Years from now, brave pioneers
will bid farewell to the Earth
as they set off for Kobaïa,
a distant planet where they’ll
establish a new civilisation free of
the ills of modern society. At least,
that’s the vision that classically-
trained French drummer Christian
Vander came up with at the tail end
of the 1960s. Partly as an attempt
to fill the void left by the death of
jazz legend John Coltrane, Vander
formed rock band Magma and
recorded a debut album that laid
out the story of Kobaïa, singing it in
the planet’s guttural (and entirely
imagined) native tongue.
45 years later, Magma have
sustained the tale over the course
of 11 concept albums, spawned
an entire sub-genre of prog-rock
with bands performing in the Kobaïan 'language',
and this month, bring their music to
China for the first time. Ahead of his Shanghai debut, Vander tells Time Out
about his band and his mythology
What inspired you to create the original Kobaïa stories?
The hope that the Earth will, one day, correspond more to our vision of
the world: as Laurent Thibault, the first producer of the band, used to put it
'Earth without it’s assholes'.
The stories began with your first album back in 1970. Do you think the
tale of Kobaïa is even more relevant today than it was then?
More than ever! The world seems to evolve in the opposite direction of
our aspirations. In spite of that, we continue to work towards the realisation
of our quest.
How has the tale progressed over the years and has this been reflected
in musical changes?
The music was always the priority, it tells its own story. The story of
Magma itself is the fruit of daily labour; I don’t analyse the way I compose
music, I let the music come to me, but in order to do that my mind has to be
Were you influenced by science fiction at all or do you see the Kobaïa
narrative as something else?
No, I never thought about my music in terms of science fiction, I
actually don’t even know that genre very well.
So can you explain a bit of the background to the Kobaïan language and how
it initially came about?
The sounds just come to me spontaneously with the music, they are
created primarily to emphasise the music. It’s an organic language, not
imagined, not artificially constructed, because it appeared already in my
childhood dreams, so it really wasn’t premeditated. Some of the words are, even
now, still untranslatable. It’s, above everything else, a musical and spiritual
language. Always evolving, every new composition brings forth new words. The
first sound I ever sang whilst composing was 'Kobaia'. That’s where the legend
What are the key tenets of Kobaïan?
Kobaian is an essentially musical language, however, according to the
state of mind you’re in or the different levels you’re on, you can understand
the concept in different ways. When I was listening to John Coltrane’s
saxophone for example, he didn’t use any words but I understood was he was
telling me anyway. It’s quite simple…
What do you make of the way Magma has spawned a whole genre of Zeuhl music, i.e. bands who perform in Kobaian?
Zeuhl music means 'vibratory music'. Many self-called Zeuhl bands are playing very good stuff, but very few are exploring its different facets. Most of them play the 'dark side' of this music, the heavy side. It’s very rare to find a band which is playing also lighter and more optimistic stuff. You can find a lot of joy in this music as well.
Musically, what were the origins of Magma?
Like I was saying at the time of Magma’s beginnings:
'Magma’s music was born on a spring day out of my love for John Coltrane and my
profound sadness about human inability to comprehend one another'. May it be through
me or somebody else, Magma was bound to be born.
Who were some of your musical influences growing up and how have they
impacted upon your own style?
I was lucky enough to have John Coltrane as a
model. Every one of his records surprised us. That’s what I understood when I
created Magma. Every record had to be an evolution of what we had done before.
Always be surprising, never repeating ourselves or plagiarising anyone, never
listening to other people’s opinions, which tend to imprison the musician in
the past. We never recorded just to record; making a record is something more important
than that… Also, I never took into account musical trends. Magma always stayed
true to itself through time.
Magma effectively stopped in the 1980s. What led to that hiatus?
I felt the need to go back to my roots: jazz music. So I went back to playing in a trio and also developed a side
project called Offering, which gave me much more room for improvisation. In a
sense, Magma never really stopped, because Offering participated in the
evolution of Magma’s music. In my more recent compositions you can definitely hear
some of Offering's influences.
What made you want to restart the project again?
In 1996, a friend convinced us to play the
original music of the band again in order to make the music available to a new
generation of younger fans, born at the same time as Magma in the early '70s,
who never had the chance to see the band live.
How does it feel to be bringing your music to China?
am very glad to come play in China. It’s something I’ve always dreamed about! I
even wrote a poem called 'China is Wonderful' at the beginning of the '70s. I hope I will be able to
meet and communicate with the people who are interested in Magma’s music.
What’s next for Magma?
Continue to play and give
people a chance of discovering our music all around the world. And most of all,
continue to surprise others... and myself.