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Interview by: Lexi Lewis
Record Label: SkyTown Records
SJM: When is your birthday?
U-NAM: My birthday was October 27th.
SJM: Happy Belated Birthday!
U-NAM: (Laughing) Thank you.
SJM: How old did you turn?
SJM: You are newly married, how long?
U-NAM: Yes, I am for 6 months now. On the 22nd of November it will be 7 months.
U-NAM: Thank you.
SJM: Do you have any children?
U-NAM: Not yet with my wife but I have an 8 year old in Paris.
SJM: Where did you get the name “U-NAM” and does it stand for anything?
U-NAM: It’s an interesting story. People say “U-NAM,” what is that? My full name is not that common and is kind of complicated to pronounce especially for the English and American speaker. It is Emmanuel Abiteboul – it’s a Jewish and French name. Years ago, the main thing I was doing in France was producing and writing for major labels like Universal, Warner and Sony. I remember getting a call from Universal to do a hip-hop project for a rapper from New York. After I completed the project the producer asked me to find a pen name to put on the credits for the single so I wanted it to sound more Hip-Hop like or American. At the time, it was really trendy to have a two-syllable name like the rappers; you know like the ones that have a dash in their name like Jay-Z and Tupac and whatever. So, (laughing) I came up with “U-NAM” and it’s that simple. The short name for Emmanuel, in France is “Manu.” This also what my friends call me. I just spelled it backwards and put a dash in it! But, the cool part about the name U-NAM, which I found out, when pronounced in French its translation in English means “one soul.”
SJM: Wow, that’s cool.
U-NAM: But, you know what? For a long time I hated that name!
U-NAM: Hated it, hated it! (Laughing) But the problem with English speakers is that they’d always have a problem with the “u” in Manu (he demonstrated the French sound of “u” for me and all the mispronunciations of Manu that he as heard).
U-NAM: (Laughing) So, a friend told me it is easier to say U-NAM. I said okay and when I did my first album, with a Swiss label, I kept the name. I tell you, it took me more than 10 years before I even liked the name!
SJM: Wow, that’s funny. (Laughing)
SJM: Growing up in Paris, France, who where your biggest supporters in your family?
U-NAM: My parents and my Grand Mom on my Mom’s side.
SJM: What did they say to you to encourage you to do music?
U-NAM: (Laughing) Well this is interesting because my dad never ever, ever wanted me to pursue music! But my mom was really frustrated that she was never able to learn to play an instrument but wanted to. When she was growing up, her brother had to learn to play an instrument but he didn’t want to. So, I think my Mom encouraged me because of that while my dad was the complete opposite. But I must say, although he opposed, he still helped me anyway. I quit school when I was fifteen years old to pursue music and go to music school but there was no music school in France like here in the United States. My dad still helped me and it’s funny, when I started to make it, he decided to be my number one fan. (Laughing)
SJM: (Laughing) Funny how the table turned, huh?
U-NAM: (Laughing) Yeah.
SJM: Are your parents still with us?
U-NAM: Yes, luckily for me.
SJM: What about your Grandmother?
U-NAM: No, she passed away about a year and half ago. I actually have a dedication to her on my Tribute to George Benson album because she passed during the making of the project. She had a great life, she was 95.
SJM: That’s awesome!
SJM: If you were not in music, what would your profession be?
U-NAM: If you go back in time when I was a kid, I took Judo then played soccer. My dad was crazy about soccer. I was pretty good at soccer so at one point I would say I wanted to be a professional soccer player. But when I was twelve, I started to play guitar and it was all about the music. I was still playing some sports but it started to fade out. But right now, if I weren’t a musician, I would LOVE to be a graphics and visual effects designer.
U-NAM: Yes, that’s what I’m doing. I’m spending more time doing that than doing music.
SJM: I know you played sports as a kid and you stated your dad loved soccer, but what is your favorite sport?
U-NAM: I love soccer, I think it’s a great game. I like tennis as well. I was speaking with my wife about this, you know how you have something you’ve always wanted to do in your life? (Laughing)
SJM: (Laughing) Yes.
U-NAM: Well, one of those things for me is fencing.
SJM: Oh wow.
U-NAM: Oh yeah, I love fencing but I always got stuck doing something else. The problem with being a musician is you never stop. You’re always doing something and it my case it’s like that.
