Tag Archive: Mulatu Astatke


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.

This post is the first of two that mark the end of Sonic Fiction for the foreseeable future and probably forever. It wasn’t an easy decision to make but I feel that as much as I’m still as passionate about all the music reviewed on the site I have to now focus purely on my own music career and improving those skills.

Last year this post was called “Top Ten Alternative Release of Year” but this year I decided to drop the word Alternative as I felt it was misleading, I haven’t come up with a decent replacement word so just left a genre name out. This last covers everything from funk to ambient via desert blues and there will be another list tomorrow for the Top Ten Hip-Hop Releases of the Year.

Thank to everyone whose read, commented on and retweeted/favourited/followed Sonic Fiction in its three years in existence. I will still keep the Sonic Fiction Twitter account alive as my own personal account so you can still find out about new music via that account.

1. Jamie Lidell – “Jamie Lidell” (Warp)

2. Boards of Canada – “Tomorrow’s Harvest” (Warp)

3. Janelle Monae – “The Electric Lady” (Wondaland)

4. Julia Holter – “Loud City” (Domino)

5. Factory Floor – “Factory Floor” (DFA)

6. Colleen – “The Weighing of the Heart” (Second Language)

7. Tamikrest – “Chatma” (Glitterbeat)

8. Mulatu Astatke – “Sketches of Ethiopia” (Harmonia Mundi/Jazz Village)

9. Moderat – “II” (Monkeytown)

10. Fuck Buttons – “Slow Focus” (ATP Recordings)

Jamie Lidell – “Jamie Lidell” (Warp)

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Jamie Lidell’s new self titled album may just be his best yet. It’s packed from start to finish with tracks that are suffered to gills with funk. This is however no ordinary funk, Lidell has never been one to do things the usual way, the high point of his career prior to this album was “Multiply” (2005) a collection that combined classic soul and funk chops with the forward thinking electronic glitches and edits of his label Warp. The first single from this album ‘What a Shame’ certainly promised a repeat of this direction, with its stretched grainy vocals and chopped up drums and though these and other similar sounds crop up throughout the album it’s definitely a funk album, just a freaky funk album! The album opens with the Gliding pitching synths and hard hitting drums and probing funk synth bass of ‘I’m Selfish’. It’s followed  by the huge pop of ‘Big Love’ its comes on like 80’s Prince with neon synths. ‘Do Yourself A Faver’ starts off with Thick synth bass and ghost delayed synth melody before evolving into a slice of classic George Clinton electro-funk! ‘why_ya_why’ updates New Orleans funk for the 21st century with stride piano is combined with crunching, head nodding beat and squelchy synths and some excellent horn blasts, the lines between organic and electronic are blurred. ‘So Cold’ and ‘Don’t You Love Me’ stand out from the rest of album with the former offering up Icy lead synth and pad open but contrast it with the huge rush of the chorus, the later is slower number with 80’s ballad stylings which picks up the pace and reintroduces the funk elements around halfway through. Its genuinely hard to fault Lidell on an album that superb from start to finish, a true funk masterclass.

Boards of Canada – “Tomorrow’s Harvest” (Warp)

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After all the mysterious codes, album playback’s in a desert and media hype we finally have the new album from Boards of Canada. “Tomorrow’s Harvest” doesn’t disappoint and stands up alongside the rest of Boards of Canada’s stellar back catalogue. There are two things that you notice after you first listen to the album 1) this isn’t a playful album filled with childlike nostalgia like “Music Has The Right To Children” (1998) 2) this is the most rhythmic Boards of Canada album to date from the drum beats the verge on hip-hop at times to the Vangelis style arpeggios and shifting synth textures.

