01 Jul Uncle Jumbo Shares New Record ‘Taste the Sky,’ Inspired by Family and Fatherhood
by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
Family musician Uncle Jumbo’s newly released record Taste the Sky is jubilant, catchy, and perfect for hot days at the local splash pad. The record, which blends hip hop, soul, and reggae with positive messages, is loaded with fun collaborations and fueled by the creative inspiration Uncle Jumbo felt when he became a parent.
Yet what many listeners may not realize is that the album is also cathartic, too: Just a few weeks after his daughter Ani was born, she was diagnosed with a rare liver disease. As a result, much of the music on the record emerged from the process of trying to be fully present with family, and appreciate every little moment.
“We had been singing to Ani since before she was here,” explains Uncle Jumbo. “We found out about her diagnosis only a few days after first leaving the hospital, and she had to have major surgery at just three weeks old. That’s a very hard time for me to think about right now. It was beyond frightening, and there was so much uncertainty, but through it all, one thing that remained was us singing to Ani.”
From the sweet love song “Mama is so Beautiful” (with Grammy winner and rockmommy Lucy Kalantari) to the celebratory dance jam “One Big Family” to the title track inspired by something his tiny daughter liked to say (“Taste The Sky”), the record offers an eclectic mix of tunes that gives us all the feels.
We recently caught up with Uncle Jumbo to talk about his songs, upbringing, Olympic aspirations (he ran track in high school!), fatherhood, and more:
Rockmommy: Uncle Jumbo, nice to meet you! I understand you honed your chops playing music in Louisiana and Texas. Who, specifically were your musical influences? How did your upbringing help to mold you into a performer?
Uncle Jumbo: When I think about the music of my youth, there is actually one specific album that I can narrow it down to, that I hope when people hear my songs and see my performances, they can feel the clear lineage and roots of what I’m doing; and that album is Jock Jams Vol. 1 presented by ESPN and Tommy Boy Records. When that came out in ‘95, I honestly thought we as a people had reached the pinnacle of musical achievement — there’s no reason to take it any further because we now have everything we need right here.
I’m only halfway joking. I really do love an up-tempo dance beat with a powerful and agile female vocalist, like CeCe Peniston. It’s a big reason why certain songs of mine exist — like “Wild Kingdom Tea Party” with Christina Wells on this new album Taste the Sky.
I have lived my life surrounded by so many styles of music, and the greatest influence, even greater than any one artist or group or genre, is the people I’ve been lucky enough to be placed with in my life, and the deep connection they hold with music as a spiritual and community experience.
My first time on stage came as a four-year-old on one of my frequent visits from Texas to my Aunt Helen’s house in Lafayette, Louisiana. To that whole side of the family, Zydeco music is life! Aunt Helen hosted touring bands at her carport and front porch which she would convert into a makeshift music venue. Neighbors would come by to dance and I would be up there with the band playing a little accordion. This went on for years.
That same thread was there with me as a teenager in Houston, inspired by the legendary local Hip Hop collective S.U.C and the freestyle culture of the city.
Rockmommy: Did you grow up playing instruments? Did you have any kind of formal training, in addition to having musical role models in your life?
Uncle Jumbo: No, I’m mostly self-taught. I didn’t have my first formal piano lesson until I was in college, and in that same session, I spent several months in a music seminar course just to observe the students who were music majors at Texas Southern University — to hear them play their music, and to learn more about composing and writing about music.
I was an athlete my whole life. I eventually went on to run track in college and at one point had the goal of competing in the Olympics. That’s how I saw myself back then. Music was always like a special family member to me. It was always something that was just there, but it wasn’t something that I saw myself as being allowed or meant to pursue in a serious way. That didn’t come for a long time.
I went to a very small elementary school, and when I arrived at a much larger middle school, it was the first time that I saw kids my age in a school band actually playing instruments together. I’ll never forget how shocked I felt at a first day of school pep rally, seeing new friends playing the song “Smoke on the Water” with their brass and drums and woodwinds. I just couldn’t believe that people my age knew how to do that, and that moment remains stamped in my memory even today. There’s a lyric on my song “Mama is so Beautiful” that says “smoke on the water/ squirrel on the rainbow” that comes directly from then.
