NEW MUSIC REVIEWS ROUNDUP: WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA


Photo Credit: Sia Rosenberg

This edition of Tickling Our Fancy includes records by Ammar 808, Alex Stolze, Elefant, Matt Finucane, Pyramid, Lucy Leave, London Plane, Disco Gecko and Waldo Belloso.

Interesting releases from across the world and music spectrums; Tickling Our Fancy is the, Monolith Cocktails founder, Dominic Valvona’s most eclectic of reviews roundups. With no themes, demarcations of any kind, or reasoning other than providing a balanced platform for the intriguing, the great and at times, most odd releases, I bring you this month’s latest selection.

My latest bumper edition of releases from the last couple of months includes the recent fully realized romantically shadowy chamber pop electronic suite, Outermost Edge, from the Berlin composer, violinist and label boss Alex Stolze; the debut album proper from Belgium’s prowling post-punk, sludge metal experimentalists Elefant, Konark Und Bonark; Sofyann Ben Youssef of the Bargou 08 collaboration, under his Ammar 808 moniker, fuses the atavistic sounds and culture of North Africa with futuristic drum machine effects on his new album for Glitterbeat Records, Maghreb United; Toby Marks aka 90s techno trance star Banco de Gaia, celebrates the 20th anniversary of his label Disco Gecko with a collection of reworked tracks from the catalogue; and the maverick Brighton-based artist Matt Finucane returns with one of his best EPs yet of grueling, grinding Bowie and post-punk influences, Ugly Scene.

But that’s not all, I also take a look at new re-releases of both obscure Argentine exotica and Cologne tripping Kosmische from the Spanish Guerssen hub; the first a reissue (for the first time ever) of Waldo Belloso’s visionary and library music kitsch ‘Afro-Progresivo’, the second, another rare album, the titular album in fact, from the infamous and debatable Krautrock era Pyramid label. Oxford trio Lucy Leave limber, thrash and jerk through their debut album of no wave jazz, math rock, punk and jilting alternative rock, Look/Listen. And finally, the debut album from the New York brooding strobe-lit pop and punchy rock partnership, London Plane.


Ammar 808  ‘Maghreb United’   Glitterbeat Records,   15th June 2018

 

Throwing the traditional unwieldy Maghreb, before it was demarcated and split into colonial spheres of influence, back together again in the name of progress and unity, Sofyann Ben Youssef fuses the atavistic and contemporary. With past form as one half of the Bargou 08 partnership that gave a modern electric jolt to the isolated, capitulating Targ dialect ritual of the Bargou Valley on the northwestern Tunisia and Algeria border, Youssef under the moniker of Ammar 808 once again propels the region’s diverse etymology of languages, rhythms and ceremony into the present, or even future: hopefully a more optimistic one.

An area once connected despite ethnical differences, the Maghreb heritage is reinvented as a metaphor for not only setting course for a brighter, possible future, but in taking control of the past: As Youssef says, “The past is a collective heritage.”

Envisaged as a visual as well as a sonic experience live when the Maghreb United goes out on the road, he has brought together a team of “visual researchers, designers and actors” to create a fully immersive, hypnotic concept. An ambitious odyssey, the music, as Youssef’s alter ego time-traveller nomadic moniker suggests, is a hybrid of past and (retro) futurism; the 808 of that name standing in for the iconic 1980s Roland TR-808 drum machine, a device he uses to transform those traditions into something more cosmic and mysterious.

Jon Hassell’s ‘possible musics’ meets Major Lazer, the traversing adaptations from the Gnawa, Targ and Rai traditions and ritual are amorphously swirled or bounced around in a gauze of both identifiable and mystically unidentifiable landscapes. Mixing modern R&B, dub, electro effects with the dusky reedy sound of the evocative gasba and bagpipe like zorka, and a range of earthy venerable and yearning vocals from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria artists, Youssef distorts, amps up or intensifies a resonating aura of transformative geography and time.

Throbbing, pulsing, entrancing and vaporous, the Ammar 808 effects transport its source material and desert songs towards a new uncertainty.

In a land still rocked and reeling from the impacts of the Arab Spring, with a power vacuum in many cases replacing rotten governments with even less savory administrations at worse, and at best, struggling to cope political parties, the Maghreb has had its fair share of violence and tribulation. Rather than dwell on the negatives, Youssef projects a better future through his science fiction inspired visions of collective ownership.

Not so out there as to be detached from those sources that inform it, the Maghreb United is an interesting sonic experiment which will be enhanced further when experienced live. I don’t know about predicting what will make sense in ten, fifty or a hundred years time, but this fusion makes a lot of sense in the here and now.






Alex Stolze   ‘Outermost Edge’   Nonostar,  23rd March 2018

 

Following up on his previous electronic chamber pop EP, Mankind Animal, the Berlin virtuoso violinist, composer and (in the last year or two) label owner Alex Stolze expands on his signature transformation of the classical and contemporary electronica genres with a fully realized new album suite.

Moving a while back to the pastoral German/Polish borders, renovating a previously ruinous pile into not only a new home for his family but also the inspirational HQ of Alex and his artist wife Andrea Huyoff’s creative cottage industry –Andrea’s art can be seen adorning Alex’s new album -, this accomplished soloist has found a solace away from hustle and bustle of the city. Far from inspiring gentle, peaceable visions of optimism and rejoice from his retreat, Alex creates yearning and haunted shadowy waltzes.