The album opens with synthetic horn fanfare that purposefully recalls the introduction to an 80’s T.V. show, however this is a misleading and by second track and single ‘Reach for the Dead’ a few minutes later its clear this is going to a much darker proposition. The next track ‘White Cyclosa’ plunges us further into the darkness with its dread inducing synth drone, minimal echoing synth melody and unsettling shifting synth tones that rear their ugly head two minutes in. On ‘Jacquard Causeway’ a semi industrial beat competes with a curving synth melody and its counterpoint. As the song progresses more echoing synth melodies are added and the beat has acoustic layers added and feels looser as time goes on.

With its thin lightly modulated synth line and ethereal sounding vocal textures ‘Cold Earth’ is one of only tracks on the album that recalls earlier Boards of Canada releases albeit with a skittering beat and melody that jumps erratically around the beat and stereo field. ‘Sick Times’ also recalls earlier releases but with a darker, tenser atmosphere and thick, serrated electronic drums competing for the listener’s attention. ‘Collapse’ acts as the centrepiece to the albums palindrome structure it’s groaning reversed vocal effects set the disturbing tone and the Vangelis style arpeggio is another one of the albums key tropes. Next up is the album most playful track ‘Palace Posy’ with its bouncing synth bass and melody play off an almost head nodding hip-hop beat later a delayed synth stab and rhythmic synth melody kick and give the track yet more rhythmic variation, the closest thing to pop song that Boards of Canada have produced to date. ‘Split Your Infinities’ is another album highlight that opens with huge swath of synth drone and twinkling distant synth arpeggio, all this is underpinned by a crunchy beat and lo-fi vocal sample that come in, in the tracks second half. After the intensity of ‘Split Your Infinities’ and ‘Uritual’ the lighter and more pleasant ‘Nothing Is Real’ gives the listener a chance to relax, a pattern it repeated across the album’s structure.

The closer trio of tracks is one of the finest I’ve heard this year, starting with the digital degraded rhythmic synth riff and deep twanging bass guitar of ‘New Seeds’ which recalls Ennio Morricone’s finest soundtrack work but with a modern electronic twist. The track also has some great vocal textures and treated acoustic drums. ‘Come to Dust’ perfectly balances the darker and lighter elements of the album sound combining a deep  synth drone and distant vocal texture with a spacious beat and synth melody and topping it all off with a fast moving arpeggio. The album finishes with ‘Semena Mertvykh’ and the album deepest and darkest synth drone which is twinned with a synth melody so distant it sounds like its coming from down a deep pit, static and tape hiss add to the track’s creepy, dark atmosphere.

There was a eight year wait between Boards of Canada’s last album “The Campfire Headphase” and “Tomorrow’s Harvest” but the wait was worth it with Boards of Canada producing another exceptional album.

Janelle Monae – “The Electric Lady” (Bad Boy/Wondaland)

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“The Electric Lady” is Janelle Monae’s much anticipated follow-up to her delightfully insane and eclectic debut album “The Archandroid” (2010), which featured in my Top 20 Albums of the Year 2010 on this blog. The new doesn’t disappoint mixing up a whole range of musical genres across its nineteen tracks and continuing to explore Monae’s dystopian future where she plays the character of cyborg Cindi Merryweather. The main differences between the two albums is that on “The Electric Lady” there’s a romantic subplot and Monae has a few attempts at her own take on modern R&B a genre she’s expressed much frustration with in the past.

