ALBUM REVIEW
Dominic Valvona
Images: Marilena Umuhoza Delli

Yanna Momina ‘Afar Ways’
(Glitterbeat Records)  26th August 2022

Crisscrossing a number of the world’s most dangerous and often remote locations for the Glitterbeat Records label since 2014, the renowned Grammy Award winning polymath-producer Ian Brennan has repeatedly remained hidden as his subjects open up and unload a lifetime of trauma, or, candidly lay bare some of the most stripped, free of artifice performances you’ll ever likely to hear.

For many of the participants in this near decade running Hidden Musics series have rarely, if ever, been recorded before Brennan turned up. Many of them have held on for decades to the fall-out and legacy of war (in the case of this series’ inaugural volume, the Hanoi Masters War Is A Wound, Peace Is A Scar), genocide (the Khmer Rouge survivors They Will Kill You, If You Cry) and persecution (Abatwa – The Pygmy ‘Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?); their voices, as the title encapsulates, remaining hidden, neglected.

But there’s also been a theme of preservation too; capturing such local legends as the Pakistan spiritual doyen Usted Saami, the last one of his particular musical style left. As it stands, the label has released three volumes of that sagacious figure’s music.

The highly prolific Brennan has probably appeared more times than anyone else on the Monolith Cocktail. I even interviewed him a number of years back, on the occasion of not just another volume in the Hidden Musics series but his book of the time, How Music Dies (or Lives). Oh yes, amongst an enviable CV of skillsets, he also writes incredibly well: as the accompanying liner notes testify. His anecdotes and art of setting a scene always prove entertaining and informative. No one quite sums up the ridiculous dangers of recording in some of the worlds less than inviting environments like Brennan does. But he doesn’t do it alone, his partner, the renowned photographer and activist Marilena Umuhoza Delli captures a visual documentation of each recording project: a complete package.

Credit: Marilena Umuhoza Delli

And so it’s always a treat, an eye and ears opener to hear about the latest travelogue-rich production. On the occasion of the tenth release in this cannon, Brennan lands down in Djibouti, on the horn of Africa, to capture the evocative voice and music of the enigmatic Yanna Momina and ‘rotating cast of friends’, who passed around a couple of guitars and the slapped, struck percussive Calabash as the only means of accompaniment. Our producer’s usual hands-off approach allows this 76-year-old star to let rip; unleashing an incredible, unique vibrato trill and excitable expressive vocal that resonates loudly and deeply. There’s also a playful improvised outburst of primal-rap to enjoy on the animal-cooee hollered ‘The Donkey Doesn’t Listen’; the only backing on this occasion a wobbled human beatbox and bass thump. Yet a real groove is struck when it gets going, a sort of stripped ESG meets Funkadelic in the surroundings of ‘Aunt’ Momina’s stilted hut.   

A member of the Afar people, an atavistic ancestry that spreads across the south coast of Eritrea, Northern Ethiopia and of course Djibouti (early followers of the prophet, practicing the Sunni strand of the faith), Momina is a rarity, a woman from a clan-based people who writes her own songs. This honoured artist – though not in the myopic, over-celebrated way in which we in the West would recognise the word – also plays the two-stringed ‘shingle’, an instrument played with nails. This is complimented – if you can call it that – by an improvised version of the maracas: basically a matchbox. But you would never guess it.

Recorded in a thatched hut, with the surrounding waters threatening to wash up into the ad-hoc studio, the outdoor sounds can’t help but bleed into the recordings: a distant crowing of birds, the fluctuation of creaks and a lapping tide. Intentionally this is an all-encompassing production that discards nothing and invites in the elements, the un-rehearsed, all to spark spontaneity and the magical moments that you’d never get if they were forced. It’s what Brennan is known for, a relaxed encouraging setup that proves free of the artificial and laboured.

The results are more akin to eavesdropping than a recording session, a once in a lifetime performance. And so nothing on this album feels pushed, composed or directed. Songs like the dancing ‘Honey Bee’ seem to just burst out of nowhere – a more full-on rhythmic joy of the Spanish Sahara bordering on the Balearic; an Arabian Gypsy Kings turn of loose and bendy-stringed brilliance.

This method also lends itself to coaxing out some of the most special if venerable performance, the heartbroken a cappella ‘My Family Won’t Let Me Marry The Man I Love (I Am Forced To Wed My Uncle)’ is Momina at her most intimate and lamentably fragile.

With a murmured hum turn loudly expressed vocal, Momina’s opening evocation ‘Every One Knows I Have Taken A Young Lover’ seems to stir up something both mystical and magical in its performer: a glow even. With a repeated thrummed strummed note and a barely rhythmic movement of percussion we’re transported to some very removed vision of deep-fried Southern blues. There’s more of that feel on the slap-y clap-y ‘Ahiyole’, this time though, of the Tuareg variety. And the beaten hand drummed ‘For My Husband’ has an air of voodoo Orleans about it.  

Momina’s voice is however absent on the Andre Fanazara lead, ‘Heya’ (or “welcome”); another Spanish guitar flavoured soulful turn that features a collective male chorus of soothed, inviting harmonies.

Despite her years, Momina sounds full of beans; excited, fun and even on the plaintive performances, so alive. This isn’t a dead music, a version of the ethnographical, but a life affirming call of spontaneity in a world suffocated by over-produced pap and commercialism. Just when you think you’ve heard everything, or become somehow jaded by it all, Brennan facilitates something extraordinary and astounding. Cynicism died as soon as the first notes and that voice struck; this isn’t an exercise nor competition to see who can find the most obscure sounds, but a celebration and signal that there is a whole lot of great performers, musical performances that exist if you’d only look.

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

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ALBUM/Dominic Valonva

The Good Ones ‘Rwanda…You See Ghosts, I See Sky’
(Six Degrees Records) 8th April 2022

Once more returning to the rural farmlands of a genocide scarred Rwanda, producer polymath Ian Brennan presses the record button on another in-situ, free-of-artifice and superficial production. The fourth such album of unimaginable stirred grief, heartache and reconciliation from the country’s nearest relation to American Bluegrass, The Good Ones latest songbook arrives in time to mark the 28th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide in the mid-90s; a 100 days of massacre, the fastest ever recorded of its kind in the 20th century with the true figures disputed but believed to be around the million mark.

Triggered, its argued even to this day, by a history of tribal warfare, insurrection, civil war, foreign interventions and the assassination of the then president Juvénal Habyarimana, the events of that three month period in 1994 saw a sudden death cull, ethnic cleansing of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority at the hands of the majority Hutus: though even moderate Hutus, along with Rwanda’s third main tribe the Twa were also far from safe, with many caught-up, trapped in the ensuing bloodbath.

Barbaric beyond any semblance to humanity, victims were brutalized, raped, cut to ribbons or herded together in buildings, churches, and schools and burnt alive. Unlike so many previous genocides however, most of those victims were murdered by hand with machetes, rudimental tools, weapons and gallons of Kerosene. No family was left untouched, with both The Good Ones dual roots vocalist set-up of Adrien Kazigira and Janvier Havugimana both losing loved ones, siblings and relatives.

On the remote hilltop farm where he was born and still continues to work, but record too, Adrien managed to hide and survive. But Janvier lost his older brother, a loss felt considerably by the whole trio who looked up to him as an early musical mentor. As a healing balm all three members, including the as yet unmentioned Javan Mahoro, all represent one of Rwanda’s main three tribes: Hutus, Tutsi and Twa. And so bring each culture together in an act of union, therapy and as a voice with which to reconcile the past.

