Hello from Week Six in lockdown in New York City. The days are blurring together, but thanks to links sent to me from folks in this incredibly kind and creative community, I’ve kept myself busy by attending online art shows, live music performances over Zoom, and other interesting things.
Speaking of interesting things, this month I have for you one of my favorite interviews yet. Meet Fabian Almazan, an award-winning jazz pianist and composer, environmentalist, and founder of Biophilia Records. His most recent album, This Land Abounds With Life, is a gorgeous exploration of the relationship between humans and the natural world. His record label, Biophilia, supports the work of other great musicians who share Fabian’s love of nature. Indeed, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the record label organized volunteer efforts to help clean up rivers and other natural resources.
In the interview below, Fabian and I spoke about what inspired him to start Biophilia and what sustains his interests in music and environmental justice.
Your music – especially your latest album, This Land Abounds With Life – evokes images of animals and natural landscapes. There’s even birdsong on some of the tracks. What animals and places – natural or otherwise – inspire your work?
I have been drawn to nature for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the Caribbean, in Havana, Cuba. We lived on the top floor of a four-story building in the heart of Nuevo Vedado, located a couple of blocks away from the zoo. Times were tough in Cuba in the early 90’s. Rather than being told when we wouldn’t have electricity, we were told when we would have it. This meant that I spent many nights doing homework by candle light, and because we lived so close to the zoo, I could hear some of the animals from our apartment. I was fascinated by those sounds.
We could also see the crisp blue ocean from our balcony off in the distance. Some of our family worked for the agricultural sector. We would sometimes visit them in Camagüey, where I would spend a lot of time in the countryside. Cuba is teaming with amphibians and reptiles, and as a kid I spent a lot of time seeking out these creatures. As an adult, this curiosity has continued and one of the things that I really enjoy about touring throughout the world with different bands is that I get to experience all sorts of ecosystems. Whenever I can, I will try to stay an extra day and make it out to local national forests or refuge areas to photograph the wildlife and just breathe it all in. There is life almost everywhere in one form or another, and I find it mysteriously miraculous and inspiring.
Your record label, Biophilia, has a unique mission. Please tell us about it.
In my late teens and early twenties, I became aware of two men without whom I would not have found my way through life: E.O. Wilson and Joseph Campbell. E.O. Wilson’s writings on the biophilia hypothesis helped me affirm the fascination I have with the natural world, and Joseph Campbell gave me the courage to, as he once said, “follow my bliss.”
On a tour with Terence Blanchard throughout the West Coast about ten years ago, we passed through San Diego and Seattle and I went to both zoos since I had some time off during the days. Upon seeing that Herbie Hancock was playing a concert at the Seattle Zoo, something clicked in my mind: my two passions did not have to live in separate worlds; they could be connected. Back in New York, I began going more and more to the Museum of Natural History where I met Michael J. Foster, who was doing research on biodiversity and was interested in the disparity of environmental injustices in wealthy versus poor communities. I learned a lot from him about the different perceptions of sustainability in society and how we can do something about it.
Growing up in Miami, Florida as a young Hispanic male who was serious about classical piano, jazz and science, I felt pretty isolated sometimes. I didn’t feel like there were others around that fit my description. After meeting with Michael, my initial goal was to form some sort of music organization focused on historically underserved groups and the environment, so as to provide similar-minded artists with a supportive community of peers. Then I spent some time in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was deeply moved by the experiences and conversations I had with people about apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s efforts to unify people. That was when the idea became clearer in my mind. I would establish Biophilia Records as a label of all genres that values imaginative music and takes an environmentally conscious approach to packaging and distribution.
Additionally, Biophilia Records would coordinate with a variety of sustainability-focused, non-profit organizations to participate in volunteering events that benefit society and the environment. I didn’t want to add more plastic to the world by printing thousands of CDs so I came up with the concept of having an elaborate piece of paper origami art which folds down to the same dimensions as a CD jewel case, containing a unique download code for the music. This, I felt, was a good middle ground between providing a plastic-free product for the super fans that ask for physical products and artists who can continue to have something to sell as merch at the end of their shows. That’s important, because merch sales supplement the ever-dwindling revenue from album sales due to digital pirating and streaming. This paper product became the Biopholio™. In an effort to steer the music industry in a more sustainable direction, we trademarked the Biopholio™ with the hope that fans would embrace this new environmentally conscious format and further push the social change needed to pave the way for better environmental policies in government.
Tell us about the volunteer work that your label’s artists participate in.
This is kind of a sore subject at the moment, because although I have very much enjoyed teaming up with many non-profits to organize such efforts, a big forthcoming event was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. We were all set to host our first large-scale volunteering event with permits from the NYC Parks and Recreation department on May 2nd alongside Riverkeeper to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Our artists and fans were going to help clean up the Hudson river, and I was very much looking forward to that. We were also going to have our first ever Biophilia Records Festival at the Jazz Gallery from April 22 to May 2, featuring 13 performances by all of the Biophilia Records artists. This all had to be cancelled due to the crisis the world is facing, and I absolutely support the decision to cancel everything – but it hurts a little bit.
You and your wife, the brilliant bassist Linda May Han Oh, have both spoken about your passion for environmental awareness. What sustains your activism?
Love is what sustains me on all fronts.
You’ve led your own bands and have played for years with Terence Blanchard. Who are some of your biggest musical influences? And who are some of your favorites playing today?
My biggest musical influences are Keith Jarrett, Maurice Ravel, Jonny Greenwood, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Brahms, Stravinsky, Coltrane, and Mahler. Most recently, I’ve become obsessed with a brilliant composer from Philadelphia, David Ludwig. Some of my favorites playing today are all of the musicians on Biophilia Records, of course.
Do you think that music has the power to move people to think more deeply about climate change and the environment? Why or why not?
The only answer I can give is that music and nature provide me with a visceral urge to live life to its most full and beautiful potential, and all I can do is try to share this feeling with people.
(Photo by Desmond White.)
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.