The album opens as “The Archandroid” did with a classical suite called ‘Suite IV Electric Overture’ which features twanging tremolo guitar, slow yet purposeful strings and a low slung head nodding, thin fuzz guitar and a heavenly choir. Around 1 minute 30 seconds in there a flourish of strings that leads into… ‘Give ‘Em What They Love’ featuring Prince. In fact, Prince is the most appropriate musical reference for this track with its slick funk rock guitar and thumping minimal beat. In the chorus a shuffling acoustic guitar enters adding to the slinky groove. In verse two Prince sing falsetto over his own perfectly poised guitar melody. There’s also a great guitar solo by Prince halfway through the song but Monae is the Purple One’s equal and is never in his shadow. Next up is the album’s first single ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ featuring Erykah Badu, the track kicks off with a funky guitar riff and subby bass drum and subtle tambourine groove. Then some P-Funk synth swiggles drop in before everything gets extra funky in the chorus. The track reminds of Thee Satisfaction albeit with major label production. Monae’s first attempt at a straight R&B is ‘Electric Lady’ featuring Solange. It opens with staccato vocals and fuzz guitar solo before the main head nodding funky beat and bass line drop and Monae and Solange’s vocals interweave creating harmonic heaven, later they create some fantastic melodies together too. The beat and bass line reminds me a lot of Solange’s tracks on her own ‘True’ EP and Monae has praised her as one of only artists pushing R&B forward. ‘Primetime’ featuring Miguel is another attempt at R&B this time Monae trys her hand at a ballad. In the intro Miguel adlibs over his own vocal distant vocal harmonies and a beat thumps and echoes out. Monae pushes the boat out vocally for the chorus before a cool fuzz guitar solo kicks. Things drop down again for Miguel’s first verse proper. Despite the cheesy lyrics, sounds and guitar solos, I really like this R&B and I don’t like R&B ballads.

‘Dance Apocalyptic’ is a fantastic pop song that combines acoustic rhythm guitar, upbeat drums and great claps. It strongly recalls ‘Hey Ya’ by Outkast, which is no bad thing. ‘Look Into My Eyes’, ‘Victory’ and ‘Can’t Live Without Your Love’ show that Monae can deliver emotive vocals, something that she’s been accused of lacking in the past. Meanwhile, ‘It’s Code’ and ‘Ghetto Woman’ add to the album funk quota the former combing flanged wah-wah guitars and thick bass with subtle yet bouncy drums and some nice twinkling vibraphone melody. I love the synth swiggles in the chorus. The later continues with the synth swiggles and pumping synth bass, recalls Stevie Wonder in his 70s prime.

The only real misstep on the album (apart the interludes which add nothing to the album musically or thematically) is the closing track ‘What An Experience’ with its 80’s style synth stabs and hip-hop drums come across as cheesy where the aim was for something emotive. However, this a minor complaint on an exceptional album that equals Monae’s debut in terms of both ambition and great tunes. You need “The Electric Lady” in your life.

Julia Holter – “Loud City Song” (Domino)

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Julia Holter returns with “Loud City Song” her third album in three years and the first to record in a studio instead of her bedroom studio. It is immediately evident that this album is both similar and different to those that preceded it. The album is again themed but this time instead of an Ancient Greek theme were transported to 1940’s Paris and the film/novel ‘Gigi’ and Holter’s home of Los Angeles the inspiration for the album. Holter also continues to play with both avant garde and pop music though whereas her previous albums felt grounded and homemade “Loud City Song” brings in elements of jazz and soundtrack music that make for more upbeat and sweeping arrangements.

‘Maxim’s I’ is a great example of the leap that Holter’s made on this superb album. It begins with quiet hi-hats & cymbals play in the distance overlapping each other. The tension rises with strings and heavy piano and a synth pad enter for the beginning of the song proper. A full drum kit plays beneath all of this and Holter’s sparse lead vocal. Then there’s a breakdown to piano and violin around 2 minutes 30 seconds in before a new drum beat and Holter enter creating something that sounds like a more muted version of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Histoire De Melody Nelson”. The first section and beat returns around 4 minutes in and is later joined by what sounds like a new thicker pad sound. Next up is ‘Horns Surrounding Me’ the most effective use of field recordings in one of her songs to date. The field recording of “the brisk footfall of her fellow passersby evokes claustrophobia, danger and paranoia (is she being chased? Or is it all in her head?)”, it sets the tone for the nervous and menacing song that follows perfectly.