Instantly drawn to the band during a research trip in 2009, Ian recorded their debut international album and the subsequent trio of records that followed: 2015’s Rwanda Is My Home, 2019’s Rwanda, You Should Be Loved, and now in 2022, Rwanda…You See Ghosts, I See Sky. Ian’s wife and longtime partner on both this fourteen-year recording relationship and countless other worldly projects, the filmmaker, photographer, activist, writer Marilena Umuhoza Delli was the one to instigate this Rwanda field trip. Marilena’s mother herself ended up immigrating for refuge to Italy, her entire family wiped out..

In between numerous productions in dangerous and traumatized spots (from Mali to Cambodia and Kosovo) the partners recorded the fourth volume of Glitterbeat Records Hidden Musics series in Rwanda (back in 2017); bringing the incredible stirring songs, performances of the country’s Twa people (or pygmy as they’re unfortunately known; bullied and treated with a certain suspicion by others) to a wider audience.

Back again on Adrien’s farm and haven, this quintet was reunited to record a thirty-song session. Already receiving accolades aplenty in the West, working with an enviable array of admirers, from Wilco to TV On The Radio, Gugazi, Sleater-Kinney and MBV, it’s extraordinary to think that these earthy harmonic songs were produced in an environment without electricity; music that’s made from the most rudimental of borrowed farm tools in some cases.

The true spirit of diy, raw emotion, The Good Ones speak of both love and the everyday concerns facing a population stunned and dealing with the effects of not only that genocide but the ongoing struggle to survive economically. The album begins on a reflective tone of disarming hope however, with the tinny scrappy cutlery drawer percussive and rustic natty-picking bluegrass leaning, ‘The Darkness Has Passed’. From the outset those beautiful of-the-soil sagacious and honest vocals and harmonies prove moving and powerful. Whilst songs like the Afro-Cuban and bluesy bandy turn ‘Columbia River Flowers’ sound positively romantic; a sentiment that also permeates the almost childlike abandon of ‘Happiness Is When We Are Together’, which sounds not too dissimilar to a sort of African version of Beefheart or Zappa. ‘Berta, Please Sing A Love Song For Me’ is another lovely romantic smooch, which features the Orlando Julius like serenades of the noted NYC saxophonist Daniel Carter.

Often, the outdoors can be heard as an integral, fourth band member, with the farmyard, cowshed gates struck like a percussive metal rhythm, as on the poetically romantic ‘Beloved (As Clouds Move West, We Think Of You)’

Considering the themes of the last three albums, the fourth is said to be the group’s most personal yet. ‘My Son Has Special Needs, But There’s Nowhere For Him To Go’ has a more edgy tone, featuring a sort of post-punk dissonant electric guitar – almost Stooges like – and relates to Janvier’s struggle to get educational assistance for his son who has special needs. ‘My Brother, Your Murder Has Left A Hole In Our Hearts (We Hope We Can Meet Again One Day)’ makes reference to those lost in the genocide, and in this most personal of cases, a sibling but also musical mentor. Again, the sound of the rural escape can be heard, its chorus of chirping birds mingling with a banged tambourine.

Existing almost in its own musical category, its own world, The Good Ones play real raw but also melodic, rhythmic roots music that sways, resonates with vague threads of folk, bluegrass, rock, punk and even a touch of the Baroque. Ian, a man with an enviable catalogue of productions behind him, from every region of the globe, considers Adrien ‘one of the greatest living roots writers in the world, in any language’. That’s some praise; one I’m willing to believe and repeat.

The Rwanda trio expand their sound and bolster their artistic merits to produce another essential album of honest graft, heartache and longing for better times on the most incredible of songbooks.

REVIEWS ROUNDUP/Dominic Valvona

Longplayers/Extended

Spaceface ‘Anemoia’
(Mothland) 28th January 2022

Ushered in with a cosmic and exotic air flight announcement the latest disarming psychedelic pop trip from Spaceface brings the slick funk and disco party vibe to the stiff shirted cosmological experiments carried out at the CERN institute. With a vibrant sparkle and rainbow candy élan, the ever-shifting moon unit of past and present members from Flaming Lips and Pierced merge science-fact with groovy sunshine grooves on a smoothly universal album of goodwill.

Written before the pandemic at the Blackwatch Studios with producer Jarod Evans in the hot seat, Anemoia is a cocktail of good times rolled out to a soundtrack that at various points evokes MGMT, Swim Mountain, Tame Impala, the Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Sam Flex and International Pony. The halcyon funk wooed and Labrys guest spot ‘Long Time’ even comes with it’s own cocktail recipe and instructions (1oz each of Bourbon, Vermouth and Lynas, served with orange peel and on the rocks).

Guests appear in various guises throughout, from the brilliant Meggie Lennon (who recently appeared in our choice albums of the year lists) to Mikaela Davis and the sampled effects of the CERN’s scientist choir! Spaceface seem to be reaching beyond the usual themes of pop to metaphysical explorations and a sense of understanding the mind boggling theories of particle physics. It’s also seemingly all connected to the very on trend subject of identity and place in an increasingly dysfunctional uncertain world. Fear not as these concerns all melt away in a soulfully and bubbly millennial soundtrack of the cute, hippie and galactic; a plane of psychedelic pop and yacht rock funk pitched somewhere between a yoga retreat and cult space tour.  

Roedelius & Story ‘4 Hands’
(Erased Tapes)  28th January 2021

Incredibly now well into his eighties the kosmische and neoclassical pioneer Hans-Joachim Roedelius is still exploring, still intrigued and still, if peaceably, pushing the perimeters of his signature forms on the piano. When not collaborating under the Qluster umbrella (just the most recent three decades adoption of the original Kluster/Cluster arc) or flying solo across the keyboard, Roedelius carefully picks projects that offer stimulus or purpose.

In this instance the self-taught composer once again crosses reflective and experimental paths with the Grammy-nominated American composer and friend Tim Story; the fifth such exercise of its kind with Story since their 2003 album Lunz.

4 Hands proves better than two, with Roedelius laying down patient, fluttered and singular noted “etudes” for Story to harmoniously refine and swell, or, to add sophisticated congruous layers until both performers phrases and playing styles become so entwined as to prove impossible to separate. Hopefully as Story comments in the notes: ‘Because it was all recorded on the same piano, the result has a very appealing consistency of sound, and hopefully blurs our individual contributions into a single integrated voice.’ I’d say they succeeded with this interplay and balance of disciplines, which at times conjures up Chopin’s no.6 etude being transformed by Cage.

This transatlantic exchange between North American and European contemporary classical movements features compositions that seem to measure time and make allusions to various instructive linguistic phrases (the relatively immediate ebb and flow opener ‘Nurzu’ derives from the German encouragement to “go ahead and do it”) and a sense of place, mood. Tellingly the resonating serial 1920s suggestive ‘Haru’ is dedicated to the late great avant-garde composer and poet Harold Budd, who just before his death in December 2020 was played this timeless peregrination.

A forty-year friendship imbues every touch and even the spaces in-between each wave, trickle, glide and tingled gesture.  The very workings of this shared instrument, the pins and softened hammers are transformed into spiralled tines and fanned percussive like rhythms – sometimes evoking the Far East.  A mix of improvised contours, considered tensions and nodes crisscross and flow together in a complementary fashion throughout this album of entwined synchronicity, as both artist’s read each other’s thoughts with understated adroit perfection.

From The Archive:

Hans-Joachim Roedelius Interview

‘Selbstporträt Wahre Liebe’ Review

Qluster ‘Elemente’ Review

Cluster  ‘1971 – 1981’ Review

Cephas Teom ‘Automata’
(METR Music) 28th January 2021

Less Kraftwerk’s “pocket calculator” and more vintage 1980s Japanese Casio digital watch, the debut album from Cephas Teom (the atavistic etymological alias of the West Country musician and producer Pete Thomas) swims and Tokyo drifts in a solution of nostalgic Far Eastern tech. From Japanese sound gardens to retro video arcades and driving across once promising neon lit city highways of the future, Thomas evokes touches of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto, Yukihiro Takahashi and House Of Tapes as he ponders the quandaries of an ever encroaching technology and the wonders of A.I.

