Tag Archive: African music


I first heard of Nubiyan Twist when I went to see Joe Armon-Jones at The Crescent in York last November, as Joe introduced the band he got to bassist Luke Wynter he said he was in Nubiyan Twist from Leeds. My first thought was that’s a great name for a band and that there was another potentially great band coming out of Leeds. It turns out I was right this is another great band coming out of Leeds (though now based in London) and what’s more another great band that met and formed at Leeds College of Music. Leeds College of Music is a respected music education institution in the UK but if it keeps on producing the amount of quality bands it is currently it will become world famous and rank alongside the likes of Berklee in the USA.

But I got off the point for a while there It’s time to get back to talking about the music of Nubiyan Twist and their album “Jungle Run”. On the bands Facebook page under Band Interests it says “To encourage artistic and social unity between different cultures and musical styles.” This is definitely a mission statement the band achieves on this album, they combine the disparate styles of dance music (including House and Drum ‘n’ Bass), Dub, Latin, Afrobeat, Ethio-Jazz, Hip-Hop, Turntablism and Soul into a potent stew of sound. This is quite an achievement considering the band has ten members And also joined in this album by guests Nubiya Brandon (vocals), Tony Allen (drums) the inventor of the rhythms of Afrobeat and Mulatu Astatke (vibraphone) the inventor of Ethio-Jazz. I have to admit that I am very jealous of the fact that the band gets to work with two giants of African music. Another achievement is to not be subsumed by those legends on the track states they contribute to this is a band with a clear identity and incredible musical talent to boot. Bandleader Tom Excell also produced the record in the bands own studio in Oxfordshire in the UK and it’s an impressive feat to say the least to build to get all these competing instruments and talents to play nicely in a mix. This isn’t just an impressive album it’s a lot of fun to the irresistible beats make impossible for you not to dance and the catchy choruses will be in your head in no time.

I know I’m probably repeating myself here but it’s hard to overstate how incredible this album is not only as a musical achievement but something that truly represents what music can be in the 21st-century. This is an album of the Internet age don’t get me wrong there are albums made fused cells are music together before the Internet age but “Jungle Run” is something only truly achievable in a world where you can access any music at any time with the click of a button. This is a real Album of the Year contender and definitely check it out.

Let me know what you think of “Jungle Run” in the Comments.

Mulatu Cover

I first came across Mulatu Astatke’s music after buying “Inspiration Information” (2009) a collborative album made with London’s funk/jazz/psychdelica band The Heliocentrics. The album hasn’t been off my mp3 player since and I’ve explored his impressive back catalogue of Ethio Jazz (the genre he pionneered in the late 60’s that combines tradtional Ethiopia modes and rhythms with those of Western jazz) albums. Four years later he returns with an album that gets closer to his aim of a perfect hybrid of Ethiopian music and jazz. The album features a number of tradtional that have been modified by Astatke so that they can play the 12 tone Western scales used in jazz.

The album opens with ‘Azmari’ the whole of Astake’s band in full swing, playing an Afro-funk/Latin jazz rhythm, brass stabs, upright bass underpins the patter of percussion and drums shift under everything. A krar (six-string lyre) flys in playing a counterpoint melody to the brass. There’s a great tense battle between the instruments around 2 minutes 40 seconds in, then the track breaksdown to upright bass twang, masinko (single-bowed lute) scraping and a vibraphone twinkling high above. The intros drums, percussion and melodies dive back in soon after. Next up is ‘Gamo’ a fast moving krar melody, upright bass line, clip-klopping percussion and African vocal chants open the track. Then the brass moves in and out with purpose. The track feels both Latin and African all at once (a trademark of Mulatu’s sound), it’s light yet not without substance. There’s a nice krar solo and low synth drones come in for the final minute or so, the interweaving male and female vocals are great too!!

‘Gambella’ starts with three sparse melodies playing out (vibes, piano & krar) over tumbling toms and waves of cymbals, this creates a forboding atmosphere but with shafts of light courtesy of the cymbals, vibes and high piano notes. The full beat, bass line and acoustic guitar melody kick in at 1 minute 30 seconds in before the horns strut in and blares out over the top. There’s great attitude in the male vocals, which are supported by the female backing vocals and they remind of how the vocals are used on Talking Heads “Remain In Light”. It’s followed by ‘Gumuz’ which begins with chanted male vocals and distant female vocal chants before phased guitar, double bass and a shuffling Latin rhythm slink in. An acoustic guitar plays a rhythm that gives the whole track forward momentum. There’s some nice electric piano chords that introduce themselves during a breakdown around 2 minutes 30 seconds and add warmth throughout the rest of the track. It’s the most modern of all the tracks I’ve hear from Astatke and he just about pulls it off, though some of the sounds are a little too smooth and polished and thus come off as a bit cheesy.