Rockmommy: I understand that new inspiration to create Taste The Sky struck when you found out you were having a daughter, and began your parenting journey with her — which wasn’t easy due to her rare liver disease diagnosis. Can you tell us about that?
Uncle Jumbo: Yes, I felt a massive wave of creative inspiration from the moment I found out we were having a daughter. I went to all of the appointments with my wife and the day we were able to hear Ani’s heartbeat for the first time, I was so overwhelmed with emotional energy and needed to channel it into something. I remembered seeing the pace of her heartbeat displayed on a monitor in beats per minute, so I immediately made a drum beat at that tempo when we got home. That beat eventually grew into a song. She’s always been the chief inspiration.
As a baby, anytime Ani would feel a bit of wind, she’d stick her tongue out and try to taste it. Later as she began to speak, she’d often say, “Papa, I wanna taste the sky” and I’d pretend to taste it with her. It was always poetic, but a deeper meaning came to me as time passed, thinking back to the phrase and having so many memories unlocked of all the little moments we shared together while tasting the sky.
We had been singing to Ani since before she was here. We found out about her diagnosis only a few days after first leaving the hospital, and she had to have major surgery at just three weeks old. That’s a very hard time for me to think about right now. It was beyond frightening, and there was so much uncertainty, but through it all, one thing that remained was us singing to Ani. And we sang to each other, to keep ourselves going to feel some sense of normalcy, and hope.
Thankfully, Ani has been thriving, and we are still singing, but now we sing for the miracle that is every day we get to spend together.
Rockmommy: It took you three years to create this record. That’s a long time! Is that because you’re a father?
Uncle Jumbo: Oh it’s absolutely because I’m a father haha! Let me know if I can borrow a nap sometime.
The real reason is that once I decided this next album would be called Taste the Sky, and I knew how much meaning that phrase had in my own life, the only thing that made sense to me was to devote more of my time to being as present as possible with my family.
As an artist today, I think it can be easy to fall into the thinking that you have to always be releasing and promoting something new. This album wouldn’t let me think that way.
2019 is when I began on this new path of making music for children, and I was instantly hit with the exciting feeling of living in my calling, so much so that I released three albums all on the same day. One is full of lullabies, one is movement songs, and one was inspired by garden life. I stand by those albums today, and think they’re wonderful, but the truth is that really anybody could have made those records — the garden is such an inspiring and magical place that people will continue to make music based on that beautiful setting to reflect life lessons.
When I decided to let myself be inspired by my actual life, I trusted the feeling that I had something special to give and that it would be okay to let it cook slowly while living fully in these moments.
I felt an unexpected sadness at the final mixing session for the record because it has been so long in the making, and along the way, this album became sort of a character in all of my family’s life — those unfinished songs were taken on vacations with us, countless sunset neighborhood bike rides with my daughter in the seat behind me as we sang the songs aloud and worked on lyrics; so many experiences. It changed the way that I work. It changed my relationship with my family. I am a different person now after making this record. All of that takes time.
Rockmommy: You have some awesome collaborators on this record, like Mista Cookie Jar and Lucy Kalantari. How did you connect with them?
Uncle Jumbo: Cookie and Lucy are two of the most beautiful humans around; real sweethearts who also make such incredibly soulful and playful and inspiring music.
We’re big fans of both in our home. Overall, the community of kids music makers is so welcoming and supportive. Even though we’d never met in person at the time when I started on each of the songs I have with them, I felt so comfortable just doing it the same way that kids do, by just reaching out and saying, “let’s be friends.” And it’s been on ever since!
I’m so thankful to have them and all of the other friends who joined me in making this album.
Rockmommy: What do you hope your daughter and other children get out of this record?
Uncle Jumbo: My hope is that it helps them understand they have the power to define themselves. I hope it teaches them to feel a deep sense of belonging and a confidence that they can extend that feeling of belonging to others around them. I want them to believe in the beauty of their imaginations and to know that they can use it to create memories they will cherish for a lifetime. I hope it brings them together. And all of these are the same hope I have for the adults who find their way to the album, because we need to be reminded of these things too. I hope they know they can taste the sky.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.