SJM: Interesting. So do you have any other hobbies?
U-NAM: No, not really just the graphics design and visual effects. I like to read too but music is taking so much of my time.
SJM: I see, and you’re good at it [music]!
U-NAM: (Laughing) Thank you.
SJM: U-NAM, I must say to you that I’ve been so excited about interviewing you since I first heard your CD and I really must thank guitarist Blake Aaron for introducing us!
SJM: Your latest album “A Tribute to George Benson” is being considered for a Grammy in 6 categories with 10 entries. How does that make you feel?
U-NAM: It feels great. This is my first independent album and we’re doing everything ourselves as there is no real radio airplay.
SJM: Is there any one category that you feel is more meaningful to you than the other and if so why?
U-NAM: Well, the one I would love the most, we’re not considered for it. (Laughing)
SJM: (Laughing) Okay, what is that one?
U-NAM: It is Best Jazz Album. That is where my heart is. We did submit it but we have a lot of entries in R&B. But when you have entries in the R&B category you are competing with people like Rihanna, Usher and Chris Brown. But, to be realistic with what we have now, the best would be Best Improvised Solo for Jazz….that would be awesome.
SJM: When you told George Benson you were going to do a tribute album to him, what was his immediate reaction?
U-NAM: That’s a good question actually and I have a little story about it. George Benson and I have been friends for quite a while and I have so much respect for his music. I also have a respect for him as a human being because he is such a nice person and when we hang out we just talk about whatever because we have a great connection and that’s really nice. He loves what I do as well. I came to a point in my life where I had to do an album knowing some people may or may not like it but I had to do it first for myself. So, I said to myself, I have to call George first because I need his blessing and if I don’t get it, I’m not going to do it. I called him about two years ago and I said “I am going to start a George Benson tribute album and before I start any music, I would like to have your blessing.” I didn’t expect this answer but he said “well man, sure you have my blessing but whatever you do is going to sound fantastic.”
U-NAM: That’s exactly what he said to me! Wow, I was so relieved and so happy. What I want people to know is that sometimes people think you pick some hits and you just put it on the album and that is not at all what this tribute album is. (Explaining with great emphasis) To me it was SO important to respect George’s music and the sense of how he played but obviously add my own thing on these existing master pieces. That is why I picked certain songs and I picked the right people to play them. There are a lot of people I didn’t call but it’s not because they are not good. A lot of people wanted to be on the album but I picked certain people because I needed the people who knew how to play that music. It’s not a matter of just playing, it is the heart, the soul and like I said, because I have so much respect for George, that was the most important thing to me. There are songs where I even include George’s original guitar parts like George’s solo on Give Me The Night and even some parts in On Broadway. To me, it is such an integral part of the song, that it had to be included in it. There’s been a lot of covers of Give Me The Night but no one ever did it [include George Benson’s original solos] so if you don’t include it, it is not Give Me The Night to me.
SJM: What feedback have you gotten from George Benson regarding your tribute to him now that the project is complete?
U-NAM: He loves it. He is really happy about it. I’ve been so busy I haven’t talk to him to tell him we are #1 in Japan. But, when we were working on the album I gave him a few rough mixes or works in progress. He was even here in California back in August and I took a CD to him, we took a picture and we hung out. He’s really really excited about it. He’s talking to everyone about it. (Laughing)
SJM: That’s awesome!
U-NAM: Yeah, that’s great.
SJM: Your Tribute to George Benson CD is INCREDIBLE! I love, and I told you this before, I love your rendition of On Broadway…it’s funky, it’s soulful, it’s upbeat and even has some rap in it….tell me a little about the making and collaboration of that song, in particular, and when you talk about it please tell me who did the vocals and the rapping.
U-NAM: You know what? I’m glad you are asking me about that song and what’s interesting is everyone has a favorite on it. I hear many different things but I think my sister’s favorite is On Broadway too! (Laughing)
U-NAM: And honestly, that is one of my favorites too so I’m really glad you are asking me about On Broadway. It was interesting. There were certain classics that I had to do or else people would be like how are you doing tribute album and not do Give Me The Night or whatever. But my idea was to do the album like George does his live shows with the songs that I picked. That is why I open the CD with Weekend in L.A. for two reasons and you’ll understand the link in a moment. When George does a show, he opens with a couple of instrumentals then goes into other songs and when it is toward the end of the show he starts to play the big hits again, like Give Me The Night and Never Give Up On A Good Thing. He always concludes the show with the encore being On Broadway. He has been doing this encore for more than three years now. Back in 1977, George put Weekend in L.A. and On Broadway on the same album with the live recording but he never did them in a studio – only those live versions.
