Ross McHenry: how the Shaolin Afronauts made a new soundtrack for Mad Max

Normally, when people think of jazz ensembles, the first image that comes to mind is not that of semi-feral rogue individuals fighting each other in a post-apocalyptic desert-like setting. Similarly, when people think of the ‘Mad Max’ film franchise, they rarely associate it with west-african-infused jazz. At least, that was the case in the old days.

This all changed last year, when Chelsea Wilson, in her capacity as artistic director of Stonnington Jazz, called the Shaolin Afronauts, and asked them to create an alternative soundtrack for George Miller’s 1979 cult classic, to be performed live, at a special screening of the film at the iconic Astor theatre.

“It was a lot of fun for us and it was obviously quite successful, so the festival said: why don’t you do it again?”,Ross McHenry, leader of the futuristic afro-jazz outfit says, explaining how ‘Mad Jazz 2’ came to be. “As a group, we’ve done three albums, of which one was a double album. So there’s a lot of material there that doesn’t necessarily become part of our live shows, which are an upbeat, physical experience with a strong dance element; a lot of our music is introspective and textural, so the opportunity to work with a film is the opportunity to explore some of those elements and expand them and use the cinematic interaction through the improvisational aspect. We’re obviously interpreting music the entire way through almost without any pause”.

This will obviously be the case when they next hit the stage of the Astor, but those who saw the act last year shouldn’t expect the sequel to be just a repeat of the original. “We didn’t want to repeat anything that we had used; we wanted this to be a completely new experience for the listener”, he says. “This time, we’ve actually written a lot more new material; we’re working towards a new album, so it was a bit of an opportunity to try some new material.What is interesting in this performance is that people are watching it, they are experiencing it in not just an auditory way”.

The Shaolin Afronauts proved to be the perfect band for the job. Formed in 2008, out of a”shared love for West African music and large ensemble improvisation”, as Ross McHenry puts it, the Adelaide-based band have embarked full force on a journey of sonic and social explorations. “Apart from the rhythmic influence, which is quite obvious, there’s a political urgency to the music, which is important”, says the bassist, describing the impact of the genre mostly associated with Fela Kuti. “We also heard that similar emotional social urgency in American music in the 70s, particularly within free jazz leaders, like John Coltrane and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) artists, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

So, at the time that we formed the band, it was a shared love of these things that brought us together, but the early work was focused in creating instrumental afrobeat and using improvisation as a kind of primary voice within that genre. As we moved forward, there was this desire to explore the textural aspects of our large ensemble influences, like like Sun Ra or Gil Evans. We try to find ways to bring those two things together, pushing forward between these distinct aspects of the same group”.

Having mentioned the band’s influences – and the social urgency associated with many of them, would he say that the music of Shaolin Afronauts is also political?“I’m very political and I think that music is not just a thing that I do; it’s the way that I experience the world, so of course the way that I speak about the world, how I talk about it and interact with it through music, is also political”, he answers. “I don’t speak on behalf of everyone, but I think that I echo the sentiments of most of the band. There is definitely a political aspect to what we do. If you accept that art is the lense that you see the world, then you accept that your own music, or your own artistic expression, is a communicative device. Every experience we have, political or otherwise, impacts the way that we create music”.

Mad Jazz 2: The Road Warrior meets the Shaolin Afronauts is on Tuesday 16 May at the Astor Theatre.