The album finishes with two great but contrasting tracks in ‘Motherland Abay’ and ‘Surma’. The former opens with sparse reverberate piano chords, swiftly followed a picked krar melody, chimes and the bowing of the masinko. Mulatu’s vibraphone twinkles in and out of the mix. This mix of instruments creates a desolate atmosphere. A washint (bamboo flute) enters and creates a haunting melody that swoops down on the listener. The masinko drives in low in the 4th minute before a light drum beat and stringed melody and trumpet take over the vibraphone playing sparsely above and around them. The latter combines a drum roll that brings in the horns, percussion and bass line. The track breaks down for the verse, that features a tightly coiled guitar riff (muted), an acoustic guitar melody, shuffling drums and the horns all backing guest Fatoumata Diawara lead vocals. The track feels a lot more like an Afrobeat or High Life track than the Ethio-Jazz of Mulatu’s usual tracks. It’s sound is sparser and more poppy than the rest of the album.

In “Sketches of Ethiopia” Astatke has created an album that comes close to matching both solo work from the late 60’s and early 70’s and the “Inspiration Information” album that are regarded as his best work. A little more time with the album will no doubt confirm if it equals these past achievements and reveal yet more detail of this meticulous yet effortless artist. Highly recommed to existing Astatke fans and fans of East African music.   

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Talking Heads – “Remain In Light” (Sire Records, 1980)

This month’s selection for Classics Critiqued has long been a personal favourite since my teenage years. It’s also an album that regular features in critics’ Greatest Albums lists, even making it to No.2 on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the ‘80s. That album is the avant funk masterpiece that is “Remain In Light” by Talking Heads. This seminal album was the band’s fourth and the third produced by English pop and rock music auteur Brian Eno. It was the band’s creative high water mark and signalled the end of their initial experimental phase before they became a poppier proposition for the remaining 12 years of their career.

Prior to the band getting together to create “Remain In Light”, David Byrne (vocals/lyrics/guitar) and Brian Eno  retreated to Los Angeles to create what would become their first collaborative album “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” (1981). Although the concept behind “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” continued to evolve during its creation the idea of creating a “fake ethnic record” seemed to run through the core of the result and provided inspiration for “Remain In Light”. Eno envisioned “Remain In Light” as creating a psychedelic vision of Africa. As Simon Reynolds observed in his book “Rip It Up and Start Again”: “Musically, “Bush of Ghosts” took the ideas of ‘Drugs’ and ‘I, Zimbra’ to the next level. Rampant texturology: Eno and Byrne drastically extended the sonic range of conventional instruments through processing and effects. And the technique of interlocking: each instrument played very simple parts, which they then meshed into complex, ever-shifting webs of texture rhythm”. Add all this together with Talking Heads own brand of New Wave rock music and you create an innovative album that almost completely blurs the lines between funk, Afro beat, traditional African music and American art rock.

In July 1980 Talking Heads reconvened with Eno at the Bahamas Compass Point recording studio, where Tina Weymouth (bass) and Chris Frantz (drums) had been holidaying together (they had become a couple shortly after Weymouth joined Talking Heads in 1975) to lay down the backing tracks for what would become “Remain In Light”. In a change from their usual writing/recording routine the band decided to jam ideas that were simultaneously recorded to then be edited, overdubbed and arranged in the second phase of recording, a highly unorthodox approach for a rock band in 1980. The band had decided on this course of action in order to move away from the conventional idea of lead singer and backing band and to craft songs in a more democratic way rather than relying solely on Byrne to write songs. This decision came about when Weymouth and Frantz had discussed leaving the band before all the members took a much needed break earlier in the year. After these recordings were made the band returned to New York’s Sigma Sound studio with the backing tracks more or less completed. Work continued at the New York studio where earlier in the year Jerry Harrison (guitar/keyboards) had produced an album for singer Nona Hendryx. She later provided backing vocals to “Remain In Light” that would enrich the rhythmic backing tracks. At this point the album entered phase two with Byrne struggling to write lyrics and vocal melodies to the backing track which featured only one or two chords. Meanwhile Eno, Harrison and engineer Dave Jerden edited the recordings into loops and overdubbed them with additional keyboard and guitar parts. Weymouth and Frantz rarely attended these session as one, their rhythm parts were already recorded and two, they felt pushed out by the close friendship of Eno and Byrne. Weymouth was particularly angry, describing their friendship as, “…they were dressing like one another…like two fourteen-year-old boys making an impression on each other”.

Eno, Byrne and Harrison all attended a Adrian Belew gig at the New York Plaza and were so blown away by his abstract guitar style that Eno asked if he could come down to Sigma Sound to contribute parts to the album (the pair had previously met when Belew played on David Bowie’s “Lodger” (1979). Belew turned up the next morning with his Roland GR30 guitar synth creating “the metallic distortions and wild spidery notes” heard on ‘The Great Curve’. This new addition “made the music radiate anew and provided an oddly companionable contrast” to the polyrhythmic African funk of the backing tracks. Jon Hassell, another one of Eno’s previous collaborators, played and arranged the stunning gauzy horns on ‘Houses In Motion’.

