Album Review: Dominic Valvona



Ustad Saami ‘God Is Not A Terrorist’
(Glitterbeat Records) January 18th 2019


No-one quite sums up the dangerous lunacy of field recording in the world’s most hostile, often deadly, environments better than the Grammy award-winning producer, author and (very handy as it goes) violence prevention expert Ian Brennan. Self-deprecating with it, and candid, Brennan’s linear notes capture the cultures and locations of his many in-situ raw recording sessions with a stimulating honesty.

Probably appearing more than any other producer on this blog, including an interview, Brennan’s prolific career is as long as it is varied. Choosing an international cast (some more obscure and hidden than others; some more poignant and tragic too) drawn from forgotten, even, shunned communities. Whether it’s capturing the roadside roasted mouse sellers turn rustic otherworldly bluesmen Malawi Mouse Boys, or members of the persecuted Albino community in Tanzania, Brennan’s raison de terre still stands: “My concern is not cultural authenticity, but emotional truth and uncloying performances. Purity without baggage!”

And so, letting his subject naturally perform in the purest of settings – usually outside the confines of a modern equipped studio -, he travels to the remotest, hostile of places. Among his most enduring partnerships, the continuing relationship with Glitterbeat Records has taken him to quite a few of the most dangerous hotspots; especially for the Hidden Music series of albums. Previous editions of this series have found Brennan braving Rwanda, Cambodia and Vietnam. But the most foolhardy yet, and subject of Volume 5 of this healing music survey collection, takes him to Pakistan.

As he reminds us, “In the land where Osama Bin Laden last hid”, a “state so feared that the US government does not allow its staff to stay in hotels anywhere in the entire country”, Pakistan is a highly volatile, military heavy state: The most worrying concern being that they’re a nuclear state. If further proof was needed of the trigger-finger tensions, Brennan sets the vivid scene further: “Driving in from the airport I noticed a man cleaning what I thought was a musical instrument, but then realized was a machine gun. Weaponry is another visual motif throughout the city. En route, we passed celebrity-soldier sponsor billboards for house paint. Here, army officers carry a similar hollow cache to reality stars in America.”

Despite the evident dangers, he’s here to record for posterity the mesmerizing atavistic voice of the country’s much-revered classical singer, Ustad Saami, whose specialized Surti microtonal and multilingual expressions, accompanied by dipping buoyant tabla and long-drawn out harmonium drones, may very well die out when he does. Despite the somewhat provocative title, the beauty, serenity and sincerity of Saami’s music seems far from controversial. Yet to the more extremist sections of the Islamic faith, his spiritual yearnings represent a rebellious, defaming voice, an individual breaking with the hardline insistence of a myopic form of worship. For Saami’s blended form of Farsi, Sanskrit, Hindi, the ancient and dead language of Vedic, ‘gibberish’, Arabic and Urdu predates Islam. As the spread of a dogmatic Islam spreads across the globe, and as we’ve seen in Mali, a distrust but violently imposed break from anything outside the doctrine and history of Islam has seen the ritual burning of instruments and ban of most musical forms.


Photo credit: Marilena Delli





With all this in mind, the task of recording, in what was an energy-sapping all-night session – though the spritely vigorous 75 year-old maestro proved he could play all night, even into the next morning without a break, his companions were knackered – such afflatus magical music seems (to put it mildly) daunting.

Almost in a trance, the impressive Hindustani Khayál classical 49-note scale system Saami uses (deriving from the Arabic for ‘imagination’, this style was originally conceived by, we’re told, a mixed race royal whose lifelong endeavor was to make peace with duality through art) can hypnotize and draw the listener in. Though it sounds far from intense, it takes some concentration and endurance to play uninterrupted – at least two of the tracks on this collection run over the ten-minute mark. A predecessor to an even older form called Qawwal, Khayál it seems is more about feeling and atmosphere, the lyrics of the call-and-response performances almost incidental.

