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Meet the British-Chinese Muslim man from south London reinventing jazz

How a British-Chinese Muslim is reinventing the genre.

Written by Anushree Majumdar |
Updated: December 9, 2018 12:30:04 pm
Henry Wu, Kamaal Williams, Henry Wu music His own thing: Henry Wu also goes by the name of Kamaal Williams: “People ask why. I say, ‘Same director, different movie’”.

Henry Wu makes music that jumpstarts the day, puts that pep in your step, smoothly transitioning from a working day to a night out in the town; versatile like red lipstick or a little black dress. Since his debut EP, Good Morning Peckham, released in 2015, Wu’s tunes are soulful house, with chilled out piano chords, that almost dainty breakbeat, that bit of funk in the right place. Kamaal Williams, on the other hand, wants to shake things up a bit. As one half of the jazz duo, Yussef Kamaal, that he formed with drummer Yussef Dayes, he conceived and created Black Focus (2016), a globally-acclaimed jazz album that, in places, harks back to Herbie Hancock’s iconic 1973 album, Headhunters. But it’s tighter, faster, fresh and refuses to colour within the lines of the genre. At the 2018 edition of Magnetic Fields in Alsisar, Rajasthan this month, festival goers will get a chance to watch both Wu and Williams in action. It should be easy: they are the same man.

“Let me put it like this: Kamaal Williams is more like a conceptual band, and Henry Wu is the DJ, the producer, the mastermind,” says Wu/Williams, over the phone from London. His last album, The Return by Kamaal Williams, released earlier this year; music that was born out of much strife and disillusionment. Shortly after Black Focus, Yussef Kamal disbanded, and the 29-year-old musician and producer was intent on showing the world that he was here to stay. He recorded the album with drummer Josh ‘MckNasty’ McKenzie and bassist Pete Martin in his mother’s living room. “I had no money, no studio, just one mic. We created the album out of nothing but pure love for the music,” says Williams.

Fans of Black Focus might miss Dayes’s frenzied drumming, but the energy of The Return is different. “It is very contemplative, very mysterious. You have to dig deep into your soul to find out what the music is trying to tell you,” says Williams. With The Return finding a place in the Top 10 albums of 2018 in the UK’s jazz charts, what everybody wants to know is how a British-Chinese Muslim lad from south London reinvented the genre.

Born to a Taiwanese mother and a British father who worked as architects, Williams grew up in Peckham. “My dad used to play Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Stevie Wonder, Carlos Santana. My mum played Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton. But at school, it was all about grime, and acts like Craig David, Dizzy Rascal, 50 Cent and Kanye West.

Especially So Solid Crew — these were local boys from my area — and when we saw them on Top of the Pops, they were wearing Nikes and track suits, looking like us,” says Williams, who was learning drums at school, but switched to the keyboards in college. “Like the piano, it’s a bit nerdy, it’s a bit posh. I thought to myself, ‘Let me be the first person with swag to play it’,”he says.

After spending the early years emceeing in Carnaby Street, Soho, and playing with electronic-pop act Katy B, Williams began making music solo as Henry Wu. In 2011, he converted to Islam and adopted the name Kamaal.

Freedom is what drew Williams to jazz, a form that emphasised improvisation more than any other, but he would play it on his own terms. “I’m influenced by the spirit of jazz, but I don’t call what I do jazz; I call it ‘Wu funk’. It is its own genre,” says Williams, adding, “Jazz is seen as some kind of elite music, but I’m from the streets, I’ve got to make jazz my own thing.”

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