Highly political, yet preferring to romantically allude to the instability and rise of authoritarianism with poetic sonnets and metaphors to mysterious out-of-reach chanteuses and objects of affection (illusions to the enigmatic woman, or women, in Alex’s life that aren’t just seen as equals but much more), Outermost Edge provides neo-classical pop maladies and aching heart love suites that comment without division and rage.

Weaving his European Jewish heritage musically and etymologically with sophisticated undulations of effects and synthesized waves and amped-up trip hop like live drums, Alex mingles scenes and dioramas with guest vocal songs. Usually appearing together, one harmonically echoing the other, Yehuda Amichai and Ofrin exude an often lulled and ghostly presence on the clandestine meeting in cold war Vienna, traffic light analogy lament Serve All Loss, and He Poos Clouds pinned tango New.

Of course at the centre of all this is Alex’s adroit pricked and accentuated weeping bowed violin performances. Never indulgent, if anything still, withheld with a minimalist sensibility, they are beautifully and stirringly administered; channeling both the avant-garde and classical; running through a full gamut of subtle layered emotions.

Released via Alex’s burgeoning label Nonostar – home to the triumvirate Solo Collective of Alex, Anne Müller and Sebastian Reynold’s astonishing Part One album, which made our choice albums of 2017 features – Outermost Edge is yet another plaintively aching and most beautiful shadowy album of neo-classical electronic pop.






Elefant  ‘Konark Und Bonark’   9000 Records,  11th May 2018

 

Emerging from the Belgium underground scene, with members from a myriad of bands, each one more obscure than the next, the Elefant in this room is a twisted agit-post-punk, boiler come forensic team suited troop of noise peddlers.

Lurking around basement venues for a while now, the sludge metal and gallows Krautrock merchants have released a slurry of EPs but never a fully realized album until now.

For an album that grapples with Marilyn Manson, Swans, Killing Joke, Muse, industrial contortions and Germanic experimentation, Konark Und Bonark is a very considered, purposeful statement. Though things get very heavy, implosive and gloomy and the auger like ghosts in the vocals can sound deranged, there is a semblance of melody, a tune and hint of breaking through the confusing, often pummeling, miasma.

Following a concept of narratives (of a sort), the album opens with a plaintive hybrid of machine and human vocals reading out an almost resigned poetic eulogy – part Bowie Diamond Dogs, part Outside. From then on in, as the eerie machinations of an apocalyptic aftermath dissipate, we are thrown into a controlled chaos of supernatural Kosmische and hypnotic industrial ritual: The group’s defector leader vocalist Wolf Vanwymeersch opting for a becalming message of love overcoming the conspired forces of darkness.

In this vacuum of progressive and hardcore influences, Elefant throw up plenty of surprises, pendulously swaying between a tom tom ritual dreamscape on Schräg, but transmogrifying glam rock and Dinosaur Jnr on the tech meltdown finale ‘Norsun Muisti’, or as on the twisting “with our love we will change the world” sentiment of ‘Credulity’, melding Gary Numan and Gothic New Romanticism.

A seething rage is tightly controlled throughout, the sporadic flits and Math Rock entangled rhythms threatening to engulf but never quite reaching an overload, or for that matter, becoming a mess. Elefant’s prowling and throbbing sound of creeping menace and visions of an artificial intelligent domineering dystopia is an epic one. Arguably the band have produced their most ambitious slog yet and marked themselves out as one of the country’s most important bands of 2018.






Various Artists  ‘In The Blink Of An Eye’  Disco Gecko,  6th June 2018

 

Starting out as a platform for the global trance and techno peregrinations of Toby Marks’ alter ego Banco de Gaia in the late 90s, the Disco Gecko label has gone on to expand its remit in the last few years by adding a number of congruous artists from the dance and electronica genres.

Famous for setting off on the mystical eastern bound ‘Last Train To Lhasa’ in 1995, Marks’ initial success was often frustrated by the labels he worked with. And for that reason it seemed perfectly logical for him to set up his own imprint, which now celebrates its twentieth anniversary. It would however take until 2014 before anyone other than Marks released anything on the label; this accolade going to Andrew Heath with his Silent Cartographer LP. Heath, the ambient pianist of ‘lower-case’ contemplation, appears alongside the label’s full roster on this special anniversary compilation.

Rather than a straight-up ‘best of’ showcase, Marks has asked each of the label’s artists to remix or collaborate with each other to produce alternative transformed versions of original tracks from the back catalogue. Seeing as we have already mentioned him, and he appears quite a lot as an integral part of the Disco Gecko story (including a role in creating the artwork and layout of this collection), Heath’s ‘A Stillness Of Place’, as sublimely guided to ever more radiant heights by the Nottingham duo Radium 88, opens this compilation with a serene ambient diaphanous. Later on, with Heath in the role of remixer himself, he subtly accents and stirs the 100th Monkey’s dreamy plaintive and haunted choral ‘The Last Inuit Snow Song’: literally melting before our ears, the serialism piano composer, imbued by one of his most iconic past collaborators Hans-Joachim Roedelius, adds short trails of sonorous piano and amps up the Eno-esque mood.

Probably one of the label’s most commercial coups, the air-y sophisticated soulful singer/songwriter Sophie Barker, who’s tones have appeared on a catalogue of electronica and dance hits by David Guetta, Groove Armada and Robin Guthrie (of Cocteau Twins fame), is represented with her longing ‘Road 66’ song. From Tampere in Finland, Karl Lounela, aka LO18, transforms the original down tempo trepidation and dub like vapours of the original. Alongside Fastlap, Barker in more a collaborated than remix role, gets to passionately ache and yearn on Marks own traverse ‘Glove Puppet’, whilst LO18’s original vision ‘Huima’ is taken in a Sylvain oriental visage direction by 100th Monkey.