Sharing this divine music with the world before it disappears – the inevitability of a tradition only ever passed down possessively between family members -, the God Is Not A Terrorist sessions connect with a thousand and more years of encapsulating praise. Simultaneously uttering earthy deep longings and soaring tribute to a higher plain, Saami and his troupe pay amorphous service to the holy on ‘God Is’; “Om” and in phlegm voiced dedication ponderously elevate with a paean to romance on ‘My Beloved Is On The Way’; woo and yearn in the dusk of ‘Twilight’; and in a swirl of bellowed harmonium, lull entranced on the transportive ‘Longing’.

An incredible recording, thankfully in the hands (more hands-off) of an accomplished producer, Saami Ustad’s endangered music is safely shared to a global audience. As preservation goes, this latest volume in a much accomplished and surprising series of ethnomusicology is a mesmeric study in keeping a form alive in the face of persecution and fate.








Words: Dominic Valvona 

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Album Review – Gianluigi Marsibilio 



La Rappresentante di Lista ‘Go Go Diva’
(Woodworm) December 14th 2019


In these years when music and art are more and more volatile, liquid, passing through Spotify and other media, La Rappresentante di Lista has made a bold album that touches you, crumples and turns on the incredible search for sounds, combined with the use of much necessary themes.

Go Go Diva is an album that draws from the perspective of a woman beyond the #MeToo movement; Go Go Diva is a disc-woman who speaks to the multitudes, with a disarming graciousness.

Some pieces of the album are really more courageous and necessary than the thousand articles published in the New York Times. The sound atmospheres are always sought after and, even on disc, theatrical, scenically beautiful and satisfying. The listener is transported to a land of irrational alienation, where every brilliant preconception is mixed up and merged.

La Rappresentante di Lista therefore does something very rare for a contemporary artist, it makes us think: the album leads us on a journey, free from any ideology but which narrates the being, the essence.

The path of the album follows, in some passages, the work in poetry of Ursula Andkjær Olsen. In one of the passages from her collection, released in 2018, entitled Third-Millennium Heart, the author says: “The heart could be a castle, for instance. You can jump from level to level very fast. The architectural words are very important in naming the body”.  The heart of the album is like a multi-layered castle made of architectures of words and bodies. It is a good way to represent the intentions and sounds of Go Go Diva, which is an architectural album, to be admired in detail and as a whole.

The record lives and dies in every piece. Go Go Diva has a variety of shapes, an incredible number of cartridges to shoot.

From ‘Questo Corpo’ to ‘Glória’ the sound vocabulary is absolutely heterogeneous and feeds a bit of all tastes, but above all shows how over the years this project is growing under the search for a complete and deep eclecticism. Each song is able to shoot the cards, for example ‘Poveri Noi’ comes as a storm in the track list and just this jolt in the atmosphere of every theme touched upon, from pregnancy to being a young woman, a new depth.

The potential of this album will be expressed in a live certainly suitable for strong entities: where thoughts, feelings and noises can be mixed into a single body.

Go Go Diva is a scream, an immersion, a promise, a hope to be grasped.






Words – Gianluigi Marsibilio 


Album Reviews – Brian Bordello 




Welcome our 2019 signing, Brian Bordello, to the Monolith Cocktail fold. The self-depreciating maverick patriarch of the dysfunctional cult lo fi Bordellos will henceforth be, in his own idiosyncratic style and turn-of-phrase, pontificating aloud and reviewing with scrutiny an eclectic deluge of releases for us. Here’s his inaugural couplet review of upcoming albums by Cleaning Women and Eerie Wanda.


Eerie Wanda ‘Pet Town’
January 25th 2019


The lost sounds of childhood summers, the finger clicking bliss of a Joe Meek hit, the beauty of the lost rainbow in an angels wish, this LP by Eerie Wanda makes me recall all this.

Pet Town is a fine album indeed at times it gives me the same feelings of joy I have when playing The Beach Boys much-underrated classic Friends; songs wrapped up in the power of the pureness in being alone.