Their new approach to the writing and arranging of the music caused a problem for David Byrne who had to rethink his approach to writing lyrics and melodies as well as moving into new areas of subject matter. In an interview with Simon Reynolds, Byrne recalls “realizing that this music that was kind of groove-based implied a whole different social and psychological thing – much more ecstatic and trance-like. I realized I couldn’t think about the same things or at least not in the same way, if I was going to be true to what the music felt like. After “Fear of Music”, where I’d done a bit of recording the music first and putting words it later, I took a leap and said ‘Ok, I won’t go in with any lyrics at all.’ That meant I had to write words to fit the music. If I was in a neurotic or tense state of mind, it might not be suitable for the music because the music might not feel like that. I had to write in response to the music.” Reynolds also observed the following change in lyric tone and content. “If “Fear of Music” was about neurosis, “Remain In Light” reached for psychic wholeness, life newly reintegrated with nature and the body.” Talking Heads no longer dealt in white angst (with the exception of album closer ‘The Overload’). Instead it reached for the ecstatic both in terms of the lyrical content and delivery which took from Byrne’s love of soul, Eno’s of gospel and the band’s new found Afro beat influences. Even Eno’s usual restrained English delivery reached unexpected levels of passion when he sang backing vocals with Nona Hendryx who bought this out in him.

Byrne included a bibliography with the album’s press kit to illustrate the lyrics African inspirations; he cited Professor John Miller Cheroff’s “African Rhythm and African Sensibility” as the main influence. The book discussed the role of music in West African culture. The lyric that really stood out was “The world moves on a woman’s hips” from ‘The Great Curve’, which was inspired by “African Art in Motion” by Professor Robert Farris Thompson, though it could just as easily have come from a Fela Kuti song. The lyrics also dealt with identity with Byrne pondering “well, how did I get here” on ‘Once In A Lifetime’ to ‘Crosseyed and Painless’ on which he declares “lost my shape, trying to act casual/can’t stop, I might end up in the hospital”. So it appears he wasn’t able to fully exorcise his angst in the lyrics, though the delivery and backing tracks delivered plenty of ecstasy.

The legacy of “Remain In Light” is an interesting one. It’s difficult to pick out any bands/artists that have been directly influenced by the album and ‘Once In A Lifetime’ is the only song from the album that’s ever been covered. The song was also sampled by many rave and hip-hop acts who loved the song’s brilliant groove and easy conversion to an instrumental loop. It’s here we find the album’s key influence, the way the songs were put together preceded sampling and loop-based dance music. It’s in the DNA of these aforementioned tracks (and some more adventurous hip-hop tracks) that we find “Remain In Light”’s true decedents. “Remain In Light” is a truly unique album that stands up to even the toughest scrutiny even today, thirty two years on.

Let me know what you think of “Remain In Light” in the comments section or via our Twitter.

Listen to “Remain In Light” here.

Liam’s Albums of the Year 2010

I think its been a very strong year for music overall and a step up from 2009, though there’s been some high-profile disappointments e.g. Four Tet, MIA, Maximum Balloon etc the real musical landscape seems in a very health state and I think our review of the year bears this out. We’ve both tried to consider what and who has defined the year as well as our own tastes.

1. Oneohtrix Point Never – ‘Returnal’ (Editions Mego)

In any other year this wouldn’t have been anywhere near my Albums of the Year list but discovering Ambient music and  ‘Returnal’ itselfs excellence plus Oneohtrix’s dominance of year make this one un missable album.

2. Gorillaz – ‘Plastic Beach’ (EMI)

In terms of song based albums this was incredibly strong from the word go. Add to this the concept behind the album, its environmental message and the incendiary return of Bobby Womack. ‘Plastic Beach’ hangs together while cover an incredible range of musical genres including classical, Oriental, hip-hop, grime, electro, pop and rock to name but a few.

3. El Guincho – ‘Pop Negro’ (Young Turks)

El Guincho stepped his music up several gears on this his second album. Taking in Spanish pop, hip-hop, South American music and 80’s heartthrob Luther Vandross. This gave the album its unique sound combining crisp, heavy but danceable rhythms with a glossy production resulting in an album that always puts a smile on your face.

4. Konono No.1 – ‘Assume Crash Position’ (Crammed Discs)

This is another summer blockbuster, this time from Congo. Five years on from their début Konono No.1 returned and seemed to have completely flipped their formula on its head. Instead of the persistent distorted thumb pianos occupying the top of the mix they changed places with waves of reverb drenched sound that had previously hidden beneath them. This changed the sound dramatically creating a more relaxed atmosphere.

5. Mark McGuire – ‘Living with Yourself’ (Editions Mego)

2010 was a busy year for Mark McGuire as well as releasing Emeralds critically acclaimed ‘Does It Look Like I’m Here?’ he produced this his first properly distributed solo release. There’s a lot more space in this than Emeralds latest and ambience and melody share equal billing on this great guitar record.

6. Flying Lotus – ‘Cosmogramma’ (Warp)

With ‘Cosmogramma’ FlyLo has transcended any of the generic tags applied to his music. Yes there are snatches of hip-hop, jazz, chiptune, funk and soundtrack music sometimes all at once but the sound can never be pinned down. It may not quite live up to the hype that preceded it but its ambition takes it close.

7. Big Boi – ‘Sir Luscious Left Foot…’ (Def Jam)

I wasn’t a big fan of ‘Speakerboxx’ Big Boi’s side of the OutKast’s 2003 double album. But ‘Sir Luscious Left Foot…’ is completely different album stuffed full of phat, funky beats that could only come from a member of Atlanata’s finest.

8. Sun Araw – ‘On Patrol’ (Not Not Fun)

18 months ago I hadn’t even heard of Sun Araw, but since hearing his music for the first time this spring I’ve been pretty much addicted. This latest album brings new depth to his dub-infected beats and shimmering wah-wah freak outs. The atmosphere and noises go to the next level and I await his next full length journey with bated breath.

