For years, photographer and trumpeter, Koof Ibi has been a staple in Philadelphia’s music community. From his days playing with the West Philadelphia Orchestra to fantastic Instagram live streams during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Koof augments his sensitive and soulful playing with loops and ambient sounds. We sat down and spoke with him about sampling, the art of playing a good cover, and the upcoming string of shows he has on deck at Abyssinia in West Philly.John Morrison: For folks who may not know, could you tell me a little bit about your background, where you’re from and all that? As much as you’re willing to share. Koof Ibi: Well, I mostly grew up in New Jersey up until I came to Philly for school, to go to the University Of the Arts, studying music performance and music education. I’ve been in Philly since then. I guess I grew up playing music. My sisters were taking piano lessons. They’re both, uh, three and six years older than me. They were taking piano lessons and my mom wouldn’t let me because I was too young. So I was really itching to play piano, and then that one year I got to play piano finally. And then we all realized that the teacher was horrible. So we kinda quit. We got a little Casio keyboard that we had in our living room for a long time, and we all made up our own things, played with the beats, but kind of stopped taking piano lessons. And then I wanted to play trombone when it came to like, picking school instruments. But the combination of my name being at the end of the alphabet and like, I guess they didn’t have enough trombones. The teacher also said my arms were too short and gave me a trumpet. Then I started hearing the jazz band and being like, “Oh, you can make interesting music.” Most high school jazz bands play like a little bit of jazz and then a little bit of funk and a little bit of whatever. And I was like, “Oh, you can, you can like, make interesting danceable music with, with just the horns essentially.” Yeah. So that’s when I started diving in a little bit more. And, this one teacher actually just graduated from the University of the Arts and came out to teach at my school and was really motivated and started introducing us to a lot of different possibilities with music and I just kind of kept diving in, kept finding cool stuff. JM: Coming to Philly and studying at UArts, what was your intention as a young person? What was your dream or your ideal for music and your studies? KI: I think originally, part of what I was telling myself was that I wanted to be that same teacher that, like, came out of college and came to a school or a band program that had kind of been faltering and rejuvenated it, brought in some new energy and really got the kids interested. Pretty much Dangerous Minds, but for music. No, I’m kidding. [laughs] JM: Jazz band Dangerous Minds! KI: Yeah. But I wanted to play music. I wanted to be traveling and, just playing with whoever I could. And I think I chose music education as like, kind of a backup to tell my mom like, “Oh, I could just be a teacher whenever I want.”
Koof Ibi | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN
Loops and Samples: Building compositions with trumpet player Koof Ibi
Ibi brings his set of covers and originals to the upstairs bar at West Philly’s Abyssinia on Friday.
JM: Thinking about the music that you make now, I noticed that you have a very unique way of interpreting other people’s songs. What makes you select a song that you want to cover and reinterpret? And then tell me a little bit about the nuts and bolts process of rearranging somebody else’s composition.KI: I feel like I always have random songs popping into my head at different times. And the ones that keep coming back, eventually it has to come out of me somehow for me to get it out of my head. So I actually have a list of just random songs that I think of too much and they eventually need to come out. And also part of it was during the pandemic, like a lot of this started from me doing live streams and really trying to connect with whoever was out there that needed to connect via internet. And every once in a while I would take little polls to see what songs people want to hear. What artists do people want to hear? And that was interesting because I was stretching a little bit more and finding songs that I didn’t know yet, but learning to love. I was doing all the research of going to sample.com [laughs], and trying and finding all the samples and trying to put something together by myself, trying to recreate the song with just the instruments that I have and then trying to create something new off of that also. JM: So, when you want to cover a song — correct me if I’m wrong — you were finding the original samples that were used and trying to kind of approximate the arrangement or the instrumentation through the samples? KI: I feel like my mind goes so many different places at the same time. So, one of the things I have written down is actually a song that my new band, AKA…plays, but I call it “She Represents Queens.” So it’s based off of that piano part from LL Cool J’s “Doin It.” JM: Grace Jones, “My Jamaican Guy.” KI: Yeah. Grace Jones. And while a lot of people sampled it, I was just listening to all the songs that sampled it and seeing what the people already did with it. And just soaking it into my sponge brain and then trying to see what comes out after that. So, sometimes it was approximating the sound of the sample. Sometimes, it was just getting the sample of the original song and building something completely different. JM: How is that process of arranging a cover different from composing an original piece of music for you? KI: Hmm. That’s a good question. While I’m performing live, I’m inspired by a lot of things and melodies come into my mind that will fit over whatever is happening. But a lot of times I’ll play the melody a few times and see people kind of light up. Getting to the chorus or getting to whatever part and really making it known that this is the song that I’m covering and like people are like, “Oh yeah.” And start singing along. I feel like using those moments in arranging is powerful. I feel like I do this puzzle where whenever I’m listening to something I’m like, “Okay, this is this one song, but what other songs can fit over this? What is the constant throughout the whole song?
JM: I was on your Bandcamp page and I was listening to “Prologue for A Dream.” I noticed that the personnel was listed as Koof on trumpet and voice and the timpani and cymbals are credited to YouTube. Could you explain that to me? Are you talking a sample from a recording? How did you work that out specifically?KI: Since I was doing a lot of the sampling stuff for the live streams, I wanted to grab a timpani roll and a cymbal to add to the song to kind of make those peaks a little bit more epic. GarageBand didn’t have the sound I wanted, so I’ve been like sourcing samples from YouTube and I just found like the specific perfect sounds that I wanted. JM: That reminds me of a thing I heard Prince Paul say once. He was talking about sampling and he said rappers could play a groove or bring in a band to play a groove, but we wanted the actual sound of a thing coming off of a record. And I think that that’s something that, kind of gets lost in conversations about sampling. Like the actual timbre of a sound and the sonic texture of a thing. And I think that kind of gets lost when we talk about why musicians choose to sample. KI: Yeah, I agree. And it’s also like, people recognize sounds a lot more than they think they do. Like if you play one second of a chord from a Stevie Wonder song, a lot of people will recognize it. And I guess I’m kind of doing that by bringing in familiar melodies but played in a different way, over a different thing to create something new. JM: Could you talk a little bit about what you have planned for the Abyssinia show? KI: I was just figuring some of that stuff out right before I got on this call. I know I can cover songs and I kind of have a way of doing it, but I also like kind of the improv, leaving some of it up to choice or leaving some of it up to what the room feels like.
Koof Ibi performs Upstairs at Abyssinia on Friday, October 28th; more information on the show can be found here.