Elsewhere on this compilation, the Indian sub-continent enthused ‘Darjeeling Daydream’ submersion by Dr. Trippy is consumed with even more swampy and lunar effects than before by the intercontinental collective The Dragonfly Trio, and Radium 88’s misty mountain ambient journey ‘Bury Each And Every Prayer’ is becalmed even further with sacred panoramic views and Popol Vuh dissipations by polymath composer Simon Power.

Refreshing a relatively short and recent back catalogue with the aim being to move ever forward, In The Blink Of An Eye is a novel conception in both celebrating the Disco Gecko legacy and in looking ahead to the future of ambient and electronic music.






Matt Finucane   ‘Ugly Scene’   Crude Light,  11th May 2018

 

Sporadic yet prolific, the idiosyncratic Matt Finucane has probably appeared on this blog more times than anyone else over the years. Constantly cathartic, pouring out his surly heart on every record, the Brighton-based maverick channels the anxieties of our times with a certain resigned lament over an ever-changing backing of indie, Krautrock, punk and post-punk influences.

His latest exercise in primal scream therapy (though crooning would be a more apt description) is the quasi-Neu!-meets-Faust-meets-Pixies grinding turmoil Ugly Scene EP. Perhaps among his best releases yet, the epic sinewy grueling opener ‘Not Too Far’ could be Bowie fronting The Buzzcocks Spiral Scratch. A listless Finucane languidly swoons for much of the duration of this monotonous track before eventually mooning and howling the “I’m so sick of it all” refrain in various strung-out and deranged ways.

Changing tact slightly, ‘The Wrong Side’ transmogrifies Johnny Thunders, Bowie (again! But why not?!) and shades of Britpop, whilst the EP’s title track throws The Sonics, Damned, Monks and Beefheart into a spinning chaos as an increasingly sneer-y and disillusioned Finucane unburdens himself. Expanding his tastes still further, the steely acoustic guitars and slight English psychedelic hints of ‘Damn Storyteller’ evoke not only Lou Reed but also Kevin Ayers, and the post-punk dub ‘City Consolation’ sounds not too dissimilar (in my warped mind anyway) to an imaginary Black Francis fronted Compass Point Allstars jamming with Jah Wobble.

Hardly the easiest of listening experiences, Finucane letting each track run its natural course, Ugly Scene is nevertheless filled with soul and melody; an experimental EP of resignation and heartache that finds the artist at his most sagacious and venerable but also constructive. Finucane has seldom sounded better and more imaginative.






Lucy Leave   ‘Look/Listen’   27th April 2018

 

Gangly, strung-out, limbering with moments of intensity and entangled noodling the Oxford trio Lucy Leave expand upon their math rock, no wave and grunge amalgamation with the debut album, Look/Listen. Transducing the conceptual Scandi-Socialist tapestries of weaver Hannah Ryggen with the group’s own sense of isolation whilst making this album (still smarting over Brexit; the theme that fired them up on last year’s The Beauty Of The World EP), coupled with a general dissatisfaction at the political landscape, Lucy Leave don’t so much enrage and shout as jerk sporadically through their agit-post-punk and American college radio influences.

The targets and intellectual concerns of their ire are all there to be deciphered in the, mostly, stop/start dynamism. In what seems a generous offering, the eighteen tracks on this album are all laid out in a purposeful manner; a journey, spread out in the fashion of a double album, with shorter vignettes alongside the spikey and more slow building minor epic thrashes.

Flexing their dual vocals, with both taking turns on lead but often shadowing each other, Mike Smith strays between a better mannered PiL era Lydon and milder D. Boon of The Minutemen (incidentally one of the band’s biggest influences), whilst Jenny Oliver fluctuates between Ariel Up and Vivian Goldmine. They begin however with echoes of an a capella Talking Heads on the vocal chorus introduction ‘Barrier Reef’, before the freefall into a spunk rock twist of The Fall, The Damned and (as I’ve already mentioned) The Minutemen on the following pair of congruous songs, ‘Kintsugi’ and ‘Ammoniaman’.

Slowing down occasionally for gentler posturing, meditations, the later third of the album offers some surprising material; the more controlled psychedelic acoustic ‘Hang Out With Now’ bearing hints of Julian Cope and Ultrasound, and the progressive pastoral weepy ‘Long Sequence’ sounding simultaneously like The Moody Blues, 70s Pretty Things and Bowie.

Thrashing elsewhere through Californian Black Hole punk, Sonic Youth, Archers Of Loaf, Deerhoof, The Raincoats and, especially with the drifting contorted saxophone riffs, no wave jazz, Lucy Leave successfully drag together all their influences to convey the present confusion and madness of the times. Entangled, angulated, crashing but never frustrating, Look/Listen is an ambitious debut from a band still finding its groove: and all the better for it.






Pyramid  ‘Pyramid’  Mental Experience,  May 10th 2018

 

Pulled from the archives of an obscure Kosmische label that head music scholars still refute even existed, the title album from the titular amorphous studio set-up behind the legendary Pyramid label appears in the guise of a lost treasure from the 70s Cologne underground. Reissued for the first ever time by the Guerssen hub imprint Mental Experience, this previously lost experiment from the ‘Mad Twiddler’ studio engineer bod Toby Robinson is poured over in the linear notes by The Crack In The Cosmic Egg almanacs’ Alan Freeman: though providence is debatable and the album’s cast difficult to verify.

