The magic is in the name—we are the “unknown”.
It must be true when they say it becomes sweeter the second time around. My first Incognito encounter was in 2013 at the Shinjuku Brooklyn Parlor when I also covered the group’s Blue Note Tokyo performance that year in another publication, and found my way squeezing among the screaming fans to meet Bluey, keyboardist Matt Cooper, trumpeter Dominic Glover, drummer Francesco Mendolia, bassist Francis Hylton, the captivating vocalist Imaani, and others. Already at first instance then, the man who groomed the substantially sized cross-cultural band for forty years into one of the world’s most phenomenal mega power, dynamic funk beat legacy quickly delivered his endearing aura and spiritful magic that itself constitutes the Incognito magic as we know it today.
Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, Incognito’s band guru, singer, guitarist, songwriter, composer, record producer, and singer is more than Incognito himself. Even before the glory of Incognito, he was already strumming his guitar on the beaches of Mauritius, emulating the Beatles, Rolling Stones, James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire, then experimenting with oil drums and bamboo sticks until his ears could decipher a good or bad guitar sound 50 meters away. The musical genius who would soon make records with George Benson, Phillip Bailey, Maxi Priest, Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau, Paul Weller, Anastasia, George Duke, Omar, Leon Ware, Al McKay, Chaka Khan and more knew that life on the islands was too small for his giant dreams.
With more than 18 regular shows at Blue Note Tokyo, Japan since 1992, and performances all over Asia in the last four decades, Bluey has somehow been cradling a soft pillow for Asia. Last December 11th-15th, Incognito rocked the Blue Note Tokyo once again with nightly jam-packed audiences exhilaratingly singing, dancing, standing up from their seats, and waving their arms to the joy and electrifying beat and rhythms of favourite hits, such as Thinking About Tomorrow, Silence of My Mind, I Love What You Do For Me, Goodbye to Yesterday, Always There, and of course, the undying anthem Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing, among many others. For Bluey, the exotic appeal of Asia will always be second home.
Would you still remember your first Japan visit?
Certainly. The first time was around 1992 at Club Yellow in Roppongi, Tokyo. You know, there are certain landmarks as a young musician that you plan in your life, reading about international musicians having gone to Japan, where there was this scene, and people would be talking about how different the place is. I was reading interviews, and about Traffic band with Steve Winwood who toured Japan; about Santana in Japan; and just how people in Japan are so different culturally, so respectful, and how the food is so great, mind-blowingly safe, free; and audiences not being like any other audience anywhere else. Then, I got to meet my first Japanese people, and watch the first Japanese band I’ve ever seen. I collect all these memories and eventually begin a love affair with Japan. I was aware as a teenager in the 70s of what has happened during the wars in other countries. If music were part of what you want to do, you would want to see Hiroshima and all that.
But, did you ever dream of coming to Japan even before Incognito?
While I was in school, I used to burn Japanese incense. I bought a dressing gown, which was really quite cheesy, not really Japanese but looked Japanese, I used to wear it proudly in school and play my guitar wearing it. I already had a sense of the Japan boom in the 70s. By the 80s, I wanted desperately to come to Japan but didn’t have the hits to make the journey. My first trip to Japan wasn’t paid by my recording company or by a sponsor. I paid the trip by myself. Such was my desire to bring my band (which was a 15-piece band at that time) over here that I took my own publishing money that for an age as such I should have kept the money for my home and family, but I came to Japan instead with that money because it was my personal dream and personal ambition and I knew somehow that I had the confidence it would work. I hooked up with a Japanese DJ who was living in London then that I had a connection with in a record company. We were both friends of Sade.
Did you know, however, if Incognito was already known in Japan at that time?
I thought at first that maybe 50-60 people would be interested in us, but when I got to the club, there was a long cue outside Club Yellow. I thought there must be another club night. Then, as I walked, people were looking at me calling me “Bru-chan”— and I was thinking “Who is this ‘Bru-chan”. My fans know me as Bluey, but the Japanese were saying “Bru, Bru”. One guy said, “That’s you, Bluey. They’re talking about you!” But, how do they know me? I found out the cue was actually for cancellation of tickets—it was completely sold out! I thought, “Are you kidding me?” And, this was our first time in Japan. When you go inside that club, you won’t be able to breathe or move.
So, how did that reality of actually being in Japan compare with your dream to be here?
Ohhh that reality definitely superseded the dream. You know, a fantasy is more beautiful than reality. In your mind usually the fantasy wins, but this is one of the few places where reality beats it. As a tourist, everything from crossing a street in Shibuya, sitting down on the floor, eating fish, drinking sake—doing the basic things that people take for granted that I’ve never done—going outside and meeting Japanese girls and going to the karaoke… there was so much sensitivity about the culture and people being different. You come to this realization and you don’t know why it’s like this. You know there is a reason why everything is clean—they just live like this; it’s part of who they are. Even the minimalism—I was just completely blown by it all, yet there was a madness, which was on a different level, like eating and getting drunk in a “yatai” at 4 o’clock in the morning in a park bench somewhere. In London if I were to get drunk at 4 o’clock in the morning in the park, I would have had my wallet stolen, or get stabbed. Everything here was just so different.
Looking back then through all these 20 years you have been coming to Japan, have you felt any changes in the Japanese society, the people, or the audiences?
