four years ago. After years of parent-concert trips, to be stood (not sat) in XOYO with my friends on a Sunday night, watching a Black woman captivate a room full of twenty-somethings who looked like me – without uttering a single word – felt exhilarating. To witness jazz literally move an audience to dance and holler as if it were a club night helped mark a new chapter in my own relationship with the genre.

Her musical output around that time – a debut EP, 5ive, in 2017 and her ubiquity on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood project We Out Here a year later – confirmed her to the masses as an artist to watch. It was last year, though, with the release of her debut album Source, when things really went up a level. The record received high praise from heavyweight publications such as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and the New York Times, and looked set to kickstart an exciting new chapter. It has since been nominated for the 2021 Mercury Prize.

But after giving up her previous flat in anticipation of a year-long touring schedule, she was left stranded when the pandemic began to take hold. With her life sat in storage and live shows cancelled, she scrambled to find a sublet, only securing a more permanent solution seven months ago. While she is quick to emphasise how grateful she is to have a place of her own to nest and recharge, she is, like so many others at the time of writing, dealing with cabin fever. “I’m a Sagittarius and I hate being trapped. So I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t itching to just do… anything else now!”

Nubya grew up in a Camden Town, a bookworm in an “eclectic home”. The daughter of a Guyanese mother (who had three older children from a previous relationship) and a Trinidadian father (who later remarried and had three more kids), she was brought up in a household where music was always a given. Alongside a love of Caribbean music, her mother was a huge classical fan, and her siblings on that side of her family trained in various instruments. Nubya recalls attending concerts regularly as a child. “My mum’s grandma was a really amazing pianist, so I think she brought that thinking with her and wanted us to have that kind of skill,” she says. “I’m really grateful that happened.”

From an early age – around four or five, she estimates – Nubya slotted seamlessly into a weekly routine of music classes. A shy child, instruments quickly became her “mode of expression”. She began on the violin before promptly mastering the viola, saxophone and flute. Her affinity for music was evident and she secured places in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra and, later, the prestigious Camden Jazz Band.

It was the saxophone, which she picked up aged 10, that first opened up jazz for her. While all her siblings were immersed in the classical genre, Nubya remembers consuming jazz at the expense of everything else. By the time she was 12, she had little to no knowledge of chart music, or popular culture.

Navigating these musical worlds was no easy feat for an introverted young Black girl. These were not diverse spaces. “There were so many situations where I really felt like I stuck out,” she remembers. For the first eight years, Nubya’s teaching lineup for music (across her school and the borough’s music centre) was all-white, until she was taken on by British jazz pianist Nikki Yeoh.

But even after that, in her late teens, walking the halls of the Royal Academy of Music as part of the junior jazz program, Nubya often felt like she didn’t belong. “If you’re looking around and not seeing anyone that even remotely resembles what your life resembles – even if you’re not voicing it – on some weird subconscious level, you start to kind of embody the fact that you shouldn’t be there.”

The gaping class divides were hard to ignore. “It’s elitist,” Nubya starts, before correcting herself. “It’s something that’s become quite elitist, across the genres. Learning a musical instrument is really expensive… it’s buying the instrument, having the ability to get access to one that’s yours, the assessments.”

The list goes on. In fact, if it hadn’t been for her own borough’s music service – specifically, the weekly one-on-one lessons and financial support for purchasing instruments – Nubya doesn’t think she could have progressed in the way that she did. “There are all these little things you take for granted when you’re 15, but now I realise that must have been so hard to find and to fight for – just for your child to have access.”

Years later, in her early 20s and teaching music herself, Nubya saw how things could have been. Instead of the individual tutor sessions she had grown used to during her childhood, kids were taught only in large groups. Barely any had their own instrument. “I was teaching sometimes up to 30 [children],” she remembers. “Kids were having to share one instrument between like 10 people and they’d never get to take it home. There just isn’t the resources that there were 15, 20 years ago.” For Nubya, it raised serious questions in terms of who was being set up to excel, and who to fail.