What we do know (or so the myth goes) is that Robinson, alongside the avant-garde and conceptual antagonistic Fluxus movement’s Robin Page, set the Pyramid label up originally. Though with only a handful; of recordings to emerge from their time together in the mid 70s, it seems that it was never meant to be a commercial enterprise; more a retreat and outlet for unrushed mind expansions and improvisations. Any releases that did escape the studio were confined to ‘micro’ scale pressings (hence their value and status amongst Krautrock connoisseurs). Many still believe these recordings to be the work of nefarious pranksters, recording them decades later, passing them off as finds from the great Krautrock and Kosmische epoch.

Robinson though, as we’re told, was an assistant at a myriad of Cologne studios during that original era; working most famously at Dieter Dierks’ Kosmische incubator, where some of the dream flights and galactic transcendence music of the Ohr and Pilz labels was produced. In the ‘so-called’ dead hours between recording sessions, Robinson and friends, collaborators, would lay down their own ideas.

Split into two, the ‘Dawn Defender’ expansive free-form experiment that straddles the Pyramid LP alludes artistically to Erich von Däniken and Popol Vuh; the Mayan stone tablet (I might be wrong) insignia and mountains at the start of a cosmic highway and massive glitterball (which seems somewhat incongruous and modern for its time and genre), tuning into transcendent and alien dimensions. Musically we have it all (nearly all), the full Kosmische gamut, as the anonymous band traverse different phases yet maintain a repeating vaporous hazy atmosphere. Shifting from faint echoes of UFO era Guru Guru, Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempe in the first ambient air-y and primordial lunar stages to mellotron oscillating Dance Of The Lemmings Amon Düül II, the Far East Family Band and ghostly visitations, the Pyramid collective sound distinctive enough even amongst the quality of their peers.

Trance-y, hypnotic with distant reverberations of the Orient and Tibet, the group does occasionally break out into sporadic displays of acid rock ala Gila and the Acid Mother Temple, but soon simmer down into The Cosmic Jokers style peregrinations. They finish off this uninterrupted flowing half hour opus with some heavenly strings and beautiful flourishes – even though veiled moody distractions and knocks persist; indicating an unearthly presence.

Whoever did produce this work, in whatever circumstances, the Pyramid album is a brilliantly atmospheric and executed Kosmische experience, ticking off all the genres signatures yet still distinctive enough to reveal some interesting passages and ideas.






Cuasares  ‘Afro-Progresivo’   Pharaway Sounds,  10th May 2018

 

From another Guerssen hub offshoot, Pharaway Sounds dig up yet another forgotten ‘nearly ran’ from the peripherals of exotica and cosmic psychedelic. The obscure distant celestial named Cuasares project (which is Spanish for the star like ‘quasars’ that emit large amounts of energy, billions of light years away) is the work of the ‘enigmatic’ Argentine pianist and composer Waldo Belloso, who (unsurprisingly) released it in 1973 to the smallest of fanfares. Afro-Progresivo now resurfaces as a reissue (the first), complete with plenty of scholarly fanboy notes and information.

The title is slightly misleading as this album leans more towards the Latin: merging mambo and samba with both counterculture soundtrack music from the Italian and French b-movie libraries and Les Baxter-esque tropical South Seas Island rituals.

Gazing at celestial bodies and alluding to ‘evanescent’ fleeting romantic phenomena, Waldo funkily trips through Andean kitsch, languid beachcomber Hawaiian wanderings, kooky space fantasy and Southeast Asian exotic psych. His sauntering, jaunty and often musing suites feature increasingly distorted, jarring organ, radiant vibraphone, echo-y drums, fuzzed-up guitar doodles and surreptitiously trickling piano. All of which articulates a sort of acid-Latin Axlerod soundtrack that straddles the South American and Asian continents with cosmic jazz and exotica.

Though this is all fairly well trodden ground, Afro-Progresivo remains a curious example of South American obscure progressive and kitsch-y weird, but remember also funky, experimentation.






London Plane  ‘New York Howl’   18th May 2018

 

A paean to the city that name checks one of New York’s, now defunct, obscure underground groups and, with a poetic license, reimagines the entries of a mysterious stranger’s abandoned diary – lured to the metropolis from Portland in the 1970s – New York Howl is both a romantic yet strobe-lit gothic brooding fantasy. Fronted by enchantress singer Cici James and lead songwriter David Mosey, London Plane (in honor to the American sycamore crossed Oriental plane tree that you see lining the iconic broad walks of New York) reframe the troubled dairy writer protagonist’s sporadic poems, scenes and “half-recounted dreams” in a loose concept album of timeless emotions.

Found by Mosey on the streets of the city, in a suitcase, the London Plane instigator was intrigued enough to take it home with him; leading to an obsession and the spark of inspiration that brought this project together. Written over an eight-year period between 1975-1982, the final abrupt and enigmatic words, ‘I hope he gets it’, proved a fruitful prompt, the results of which suffuse this ten-track songbook of new wave, collage radio rock, synth pop and proto-punk. Letting the mind wonder with entries in the aftermath of such New York tragedies as the murder of John Lennon, the band interrupt the author Francis’ backstory and movements; running through the full gamut of emotions. They allude to a ‘ghost story’; the presence of their protagonist diarist vanishing before they make a connection; haunting the city like a specter and auger, always out of reach.