Featuring the Monolith Cocktail premiered vaporwave single ‘Tomorrow’s World’ (aired back in November of last year), Automata weaves broadcasts of figures such as Jung and the coiner of ‘cymatics’ Hans Jenny with the fatalistic voices of those drawn to extraterrestrial savior cults (such as the mass suicidal Heaven’s Gate) to present a scientific-philosophical soundtrack of both unease and nostalgia: that’s nostalgia for a society not yet disenchanted with the promises of a brighter hi-tech, computerized utopia.

Skilfully constructed Thomas emulates both the handcrafted mechanisms of Jaquet-Droz automation curiosities from another age and the dreamy airs of a dawning integrated A.I. future. It begins however with the projector-clicked lecture come chimed baubles, zappy squiggled, deep bass throbbing Japanese Zen water feature ‘Primordial Forms’, before winding up with the clicks and movements of a Sakamoto twinkled mechanized but enchanting melodic ‘Automation I’. By comparison ‘Automation II’ sees nature’s son in more pastoral surroundings, still in that contemplative garden, serenaded by classical-like drops of piano and wind chime percussion. Oh the force of the electronic Orient is strong with this one, incorporating everything from subtle hints of bamboo music, a very removed bobble of gamelan and J-pop with intricate layering of Autechre wiring, lo fi 8-bit gaming and bit-crushed effects. Surprisingly Thomas takes a kind of liquid jazz-fusion turn on the psychedelic therapy mindbender ‘Above Human’

Solar winds blow across a circuit board tundra as Tron-like glowed vehicles cruise to the sounds of acid, techno, Manga, Namco and Sega soundtracks, veiled augurs, virtual paradises and various 80s warbles, variants and equations. A wonderful world in which to contemplate all those delusions of an automated miracle – a world in which Eagle comic’s, the BBC’s long running Tomorrow’s World programme and Silicon Valley optimistically painted as a blissful, harmonious, work-free utopia, Automata explores the networks, nodes and grids of electronic music to navigate a tricky complicated philosophical debate.

From The Archive:

Cephas Teom ‘Feet Of Clay’ Premiere

Cephas Teom ‘Tomorrow’s World’ Premiere

Mondoriviera ‘Nòtt Lönga’
(Artetetra) Available Now

You know you’re getting old when today’s young musicians consider your formative years, back in the 80s, as “nostalgic”. And so it is with Mondoriviera’s recent envisioned ‘fragmented bedtime story’ meets ‘interactive’ supernatural styled soundtrack; one of the last releases of 2021 from the insane, discombobulating ‘mondo bizzaro manufacturer’ Artetetra platform. 

For this is a 80s VHS graded score of Italian folk-horror and dream-reality wrapped up in an 8-bit fantasy of crushed Super Mario Bros. platform hopping, early Warp label Aphex Twin, Darrel Fritton and Speedy J, and the combined soundtrack and gaming elements of Takafumi Fujisawas, Akira Yamaoka and Andrew Barnabas.

Unless you read all the accompanying notes you’ll miss the psychogeography apsects of this score: the mysterious cloaked figure behind this glassy spherical mirage and Elm Street dream warrior spooked world invokes the arcane, one time seat of the Western Roman Empire and Byzantine jewel, Ravenna. Quite the historical stargate with its continuous pre-Middle Ages upheavals, reputation as an early centre of Christianity, glorious architecture and mosaics it’s the city’s darker corners, the abattoir and sinister that seeps into Nòtt Lönga’s soundscape.

Strange, eerie in places, this alternative plane of retro arppegiator and algorithms and virtual reality is a nocturnal spell caught drifting and gliding between ominous fairytales and the paranormal: even alien.  A disturbed 80s-style electronic hall of mirrors that draws you in with the promise of languid floating, the synthesised melodies softly come in waves before glitching like the glass screen façade of some simulation engineered by a higher intelligence from another dimension. Mondoriviera dares the listener to dream in a soundtrack theatre of his cult imagination.

Sven Helbig ‘Skills’
(Modern Recordings) 4th February 2022

The versatile (from working with such diverse acts as Rammstein to the Pet Shop Boys) East German composer-producer Sven Helbig conducts an incredible suffusion of colliery meets a minimalistic Sibelius brass on his first statement of 2022. The craftsman’s/artisan’s struggles, ‘despair’ and creative processes go through ten stages of varying reflective and plaintive stirring driven drama on an album that draws together the classical and contemporary to create an almost timeless spell.

As timeless that is as the symbolic ‘vanitas’ still life tableaus of the Dutch master Harmen Steenwijck in the 17th century; Helbig’s own modernist take on that tradition of painting places a skateboard and mobile phone next to a mortality loaded allegorical skull: the inevitable death of everything, but in this case, a symbol for the dying art of a craft and ‘skills’. As one tradition perishes another is born so to speak. But this leitmotif runs deep, right back to a pre-unified Germany, when ‘diy culture’ and craftsmanship were a necessity to those unable to afford, or even have any of the luxuries enjoyed in the West. And so Skills is a sostenuto concentrated homage to that tradition, yet also a mood board reification of the passing of time itself: the time between toil and inspiration. In a kind of Lutheran atmosphere of earnest labour, with compositions that can evoke a candlelit garret or bleak workshop in Worms, Helbig’s brass ensemble and string quartet conjure up a most beautiful gravitas that can harmoniously set hardship with the near ethereal.

Straddling the neoclassical, operatic and cinematic there’s even room for the coarser, scrunched synthesized concrete textures and pulsations of the Chicago-based musician Surachai on the album’s sober but stunning unfolding ‘Repetition’ suite.

Tunnels of daylight fall upon mechanisms and cogs as they come to life in atmospheric settings. Baubles and floating dust particles tinkle and slowly cascade gently whilst both longer and shortened strings build the tension and a French horn sounds a low, almost misty-eyed, romantic note. Luminous and dreamy on the starry ‘Vision’, and evoking the avant-garde and a touch of Kriedler on the workbench clockwork diorama ‘Flow’, the Skills album is a measured, aching and brooding work of art; a moving testament to the élan and craft of an impressive composer who’s classical roots transcend the genre.

War Women Of Kosovo ‘A Lifetime Isn’t Enough’
4th February 2022

Never ones to shy away from the harrowing atrocities committed on communities across the world, the partnership of Grammy-winning producer & author Ian Brennan and Italian-Rwandan photographer & filmmaker Marilena Umuhoza Delli have continued to stripe away all artifice and sentimentality from those victim’s stories; recording for posterity some of the most vulnerable accounts of genocide, prejudice and sexual violence in countries such as Rwanda, South Sudan, Comoros, Vietnam, Ghana and Romania. Brennan’s no fuss, in-situ style of recording has brought us unflinching accounts: the onus being on under-represented women, the elderly, and persecuted groups within under-represented populations, languages, and regions.  

No less candid in this regard, the partnership’s latest collection features those nameless victims of the horrific Balkan wars of the 1990s; namely the Kosovan community of women and children raped by the aggressors as both an act of subjection, revenge, and as part of a sanctioned campaign of terror and erasure of the region’s Muslim population. Far too complicated and beyond my grasp of history to recount here, the Balkans blew up into an inter-fractional, racial, religious conflict between neighbours once kept together under the iron fist of Tito in the Slavic block of Yugoslavia, and before that, the Ottoman Empire. Once that towering force died, and with the deterioration of Soviet Russia, the region was broken up and plunged into chaos, war. On the doorstep of a practically useless EU, and with little appetite to get involved the escalation of atrocities eventually spurred the UN and NATO into action, with one of the consequences being the formulation of a separate majority Muslim state, the Republic of Kosovo – formerly part of Serbia that was until the late 80s a semi-autonomous state within that country. Admittedly this is a very glib account of events during that decade – I would recommend for further reading trying out Misha Glenny’s Balkans tome.