‘Maxim’s II’ opens sharply with Holter’s lone vocal and surges of strings. Horns join in honking before a vibraphone enters followed by pounding drums and bass guitar. Everything breaks down around two minutes in with Holter sing over just a field recording. Then huge honking horns and orchestral percussion crash in and push the joyous track along. Around 4 minutes and 30 seconds in the beat breaks down into something more strict and industrial, globs of metallic guitar, thick synth drone and squawking sax make the tracks chaotic climax. Album closer ‘City Appearing’ is an example of something else Holter manages to deliver across the whole of the album which is expert use of dynamics and texture. It begins with just Holter’s naked voice and stark piano chords. Around 1 minute 30 seconds in a wet, subtle synth pad enters glistening and slow moving. A drum beat coated in reverb enters around 2 minutes 40 seconds in. Then 3 minutes 24 seconds in a double bass line enters giving the track new purpose. Around 5 minutes in the synth pad rises to a level that causes the track to feel both tense and swirly which is emphasised by the acoustic drums that shift about below the surface.

With “Loud City Song” Holter may have delivered her best and most fascinating album to, she has managed to make a record that is hugely ambitious and hugely satisfying for the listener. Holter has truly mastered using space, dynamics, texture and improvisation alongside melody, harmony and composing. She is able to paint pictures and evoke emotion with both field recordings and musical elements and effortless blend or move between the two. It is difficult to define, is she an experimental artist or a pop artist or both? Whatever she is it’s a joy to listen to and experience.

Factory Floor – “Factory Floor” (DFA)

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I’ve been a fan of Factory Floor since discovering them back in 2009 when The Quietus began championing their cause. Since then the trio have collaborated with the likes of Simon Fisher Turner, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, released a series of astonishing 12” singles and remixes and stunned many a gig and festival audience. All this has lead to one of most highly anticipated albums of the year and it doesn’t disappoint.

The album opens with ‘Turn It Up’ which sets the scene for the rest of the album perfectly. It opens with electronic percussion that’s swiftly followed by a bass drum, processed male vocals and intense electronic cowbell. Nik Colk’s vocals join the male vocals and the track starts to feel like a minimal Arthur Russell production but more industrial in feel. Chattering techno hi-hats cut in upping the tension. The vocals get increasingly more processed and alien as the track progresses recalling those of Laurel Halo circa ‘Logic Hour’. Next up is ‘Here Again’ which begins with a synth arpeggio that fades in and out of view. Live drums kick playing in a breakbeat style and female vocals echo out. The track reminds me of Chris & Cosey who Factory Floor have collaborated with. There a great clap that comes in around two minutess in. Another arpeggio comes in to play counterpoint to the original in the third minute. the second half of the track is dominated by lots of descending delay effects, rolling toms and chattering hi-hats Colk’s vocals hovering just above.

The single ‘Fall Back’ combines a thumping acoustic bass drum, throbbing synth arpeggio and slap in the face electronic snare and toms during its intro. Colk’s vocals cut in coated in  thick effects (pitched shifted, with maybe some reverb). The chattering hi-hats kick in around 2 minutes in and give the track extra forward momentum and a faster feel. I love the way the intensity builds and when the acid bass that kicks in part through with its great spluttering, squelchy sound. ‘Two Different Ways’ is an great track that shows off the band ability to make you dance as it does their industrial intensity. It starts off with electronic bass drum and snare, backing huge synth arpeggio, toms roll in and out and hi-hats tease, the female vocal drops in coated in reverb. Wood blocks kick in with a funky rhythm around three minutes in. Wet, gloopy delay effects drip over the mix around the four minute mark, then the track finds yet more momentum with the synth bass arpeggio growing stronger and stronger as the track progresses.