Musically channeling New York’s obvious musical legacy, but also a far wider spectrum of influences, the bright and brilliant title track hones the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Blondie and Ronnie Spector, with Cici’s vocals evoking a rich myriad of more controlled Karen O, Debbie Harry, Madonna and weirdly, on the Broadway synth plaint ‘Make It Our Own’, ‘Losing My Mind’ 80s era Liza Minnelli!

Good solid pop songs mingle with more romantically vaporous tracks; the dreamy fantasy of ‘The Farther Down We Go’ and Chromatics style whispery neon synth ‘Roxanne’ sitting well with the Echo And The Bunnymen meets Blondie style ‘If It Got Me You’. A New York house band obviously in love with their city, mining the last four decades of its heritage, New York Howl may offer musings on isolation, regret and the fears, trepidations of a big city, yet the lingering traces and mystery of Francis are sound tracked with both a dreamy veneer and punchy pop quality. The London Plane could be just the start of a beautiful musical partnership.







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REVIEW
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA

Maalem Mahmoud Gani   ‘Colours Of The Night’
Hive Mind Records,  September 8th 2017

Adding its name to an already crowded but all the same welcome market of world music reissues and contemporary undiscovered obscurities, Brighton based label Hive Mind Records announces its intentions and presence with an album of Gnawa trance recordings from the late great Maalem Mahmoud Gania.

The near-exulted star of the Moroccan honed Gnawa – a style of traditional Islamic dance, music and poetry with roots spread across the sub-Saharan crescent of Africa; considered by many to be one of the origins of the “blues” rhythm – and artisan of the genre’s key instrument, the camel-skin covered three-string lute like “guimbri”, released an extensive catalogue of recordings for labels such as Tichkaphone, La Voix El Maaraf and Sonya Disques.

Colours Of The Night however, the final studio recording by Gania, will be the first solo release by the artist outside his native homeland to be released on vinyl: six performances spread over four sides of vinyl to be exact.

For the uninitiated, Gnawa is a highly hypnotic experience based around the repetition of a musical phrase, a few succinct lines of poetic devotion or a communion with the spiritual for a duration that can last hours. Performances tend to bleed into each other, and so what can seem like one uninterrupted piece of music are, often, three or four different songs strung together. Building up an entrancing rhythm of spindly plucked vibrating guimbri and metallic scratchy percussion (courtesy of the iron castanets, the “krakebs”), call and response vocals in paean and lament break the instrumental monotony. Though there’s room for nuanced fleches and riffs to add variety, intonation and intensity. These are all the key components then; of a style that evokes both the sound of Arabia and desert blues traditions.

Equally influencing others whilst, it seems, also embracing and exploring sounds from further afield himself, during his illustrious career Gania worked with artists as diverse as Pharaoh Sanders, Bill Laswell and Carlos Santana. Enriching his own recordings perhaps, the suffused mirage-like synthesizer that hovers over the horizon on this album’s Sidi Sma Ya Boulandi track shows a late penchant for electronic keyboards and ambient waves of atmospheric soundscaping: though this is the only time the instrument is used on these specific recordings.

Stringy, wiry, occasionally a tone or two lower and played like a quasi-bass guitar, Gania’s playing style is raw, deep and always infectious: from blistering solos to slower and lighter ruminating descriptive articulations; this is equally matched by his atavistic soulful voice and the chorus of swooning, venerated female and male voices and harmonies that join him on each track.

As an introduction, Colours Of The Night would be better experienced in sections – a side at a time perhaps. After a while it can all sound a little tiring. Gania advocates will however find this a worthy addition to the legacy.

Hive Mind start as they mean to go on, with the full sanctioning of the Gania family and artists who appear on this album, releasing a most brilliant set of recordings that could so easily have disappeared off the radar. As inaugural releases go, this one is definitely a winner.

ALBUM REVIEW
Words: Dominic Valvona


 

Tanzania Albinism Collective  ‘White African Power’
Six Degrees Records, 2nd June 2017

If anyone is perturbed, fear not as the man behind this slightly ironically entitled White African Power album, guiding hand and producer extraordinaire Ian Brennan, puts us straight:

“As one of the most persecuted groups on the planet, when a member of the Albinism community in Tanzania – especially one who has been relocated by the government for his own physical protection – asserts his “power”, it should not be denied. And if anyone has earned the right for the use of irony, it is those that have suffered such atrocities and ostracism from birth, yet still manage to endure.”

In so many respects a “spiritual follow-up” to Brennan’s Grammy Award-nominated Zomba Prison Project and follow-on from the equally evocative and raw Hanoi Masters sessions, White African Power attentively and respectfully draws out the repressed voices of the Albino community in Tanzania. Brennan’s productions often serve as a kind of hands-off form of creative counseling and healing; helping people to overcome trauma, such as the survivors of Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia. He’s renowned for being the most inconspicuous of in the field and on location producers, letting the atmosphere and elements, the moment if you like, and even serendipity bleed into the performances he captures for posterity. And the production methodology used for this latest project, recording the songs of the standing Voice Community of Ukerewe, is no different.

As superstitions still prevail in many parts of east Africa, none more so than in Tanzania, the albino community are ghoulishly hunted down or ostracized. If they’re lucky, they make it to sanctuaries such as the Ukerewe Island retreat: dumped for their own safety by families and the government but also abandoned. If they’re unlucky than they will find a much more horrendous fate is in store for them, pursued, murdered and dismembered for their limbs by those who believe that an albino’s body parts have magical properties. However you look at it, albinos in Tanzania are shunned and persecuted: one of the most common insults being that they, “belong to the whites”, or worse, that they are demonic.

