Why Mo’Ju almost gave up a music career
“I feel like the bok bok manok [shredded chicken with onion, pickles, cheddar and tangy mayo] has that element of classic Pinoy salad. But for me, the thing that takes me back to my childhood is the sweetness [sliced banana, cream cheese, salted caramel coconut jam]. My dad grew up on a sugar cane plantation, so he has a real sweet toothâ¦ when we were kids we always had a spoon of coconut jam and a banana, and you sucked the spoon and ate the banana.
The modest order consists of two bagels to share and a coffee for me. The conversation about music and family quickly dates back two generations. âMy family dispersed everywhere, so for a long time we did not go back,â Mo’Ju says of their father’s homeland. âMy grandparents were in Hawaii which actually has a pretty large Filipino populationâ¦ I was probably 15, 16 when I got home and I really absorbed that and kind of figured something out about it. of my family. It had a huge impact on me.
Was it like home? âYes and no. It was also culture shockâ¦ I felt like an alien so it made me understand myself. I grew up feeling very lonely and very isolated and like I didn’t fit in. nowhere, then going there, I was just like, âOh, wow.â I felt privileged too. I really understood that back then, even though I didn’t necessarily have the language to articulate it. .
The language of music, on the other hand, was fully formed and encompassing everything. Mom James Taylor, Roberta Flack, Sade, and Tracey Chapman records were huge. Dad loved blues and rock’n’roll. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, The Beatles. He lived in San Francisco in the 70s, so he remembered seeing Sly and the Family Stone and Fleetwood Mac.
âI feel like my biggest influence came from my grandparents,â Mo’Ju says. âMy mother’s parents were very passionate about jazz, so when we were very little we would go to jazz festivals with them. To my grandfather, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday were like saints. There would be a recording and he would say, ‘Who is this?’ And you say, âOh, it’s Billie Holidayâ and he says, âNo, who plays the clarinet? He would know all the musicians in that song, where it was recorded, what yearâ¦ it taught me to appreciate every player in the band, you know?
Young Mojo [the name change to Moâju came in 2021] inherited a Boosey & Hawkes clarinet from an uncle at age seven or eight. You can hear the jungle jazz influence of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway on the Mojo Juju album from 2012, but at that point the switch to guitar and piano was a done deal to let that low, liquid voice take the lead.
âMy grandmother sang hymns. Gospel. I sang in the church choir for a while. Very early on, my parents understood, whether I was gifted or not, that I liked to sing. So I started singing lessons at a very young age. My dad didn’t necessarily like that I was obsessed with music. He always said: “You must have a real job”. But every now and then he would do little things that would contradict it. I think the first time he was impressed was when I learned to play a Jimi Hendrix song in my bedroom.
âI was very lucky to be encouraged, but it was something that really excited me from a young age. There are pictures of me when I was, like, eight years old, dressing up, sitting in a tuxedo or something in an organ and I look like a baby Fats Waller!
Hey, Fats was cool. Funny too. âI think one of the things I love about this kind of music is humor. Louis Jordan tooâ¦ I think humor influenced that a lot. The crisp costumes and lively ’50s jazz and jump blues style were part of Mojo Juju’s number when they started bringing an old-school class to the festival circuit nearly 15 years ago. But this character was just a comfortable fit back then for an artist with a lot of other ideas creeping in.
âThere was a lot of self-preservation in that character. There were times when I wasn’t always comfortable in my skin. I guess you wear a little armor so you can stand on stage. “I’m totally introverted. And I think I got into this whole idea: I’m an artist. I don’t have to give so much of myself.”
That changed almost by accident in 2018. “I don’t speak my father’s native language / I was born in sunny southern conditions / I don’t know where I belong,” proclaimed the opening lines of Mother tongue. âMy great-grandfather was Wiradjuri / My dad came from the Philippines,â were proud statements of fact, but in a world obsessed with identity politics, Mojo was forced to engage with culture warriors to left and right.
âSometimes I think there’s all this pressure and expectation on women and especially people of color to be ‘political and genuine’ and stuff. And there’s a part of me that wants that. Because these other artists like Waits and Dylan and Paul Kelly and Nick Cave, they are heroes and icons. They write fiction, but with real things. I would really like to be just an artist and be recognized for that. I’m good at telling stories I’m good at entertaining people.
With the jump to Mother tongue and beyond, “I think it just took me awhile to get to the point where I was brave enough to tell my own stories, because I’ve spent my whole life not fitting in and trying to blend in. I didn’t want to be different.
âI used to back down from homosexuality and butchery and all that stuff because it was often portrayed as unattractive. I actually just hurt myself. There was this internalized homophobia; internalized racism. I didn’t want to have to talk about it.
Earlier, industry pressure not to be “too alienating” sealed Mojo’s resolve on this point.
âNow I felt like I knew myself pretty well. It also seemed urgent and important to tell some family stories; to honor my grandparents. It was a great thing for me because I am so close to them.
The bok bok manok is in pieces. It is the hour of gluttony. Mo’Ju looks at my face with a smile. Mmm. Coconut jam.
âRight? That’s the whole story.â
Mo’Ju’s mini-album Okay is out now.
The check, please
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