9. Lindstrom and Christabelle– ‘Real Life is No Cool’ (Smalltown Supersound)

Lindstrom took a break from his usual cosmic disco dabbling to create a credible pop record with irrepressible Christabelle. Despite its catchiness and production gloss Lindstrom still provides surprises and twists not traditionally found in pop. The highlight of this outstanding collection is the Dr. Dre aping ‘Lovesick’.

10. Matthew Dear – ‘Black City’ (Ghostly International)

Matthew Dear returned this year with a concept album that hung together brilliantly and restored the faith of those critics who’d deemed his earlier effort ‘Asa Breed’ erratic. The conceptual arch of the record made a real difference and makes for a darker but no less thrilling experience.

11. Hot Chip – ‘One Life Stand’ (EMI/DFA)

In some ways Hot Chip are their own worst enemies and this would have charted higher if it had more of the unpredictability of ‘Made In The Dark’. Having said that this record strikes a balance between warm and sweet and sentimental and sickly. Not an easy achievement by any means.

12. Errors – ‘Come Down with Me’ (Rock Action)

When this album I heard about this album I didn’t get that excited but as the release drew nearer I revisited their début and realised it was much better and warmer than I remembered. I had feared Errors would become a forgotten second tier post-rock band but instead they stepped up a gear with an album packed with highlights. Go see them live and buy the album you won’t regret it!!

13. Jamie Lidell – ‘Compass’ (Warp)

This album was definitely a grower at first half the material failed to make an impact on me; however repeat listening has paid dividends. Lidell has returned to his schizoid genre and mood hopping and this album benefits massively, from dust ball hip-hop of ‘The Ring’, the super deep bass of ‘She Needs Me’ and the desolate beauty of the title track.

14. The Black Dog – ‘Real Music for Airports’ (Soma)

Another great ambient album in that’s had a few (Oneohtrix, Emeralds etc), this time taking on the inventor and king of ambient music Eno himself and succeeding. Created using field recordings made in airports combined with synths, bass and beats The Black Dog blew Eno’s utopian ideal out of the water.

15. Baths – ‘Cerulean’ (Anticon)

I’ll admit that I’ve not been taken with Chillwave as it swept all before it in last year or so. Though Bath début album touches on similar sounds and ideas I believe (as do some journalists) that he isn’t a part of the genre. Baths cover everything from ambient instrumentals through to tracks featuring his angelic vocals and everything in between, his beat slip and slide with the elastic and liquid music that plays around them.

16. These New Puritans – ‘Hidden’ (Domino/Angular)

These New Puritans showed up a lot of their fellow ‘innovative’ indie bands this year by delivering this combination of medieval sounding brass and woodwinds, children’s choir and dancehall beats. It could have been a disaster but instead band leader Jack Barnett’s proved he is a great composer of ground breaking music.

17. Evan Caminiti – ‘West Winds’ (Three Lobed)

Since the end of last year and hearing Sunn O)))’s I’ve discovered more and more drone/doom metal music including Earth, Zaimph and Caminiti’s other project Barn Owl. This album is best of this year’s release and features seven of incredibly provocative pieces including one of my favourite tracks of this year ‘Glowing Sky’.

18. Janelle Monae – ‘The Archandroid’ (Bad Boy/Atlantic)

Like Flying Lotus Monae attempted to produce an ambitious sci-fi concept album and overall she succeeds, however during the second half of the album elements don’t gel as well and the last track could do with  being half as long. There are still many great moments but for now Monae shows the potential to become a truly great artist.

19. Kanye West – ‘My Beautiful Twisted Fantasy’ (Mercury)

This album would have easily been in my  Top Ten if it had only been released a couple of months earlier the lack of time to listen to and digest this means it just straps in because of its ambition and this point what seems to be a high proportion of great tracks.

20. Sleigh Bells – ‘Treats’ (Columbia)

When I first heard Sleigh Bells demos I’ll admit that I wasn’t 100% sure what all the fuss was about, I loved ‘Infinity Guitars’ but other than that they didn’t inspire. However, they’ve proved me wrong with this début album that blends cute pop vocals and melodies with crunching guitars and huge beats. A refreshing slap in the face from a band with a lot of potential to expand!!

Honourable mentions:

LCD Soundsystem – ‘This is Happening’

Caribou – ‘Swim’

Holy Fuck – ‘Latin’

Tobacco – ‘Maniac Meat’

Pocahaunted – ‘Make It Real’

Review of the Year – Observations

Two words seem to have loomed large for me musical this year Ambient and African. Both These types music that were almost completely new to me at the start of the year. Ambient music has actually helped change my perception of what music can be, I’d often dismissed it in the past as it wasn’t attention grabbing enough but I was missing the point. Though I still actively listen to it, I also use it while I work to help me focus (Brian Eno’s ‘Ambient#4: On Land’ is particularly good for this). Ambient has changed the way I choose what music to listen to and judge whether its good or not, I can appreciate subtlety much more.