A safe haven, Ukerewe, where Ian travelled to in 2016 to document their plight, is the largest inland island in Africa, only reachable by a four-hour ferry ride. Its community is, hardly surprising, haunted by their experiences. Self-conscious, avoiding eye contact, it proved a difficult task for the producer to encourage his subjects to open up. But open up they did, and the results are often surprisingly melodious, poetic, and diaphanous if raw and emotional. Far from a harrowing catalogue of despair and pity, the 23 recordings on this collection prove illuminating.





Though sung in the “discouraged and censored” (following unification in 1964) dialects of Kikirewe and Jeeta, the English translated song titles will leave you in no doubt as to each one’s message and lament: from disbelief at their treatment, on the Casio keyboard preset backed alternative 80s, sweet but troubled, The World Has Gone Mad, and the double-bass trembled Stop The Murders, to the hope and calls for normality on the mysterious sounding electric-guitar blues I Will Build A Home, Someday, and the harp-plucked music box serenaded Happiness.

Another indictment if needed on those perpetrators and a population that have harassed and murdered them, other titles sadly reflect tragic insights into their lives: Stigma Everywhere, They Gossiped When I Was Born, Standing Voices (Once, I Was Abandoned). And as though any right-thinking decent human being needed it, there’s a jolting reminder that Disability Is Not A Curse.

 

Fitting no obvious style, these amorphous performances do however resonate both with the delta blues of Louisiana and the stark, stripped down and earthy blues of South East Asia. Touches of raw African dusty tradition do appear, ascending and descending alongside gospel and soulful voices, naturally echoed, sighed and open-heartedly sung with a pure vulnerability. They’re accompanied either by stark lo fi electric guitar performances, that range from scratchy, straggly proto-punk to slower scrabbly emotive twangs, or an acoustic backing of rubber-band and bottle shaking percussion. Standing out production wise though is the classical – imagine Brahms on harpsichord transferred to East Africa in the 80s – reverberating cradling deep soulful ballad, Never Forget The Killings.

 

Ian Brennan coaxes another startling, eye opening, set of recordings from the victims of trauma; one that proves every bit as impressive as it does plaintive and sad. The collective will astonish, if not surprise listeners, those suppressed voices, thankfully released and given an international platform, sound emotionally honest and revelatory.

Released just ahead of the U.N.’s International Albinism Awareness Day on June 13th, the voices of White African Power can also be seen at this year’s WOMAD festival this summer (July 27-30th).


ALBUM FEATURE
Words: Dominic Valvona


 

Various   ‘Zaire 74: The African Artists’
Wrasse Records,  26th May 2017

Finally. The often overlooked, sidelined, and due in part to hustler/promoter Don King’s original court injection, the exciting homegrown African acts that performed as part of the legendary “rumble in the jungle” (Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman) jamboree can now be heard for the first time ever. Presented on two discs but also available as a triple vinyl set, the Wrasse label’s Zaire 74 compilation features complete performances from the leading lights of the local Zaire – renamed after much turmoil and war as the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the 90s – music scene and the world renowned South African émigré chanteuse Miriam Makeba.

Overshadowed by their American counterparts, especially number one soul brother James Brown, Zaire’s every bit as funky and dynamic artists were left on the cutting room floor for the most part in subsequent documentaries of the heavyweight championship in the country’s capital, Kinshasa. Notably the award-winning When We Were Kings, which is generous in its footage of Brown and his co-stars on stage including B.B. King, Bill Withers, The Pointer Sisters and The Fania Latin All Stars. In 2009 there was a chance of redemption in the form of the Soul Power documentary, which at least featured some of the Zairian talent and Makeba, yet was far from complete. Some of this exclusion is down to the checkered history of legal disputes. All of which are chronicled in the accompanying booklet that comes with this 34-track suite; brilliantly and informatively put together by the original dream team of Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine, the record label owners and producers who planned and recorded the whole affair and have now remastered it for this new compilation.

For an event meant to not only grandstand Ali’s titanic grudge-match with Foreman but also to celebrate Zaire and indeed the entire continent’s new found freedoms, now that for the most part Europe’s colonial powers had all but granted independence to their territories in Africa, it’s surprising to find that it has taken forty-odd years for this complete picture to emerge.





The bombast theater that followed Ali everywhere – encouraged and riled all the way by the late great showman – moved to Africa for a host of reasons. But indulged by Ali, Zaire’s leader of the time, President, formerly general, Mobutu hijacked the attention whenever he could to advance his own aims. Mobutu had himself brutally seized power from the democratically elected Patrice Lumumba – of which great hopes were predicted – in a military coup in 1965, so could do with some, even if it was a façade, positive media attention. Playing the part of antagonist and stubborn defender of African “authenticity” then, Mobutu called for a celebration of musical, cultural and traditional dress. History as it transpired, proved that he was in fact a plundering dictator who’d bled his people and country dry, but in ’74 the world’s media spotlight was angled on the former Belgian colony; giving it a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to promote a sense of self-belief and optimism.