The diversity of future instrumentalists is something that’s extremely important to her. One of the standout features of the lauded London jazz scene of today is it’s uniquely multicultural approach: not as a political buzzword, but rather a reimagining of what the genre born in New Orleans can become when married with influences and sounds from across the diaspora. Spearheaded by a wave of exciting new voices – be it Yussef Kamaal, KOKOROKO, Alfa Mist, Ezra Collective, Yazmin Lacey, Shabaka Hutchings or Nubya herself – these young Black artists are conjuring new paths under what she and I agree to call ‘the jazz umbrella’ for now: something intrinsically linked to the historical art form but also containing significant and unflinching departures.

Today, the jazz title is one that Nubya welcomes, insofar as it doesn’t limit or restrict her. “There’s just so much history with jazz and if people want to put me in the same genre as other incredible musicians then I’m truly honoured,” she says, clearly having mulled it over. “But sometimes it makes people have these expectations of some absolute truth. If you go outside of that, it shocks [and] offends them – even though it’s your music, and you’re allowed to do whatever you want.”

There were a handful of spaces where Nubya felt free enough to hone that creativity as she began to find her feet musically. “I really came into my own at Tomorrow’s Warriors,” she says, referring to the jazz development agency for young artists run by Gary Crosby at the Southbank Centre. It was there that she was introduced to the musicians that she would later join with to form Nérija, a collective that has since been labelled a “young London jazz supergroup”.

The second place she found a home in was a small jazz group at the Roundhouse where she met more of her current peers: the tuba player Theon Cross (of acclaimed group Sons of Kemet), his brother Nathaniel (a successful trombonist), and Mercury-nominated drummer and composer Moses Boyd. For Nubya, who had until then struggled to find her tribe in music, these exciting, inclusive spaces were a whole new experience. “It was just wild,” she remembers. “I felt so natural there and it was amazingly supportive and fun. It turned into such a beautiful community. I don’t know what things would be like if I didn’t have it.”

Unknowingly at the time, those friendships would influence a style defined by fusion. The music that followed stands as testament to that. Her work amalgamates her Caribbean heritage and rigorous musical training along with contemporary influences. Nowhere is this clearer than Source: on the record’s sprawling 12-minute title track, she expertly draws from soundsystem and dub culture; elsewhere, the spellbinding closing ballad ‘Boundless’ is infused with R&B and features the Chicago vocalist Akenya.

The decision to begin merging her various music worlds was a leap, but one that Nubya took in her stride, energised by her new connections. “It didn’t feel risky, I had the right people around me encouraging me to be me, by seeing them be them,” she says. “For ages, I genuinely just wanted to be a musician who could handle Bebop. I still strive for that, and want to adhere to that dream. But there are other things that matter to me too.”

The boldness of her voice has been eagerly received, with Garcia also contributing cross-genre on critically-acclaimed projects such as Moses Sumney’s græ, Sons of Kemet’s Your Queen Is A Reptile and Swindle’s No More Normal. As a solo artist, she has been awarded UK Breakthrough Act and Jazz Act of the Year by Jazz FM Awards. She has also opened for Pharaoh Sanders, been branded Best New Music in Pitchfork, sold-out Ronnie Scott’s, played a virtual Glastonbury slot in lieu of the physical festival taking place, and regularly hosts a show on NTS Radio – to name just a few achievements.

It’s no surprise, then, that she is against negating parts of yourself – especially those that threaten to break tradition. After all, isn’t freedom from structure the very essence and origin of jazz? “If you’re a musician, you mould everything together and make something that’s actually truly unique.” “We all think differently, speak differently, construct our sentences differently,” she continues. “And that’s the same in music.” The hall parties we attended as kids, our parents’ vinyl collections, what occupied our MP3 players on the school playgrounds: in Nubya’s view, it all helps form the precise alchemy of our artistic voice. “All of this stuff exists in our brains, bodies and souls when creating,” she says.

It’s this mindset, alongside her collaborative spirit, that has defined Nubya’s career so far – whether it’s as a bandleader or support musician. “[Collaboration] encourages you out of your comfort zone, it teaches you to let go, to fight for things that you really love, but also to compromise… all of these human traits that we need to be better at.”

She can’t see a life without the connections she’s formed along the way. Today, that makes her an artist secure enough in her vision to play both starring and supporting roles in order to get her message across. Whether that’s endlessly pushing the limits of genre, challenging privilege in the industry, championing emerging voices, or simply allowing herself the space and time to replenish her own sources, it’s an ethos that’s ushered her this far already. Who knows where it will take her next.

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Source is out now on Concord Jazz.

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