Meanwhile I’ve gone from only having heard Konono No.1 and Amadou & Miriam to hearing King Sunny Ade, Tinariwen, Tony Allen, Fela Kuti, Mulatu Astake and compilations featuring Afrobeat, Funk and traditional music from Ghana, Nigeria, Benin and Togo. I’ve been most impressed by ‘African Scream Contest: Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin & Togo 70s’ (Analog Africa) which is pretty much as the title suggests, only don’t be expecting an African Hawkwind.

Finally I’ve noticed there’s been a massive increase in quality remix albums, it had seemed that they’d been completed derided and I couldn’t remember the last good/great one I heard. This year has been a bumper year, Health ‘Disco2’ is the pick of bunch 24 great and varied electronic remixes that putting the originals in brand new contexts. We were also treated to remix albums of Caribou (‘Swim Remixes’), Gonjasufi (‘The Califph’s Tea Party’), Errors (Celebrity Come Down With Me’), Bear In Heaven (Best Rest Forth Mouth’), the latest instalment in RVNG Records Frkwys series of remixes and collaborations that saw Juan Atkins, Hans-Joachim Irmer (Faust) and Gibby Hayes (Butthole Surfers) remixed (admittedly awful) psychedelic rock band Psychic Ills to stunning effect.

Vier’s Albums of the Year

20. The Knife, MT. Sims and Planningtorock – Tomorrow, In A Year (Brille): This was never going to be easy. The Knife don’t do easy. The first disk fights the listener at every step. It is confrontational, violent and refuses respite. It beats you into the place of  Charles Darwin, consumed by nervous excitement and anxiety as you walk on alien territory. The second disk offers some humanising introspection and displays The Knife’s (and their collaborators) powerful song writing ability to turn even routine biological observations into heartbreaking poetry. Tomorrow, In A Year isn’t enjoyable, it isn’t supposed to be. Much like Darwin’s vocation, you don’t have to like it or understand it but you must respect it and its objective.

19. Walls – Walls (Kompakt): Haunting and emotive, Walls’ blend of distant thumps and skewed vocals make a compelling, slow-grower.

18. Jatoma – Jatoma (Kompakt): A late entry to the list has given Jatoma a low position nonetheless the cloaked threesome’s debut deserves to be listened to. The sparkly, modulating synths and exacting drums hark back to Cluster and Kraftwerk and on the straighter dance tracks ‘Durian’ and ‘Bou’ the influence of The Field is channelled into gauzy loops and arpeggios.  This and Walls fit Kompakt perfectly and point the way to the next era of the Cologne label.

17. Washed Out – Life Of Leisure (Mexican Summer): This debut is the sound of summer nostalgia. Revealed by the cover’s lilac dream, warm washes of synths and the sighs and lilts of Ernest Greene’s drenched voice.

16. Caribou – Swim (City Slang): Opening with seasick standout ‘Odessa’, Swim is steady and deceptively dark. The accomplished production places an interesting stereo field on the tracks, giving the instruments and rhythms a side-to-side, rocking feel, which works impressively well both at home and in clubs – something few dance albums have fully mastered.

15. Holy Fuck – Latin (Young Turks): The four-piece adeptly construct tracks that are direct yet reveal deeper layers and sounds on repeat, demonstrating that as well as effected soundscapes they can make confident songs.

14. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening (DFA): Of all the albums on the list This Is Happening was the most troublesome. When it hits it proves James Murphy is an incredible composer, lyricist and singer (tender crooning replaces the snot) and it proves LCD are an incendiary unit. So their third album should be top 3 but, but… when it doesn’t hit its pastiche-y, uninspired and, worst of all, irritating, because it could be fucking great if only those influences, which were previously sown together with love and affection, were not so glaringly obvious now. The total of their sum parts made LCD exciting yet for This… it is as if Murphy collected those sum parts then went missing but, but… even if for One Touch, Dance Yrself Clean and I Can Change alone it still deserves a place in the top 20.

13. Marc Houle – Drift (M-nus): The Techno Priest delivers an intense lecture in experimental techno as Drift travels from the suffocating winter darkness to the onset of spring. As the ice recedes Houle’s mood has lightened: the tracks develop playfully, analogue synths are tweaked and melodies shine. An eloquent representation of December’s freeze.

12. Black Dog – Music For Real Airports: Composed of field recordings and recalling Autechre and Plastikman, Music For Real Airports recreates an alienating environment where disconnected bleeps, beats and deep bass drums meet brittle hi-hats and ambient atmospherics that oppose Eno’s 1978 utopia.

11. El Guincho – Pop Negro (Young Turks): In direct contrast to Drift, Pop Negro is an aural Um Bongo – refreshing, bright yellow and highly addictive. El Guincho sings in his native, both joyous and yearning, Spanish, while intricate compositions of bouncing melodies, 808 claps and Latin pop are so full of life you bounce back to summer, Um Bongo in hand.

10. Harmonious Thelonious – Talking (Italic): German techno, Minimalism and African percussion are not the most obvious partners but Talking combines these influences with ease. The producer’s debut is a trance-inducing collection of hypnotic rhythmic patterns and danceable voodoo atmospheres. Its pulse is driven by African rhythms and European electronics that create a challenging, playful and deeply idiosyncratic record.

9. Zola Jesus – Stridulum II (Souterrain Transmissions): After sitting on the boundaries of my usual taste I checked out this release after she gained support from Fever Ray, with whom she shares a kinship of producing cathartic and oppressive yet seductive reassurances you want to selfishly take for yourself.