For Masekela and Levine, the congruous musical partnership behind the US label Chisa Records and African music experts – the South African-born Masekela’s many travails across the continent included a “spiritual pilgrimage” that saw him meet such iconic figures as Fela Kuti and produce the highly influential Ghanaian seven-piece Hedzoleh Soundz -, this was an opportunity to further the course of the artists; hopefully attracting international acclaim and more lucrative record contracts for them. Acquiring the rights to stage a three-day extravaganza in September of ’74, the US-based partnership signed-up a weighty stellar line-up of acts from the Americas, but they also hired Zaire’s best-known bandleader and influential icon at the time, Franco (Francois Luambo to give him his full title), to consult as a “creative guide” on the African line-up. Franco himself appears naturally, leading the sunshine soul and off-kilter rhythmic T.P. O.K. Jazz band.

Stewart recorded proceedings in a mock-up studio, shipped over from the States, below the infamous 20th of May stadium in Kinshasa – named in tribute to the date of Mobutu’s bloody coup. And what he would capture was electric!





Between the flashes and blasts of screeching heralding horns, dynamite funk and R’n’B, much of the music was of a sweeter disposition; a counterpoint to the violence that would take part in the ring and to the extreme brutality meted out by the regime. The more blazing and up-tempo displays of Afro-funk and rock are delivered by the opening act. the slick Tabu Ley Rochereau And Afrisa; introduced with a soul revue instrumental shoe-shuffler of fanfare horns, jangly guitar and tight drum fills. A run-through of various moods and style changes follow from the man they called “the voice of lightness”, who it’s said, “stole the show” from his chief rival Franco. Skipping hi-hat action and rasping, swooning saxophone lullabies meet with The Meters deep funk basslines, and staccato rhythms, as Tabu and his ensemble work the crowd. The consummate showman receives many rounds of applause and thrives of the intense energy that pours from the 50,000 strong African audience, especially on what sounds like a local favourite, the grand finale, Annie; the crowd chanting back the words and sentiment.

That much-celebrated rival and Zaire 74 consultant, the mighty Franco, backed by local legends T.P. O.K. Jazz, takes up the lion’s share of the compilation’s second act with the complete eleven-track set list of dance band jumpers and off-kilter soul-jazz grooves.

Rising in status and influence, from the young streetwise “urchin” who built his own guitar and cultivated a signature repetitive attacking style, to revered singer and adopter of various musical genres from all over the world – Cuban rumba to Highlife – Franco’s enthusiasm and promotion of Mobutu’s “authenticity” campaign soured the star’s reputation for a while: Mobutu in kind, in exchange for Franco’s endorsement, smoothed the way for his growing business empire. To be fair, Franco became a vocal critic of the regime, penning a protest when Mobutu, making a political statement, hung a number of so-called “dissident” politicians.

Easing in and reminding us of the powerful line-up under his control that night in Zaire’s capital – a frontline of singers that included the talented Sam Mangwana, a seven-piece brass section and the gifted guitarist Simon ‘Simaro’ Lutumba – Franco’s band kick-off proceedings with a slinky soul-jazz, hot-stepping introduction and move congruously into a rhythmic change of direction on the proceeding cradled horns tropical Nzoto. Lolloping grooves, busy hi-hats and dazzled brass follow as a band at the peak of their abilities and showmanship take us on a Zairian journey through down tempo romantic balladry and sunshine pop.





The major star of Zaire 74: The African Artists, in an international sense anyway, South African soulstress totem of hope, Miriam Makeba brought a soothing hush of spiritual reflection to the stage. A universal message of optimism that chimed with the conscious celebration of a growing independence, Makeba’s sentiments are honorable enough, but can’t help but sound naïve in the context of Mobutu’s grandstanding and legacy.

The South African singer and leading advocate in the struggle against her homeland’s apartheid regime, was one of the continent’s most recognized talents having made a name for herself in the USA during the early 60s. Whether it was addressing the UN in ’63 and ‘64 or performing at JFK’s birthday party at Madison Square Gardens in ’62, Makeba became a major star and intentionally or not, became a Western figurehead for Africa. This soon changed after she married the divisive civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. A union too far it seemed for the US music industry as concerts were soon cancelled and she was given the cold-shoulder, leading in part to a move back to Africa, into the embrace of Guinea’s President Sékou Touré – an instigator of the “authenticity” campaign that Mobutu would later borrow. Unfortunately this new found home from home came with certain obligations, namely the requirement to perform when prompted to Touré’s guests and dignitaries. It was during this period that she appeared on the Zaire 74 bill.

In praise of Mobutu, certain dedications are made as Makeba delivers an almost venerated performance of swaddling, healing laments and prayer. Cooing, panting, trilling and soulfully fluctuating in an aria-style, Makeba yearns for unity and respect as she sings the South African anthem Amampondo, the sauntering swaying Umqhokozo, and breathy elevating ballad West Wind (written by her daughter Bongi; a song that would appear the following year on Makeba’s The Guinea Years album).

Sharing the stage with Makeba, the lesser known but in no way less important dynamic funk outfit Orchestre Stukas whip the audience up with an energetic set of local Zairian style rumba and western rock and funk. Lively to say the least, the Stukas were a sort of Zaire pop group, known by the French slang for the genre, as a “ye-ye” group. The wild gesticulations and dancing of front man Lita Bembo, learning a few tricks from James Brown, combined with the Hendrix-style teeth-playing guitar flamboyance of Samora Tediangaye brought them a reputation for showmanship in a scene filled with extroverts. Under these circumstances with this size of a local crowd and potential to reach the international masses, the Stukas took up the challenge and to all intents and purposes lit up the stage.