In what is a subject very close to both Marilena and Ian’s hearts – her only two living Rwandan relatives were born of genocidal rape, whilst Ian’s life was irreversibly impacted by the sexual assault and near murder of a loved one – the voices of Kosovo’s rape victims are given a platform in what amounts to a healing process. The trauma weighs heavy for sure, undulated as it is with the minimalistic, earthy scene-setting sounds of bells, a thrum of lamented, grieving voices, rustic scraps and some obscure stringed instruments – though there’s also some kind of odd keyboard too and a chorus of traumatic sounds that threaten to engulf the listener at one point. The record even comes with a ‘trigger warning’ (just look at the titles); the language and sentiment of those courageous survivors impossible to not take in.

Not the easiest of experiences, but then how could it (and why should it) be. We need such projects to jilt us out of our obsessive virtual realities and comfort zones; to be reminded that in many of the people who will read this review’s lifetime such post-WWII atrocities were carried out in a closeted Europe. As much a piece of activism as a sonic and vocal reminder, A Lifetime Isn’t Enough is an essential plaintive cry from a recent past that needs addressing; the consequences of which are felt every day by the women taking part, to them though this isn’t history or a footnote but an ongoing collective trauma.

From The Archives:

Witch Camp (Ghana): ‘I’ve Forgotten Who I Used To Be’.

Sheltered Workshop Singers ‘Who You Calling Slow?’ 

Tanzania Albinism Collective  ‘White African Power’

The Ian Brennan Interview.

Letters From Mouse ‘Tarbolton Bachelors Club’
(Subexotic Records) 28th January 2022

You can forgive most Scots for the dewy-eyed worship of the unofficial national bard, Robert Burns. After all, every tartan decorated rousing of nationalism, and every lowland toiled symbolic feature of Scotland is run through with the verses of the 18th century poet/lyricist. There’s even a secondary-like New Year type holiday in his name, celebrated up here in Scotland – Burns Night on January 25th.

All roads, threads and references certainly lead back to Burns on Steven Anderson’s latest typographic contoured and fantasised album, the Tarbolton Bachelors Club. The follow-up to his previous window view An Gàrradh album, released under the Burns inspired Letters From Mouse alias, could be described as a psychogeography that takes in prominent locations, the spaces and essence of the venerated subject without all the bagpipes and kilt adorned folklore. Instead, Anderson weaves a captivating, thoughtful ambient, trance and ambiguous electronic soundtrack, both dreamy and with a touch of gravitas: Not so Scottish, glinting and fanned radiant spokes are spindled with an air of the Far East – like a pastoral mirage Masami Tsuchiya – on the opening track ‘Elizabeth’.

Traces of Burns history, brought into our world through a portal, are suffused with a touch of mystery but also beauty: none more so, again, than on that opening softly majestic sentiment to Burns daughter ‘Bess’, the first illegitimate child he had after an affair with his family’s servant girl Elizabeth Paton. Bess appears most notably immortalized in her father’s famous poem, Love-Begotten Daughter as “Lily Bonie”, a line used later on as a track title.

The album title is itself a reference to Burns quasi-masonic gentlemen’s club; a haven for debate and discussion on all the hot topics of the day. There was even a token produced to commemorate this infamous lodge, as alluded to by Anderson on the golden breathed ‘Tarbolton Penny’.  Tarbolton for those unfamiliar with the great bard’s locality is a village in South Ayrshire, a county in which the romanticist was born and spent much of his life roaming.

Of course, you can’t construct such an escapist soundtrack without featuring some of Burns actual words; ghostly emerging as they do from the esoteric folk wafts of ‘South Church Beastie’, a past reminder of Burns adoration and forewarning idealised social covenant with nature and classless egalitarianism. Almost in its full version, ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’ – a scornful in places stab at those unwilling to rock the boat, carrying on with bowing their heads and doffing caps to their pay masters, although he was one of them himself, the poetic farmer, landowner – is read out to the Eno-esque synthesised curtain call of the same name.  

Echoes of Artificial Intelligence Warp, Charles Vaughen, Tangerine Dream, Bradbury Poly and Library music permeate a chimed soundtrack of map coordinates, scenes viewed from propeller powered aircraft, vacuums and walks as Anderson offers a semi-Baroque meets late 20th century abstract vision of a thoughtful, magical sonic historiography. Anderson proves that the ghosts of that period still have much to share; a resonating voice brought back from the enlightenment with an evocative soundtrack to match.

Compilations…

Various ‘Mainstream Funk’
(WEWANTSOUNDS) 28th January 2022

The specialist rare finds and vinyl reissue label WEWANTSOUNDS first release of 2022 is another dip into the vaults of the, crate-digger’s and breakbeat connoisseur’s favourite, Mainstream label.

Bob Shad’s original “broad church” imprint grew out of an already 30 year spanning career when it took shape in the 1960s; a showcase for prestigious artists, session players and Blue Note luminaries chancing their arm it the bandleader or solo spotlight.  A musical journeyman himself, Shad (whittled down from Abraham Shadrinsky) began his producer’s apprenticeship at the iconic Savoy label, then moved to National Records before taking up an A&R role at Mercury, where he launched his own, first, label EmArcy. It was during this time that Shad would produce records for the venerated, celebrated jazz singer deity Sarah Vaughan, the Clifford Brown & Max Roach Quintet, Dinah Washington and The Big Brother Holding Company.

As a testament to his craft, Vaughan would go on to record eight albums on Shad’s Mainstream label, the next chapter, leap in a career that traversed five decades of jazz, soul, blues, R&B, rock, psych and of course funk. Mainstream’s duality mixed reissues (from such iconic gods of the jazz form as Dizzy Gillespie) with new recordings; with its golden era arguably the five-year epoch chronicled in this latest compilation. From the first half of the 1970s, WEWANTSOUNDS has picked out twelve nuggets of varying quality, starting with Vaughan who leads the pack with a classy, showy jazz-soul cover of one of Marvin Gaye’s career-defining classics, the downtown social commentary ‘Inner City Blues’. Oozing sophistication amongst a soft tangle of horns and funky licks, the rightly venerated jazz soulstress barely breaks a sweat. Following that icon is the “underrated” alto/tenor saxophonist Buddy Terry with the ten-minute plus jazz-funk exotic peregrination turn workout ‘Quiet Afternoon’, which proves anything but a gentle meander in the park. Probably of note for the appearance of Stanley Clarke, this burnished sun-lit turn changes signatures from the relaxed to a “pure” dynamic free fall of free bird flighty flutes, screaming horns and infused exotic jazz-fusions. An epic of the form this should prompt further investigation of Terry’s small back catalogue – that’s two albums for Mainstream, and not much else.

Many will recognize such names as Blue Mitchell, the former trumpet-player who honed his craft as a member of Horace Silver’s famed Quartet. Already a Blue Note alumni, Mitchell joined the Mainstream label in 1971, going on to record six albums for Shad’s eclectic imprint. On this compilation, taken from his 1973 Tango=Blues LP, is the sassy, San Fran TV detective soundtrack and funk version of Gato Barbieri’s sensual score for the controversial ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ Last Tango In Paris movie. With a dash of Mayfield, some gentle whacker-whacker guitar funk chops and lilt of South America, Mitchell turns a blue movie into the blues. Another former Blue Note acolyte, hard-bop and post-bop pianist LaMont Johnson, who worked with both Jackie McLean and science-fiction jazz progenitor Ornate Coleman, showcases a bit of “state-of-the-art-tech” on his kooky bendy futuristic ‘M-Bassa’ – taken from the 1972 album Sun, Moon And Stars. The rudimental phaser effects of the Yamaha EX42 analog synth augment quickening gabbles up the fretboard and echoes of spiritual jazz.