8. Magda – From The Fallen Page (M-nus): After the first listen I was disappointed that this wasn’t as varied or as distinctly ‘Magda’ as her much praised mixes are. With repeated listens her debut reveals her personality is more delicately placed alongside tongue-in-cheek glimpses of Italian horror movie sounds, dark atmospherics and awe-inspiring basslines.

7. Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal (Editions Mego): For me Returnal brings to mind GAS. Drum-less synthesiser constructs have the air of classical music’s rise and falls and dignified ambience but where GAS is isolation, Lopatin’s creations evoke a dreamy silvery trees and ghostly voices blanketed by a thick fog.

6. Matthew Dear – Black City (Ghostly International): Dear’s third album under his birth name sees him fully immersed in the role of the seamy narrator that Asa Breed hinted at. The thick Talking Heads-indebted productions and bodiless utterances swallow his voice as he recounts strangely alluring tales of desire and sleaze.

5. Konono No.1 – Assume Crash Position (Crammed Discs): Similar to other list entries the songs on Assume Crash Position instantly hit, giving out a warm, uplifting feel while endowing an ample amount of depth, breadth and emotional resonance. The Congolese group prove that artists don’t need the best equipment money can buy to create impressive music.

4. Marcel Dettmann – Dettmann (Ostgut Ton): Lovers of deep, warm techno should listen to this Berghain resident’s debut. Dettmann is an effortlessly lean example of present-day techno structured with an elegance that only German artists are achieving.

3. Ellen Allien – Dust (Bpitch Control): It isn’t the perfectly skewed electronic pop of Berlinette but thankfully it’s not the unrelentingly dull Sool. Allien is back doing what she does best. Belying her attention to detail, Dust is a collection of playful and immediate hymns to love, sex and dancing.

2. Pantha du Prince – Black Noise (Rough Trade): With a cover that isn’t what it first appears, the songs within unfurl and open up to reveal a meticulous mix of haunting chimes and clusters of percussion that build into something dark and forceful, giving Hendrik Weber’s Black Noise a sound that always seems to be on the edge of erupting into something devastating.

1. Thomas Fehlmann – Gute Luft (Kompakt): This took the pole position on the ‘Best Album’s Of The Year….So Far’ June piece and it remains there six months on. Though composed as a soundtrack to real-time documentary ‘24 Hour Berlin’, Gute Luft plays like a loving tribute to Fehlmann’s partner Gudrun Gut. Drums shuffle and rebound, claps and basslines thrust hips, synths bathe, sing, slink, embrace and reminisce, creating a perfect example of sensuous and dreamy elegance.

Mixes of note:

  • DJ Kicks: Apparat (!K7) (which features a new track from Telefon Tel Aviv, the first Joshua Eustis has made since Charlie Cooper passed away in 2009)

  • Ben Klock – Berghain Vol. 2 (Ostgut Ton)

  • Marcel Dettmann – Berghain Vol. 4 (Ostgut Ton)

  • V/A – Fünf (Ostgut Ton)

Honourable mentions:

  • Reboot – Shunyata (Cadenza)

  • Efdemin – Chicago (Dial)

  • Greie Gut Fraktion – Baustelle (Monika Enterprise)

Spotify playlist:

Sonic Fiction’s Albums of the Year 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of the Year – Observations

Due to the wealth of Berghain and Ostgut Ton releases I’ve been inspired to listen further to the spiritual forefathers: Basic Channel, GAS and Pole etc., all of whom I missed the first time round, owing to being at primary school. As discussed in my minimal techno piece these artists composed some of the most vital and interesting music of the nineties and are still essential: their material has birthed the recent dub-techno stirrings from Berlin and elsewhere. Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock, the Action Man poster boys of the resurgence in metallic, intense and climatic Berlin-centred techno, have released one effortless album, an EP and a handful of mixes. Listening to these is an education and an exciting preview of what is to come.

After reading the Kosmische Musik book (see below) I listened to Harmonia with Zuckerzeit and Tracks and Traces standing out. I went back to most of Cluster’s catalogue and found Sowiesoso and their 1977 collaboration with Eno to be the best introduction to the genre, though all are worth checking out.

On another note, 2010 has been absolutely dominated by doorstop. For a genre that was spawned from the underground we have witnessed a depressing inevitability in it going mainstream: advert soundtracks and daytime Radio 1 plays, guest spots and interviews (She-devil Fearne Cotton and dullstent! Skills!). It is everywhere, omnipresent, ubiquitous, all-pervading, as such I cannot hear, read or type that word anymore without wanting to burn it . Worst still is that duckstep is so ball-achingly tedious, a fact no one has critically addressed as everyone is falling over themselves praising the most monotonous and lifeless sound that has plagued this year’s musical landscape. Perhaps in 2011 it will go back from whence it came.

Books

Earlier this year I read Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and its Legacy, which is a comprehensively-written collection of the German Kosmische Musik artists. The author and journalists contribute an overview of Germany and the mindset of the generation born during and after WWII to put the work of the artists in a fascinating context. Also on the list was Anna Funder’s Stasiland, a collection of moving stories of those who lived under Communist rule in East Germany interspersed with Funder’s retrospective view (the book was published in 1997) on the regime, the people who upheld it and those who it destroyed and how Leipzig (where the Stasi headquarters were based) and Berlin have dealt with the effects of the Berlin Wall falling and the full extent of the regime being uncovered. Both are entirely worth reading.