Playing on a different night, the Zairian rival to Makeba, Abeti Masikini was another initiate of the local rumba style, which she roughened up with the wailing rock guitar of her brother Abumba. Shifting between more traditional narration and sung exultations of peace, love and hope and a fluttering vocal display of chanting, panting and screaming, Abeti flows from Chanson to the tribal and gospel.

Escaping the worst of the violence that followed independence a decade or so before, Abeti was sent away to school in the safer environment of Léopoldville, where she could hone her vocal talents. Off the back of her success in winning a number of singing competitions Abeti eventually met music entrepreneur Gérard Akueson, who invited her to record in Togo. More or less coaching his star turn and taking her on a tour of Francophone West Africa, Akueson took a punt and organized a performance for her in Paris in 1973. Feted by, among others, the celebrated futuristic fashion designer Pierre Cardin, Abeti proved a popular attraction in Europe. Inevitably she was drawn into Mobutu’s sphere of influence on her return to Zaire; wheeled out to sing for dignitaries at the President’s insistence, which on one occasion led to her cancelling a US tour. Though still in the throes of optimism, Abeti dedicates a song of praise to Mobutu before launching into her varied set of styles.

 

Abeti’s Hendrix-extravagant inspired guitar virtuoso brother Abumba appears ahead of her in the line-up. A brief but dynamic two-song burst of shrieking wah-wah contortions and counterpoint bended-knee, more intimate, yearnings showcase the Afro-rock chop and skills of one of Zaire’s leading guitarists.

As a final curtain call and reminder of Mobutu’s “authenticity” mantra, the “massed ranks” of the atavistic Pembe Dance Troupe perform a tumbling, leaping Zairian ceremonial dance. Some will have seen footage of this on the Soul Power documentary of course; an animal-clothed ensemble of 300 people acrobatically springing across the stage in tribal communion. We get to hear it of course without the visuals, but the aural effect – the stage threatening to collapse under the weight and explosive excitement at any time – is still dramatic.

 

As fight fans will know, the titanic slugfest in Zaire was postponed for a month after George Foreman sustained an injury during training back in the US; moving the fight date to October. The three-day music festival though went ahead as planned. Unfortunately most of the exposure then and in the years that followed went to the “western stars”, with even the message of African unification and optimism lost in the excitement of the big fight – which let’s be fair was the main attraction, everything else a mere sideshow – and later by Mobutu’s own legacy.

Convoluted appearances, popping up briefly (if at all) in various documentaries, the African stars of Zaire have finally received the satisfying platform they craved. Thanks to Levine and Masekela’s patience, Zaire 74 collects those seldom-heard performances for the first time ever in this brilliant and most vibrant of releases; an album which acts both as a document and as an exciting musical experience.


PLAYLIST
Compiled by Dominic Valvona


Monolith Cocktail - playlist 27

Continuing in 2017 with the first of, we hope, many Monolith Cocktail Socials, Dominic Valvona presents another eclectic playlist. In case you don’t know the drill, previously only ever shared via our Facebook profile and on Spotify, our regular Monolith Cocktail Social playlists will also be posted here on the blog itself. With no themes or demarcated reasoning we pick songs from across a wide spectrum of genres, and from all eras. #27 includes thoughtful post-country evocations from Bruce Langhorne; southern-drawled, Steppenwolf-esque, roadtrip musings from Circuit Rider; a rebooted live version (with friends) of I Have Known Love by Silver Apples; diaphanous soulful rays of Africa from post-punk outfit Family Fodder; a Malian jazz odyssey from Le Mystere Jazz de Tombouctou; desert rock yearnings from Mdou Moctar; exquisite balladry from Drakkar Nowhere; the sweetest of soul takes from the felonious The Edge Of Daybreak; and 23 other equally evocative, stirring, foot-shuffling and sublime tracks from across the decades.



Bruce Langhorne  ‘Opening’
Circuit Rider  ‘Forever Angels Proud’
Trance Farmers  ‘She’s Made Of Rainbows’
Mistress Mary  ‘Dance Little Girl’
Elyse Weinberg  ‘Your Place Or Mine’
Sensations Fix  ‘Grow On You’
Silver Apples  ‘I Have Known Love’
Family Fodder/Vic Corringham  ‘Walls Of Ice’
Diane Coffee  ‘Never Lonely’
Black Peaches  ‘Chops On Tchoupitoulas’
Le Mystère Jazz de Tombouctou  ‘Leli’
Khiyo  ‘Amar Protibaader Bhasha’
T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo  ‘Finlin Ho’
Mdou Moctar  ‘Iblis Amghar’
Black Hippies  ‘Love’
The Beach Boys  ‘Here She Comes’
Dr. Lonnie Smith/George Benson/Ron Carter/Joe Lovano  ‘Apex’
Mongo Santamaria  ‘In The Mood’
Volta Jazz  ‘Air Volta’
The Frightnrs  ‘Trouble In Here’
The Olympians  ‘Sirens Of Jupiter’
King Tubby  ‘King Tubby’s Special’
SOMA  ‘Deepa’
Moloch  ‘Dance Chaney Dance’
Takeshi Terauchi (Blue Jeans)  ‘Tsugaru Jongarabushi’
Los York’s  ‘Facil Baby’
The Critters  ‘Blow My Mind’
Pierre Cavalli  ‘Cacador’
The Edge Of Daybreak  ‘Your Destiny’
Roy Wood  ‘Songs Of Praise’
Drakkar Nowhere  ‘Any Way’


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