Moving on there’s a smooth, heartening and snuggled version of the rainbow nation Sly And The Family Stone’s ‘Family Affair’ by the saxophonist and flute prodigy (already able and serving his apprenticeship at the age of 13 in the Baltimore Municipal Band) Dave Hubbard; the original Muscle Shoals lit funky ‘Super Duper Love’ 45” – picked up by Joss Stone a generation later – by the sexed-up Willie ‘Sugar Baby’ Garner; the ridiculous salacious Zodiac chat-up soul-funk ‘Betcha Can’t Guess My Sign’ number (complete with Alvin the chipmonk helium backing vocals) by Prophecy; and a slick rattled percussive jazzy R&B pleaser from the saxophonist Pete Yellin entitled ‘It’s The Right Thing’

A smattering of sampler’s delights, relatively obscure examples of jazz-funk fusions and more famous classics, Mainstream Funk is a classy and decent compilation to kick off the New Year with.

Various ‘Excuse The Mess Volumes 1 + 2’
(Hidden Notes) 4th February 2022

Across two albums of extemporized in-situ performances the great and adroit of UK-based contemporary classical and electronica experimentalism conjure up an imaginative mood board of compositions within the set perimeters of the Excuse The Mess podcast challenge.  Invited for a chat in the personable surroundings of the titular space, each interview subject was asked to abide by the rules in creating a special something with the host, Ben Corrigan.

Created in that location, in that time there could be no pre-planning, no added electronic manipulations; each artist was allowed to only use a single instrument. Many of those taking part choose to use their signature instrument, others more obscured props; the most bizarre being the transmogrified ‘ice rink’ field-recorded ice-skating samples (figure-of-eight slushes and sliced ice-skate scrapes transduced into an abstract subterrain) used by the South African born multidisciplinary Warp label artist Mira Calix, and the tub patted oscillating and soft emerging techno rhythmic ‘pesto jar’ that MBE (no less) gonged electronic-acoustic composer Anna Meredith puts to good sonic use on Volume 2 closer ‘Oopsloops’.  

More fathomable instruments can be detected however; for example, the renowned hand/steel pan and saucer shaped ‘hang’ player Manu Delago kicks things off by spreading his tapping fingers across his resonating percussive specialty to traverse an ambiguous cosmic atmosphere on the near-sublime ‘Collider’.  Following in that peregrination’s wake is Dinosaur jazz quartet stalwart and acclaimed multifaceted composer-improviser Laura Jurd’s trumpeted ‘Copper Cult’ – a changeable vapour and march of soundtrack Miles Davis, Don Cherry and Yazz Ahmed.  

In turn, the esteemed composer (pieces performed by the London Symphonic Orchestra and London Sinfonietta) Emily Hall tunes an electronic magnetic harp to ethereal heights; singer-songwriter and Erased Tape regular Douglas Dare, with just the use of his layered uttered, whispered a cappella vocals, magic’s up a dark romantic plead; and the Emmy-nominated composer and BBC 3 broadcaster Hannah Peel builds towards a shuttered clapboard rhythm and chorister-like wafted divine pirouette with just the use of a music box. Other notable inclusions (though every piece is stirring and intriguing in its own right) that piqued my attention were the fizzed and caustic frayed and slow-drawn violin evocations of the Kazakh-Brit improviser-collaborator-leader of the London Contemporary Orchestra Galya Bisengalieva – who seems to evoke Sunn O))), only with just a violin -, and the Canadian-born composer (scoring The Imposter) Anne Nikitan imagines an 8-bit Castlevania as transformed by µ-Ziq, funnelled into an early mute label version of ‘Da Da Da’.  

A wealth of talent from the arts, theatre, classical and film score arenas appear on both volumes of this musical challenge: proving if anything, just how lucky the UK is to have so much talent working on its doorstep. The restrictions don’t seem to have narrowed either the quality or the originality. In fact, if anything, each artist has been creatively pushed to use their ingenuity in composing something anew, on the spot. A brilliant double-bill selection, ‘excuse the mess’ can only describe the accumulative space in which these tracks were created, and not the sounds or music, which are anything but. A novel criteria has resulted in some mysterious, spellbinding and often traversing experiments. The Hidden Notes platform ushers in a new year with a quality release package.  

Brazen Hussies ‘Year Zero: An Anthology’
(Jezus Factory Records) Vinyl Version January 2022

Despite the distain, rambunctious methodology and carefree attitude to making it in the lower levels of the music scene in the 90s and early noughties, the scuzzed and abrasive Brazen Hussies were far too knowing and artful than their shambolic, contrary myth would have us believe. Quite frankly that status is shambollocks!

For this ‘lost’ London group played loosely and quite skilfully with their influences, which ranged (by the sounds of it) to everyone from Richard Hell to The Monochrome Set, from The Pixies to the Nuggets box set. Anything but a complete mess they showed a certain élan for the pivot, for the light and shade as they transitioned from the needled and coarse gnarling for halftime downtime and even a bit of melody. Because out of the ramshackle punk, post-punk and cutting dissonance there was always some remnant, a semblance of a half-decent tune.  

Simultaneously as courted as they were slagged off by a hostile music press during their apex in the late 90s, it’s hard to get a handle; difficult to tell if they deserve this anthology reappraisal, or whether it’s all just a scam: elevating fleeting losers from rock’s back pages. Actually they were quite bloody good, and at least (for the majority of the time) only ever recorded three-minute songs so as not to overstay their hobnail Dr. Martens boot on the throat welcome. Their farewell ‘Bridesville’ blowout is one of the few exceptions; running to a ridiculous insufferable 26-minutes of whined post Britpop and salon bar piano malcontent.

Fronted by the duel vocals of Dave Queen (a Canadian by god) and Lou McDonnell, backed by the ‘rhythm section’ of Lunch on trebly Bauhaus-Gang-Of-Four-Killing-Joke bass duties (proving anything but out to “Lunch”) and Russell Curtis on barracking and tom rolled drums, they sounded like a contortion of the Bush Tetras and Stone Temple Pilots on the scowling ‘Touch It’; like a flange-affected X-Ray Spex on the brilliant character assignation turn halftime concerned pathos riled ‘Thin Lips’; and like the Cowboy Junkies on the country-folk-punked counterpoint of squealed industrial shredded guitar and sweeter down-heeled sung ‘Kimberley’.

In between sporadic bursts of an early Manics (Dave sails close to a young, petulant James Dean Bradford), the Stooges, Slater-Kinney, The Fall and Essential Logic they turn in two highly contrasting covers. A more obvious Seeds homage is made with a cover of the acid-garage legend’s Nuggets stalwart ‘Can’t Seem To Make You Mine’ – a real shambles of a badly recorded demo – and an odd enchanted nod to the Beach Boys’ doughy-eyed California daydream ‘All Summer Long’. It’s as if an entirely different band turned up for the second of those: well I’ve since found out that the honeyed, almost Christmas-y, Beach boys take was recorded by a flying solo Dave.

With a bedraggled smattering of releases to their name and odd appearances on a myriad of compilations, what little success they had was never capitalised on. Instead, just as those in the press that saluted their brazen despondency, protests, even heralding them as “visionaries”, they drew just as much scorn and bile. Neither a piece of crap nor the second coming, the Brazen Hussies were a great controlled mess of punk and all its off-shoots, Britpop, garage, alt-rock and skag country: in fact, a very 90s band. Is it worth the plastics melted down to produce the vinyl (digital and CD versions released back in 2021) edition? I’d say so, and I think you’ll agree when you slap it on the turntable; finding a missing link from a decade that’s increasingly becoming the new “80s”.

