Ajimal is a 22 year-old musician from Newcastle. You might be thinking that that’s an interesting sobriquet and you’d be right; it certainly is intriguing. His namesake, and where in fact this moniker originates from, is a former Haitian witchdoctor who is most widely known for practising under the brutal dictatorship of Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. The names literal translation is bad spirit. It’s all a bit morbid, even for a bitterly murky evening in December.
“I was in Haiti working at a hospital and he came in and began to preach. It was inspiring,” he tells me. Then, as an after-thought, he adds, “I liked the way it sounds too, the way it falls off the tongue. The phonetics.”
So not so macabre as one assumed though it’s still very bleak. However, and this is important, it’s a clever idea. As bad spirits go, Ajimal is anything but: “I’m a relatively positive person,” he assures me (and he certainly is very pleasant throughout our interview), “but this provides me with the opportunity to explore something completely different. I like the idea of masks and the disconnect they provide.”
Ping. This contrast between the actual self and the invention of a stage persona is marked. I am reminded of The Joker from Batman, partly because I recently read a short story about the ‘crown price of crime’, partly because of the thick white stripe that is painted across the face of Ajimal, but largely because of the idea that the decorated facial facade allows people the freedom to disassociate themselves from whatever actions they perpetrate whilst in character. Take off the mask and you’re back to reality, only with The Joker that doesn’t happen. Therein lies the danger but creatively it’s wonderfully liberating.
“It’s nice to have an anonymity. The image it presents is something quite cold and void of life. I really like the coldness of it all.”
Although he hasn’t performed with this ‘mask’ as of yet, it’s definitely on the agenda. Part of the reason behind this reserve is the new direction Fran O’Hanlon – as he is normally known – wants to take Ajimal. Currently a mixture of collaborative music and solo stuff, O’Hanlon wants Ajimal to be a decidedly personal affair, an outlet in which to dig deeper into darker subject matter whilst delivering a musical experience that is unconventional. He still hopes to work with others, just under another name.
“What is really important to me is to create something that itself creates a strong reaction,” he says eagerly, “I’m interested in trying to produce something quite minimalist. I like the idea of getting to the heart of a sound and seeing if I can make it pure: simple but powerful.”
He’s a great person to talk to, and in chatting to him, I can see why he has been touted as one of the region’s best emerging songwriters. Originally brought up in Newcastle, with a year spent in Paris, and now residing in Edinburgh – doing a degree in medicine of all things – Ajimal comes across as a sprightly, smart and cultivated guy, an artiste who is inspired by all things creative, a soul sensitive to the world around him as he seeks, consciously or not, self-fulfilment through music. It’s how he is able to produce songs like Wolf, which seeks, in part, to recreate the narrative from Herman Hesse’s classic novel Steppenwolf.
“I wanted to use instruments to embody these characters, particularly the wolf in the cello. I wanted it to lurk and darkly stalk through the piece, adding a richness but also fucking things up as much as possible.”
It’s a song that invites conversation, critique and examination, a creative product that has a multitude of layers to its composition. This novel, after all, was about a man struggling with the emptiness of existing in a material world that could only be alleviated by the regressive want for a more feral life. The song can therefore be considered in light of that historical and cultural backdrop, but equally analysed against the alienation we have with our fundamental human impulses, a position that probably defines much of the west today. Or not. Maybe it’s about a wolf. Whatever. As Ajimal himself says, that’s the beauty of art, what you yourself see, hear and feel.
“One of the most important and great things about art is that we all interpret it differently. It’s meant to provoke thought and debate and that’s what I love about it. For me as an artist, music is something that I have always loved.”
As we wind down our conversation, I think back to the perception I had prior to meeting him. I presumed him to be an idiosyncratic guy, a tad warped and fairly morbid. After speaking to him, I was left thinking anything but. Here is a nice unassuming young man, well read and smart, enamoured by art, and bursting with a lot of potentially good ideas to be channelled into excellent music. The future is ‘bright’.
Published in Narc Magazine