This is simple in its beauty and the beauty is its simpleness, the vinyl etchings of acoustic nights wrapped in your ex’s arms soundtracked by a lovingly compiled mixtape of the Marine Girls and Holly Golightly’s softer moments.

This LP is one of pure delight, a lo-fi lovers dream date, a shy boys aural pin up, this is what you imagine the sound of the girl you wanted but was never confidant enough to ask out whispering I want you in your ear.

The sparseness of the backing, the wonderful percussion sound gives the whole affair a cocoon of warmness. There are so many things to love, like the way the song ‘Sleepy Eyes’ starts with the same guitar chords as Elvis Presley’s

‘Jailhouse Rock’ and finishes with a psychedelic organ solo, and the handclaps on the ‘Hands Of The Devil’ are rockabilly percussion par excellence.

Summing up, this is an LP to wrap around you to keep you warm in the coming winter months and the LP to play as you walk in the summer sun remembering how happy sad life can be. A stunner.





Cleaning Women ‘Intersubjectivity’
(Svart Records) 15th February 2019


I can honestly say I’ve never heard of the Cleaning Women before; a band from Helsinki who make their instruments from cleaning implements, or so they say, and who am I not to believe them it would explain why this music is so shiny and refreshing to listen to.

This LP brings back memories of growing up in the North West of England listening to the strange pop post punk sounds of the mid 80s; bands that were not scared to try something different and at the same time not afraid to make music with melody, style and beauty. And this LP has all those things in abundance.

Intersubjectivity is truly a thing of great beauty. It’s not often that you hear an album that reminds you of the 80s pop gods Aha and Can at the same time; an LP that makes you want to go back and revisit your love for the mighty Laibach whilst wishing I still had the energy to frug wildly to the captivating post punk of ‘We Work It Out’, or, to wrap myself in a sleeping bag and pogo to the funky Captain Beefheart meets Julian Cope of ‘Living On The Streets’.

This is my first review of 2019 and if all the music I write about is as exciting as this what a year it will be, or this could be a great one off and everything in comparison will be a crushing disappointment, a warning for you 2019 the standard has been set high…







Words: Brian Bordello

Album Review / Dominic Valvona





Deerhunter  ‘Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?’
(4AD)  January 18th 2019


Loaded with despondent query and concept-fueled reference points (both in the literature and geographical senses), Deerhunter’s latest nuanced road trip across a ruined divided landscape poses many open-ended and visceral questions: And doesn’t exactly answer them.

As the current instability (take your pick: Brexit, Trump, Putin, rise of right wing populism in Europe and South America…. the list goes on and on) across the globe keeps Bradford Cox awake at night, the frontman’s pen scribbles away at a fair old rate in anxious irritation at the imposing chaos, on the band’s latest album for 4AD: The songwriting, it must be said, more honed and (daresay) melodically accessible than ever.

Making sense of the miasma, sending back woozy postcards from the languid ‘slipstream’ and hazily cooing eulogies to a constant theme of loss and a poisoning of the well of human kindness, Deerhunter repeatedly yearn like they did on their previous cerebral triumph, Fading Frontier, about the fading away of everything they hold dear. That album mined a similar discourse of disappearing humility, and musically captured, with an equally assuage tactile brilliance, the prevailing mood of the times through a steady daze of synthesized and melodious jingle-jangly troubadour indie pop.

Though proclaiming that ‘nostalgia is toxic’ in the sub-headed description of the surprisingly Bolan glam hued, cynical ‘Futurism’, Deerhunter’s penchant for reinvention never truly breaks free from the shackles of the past. Woozy elements abound of Bowie and Eno’s partnership on Low and Heroes, a languid John Lennon and The Plastic Ono Band, the Tubeway Army and, weirdly, a more credible Starsailor. Aiming to circumnavigate familiarity and a link to rock’s back pages, they discard separate amplifier setups to plug directly into the mixing desk. The results of which, played out over a flattish drumming backbeat, airy vaporous synthesizer sculpting build-ups, nuzzled suffused saxophone, bobbing undulated marimba, gentle romantic piano flourishes and pizzicato strings, often subdues the guitar sound entirely, which is light on lead but heavy on the acoustic rhythm.