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

ALBUM REVIEW/DOMINIC VALVONA

Witch Camp (Ghana): ‘I’ve Forgotten Now Who I Used To Be’
(Six Degrees Records)  12th March 2021

The explosion in all things witchy amongst those desperate to find alternative ways of expression, lifestyle and also an alternative to scientific reasoning in the West has been fueled by a “so-called” hunger for female empowerment. Replacing last season’s trend for “green” living, with “green witch” profiles on tik tok that attract billions of views, and covens of middle-class converts hexing Trump (all done with a social media campaign logo of course), witching is big business – you can walk into most High Street book stores and buy books on spells and such. 

In the divisive arena of revisionism, leftist puritanical evangelism, witches are celebrated, held up as paragons of virtue in the war against the patriarch. It’s true, men in power, to even just the neighbours next door, throughout history in the Americas and Europe have demonized, leapt on those poor unfortunates they’ve accused of witchcraft: whether it’s in spite, envy, because they were different, unmarried, even disabled or maybe had mental illness. Zealot trials continued, like a stain on our ancestor’s character, even throughout the entire “enlightenment”; and even in recent times the stigma still exists in some countries.

Arguably this hunger for witches is convoluted, muddled up with an array of issues: from the political to those pushing alternative medicines and opting to drop-out of the Capitalist society – to go off grid as it were. Despite the history, it’s very unlikely that you are going to be arrested, ducked in the millpond or ostracized for embracing it in the West in the twenty first century.

Compare this trend against the persecuted, living in fear women (and some men too) folk of northern Ghana’s guarded witch camps; the subjects of the Monolith Cocktail’s most prolific featured international producer Ian Brennan, and his partner in these recordings, the Italian-Rwandan filmmaker, photographer, author and activist Marilena Umuhoza Delli’s latest free-of-artifice, deeply connecting project, I’ve Forgotten Now Who I Used To Be.

Once more recording, capturing in-situ performances in as raw a set-up as possible, Ian and Marilena help to address, or at least draw attention to the oppressed and demonized women accused of witchcraft in Ghana. Forced to abandon their homes under threat of physical harm, even death, hundreds have found a less than safe environment in clandestine village like camps: eking out a living either selling firewood, working the fields and worse still, prostitution. Stigmatized as witches for little more than mental illness, blindness and physical disabilities, and as victims of certain conniving ruses in which land is stolen when their husbands die, these communities remain in a protective limbo – the Ghanaian government threatening to close such camps down.  

Following on from similar ‘uncloying’ recordings in a post-genocide Rwanda (Hidden Musics 4: Abatwa) and Tasmania (drawing attention to the guarded albinism communities on the White African Power album), Ian and Marilena respectively assembled a hundred plus cast of women from across three camps for a earthy, soulful album of matter-of-fact entitled plights and plaints.

There’s a real connection between the two parties that comes across in these largely untouched performances, some of which capture the most truly raw of voices and expressed tragedies. Some of this is in some part a result of Marilena’s own tumultuous background, with her mother a widower from Rwanda, forced to seek a new life in one of Italy’s most conservative of regions. As an immigrant Marilena knows firsthand what prejudice feels and looks like, having also written two books on racism in her adoptive European home.

Recorded we’re told in just over six hours, with many of the participants in their seventies (an indictment on the treatment and casting out of the elderly), the twenty-tracks on this album vary in woes and joy (yes, joy). The heartbreaking titles (‘Hatred Drove Me From My Home’, ‘Everywhere I Turn, There Is Pain’) promise lament, yet mostly sound almost otherworldly: somewhere between the atavistic and unfamiliar. Down to its very roots and fibre, gospel, the blues and even folk music take on their original forms. Songs such as the pure-spirited vocal and percussive ‘I Must Build A New Home’ sound like a gamelan troupe came into town. It helps that these songs, and drumming circles are as far removed from a recording studio as you can possibly get.

Sagacious vocals, some in harmony with a group chorus, are accompanied by stringy, plucked rusty nylon-strung sounding guitar, clattery, stomp bounding hand drums and makeshift rhythmic objects on an album of intimate atmospheres. Away from suffrage there’s a lot of that joy I mentioned earlier to be found; an unbridled unshackled joy at that, with plenty of excitable handclapping, hollering and high yelps spontaneity. The environment and bleeding over of movement has a strange effect, resonance – a signature of all Ian’s recordings it must be said.

But this ain’t no witches coven dance around the cauldron, nor celebration of “alternative” cultural practices, or even an ethnographic study but the chance to hear outcast voices, living and breathing a desperate life, yet finding some release in pouring out song. The language, words and dialect might be phonetically alien, yet the sentiment, distress and plaint are universally understood.

Ian and Marilena once again dare to shed light on forgotten stories and trauma in many of the most dangerous settings, with music as enriching, new and different as it is healing. Thank god someone is.

You may also find the following posts of interest:

The Ian Brennan Interview

Ustad Saami ‘Pakistan Is For The Peaceful’

Tanzania Albinism Collective  ‘White African Power’

Sheltered Workshop Singers ‘Who You Calling Slow?’


Various  Artists  ‘Hidden Music Volume 4:  Abatwa (The Pygmy): Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?’

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.


Review
Words: Dominic Valvona




Ustad Saami ‘Pakistan Is For The Peaceful’
(Glitterbeat Records) Album/9th October 2020


The only living master of an ancient Sufi devotional form in transcendence, the seventy-six year old Ustad Saami lives in hope that his transportive blessed “Surti” music may yet bring peace to a most turbulent and dangerous Pakistan. In a region in which fundamentalism holds a powerful grip of fear on the population, most forms of music that don’t conform to a strict Islamic code are banned or at the very least pressured to go underground.

The danger is all too real and prevalent, and in venturing to Pakistan a few years ago to record the great adorations of Saami, the in-situ American producer Ian Brennan (no stranger to this blog) was taking a huge risk. Brennan is of course used (to a point) of luring out forgotten, ignored and obscure voices from some of the most inhospitable places and warzones in the world. The Hidden Music series for Glitterbeat Records, of which this is the second Saami album to be appear, has seen the Grammy Award winning producer already travel to both a post genocide Rwanda and Cambodia, and also to a mine-riddled Vietnam to coax out the most striking emotional of open and frank recordings. Now capturing for posterity, he once again facilitates the most intimate conditions for another deeply immersive liturgy of heavenly Surti adulations.





Pakistan Is For The Peaceful is, considering the geopolitical tumult and violence, a hopeful title. But then the exalted master has spent a lifetime in the service of his music; learning the forms 49-note microtonal system of vocal prayers since being singled out for the pathway to devotion. It has been a harsh learning at that; the pupil Saami forbidden by his master from speaking or communicating verbally, instead guided towards lyrical expressions. He wouldn’t even get to step on stage to perform this eight centuries generational hand-me-down veneration until the age of thirty-five. And then, until only in recent years, more or less confined to his home of Pakistan. Now in his mid seventies, a more worn Saami still manages to rise every morning at 4am to practice and perform his drill exercises until dawn.

Following on from the well-received 2019 album God Is Not A Terrorist this second brassy resonating, concertinaed and bellowed magisterial rich suite of incredibly hypnotic lengthy performances is even better.

Joined by his four sons (Rauf, Urooj, Ahmed and Azeem), who both vocally respond to Saami’s paeans and provide an assortment of dipped, purposeful and reverberating harmonium, tambura and tabla, the master conjures up a holy out-of-body experience. Performing from Saami’s rooftop home in Karachi, this ensemble entrance and send the listener off into the inspired heavens.