U-NAM: Yes, he never recorded them; so that’s why I made a point of recording those because nobody ever did it. So, on both those songs I wanted to have the studio version of it but still keeping the energy that he has when he does them live. Weekend in L.A. was a little easier because the song basically remained the same over the years but he then had different arrangements of On Broadway and I wanted to include those as well. I even put some jazz swing on a few bars and I thought it was pretty cool. Some of the music in the beginning is the original live solo music and some more live at the end of the song. The song is like a long journey like George does live. It starts like a simple funk groove then you have the swing parts then into like a funkier beat with programmed drums and improvisation and then I have that breakdown with live drums and percussion and then that is where I put the rap on it. (Laughing) I thought it was cool to do that. Then after the rap part, I go to the vamp and it is all live and that’s it. I remember asking Stokely Williams (Mint Condition) to sing and I actually wanted Stokely to sing on this one but he listened to it and said no. (Laughing) Stokely said it was a masterpiece. So, I said to him “man, thanks so much” but we did pick the right song for him. I got a really good friend, Tim Owens, to sing On Broadway and he did a really amazing job on it. Tim Owens sings most of the vocals on the album. My friend, Jeff Lacey, from San Diego is doing a really quick rap on it and also does the rap on Masquerade but he is really more of a song writer. The rap part, to me, is like jazz rap and a lot of people don’t like it. I even had someone ask me to make a special version of Masquerade without the rap.
U-NAM: Yeah. I said first of all, that is the way I hear the song and if you don’t like it, I’m sorry for you. I like the rap, I think it’s interesting and it brings flavor. I grew up with all type of genres of music and it’s not like the rap lyrics are saying something stupid. I love music from A Tribe Called Quest and I’m a huge fan of Q-Tip. So, I said no, if it didn’t sound great I wouldn’t leave it there.
SJM: When I first heard On Broadway, I was typing on my computer and I literally stopped, looked at my CD player and thought, man this is a cool song. I then got up and started dancing! I also want you to know I played On Broadway three times before calling you this morning before this interview. (Laughing)
U-NAM: (Laughing) That is so cool!
SJM: How long did it take you to complete this tribute CD from start to finish?
U-NAM: Two years because it wasn’t easy to have all those guests on the album because it is a matter of timing. For example, I was talking with Stokely Williams about it for a year. He said he’d do it but never found time because he was super busy with Mint Condition and he still is right now. Mint Condition is one of my favorite bands ever. It took him like over a year before he could get to recording something. And I’m like okay; I need to finish the album. It’s a good thing I didn’t have a deadline. But, I think Stokely was one of the last to record then I could finish the album. You know how there are some people who say they will do things but there are people you know you can trust and believe what they say? Well, Stokely said he would do it and he kept his word.
SJM: But, look at the finished product, WOW!
U-NAM: (Laughing) Yeah, it’s cool.
SJM: Where does your funk and soul inspiration come from that you’ve infused into your music?
U-NAM: It’s interesting; I’ve got a weird past and background. Let me explain. Last month I was in Russia playing with a fusion band called Graffiti. I ended up playing Jazz Fusion but the music I grew up with was always Funk, R&B and Soul. I started playing Jazz but I like some Jazz; I don’t like all Jazz. I ended up playing Jazz Fusion and other stuff but that is not where I come from. I have the skills to do it but it’s not really where my heart is. I grew up with 80’s funk with George Duke, Earth Wind & Fire, Kool and The Gang, George Benson and Stevie Wonder.
SJM: (Joking and laughing) U-NAM, are you a black man in a white man’s body?
U-NAM: I don’t know! (Laughing) I don’t know! It’s just that the Jewish community in France is really into soul music and funk and stuff like that. I think it may be the way we focus our emotions. Or I don’t know if it is the Middle East or African roots where we get the emotion and the rhythm. I don’t know what it is honestly.
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