Adding an aura of lilted and dreamy idiosyncrasy, cult Welsh experimentalist Cate Le Bon makes up part of the extended production and guest appearance crew. Lining up alongside long-term Deerhunter producer Ben H. Allen III, plus Ben Etter and the band themselves, Cate’s qualitative musical eccentricities add some sparkle and strange off-kilter ethereal wooing to the overall sound. You can hear her subtle Baroque harpsichord playing on the album’s first single, ‘Death In Midsummer’ – a slow unfurled highlight that despite its melodious warm quality sets out on an elegiac walkabout, inspired in part by a macabre photograph from the Russian Revolution -, and sad aerial harmony on the somber Heroes LP imbued ‘Tarnung’ – subtitled notes allude to a ‘walk through Europe in the rain’.

Not only produced by a number of collaborators, the tracks themselves were recorded in a number of inspired, prompted towns throughout the southern hemisphere of the USA; from Cox’s attic in Atlanta to the Seahorse Sound Studio in L.A. and a couple of locations in Texas. Among these, the poignant Marfa, Texas setting of the fated last film performance of James Dean, Giant. That last summer of 1955, before Dean tragically crashed his somewhat untamable sports car just months later in September of that same year, is played out in the tropical marimba and heavenly allured synthesized buoyant ‘Plains’. As with most of the songs on this album, the bubbly but languid swoozy swansong to Dean draws vague analogies to the fate of change. Cox doesn’t so much implore us to break from the past and fondness for what may have never existed, as gently and with tactile restraint, offers direction: swooning at one point to follow him through “the golden void”.

However, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is an elegy of remembrance to those that have been left behind in the pursuit of progress too. Cox even chooses to swim against the tide of these ennui attention-span self-absorbed times by penning and playing more cerebral, nuanced and subtly experimental music in the face of instant gratification and validation – the ‘eternally jetlagged’ visage of the Tron and Blade Runner-esque, glistening ‘Détournement’, is an uneasy strange hallucinatory vision of that future-present symbiosis.

Billed, in part, as an unpredictable sci-fi album about the present, WHEAD? offers a sensibility and melodious weary, clipped amorphous survey of a disappearing humanity, on the verge of a Cormac McCarthy dystopia. Yet it sounds, mostly, brilliant, personal and at times languidly beautiful.



Dominic Valvona (founder/editor/chief instigator of the Monolith Cocktail)

Album Review/Dominic Valvona




Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba ‘Miri’
(Outhere Records) 25th January 2019


The courtly sound of the Mali Empire from the 13th century, accompanying the griot tradition of storytelling for an age, the (usually) dried-animal skin wrapped, canoe-shaped ngoni lute has been electrifyingly revitalized in recent years thanks in part to the virtuoso dexterity and energy of one of its leading practitioners, Malian legend, Bassekou Kouyate.

Since making his debut just over a decade ago, Bassekou has quickly built up an enviable reputation both in Mali and internationally; arguably, through his myriad of collaborations, helping to share the versatile range of emotions and rhythms that emanate from the ngoni to a worldwide audience; inspiring, even, a new generation to pick this atavistic instrument up.

The ngoni (which more or less, when translated from the Bambara language of Western Africa, means lute) is notable for both its rapid blurry rhythms and spindled, articulated picking. On previous albums Bassekou has pushed the ngoni to its limits. Following up the more electrified 2015 LP, Ba Power (which made our albums of the year feature), with a fifth album of innovative paeans, hymns, protestations and calls for peace, Bassekou takes a more reflective pause for thought on Miri; gazing out across his crisis-ridden homeland, contemplating on how the fragmented landscape and people can be brought back together for the common good.