The leading voice of Saami comes from the gut, but isn’t so much guttural as aching in its reverence and otherworldliness. Those shimmering nodes of resonance and sorrowed drones meanwhile stir up a spiritual epiphany: something extremely special.

This album is why I started this whole damn blog; a search for those uncynical real performances that get lost in the daily hubris of incessant noise and divisive outrage. This is music from another dimension in comparison to all that. And thanks in part to Brennan; it will now exist as a recorded testament forever, even if it this form of Islamic spiritualist music is set to die out with its leading light. As sad as that sounds, that dying art has never sounded so ethereal and yet alive. So I say: soak it up; bathe in the glow.





Also…

Ustad Saami ‘God Is Not A Terrorist’ here…

Glitterbeat Records 5th anniversary special here…

The Ian Brennan interview here…


Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

Album Reviews Galore
Words: Dominic Valvona





An eclectic array of reviews, Dominic Valvona’s long-running Tickling Our Fancy column aims to cast the net wide, choosing a diverse collection of recent and upcoming releases for your perusal.

This month’s selection includes two special reissues, the first, the cross-pollinating “Azerbaijani Gitara” music of the late Caucasus legend Rüstəm Quliyev, the second, a beatific Gnawa set of recordings from the late esteemed Moroccan master Maalam Mahmoud Gania.

I also have a gander at the fantastical anthropologist ambient tape from the shrouded Maitrii Orboreal Ceremony, and a new album of sun-dappled affirmations from the Beach Boys imbued pastoral recluse Mike Gale. There’s the American three-piece Pons, who launch a torrid of punk and indie-dance mayhem on the unsuspecting public with their debut album, Intellect. From the prolific Hamburg label of experimental electronica, there’s a new reggae-imbued techno suite from Schlammpeitziger, and a very special project from the renowned producer Ian Brennan, his most personal yet, the Sheltered Workshop Singers (perhaps the first recording of its type anywhere). And finally, Esbe takes us on an Egyptian and Sufi India fantasy with her new synthesised album, Saqqara.


Pons ‘Intellect’
(Stick ’n’ Move Records) Album/17th September 2020




A volatile chaos that is remarkably tactile in places, the blossoming erratic American trio of Pons throw everything into their debut album Intellect. The culmination of various mischievous bombardments and jerked dances on a slew of EPs and singles, from a band that first formulated their blueprint in North Carolina in 2018 before relocating a year later to Virginia, this paranoid hectic and ridiculous fully realised long-player whips up a torrid of unhinged energy.

Reminding me of that first White Denim album, yet coarser and heavier, Intellect is full of ideas in what, by now, is a worn cross-section of post-punk and garage related genres. From the off though, you know this is going to be something else; a diy friction of scuzzed garage/skate/doom punk that creeps as much towards the Gothic as it does towards indie-dance.

They set us up with a reverberated, eerie lead-in of “we got a winner” samples and bird squawks, then roll pendulously into an harassed vision of The Stooges ripping it outta the Talking Heads before speed-freaking style riffing on Liquid Liquid, Ludus, Essential Logic and The Black Lips: Phew! Suck that up.

An ennui of rhythms, time changes and moods flip constantly between intense mania and more limbering no-wave downtown NYC Keith Herring doodled electro-funk. ‘Primal Urge’ is just that: a primal doom quickened, kettle rolling grunt of 80s Californian punk. ‘Jimmy Two-Dimes’ fucks up brilliantly The Strokes, and even, smashes up the NY Dolls and Suicide. But if we’re talking of real concentrated madness, ‘Dick Dastardly’ runs that cartoon scoundrel through a gruff free fall of James Chance, Ornate Coleman (yeah imagine that!) and space rock.

Funhouse Teenage Shutdowns, Nuggets garage gets roughed up on ‘Fabrication’, and Black Randy fights it out with The Electric Eels on the paranoia enclosing ‘Polly’s Hotel’. Single ‘Subliminal Messages’ takes a different musical route entirely; the advertiser slated consumerist nightmare limbers onto a dancefloor occupied by Disco Drive, Gang Gang Dance and Juan MacClean. ‘I See My Name In Lights’ bastardizes Electric 6, DAF, the Italian proto-punk dance miscreants Halleluah!, Renegade Soundwave and Death Grips: perhaps a touch of a synth-punk Beastie Boys.

What a record. I’m not sure I could really argue that the Pons are doing anything particularly new. Yet Intellect has quickly enthralled and excited me. Subtle meets the hardliners, as the bonus of youth drudges, sludges and drums up a vortex of generation X and boomer credulity. Nothing short of a brilliant noise, energy directed for the benefit of all, a glorious skewered and deranged indie-dance album of punk snot petulance and fun.




Mike Gale ‘The Star Spread Indefinite’
Album/25th September 2020




The former Co-Pilgrim and Black Nelson instigator Mike Gale may have retired from performing live some time ago now, but he’s still been highly prolific in recording. Using his trusty 32-track TASCAM cassette recorder, in just the last 18 months Gale has released the Pacific Ocean lulled sorrowed album, Summer Deluxe, a recent compilation of (far from) unfinished works and B-side paeans and breezes entitled B, C, D Side Volume 1, and a lockdown mini-album, Sunshine For The Mountain God. And now with this latest acoustic-led songbook, Gale furnishes us with the astral dreamy entitled The Star Spread Indefinite.

That cosmological title was found amongst his recent reading material, in Justin Hopper’s The Old Weird Albion. In one particular section, the uncovering of an ancient piece of artwork, scratched into the wall of a flint mine in Sussex triggered a beautiful starry-poetic response from the discoverer who found and named it. As a poetic prompt it brings Gale out of the melancholy of lockdown into a most dreamy state of reflection. And in his most lulled, drifting ruminating moments, balances a languid sense of yearning despondency with a peaceable message of positive affirmation for our near-miraculous existence.

The Monolith Cocktail was lucky enough to share the album’s precursor video-track (created by Jussi Virkkumaa) recently, ‘Go Help’: A tropical-lilted wistful tiptoe sauntering, and disarming disconsolate bobbing continuation of the plaintive beachcomber Beach Boys sound that has permeated the reclusive polymath’s output for a number of years. That means more of those lulled layered harmonies and the present lingering presence of a distant lapping tide. Though Gale lends an English pastoral bent to the Beach Boys California beach combing romanticisms. You can hear it clearly on the 70s AM radio dial wash ‘Stripped Sunlight’, which has an air of the SMiLE era about it.

Elsewhere in his harmonious gauzy hushed way, Gale evokes the Laurel Canyon dappled loveliness of Marc Eric, a beachside relocated epic45 and Roger Bunn on the sweetly synthesized golden ray affirmation ‘This Year’. The starry lush ‘Pastel Coloured Warm’, with its bahbahbah lilting chorus, hints at a meeting between the Go-Betweens and Prefab Sprout. Albeit a less sparse version, Gale also channels the spirit of Sparklehorse throughout this often-gossamer songbook. There’s also an easing into the Yacht Rock genre and the 80s phaser-effect and dry-ice cool of Phil Collins to provide a softened pop feel to some of the washes.

With soothing élan and shimmery dreaminess, Gale aches and wistfully fights through the disappointment, knock backs and anxiety to lift himself above it all with repeated mantras of “I’ll get my wish”, or, “This year I’m going to make it.” Let’s hope he does make it, as Gale is a fine musician and songwriter. The Star Spread Indefinite confirms that.