The theory of cultural tourism will be explored by discussing a selection of Western artists who employ Eastern and world music compositional elements in their albums and vice versa. We will examine the critical reaction to these practices, the possible reasons why and if the argument is relevant.

Sting vs. Bjork

Sting and Bjork both use instrumentation, sounds and rhythms and take influence from varied genres of music but why is one derided and the other applauded for this? Both are wealthy Western musicians and have enjoyed decades in the music industry creating ethnically-sourced music yet through perception, marketing or fate Sting appears as a tasteless imposer financially gaining from Spanish/Portuguese language music while the popular consensus of Bjork is one of critically acclaimed innovation.

She is viewed by a great proportion of critics as an easily-bored pixie that flits around taking pleasure in working in different genres of music. Why is that more acceptable than Sting?  Perhaps their countries of origin reveal why they receive opposite critiques. On the periphery of Europe, Iceland is self-contained with almost magical connotations therefore Bjork can be interpreted as an innocent elflike woman while Sting appears as a modern-day colonialist because a mere scratch of England’s history uncovers an imperialist state leaving others bereft in its wake.

Throughout her career she has worked with diverse musicians like Konono No.1, The Icelandic Choir, Sureh Sathe, Talvin Singh, Rahzel, Timbaland, Matmos and RZA.  There is no question that she integrates these artists into her overall sound and they aid her elevation yet it is unlikely that Bjork would flutter around in collaboration with others if she cared more about a strong identifiable brand than creating a mood that changed from each individually crafted album and, certainly, collaboration is the operative phrase. She regularly mentions who she has worked with, acknowledging their involvement. The cynical may interpret it as simply name-dropping but these artists are being recognised by an international performer and introduced to wider audiences. Sting, however, does not often name who has partnered with him and though he desires for it to be known that he is a fan of Latin music there are no substantial specifics of why. ‘Songs From The Labyrinth’, Sting’s 2006 album of Elizabethan lute music was critically derided as the zenith of Sting’s pomposity. It came from such an intangible place it didn’t seem real. It was a futile fusion of a style aged centuries and an unbearable personality targeted at a very, very specific audience.

Bjork and Sting are brought together because each of their albums are diverse affairs but where Bjork sows her influences into the albums’ sounds and champions her guests, Sting’s stand alone and constricted because he is a world music dabbler not a devotee. And that is the problem. Chilean producer Matias Aguayo believes, “…adding a few congas and a ‘Latino’ vocal does not reflect a willingness to learn from other cultures…” Sting’s use of world music is beneficial solely to him and doesn’t demonstrate a respect for the countries he borrows music from because Sting is always the star.

Ethno-techno

Acclaimed South American electronic music artists Ricardo Villalobos, Matias Aguayo, Dinky and Gui Boratto employ the rhythms and sounds from their native countries, Chile and Brazil respectively, for use alongside that very European product, techno. Is it right for them to melt sounds which are not their own into those from their country and should it be accepted when European artists such as Sven Väth flavour techno with South American music?

Matias Aguayo thinks that European artists’ appropriation of ethnic music is cheap “exoticism” and “in most cases, putting samples of traditional songs on a techno beat is in very bad taste… it doesn’t seem very ‘free’ to me.” and rejects the idea that musicians do it because they feel a deep respect for the music. He hears a Western techno producer enforcing order where others hear an exciting cross-pollination of influence. This raises the question: why the double standard – why is it acceptable for Agauyo and others, especially Villalobos, to use electronic music production techniques and sounds in their compositions but objectionable when, for example, a German artist uses South American percussion?

An answer may be found by viewing the relationship history of the two hemispheres. Central and South America were colonised by European invaders. New religions and power structures were imposed, their languages and cultures all but destroyed in the process and poverty is still a factor in the lives of many inhabitants while the first world develops further from them so it is understandable that when Europeans adopt the music of their continent people get edgy. Perhaps, put simply, due to South American history as the subordinates when these artists use North American and European sounds it isn’t considered theft whereas due to these continents having a past of subjugation and suppression it looks again as if they are being exploitative when artists take influence from the places of previous conquests, as Aguayo feels.

The new rush of Western artists maintain they have a deep engagement with the source material and they are not just using a library of samples. The producer who has inspired much of the ethno-techno style is Ricardo Villalobos who employs it to reclaim his lost traditions after his parents fled to Germany after Pinochet’s overthrow and generate audience awareness, while retaining a respect for the music’s spirit.  Respect is a word that appears repeatedly in this argument between the continents. Their histories and ownership dilemmas are important factors to consider in the ethno-techno discussion yet Agauyo and others cannot fairly judge whether or not Western artists truly respect and understand the cultural and musical heritage they are interacting with once they incorporate South American instruments, rhythms and moods into their music. If they utilise them because of a respect and love for the music and culture and want to raise consciousness of it albeit through a techno perspective then it should perhaps be accepted.