The album finishes with the one-two punch of ‘Work Out’ and ‘Breathe In’. The former picks up where ‘Two Different Ways’ left off as electronic drums and percussion thump and patter while a stabby bass synth plays over the top. Tom-toms fall all over the place. Colk’s vocal echoes out creating a harmony. In second half there are more delay effects and an arpeggio that add variety and intensity, as does noise mixed in with the hi-hats and synths. A funky more resonate synth enters around 5 minutes adding extra movement and impetus to the track. The latter is the perfect end to the album and strongly recalls Cabaret Voltaire in their mid 80’s electro prime.  A thick bass synths starts things off before being swiftly joined by a tough acoustic four to the floor beat and intermit processed vocals. The vocals are used as samples rather than typical use of lead vocals.

All-in-all Factory Floor have created a great debut album that both lives up to the four years of hype that preceded it and is also surprisingly accessible compared to what I (and most critics) had expected. Go out and get yourself a copy of “Factory Floor” you won’t regret it.

Colleen – “The Weighing of the Heart” (Second Language)

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‘The Weighing of the Heart’ is Colleen’s first album since 2008, it’s also the first her first album to feature her own singing and extensive use of percussion instruments. In interviews Colleen has explained the album took so long to make as she’d fallen out of with music and took a break from both creating and listening to music.

After her enforced hiatus she has returned with an album full of beautiful music yet unorthodox music that is uniquely her own straddling the genre’s of folk, chamber pop and world music and never losing it natural feel. Opener ‘Push the Boat onto the Sand’ is a fine example of mixing of genres of unorthodox use of both her viola (its tuned like a guitar and plucked not bowed) and song structure (she uses simple repeating loops, then replaces that loop with another and then another) it also evokes a sense of Spain where she lives and records. ‘Ursa Major Find’ uses the same structure but has a more intimate and angelic feel perfectly complimented by a melody played on an antiquated sounding keyboard. ‘Humming Fields’ with its offbeat bass drum pattern and music box style melody sounds like a group of musicians playing in a room, in fact this a trick that Colleen pulls off across the second half of album and you forget this is the work of a lone person. ‘Going Forth By Day’ starts with just a lone plucked viola melody before it evolves into a more rhythmic pattern and is joined by a wavering oboe melody, a lovely track.

Colleen saves the best til last through with the final three track on the album proving to be the highlights of a great album. This trio begins with ‘Moonlit Sky’ which sees the return of the oboe again complimenting the viola perfectly before the unexpected arrival of an organ that gives the track a dynamic lift and some extra warmth. It’s followed by the scrambling viola melody and gorgeous vocal harmonies and African percussion of ‘Breaking Up the Earth’ before the title track rounds everything off with echoing viola and yearning violin melodies.

All-in-all Colleen has created an album full of beautiful and orthodox music, with enough depth to keep listeners discovering some new with each new play.

Tamikrest – “Chatma” (Glitterbeat)

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In 2011 “Toumastin” Tamikrest’s second album made number five in my Top Ten Albums of the Year and threw down the gauntlet to the kings of Tuarag (Sahara desert blues) kings Tinariwen. Now they return with a new album that pays title to the women, children and old people who are the victims of the war that’s been raging in their homeland. The band themselves had to escape to Algeria where they recorded “Chatma” (the title means ‘sisters’ in French). The album sees the band in fine form both solidifying what they’d achieved on the previous albums and adding to it with new elements (hand claps, synths), slower more reflective  tracks (something the band hadn’t done before), the addition of former Tinariwen singer Wonou Walet Sidati and a sharper, lusher production job.

The album opens with ‘Tisnant an Chatma’ and there synths are evident from intro before the lead guitar enters and Sidati talks in her native tongue. After about 30 seconds the assured drums and bass guitar and rhythm kick leading the way and picking up where the band left off on thier last album. An early highlight is ‘Itous’ which starts with a deep sparse bass line and hand percussion, swiftly followed by rhythm and lead guitars and interchanging lead vocals. Its more contemplative in tone than any Tamikrest track before it and puts down a marker for the rest of the album. More hand claps utilised around the 1 minute 20 second mark. I reaaly like the cutting, choppy rhythm guitar in the second half of the track. ‘Achaka Achail Aynian daghchilan’ continues the comtemplative tone with its combination of picked naturally reverberate acoustic guitar and quiet almost whispered male vocals and thick but not intrusive electric guitar chords.