Backed as always by the family band that features his wife, the soulful and beautifully voiced ‘nightingale of the north’, Amy Secko, and his son, Madou Kouyate, on bass ngoni, but also now including his niece Kankou (making a special guest appearance on vocals), the Bamana entitled encapsulation of ‘dream’, or ‘contemplation’, Miri record touches base with Bassekou’s roots: Reconnecting, we’re told, with his Sega Blues solo debut of a decade before.

Though the Islamist insurgency that initially boosted – but soon hijacked – Mali’s indigenous Tuareg nomads decades-long fight for an independent state within the country’s Northern Eastern borders has been largely subdued, terrorist style attacks, corruption and adverse effects of climate change have conspired to keep Mali in a constant flux of turmoil. Bassekou in somber mood peaceably reacts to all these events; using Mali’s geography and history to either warn, condemn or preach forgiveness and unity.

The title-track itself, with its cycle of jazzy ngoni grooves and subtle percussive strikes, plaintively draws the listener’s gaze to the increasingly parched Niger River that runs alongside Bassekou’s remote village hometown of Garama, in the south of Mali. The consequences of this lifeline and essential water supply drying up are disastrous. Further tensions are referred to on the reedy-sounding cantering call for peaceful resolution, ‘Tabital Pulaaku’. Featuring the conciliatory humble tones of fellow Malian, guitarist/singer and a former disciple of the revered Ali Farka Touré, Afel Bocoum, this beautifully articulated song implores the wandering cattle herder Fula nomad community and local cultivators to stop the in-fighting and settle disputes amicably – a fractious state of hostility that has led to many deaths between the two groups.

Elsewhere on the album, Mali’s ancient past is used as an analogy for the jealousy, corruption and worst excesses of individual greed, currently crippling the country. The Abdoulaye Diabaté – born into the griot tradition – sagaciously lends his vocals to Bassekou’s experimental bottleneck slide ngoni techniques buoyant ‘Wele ni’; Diabaté weaving a parable from the Segou Koro royal court of the Bamana Kings, drawing parallels between the tale of a king whose self aggrandizement and position of power has separated him from both his people and reality, and the current Mali government.

Renowned as much for his collaborations and guest stars on previous records, Bassekou has crossed instruments with such luminaries as Taj Mahal and Samba Touré in the past. Miri is no exception, featuring as it does Malian sensation (and member of the Bamada West African supergroup) Habib Koité on the staccato Arabia to Mali desert traversing, hoofed percussion backed ‘Deli’, and the traditional instruments fused with rap Cuban troupe, Madera Limpia, on the Hispaniola jostling, lively ‘Wele Cuba’. This pool of talented guest spots also boasts the deft skills of Morocco classical and jazz multi instrumentalist Majid Bekkar – ascending and descending with lilt scenic accents a suitably diaphanous plucked mood on ‘Kanougon’ – and Snarky Puppy and Bokanté helmsman, motivator, Michael League. All of who congruously and skillfully accentuate the Bassekou family sound or bolster its energy further.

Concentrating the mind, the events and turmoil of a divided Mali inspire Bassekou to hold those most dearest even nearer (from family to friends) and pay tribute to those that have passed on (including an air-y beatitude to his mother on the album’s finale, ‘Yakare’). All the while attempting to heal the rifts through the soulfully adroit and fire-y ngoni music of the past and present.

A visceral picture of a land in crisis, yet one that has hope for a united Mali, Miri is a sublime connective and rallying collection of compelling and thrilling performances and songs (Sacko especially on fine form delivering the most tender and rich vocals throughout); another essential album from the ngoni master.

 

Note: Glasgow friends can catch Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba performing this album and tracks from the back catalogue live at the internationally renowned Celtic Connections festival in the city this month; playing the Old Fruitmarket on Friday 25th January. Details…



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