Surely the society changes all the time, but not at the pace that Europe’s society changes. In Europe we have this influx of foreigners that Japan doesn’t have; more aggressive politics that Japan doesn’t have. Things change over there so quickly—an area suddenly becomes a ghetto, and then, turns into a place where only the rich can only live, and there’ll be another ghetto that becomes a double-sized ghetto worse than ever— everything moving in an alarming pace.
For me there are drawbacks though. I couldn’t live in Japan. It’s my second home but I don’t need to stay here; for me that would be difficult. It’s slowly getting there but I need a place with that international mix, which is very important to me—to be speaking to people of different cultures. Once you live in London and once it’s in your system, it’s hard to beat that kind of language—you can’t live without it. This is the way I function and how I get a band together that understands the whole thing and how everything works without me sweating…as a songwriter, it would be too nice for me to be here.
With Japan being such a homogenous society, does this work for you as well?
One thing is I can come to japan once in a while and get a slice of that. There’s something wonderful about having stability, to push having things delivered in the best and most practical way possible—a designed culture whereby it doesn’t have enough of the makeshift. It may or may not happen that it would be good for creativity or not. But, somebody can come along and splash something on you and you’d feel a different texture, flavor, and that gets your mind working in certain or different directions. This roughness and tumble of things are important to me because it’s the kind of world I’ve learned to express myself. Having said that, my creativity needs to be in NY or London. I need to have a place like that. But, I can’t be in all those places all the time either, so for me Japan and Thailand, or some other part of Asia will be my second home, but more likely as I get older. It would be my place of choice.
So, you mean you don’t think of yourself living in London for the rest of your life?
I would rather be old in Thailand than be old in London. In London, we don’t live in a world where the young generation gets up when elderly people come along. We don’t feed our children with information about respect for elderly, about how you wouldn’t have things today if not for them, with the sacrifices they’ve made, the wars they had gone through. We’re not educated with things like that. Yet, in contrast, the little walk I take from the bus station to my home is a market of Indians, Chinese, Jamaicans, so friendly who warm up to you— there is life and things I know familiarly—the human connection and excitement that doesn’t exist in Japan spontaneously, except when you walk into a shop and things are sold to you. You can say that the beauty and excitement of Japan come for a price. There’s a price to pay for being in a society that’s respectful and I don’t mind paying it, but whether I can function with it or if it can feed me and my need for creativity …that’s the issue.
You developed this creativity since you were very young in Mauritius, yes?
Oh yes. When I was just five, I knew I was going to music. Sure, my family would sing in church, but I had my own drive. My auntie took up with a musician, and I was already in love with music then so I already knew what I was going to do. I was around 8-9, a year before leaving Mauritius that I could first hold a guitar. You know, in those days, a child was like a chaperone for a couple because the child would speak about what the couple was doing, so my auntie knew if I could keep my mouth shut about her and her beau, they could bring me a guitar to play. And, the guitar was already my instrument. I’ve always liked everything, and would try other instruments. If I didn’t know how to play it, I would know how it functioned.
And, how was this very important transition from Mauritius to the UK?
It was very easy for Mauritians to move to London, since we just got our independence from Britain. Going to England for me was like my payback. Britain had Rolling stones, Beatles, Paul McCartney...I was just nine and I was very excited about the move. I don’t think I would have the career now if I didn’t move to London. I know talented Mauritians but they were kids playing guitar, who while having that musical spirit, were left with the reality of living in a small island, doing hotel gigs or function gigs as a way of making money as opposed to… gigs are how we can do our thing, and how we could change this to that, let’s not play a normal set. It was freedom.
Also, I was songwriting from 5-6 years old even before I touched the guitar. I created stories, like a cheeky kid. They were children’s stories that I’d turn into songs. It was subconscious; I didn’t know what I was doing. But I got this storytelling ability from the local Mauritius music called Sega. It’s like the blues, “My woman left me, she’s gone with another guy, and he’s now in my house drinking my rum, and here I am in the streets and I got nothing”—like telling stories from village to village.
Did you already think about putting a big band together at that time?
Well, I was in a funk band called Light of the World, and one of the members had a van crash accident. I decided to form my own band in a way as a tribute to that accident. That was 1979. I chose the Incognito name as it meant a band that would include people from other bands. It could be a platform for people to come and I would get the best of selected group of people. There was no band like that. In a week I would have four different drummers. But, I never thought of getting members from different cultures. It just started with one guy introducing like someone from Ghana, or another player bringing in another player from Africa. Then, these guys never go back to their bands. That’s how the band has always been. This is the magic of incognito.
What is the magic of Incognito for you?
The magic is in the name. We are the “unknown”, yet we have had a certain degree of fame. But, we like the humility that we don’t portray ourselves trying to sell something. We are just Incognito, and each time we play would always be different. You won’t even know it’s us. If you were not in Incognito you wouldn’t know; you are not recognized. The message is in the name.
How do you see yourself then in the next ten years or so or when you feel it’s time to go slow?
I can see myself spending more time in Tokyo and Osaka with my family, and doing more projects in Asia. My journey, not just as a musician getting a career or selling something, will always be music itself, and it is more important than just seeing one thing. Music is a teacher, a healer, an inspiration; the thing that brings me my joy but is also everybody’s joy. I have a lot to share as a person so my life in Asia would be very important to me.
Next year, 2019, Incognito will release its 40th anniversary album. It’ll surely be an explosive collection of forty years of continuous musical magic filled with the most intercultural mix of sounds that can only be recognized as the unrecognizable Incognito.
Special gratitude to Blue Note Tokyo.