Next up another change for Tamikrest in the faster tempo’d ‘Djanegh etoumast’ that opens with muted rhythm guitar riff before the lead guitar comes in a big chord is stuck and a faster rhythm of drums, percussion, bass and guitar kicks in. Shortly after the hand claps and vocal chants join in. There’s some great guitar solos in the instrumental sections. A drum break, bass solo and revered drum sounds introduced briefly after the three minute mark before the guitar drive back in to take the song to its climax. ‘Assikal’ sees the band exploiting the modern production techniques of reversing (a piano in this case). The guitar melodies float in before a male vocal sings quietl over, lots of overlapping reversed piano and then the loping percussion and lead guitar proper are slowly faded in. The track has a stately assured feel. Around two minutes the reversed piano and spoken word returns, the guitar echoes out infinetly. Three minutes fifty seconds in hand percussion and a wooden flute come in swiftly followed by the lead guitar, the one thing holding this whole complex track together.

A dirty analogue synth drone rises at the start of ‘Takma’ before hard drums bang and clatter, the lead guitar darts around the mix and chunks of fast and funky rhythm guitar and bass chugs below. It takes a moment to get used to this newly more uptempo Tamikrest but once I did the track and especially the synth and drums sounded great. The album closes with the brilliant ‘Timtar’, reversed guitars open the track giving way to the lead guitar and a deep bass drum, the melody is quite sparse compared to typical Tamikrest melodies. A wonderful gentle male vocal melody moves slow across the backing track. More drums enter around 2 minutes 30 seconds but they are subtle yet add just enough forward momentum to stop the track from stalling. The rhythm comes in towards to the end of the track to provide the same forward momentum.

All-in-all “Chatma” is the crowning achievement of Tamikrest’s career, the band managing to retain what made so great in the first and combine it with new elements and techniques to that enrich their Tuarag sound. Highly recommended for fans of Tuarag artists such as Tinariwen, Group Inerane and Group Doueh and those that like of sound of the descriptions in this review but have yet to explore this genre.

Mulatu Astatke – “Sketches of Ethiopia” (Harmonia Mundi/Jazz Village)

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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.

Moderat – “II” (Monkeytown)

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Moderat released their first album four years ago it neatly combined the aggressive, dark techno, dancehall and hip-hop influenced side of electronica duo Modeselektor and the dreamy atmospherics and emotive vocals and guitars of electronica artist Apparat. Now the experienced trio are back with a new collaborative album “II”.

The album differs from their debut in that whereas the debut featured much more dramatic peaks and troughs across its running time, there was a handful of harder and danceable tracks were the beats were more prominent. This no problem as the trio are just as adept at slow burning and emotive tracks as they are club tracks.

Another difference is that the Moderat sound has been developed more organically, as the trio admitted in a recent interview with XLR8R that the previous album was “based on old ideas from all of us. We just had a folder and we put all of the ideas in there and we kind of recycled them”. The trio ended creating new ideas from scratch for “II” and this has led to a sound in which elements from the two different parts of the group are not fighting each other but complementing and contrasting with each other instead. All-in-all its a more well rounded and sonically consistent album.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/69467838″>Moderat “Bad Kingdom” | Monkeytown Rec.</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/pfadfinderei”>Pfadfinderei</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