The East adopts Western influences

It isn’t Westerners alone who adopt ideas, sounds and rhythms from African, Asian and South American culture. Since the 1960s artists, bands and composers living on these continents have taken elements from Western cultures. Fela Kuti (Nigerian band leader and inventor of the Afrobeat genre), Mulatu Astatke (originator of Ethio-Jazz, a fusion of jazz and traditional Ethiopian music) and A.R. Rahman (critically acclaimed Indian composer who introduced Bollywood and India to Western sounds) have studied music performance and composition in America and the UK and adapted and incorporated Western disciplines, ideas and sounds into their music.

Kuti, like many Nigerian and Ghanaian musicians, adopted the strong African-American musical influence of jazz and funk and married it to high life, a popular regional genre that is composed of a diverse range of styles like waltz and swing music, Trinidadian calypso and Liberian sailor songs. Astatke applied his jazz teachings and the American psychedelic funk heard in America to traditional Ethiopian melodies, harmonies and dusty atmospheres to create a deeply unique style. After becoming fascinated with a synthesizer his father, a composer, arranger and conductor for Malayalam films, had bought when Rahman was a young child he studied at Trinity College of Music (part of Oxford University) and combined his love of technology, music studies and traditional Indian upbringing to revolutionise Bollywood soundtracks.

Why does it appear that there is no criticism of these musicians and their contemporaries’ practices? Is it acceptable for them to raid Western music? Other than the odd disapproval levelled at some world music adaptations for sounding clichéd, criticisms of Third World musicians utilising Western musical forms are rare. I could suggest this is because critics believe they will be barracked into withdrawing their points and white guilt may play a part in their decision whether or not to critique works yet though this may be a factor, the problem is more complex.

Lost in a web of misconceptions and expectations about ‘world music’, it is difficult to approach and truly understand. Even when world music ideas have been simplified, unravelling the myriad of musical forms is challenging. These cultural traditions and musical forms often stretch back hundreds of years before Western civilisations formally documented their own and are further complicated by most only being passed down generations through word of mouth. Critics face an uphill struggle negotiating the complications and restrictions to tackle the music and understand it sufficiently to make a qualified summary.

Intimidating mountains of research and history aside perhaps the biggest problem is awareness. Do we still perceive these artists as people crouching in the dirt playing skin drums, sitars and other traditional instruments? I would like to think I am an intelligent and open minded person but I was disappointed with the music and myself when after a great deal of reading I finally listened to afrobeat music, particularly Fela Kuti. I had expected to be greeted by tribal drums accompanied by funk bass and searing brass, what I got was akin to jazz fusion. However, after further reading and exposure to African music old and new my ideas changed and I am now not dissatisfied as I understand what afrobeat is and how it came into existence. The ‘afro’ in afrobeat refers not to ancient tribal rhythms but subtle incorporations of high life guitar melodies, chanted lyrics and Afro-Caribbean calypso music influences. This is an example of the kind of misperception that can hinder world music, which stems from an ideological colonialism meaning we impose ideas of what it should be instead of what it actually is. World music is at our mercy, an obedient slave to outmoded cultural notions.

So this realisation renders us unable to level criticism at the world music genre and all that it histrionically represents. White guilt, misperception, false expectations and prejudices become our undoing. Add to this, well meaning misconceptions about its musical purity and authenticity compared to Western music yet it and Eastern music can be equally amazing and unequivocally shit, where an artist is born and which culture they come from bears little importance on whether they produce great music or not. Similarities can be drawn between Eastern and Western music, which bands such as Vampire Weekend have seized upon. They saw a link between the jangly guitar of American and English alternative rock and that of Nigerian high life and they knew they were not risking alienating their hipster fanbase while creating a neat Unique Selling Point for themselves. Links and similarities prove how ridiculous it is to suggest that world music has a greater sense of authenticity or rootsiness and that it is not an alternative to Western popular music but the non-Western equivalent. That isn’t to suggest that either is worth less than the other but they are in fact equals and thus should be treated as such critically.

As evidenced by the complex and moral problems explored in this piece it’s easy to become over-involved in these ideas and forget about what’s really important… the music. A vital function of music is the enjoyment of discovery however that is made, accidental, recommendation, record company marketing or otherwise and wherever it originates. There is definitely a discussion to have about the (mis)appropriation of music influences and fundamentals by Westerners whom often have a colonial history in the countries and continents their musicians mine.

But set aside those sceptical opinions and regrettable events that happened before we were born and able to object. We live in world where we can experience these musical hybrids and the increased awareness and cultural prominence of world music allows us to interact with other cultures if not fully appreciate and understand them. We don’t disrespect them by listening to and enjoying them, our life experience and that of Easterners, South Americans and Africans can be enriched by engaging with a diverse range of cultures from the past (Kuti, Astatke, Rahman, etc) and the present (Omar Souleyman, Konono No.1, Ricardo Villalobos etc) and through collaboration we can be introduced to these genres with brilliant results like Bjork’s ‘Earth Intruders’.

Getting lost in the murky waters and twisting tunnels of morality will never replace that feeling of experiencing a new piece or style of music so turn it on, turn it up and open yourself up to all the possibilities the world of music offers.

By Liam Flanagan and Vier (first collaboration for Sonic Fiction)

Spotify playlist (HTTP link, then Spotify link):

Cultural Tourism playlist

Cultural Tourism playlist

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