After a brief intro track to the set the scene the album really gets going with ‘Bad Kingdom’ with its spiky synth bass, Apparat’s contrasting vocals (plain in the verse, dreamy and distant in the chorus) and brilliantly designed synth sound that bleep, squeal and honk. ‘Versions’ keeps the quality level and tempo high with airy fast moving pad and slinky percussion providing the energy behind rising and falling vocals and slow moving synth bass. ‘Milk’ provides the toughest and tensest track on the album with a slippery but hard techno synth bass and thin atmospherics setting the tone before another bass layer joins in thickening the sound and bringing with it reverse effects and the full drumbeat that features a very crisp and hard snare! An epic, emotive techno track should go down well in Berlin’s clubs. ‘Gita’ highlights Moderat’s ability to create incredibly detailed and texture tracks from seemingly just a few musical elements. It combines fuzzy digital bass synth, clicking, clacking electronic drums that back Apparat’s naked, and multi layered vocals. As the track progresses a synth pad and two melodies sneak underneath the vocals. After several listens I suddenly realised one of the melodies sounded like marbles falling from your hands and bouncing up into the air.

Overall it’s hard to find fault with “II”, my only real criticism is that I’d have liked some MC driven tracks like “BeatsWaySick” from the debut album but it’s a minor criticism. Moderat have created an album that could grow to be as great if not better than its predecessor was.

Fuck Buttons – “Slow Focus” (ATP Recordings)

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It has been four years since Fuck Buttons up their game on their second album “Tarot Sport” which made Sonic Fiction’s Top Ten Albums of the Year 2009. Both members have worked on other projects the most high profile of which was Benjamin John Power’s dark ambient side project Blanck Mass. Now they return with new album “Slow Focus” and the promise of a sound underpinned by hip-hop beats.

The album opens with ‘Brainfreeze’, which opens with the duo’s previous trademark tribal drums and thick snaking synth covered in grimy distortion that slink all over the drums. As the track progress more and more layers of synth are add until a new pad sound changes the song’s feel from claustrophobic to triumphant. Next up is ‘Year of the Dog’ and begins with synths bubbling up through a soup of reverb/delay before an aggressive arpeggio fly into view. Later in the track a disturbing cacophony of violins enters before the arpeggio reasserts itself and angelic sounding pad joins the melee.

Album centrepiece ‘The Red Wing’ kicks off with a hip-hop beat and chirping synth start this track before a corroding synth bass line enters. A synth riff enters and echoes out in the distance, the riff comes front and centre as the track evolves and the synth bass and synth drones gets stronger. ‘The Red Wing’ could easily be an epic track by either Boards Of Canada or El-P and that is no bad thing! ‘Sentients’ starts with resonate electronic percussion which suggests a Congotronics influence and spluttering synth blasts before a central hip-hop influenced beat kicks in. Another synth enters whistling like R2D2. A new counter point melody enters played by a resonate 8-bit vocal synth melody and is quickly following by a wave of corroded synth. Finally another pad enters giving the track a horror film/John Carpenter vibe.

‘Prince’s Prize’ and ‘Stalker’ both feature glassy FM synth melodies with the former utilising a double time hip-hop beat and reminding me of Gang Gang Dance and Mouse on Mars. While the latter adds glistening synth later after glistening synth layer until its epic climax.

The album ends with the tumbling brittle synth melody, thumping bass drum and huge ascending synth chord progression of ‘Hidden XS’ a transcendent finale to breathtaking album.

I was excited about ‘Slow Focus’ before hearing it but never thought that Fuck Buttons would find another level to take their synth noise sound to, however they have set the bar extra high with this brilliant album.

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.   

Though April was thin on the ground in terms of new releases and reissues, I still managed to discover and enjoy a large range of music.

First up were two March releases. The first from Erykah Badu was ‘New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh)’ the second in her trilogy of New Amerykah albums. The first is the excellent ‘New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)’ from 2008, which focused on politics, war and ghetto violence but for Part Two, Badu switches to discuss love in all its forms. At first this extreme left turn makes the album feel too slight but it is a fully formed, ambitious work of depth that will reward amply for those who give it time.

Next is Mulatu Astatke’s new release ‘Mulatu Steps Ahead’ which sees the founder of Ethio-jazz do himself proud with an album of subtle, slow burning grooves that centre on the downbeat tracks he explored on ‘Inspiration Information Vol.3’ with The Heliocentrics.

Noise was the genre that ran through the month with new efforts from Nice Nice and Growing. The former’s ‘Extra Wow’ (their first on Warp Records) is propelled by the motorik rhythms associated with early Kraftwerk and Neu! but far from being plagiaristic the band uses them as a springboard for developing their own sound. I was impressed with ‘Extra Wow’ and how everything just clicked into place after finding their initial singles underwhelming. Growing have long been an established feature on the noise scene since they formed in 2001, developing from a wispy ambient drone-based sound to creating walls of harmonically and rhythmically complex noise that emanates from their banks of analogue equipment. Latest album ‘Pumps’ adds new member Sadie Laska on vocals and drum machine rhythms are included for the first time. ‘Pumps’ has some great tunes yet feels like a transitional album, though it prompted me to investigate their previous works like ‘Vision Swim’, mini album ‘Lateral’ and ‘All the Way’.  The detailed harmonic waves of sound, dense rhythms created without drums blew my away and fortunately weren’t the headache-creating treble fests I had anticipated.

I also caught up with Caribou by buying his new album ‘Swim’ and my favourite ‘The Milk of Human Kindness’. Both are brilliant examples of modern psychedelia. I won’t go into too much detail about Caribou now as later this month I will be discussing him in the follow-up to the Psychedelia: The Return piece published in February. In a similar vein I picked up on a newcomer called Toro Y Moi who is Chaz Brunwick, a South Carolina based producer. His debut album ‘Causes of This’ is rightly being praised. Though he is being grouped with glo-fi/chillwave artists such as Washed Out and Neon Indian, and there are hints of this in the music, it reminded me of Animal Collective and Four Tet’s early 2000s era.

I finished April by buying Norwegian cosmic disco producer Prins Thomas’ self titled debut album, The Fall’s ‘Post-TLC Reformation!’ from 2007, which I found underwhelming (though almost all Fall albums are grower and/or have enough moments to justify having them) , and ‘Ghana Soundz: Afro-Beat, Funk and Fusion in 70s Ghana’. I also listened to a highly recommended ‘Your Future, Our Clutter’, The Fall’s new album, the HEALTH single ‘USA Boys’ and MIA’s new song ‘Born Free’. Unfortunately it and the accompanying video’s true subject have been overshadowed by the misperceptions about the video’s metaphor and the controversy surrounding the violence.

Watch the ‘Born Free video below:

http://vimeo.com/11219730

I would love to hear what people who visit Sonic Fiction think of it. Any ideas on how I can improve the content are welcome. Critiques and debate are what I want Sonic Fiction to be about.

Spotify playlist (HTTP link, then Spotify link):

April 2010 playlist

April 2010 playlist

Recommendations for May (potential the best month of year…so far):

Flying Lotus – ‘Cosmogramma’  (Warp) 3rd May

Black Dog – ‘Music for Real Airports’ (Soma) 10th May

Foals – ‘Total Life Forever’ (Transgressive) 10th May

Holy Fuck – ‘Latin’ (Young Turks) 10th May

Walls – ‘Walls’ (Kompact) 10th May

Ellen Allien – ‘Dust’ (Bpitch Control) 17th May

Konono No.1 – ‘Assume Crash Position’ (Crammed Discs) 17th May

LCD Soundsystem – ‘This Is Happening’ (DFA/EMI) 17th May

Jamie Lidell – ‘Compass’ (Warp) 17th May

Crystal Castles – ‘Crystal Castles (2)’ (Polydor) 24th May

Effi Briest – ‘Rhizomes’ (Blast First Petite) 24th May

plus a couple that slipped me by:

David Holmes -‘The Dogs Are Parading – The Very Best Of’

Solex + Jon Spencer + Cristina Martinez – ‘Amsterdam Showdown, King Street Throwdown’

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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