See also…

Mike Gale ‘Go Help‘ Premiere 

Sweet Marie‘ 

B,C,D Sides Volume 1

Summer Deluxe‘ 




Schlammpeitziger ‘Ein Weltleck In Der Echokammer’
(Bureau B) Album/25th September 2020




After previously unconsciously composing a kind of reggae and dub vision of Kraut-tronica over nine albums, Cologne stalwart of thirty years Jo Zimmermann has decided to now consciously meld those genres to his quirky lilt of electronic music on the tenth album, Ein Weltleck In Der Echokammer (for those needing a translation, that’s “a world leak in the echo chamber”).

It wasn’t, we’re told, until Zimmermann’s friend and ‘reggae expert’ Bettina Lattak remarked upon the composer, illustrator and performance artist’s oblivious use of those Caribbean flavours that it all suddenly clicked. And for this latest electro-fusion, fun, radiant, bouncing and sub-tropical suite, he, unabashed, tinkers almost effortlessly with a reggae sound stripped of context, history and religion: Just the feel, vibe and resonance. In practice this results in dubby warbled bass and echo, limbering gaited rhythms and a laid-back candour. There’s even a lilted saunter of steel drums to be heard, bobbing away on the tropical soulful electro-funk ‘Handicapfalter’.

That relaxed sound and sway – bordering on sun-bleached escapism – is counterbalanced by electro-cool starry synths, industrial metallic scuttles and a sophisticated layering of synthesized toms, kick-drums and polygons. It’s a sound that transduces label mates Station 17 and Clap! Clap!, a more languid Dunkelziffer, Holgar Czukay and Kraftwerk into a kind of Krautrock Compass Points Allstars, or, a futurist Marvin Gaye produced by a late 70s post-punk erring Eno. The itching percussive space-y tweeting ‘Tanzfußfalle’ seems to have invited Air, Psycho & Plastic and International Pony onto a dancefloor. That Kraftwerk namedrop evidently is a given. Zimmermann, trading under his longstanding Schlammpeitziger persona, references the Baroque harpsichord neo-classical Trans-European Express suite ‘Spiegelsaal’ (or ‘The Hall Of Mirrors’ as most of us know it) on his own mirrored trans-alpine refracted Oompah magic ‘Hüftgoldpolka’. Imbued with the Dusseldorf unit’s own spell-casting allusions on fame and image, Zimmermann leads a merry dance of his own.

There are of course some serious moments on what is essentially a tempered subtle pleasant soundtrack of understated techno, Kosmische and dance music. In what is a newish development, on this the second release for Bureau B, Zimmermann takes to singing; adding a cryptic whimsy and curiosity of half-narrated and humming, sighing and despondent lyricism to a number of tracks.

A warping, bended and sometimes crystalline, sometimes rattling, reggae-light sonic quirk, Ein Weltleck In Der Echokammer seems to offer a bright window into another world; a ladder out of the echo chamber towards a nice suffusion of Germanic electronic escapism.






Sheltered Workshop Singers ‘Who You Calling Slow?’
Album/18th September 2020




Used to travelling around the globe as the inconspicuous in-the-field recordist and in-situ producer, Ian Brennan has made a critically acclaimed career out of recording some of the most persecuted, ignored and neglected communities: from an Albinism refuge in Tanzania to the Abatwa pygmies of Rwanda and the victims of Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia. It’s a varied career; with projects as diverse as the Malawi Mouse Boys film score that never was to recording the prisoners of that same country’s maximum-security facility in Zomba.

Yet all of those projects share Ian’s overriding raison d’être, as laid out in his brilliantly engaging How Music Dies (Or Lives) tome: ‘My concern is not cultural authenticity, but emotional truth and uncloying performances. Purity, without baggage!’

The Grammy-nominated award winner’s latest project though, is his most personal yet. Collaborating with his only sister, Jane, who has Down Syndrome, Ian uniquely facilitates a platform for the Sheltered Workshop of diverse voices; spotlighting the ‘developmentally-disabled’ population in what could be the first ever album of its kind. In his notes Ian refers to a nameless “music expert” and his recent assertions that there was no such thing as a “virgin birth”, as he called it, left in music, that it was all based on “outside influence”. Ian however calls upon that “expert” to witness “what can happen when you hand a guitar for the first time to someone who has only partial use of their limbs.” As do some of the ensemble on this remarkable set of recordings. For this is a cast that have never before had that access or even opportunity to make themselves heard through the connective joy of music: the same one Ian enjoys with his sister Jane.

This album is far from an exercise in either charitable virtue or worse, exploitation. It’s more an overdue platform for those who have previously been ignored, sidelined and even patronized due to their needs and disabilities; especially vocally with most unable to articulate because of a reduced vocabulary and speech impediment. However, Ian finds that there are few more “expressive singers” than that are “non-verbal”. And the various pure emotions on display from this group of performers, who’ve previously never sung in front of a mic or played an instrument before, are deeply felt and resonating.

It’s a language that often sounds strikingly stripped of convention; often, to my ears, having more in common with Ian’s recordings from Africa, especially the incredibly vulnerable Tanzania Albinism community on the White African Power album. Sometimes almost ghostly and fragile, and at other times harmonic and utterly compelling, these voices can be as succinct as the performer Dan repeating his name with a raspy growl over a twanged guitar string accompaniment, or, as amorphous as the group effect of mourned vocals on ‘I Love You (Farewell Father)’. Incantation mantra meets the soulful and even fearless.

Accompaniments come in the form of the most expressive and unburdened of experimentation. The already mentioned Dan seems to channel both Medieval sonnet and primal blues-y-swamp rock on his opening turn, whilst Grace’s life story, with its guitar buzz, distortion and drone, hints at psychedelic grunge and shoegaze doom. Tom’s disconsolate ‘Sometimes I Feel Just Like A Zombie’ is so mysterious with its throat-singing snouts and hums that it could be some lost Tibetan malady. Glass-sounding xylophone keyboard effects, trembled strings, slapped rhythms and choruses of kazoos all make appearances on this open and candid collection of unbridled and unreserved communication. But don’t ever think to buy this album just out of charity or compassion, or even as a novelty (even though proceeds do go to a great cause); instead buy it because of those purely uncloying and truthful performances. But buy it because it has personality and something important to say.





See also…

Ian Brennan ‘Interview’ (here)

Ustad Saami ‘God Is Not A Terrorist’ (here)

Malawi Mouse Boys ‘Score For A Film About Malawi Without Music From Malawi’ (here)

Tanzania Albinism Collective ‘White African Power’ (here)



Esbe ‘Saqqara’
(New Cat) album/25th September 2020




Channeling a dreamy cast of ancient Egyptian characters (both fictional and historical), the diaphanous-breathed enchantress Esbe conjures up a most atmospheric peregrination on her fifth album, Saqqara. A musical odyssey of imagined reincarnated lives, the vocalist, producer and composer drifts down an atavistic Aswan, past the landmarks of Pharaoh dynasties: A musical traverse that extends from one civilisation to the next, past Arabia towards Uruk and then into the mystifying regions of Indian Sufi.

But firstly, more about the Egyptian allure that drew Esbe in. The album’s title Saqqara (or sometimes spelt as “Sakkara”) refers to the desert edge site of the awe-inspiring pyramid-tomb of the IIIrd dynasty Pharaoh Djoser; son of the dynasty foundress Nimaathap, who ruled sometime between the years of 2667 – 2648 BC. Not just a resting place but a show of power, Djoser’s impressive tomb was conceived by the even more famous polymath prime minister, high priest and royal architect (known by some Egyptologists as the Egyptian Leonardo) Imhotep. It forms part of the legendary City Of The Dead necropolis that extends across Giza and Dahshu, but is the only one still standing. As it inspired countless others before, this Step Pyramid now forms at least some of the storytelling poetry and atmospherics of this continuously hypnotizing electronic, real instruments and vocal mirage.

Under that monument’s shadow Esbe imagines an Egyptian woman dreaming of a lover, symbolically laying down with the revered Arabian leopard, to an entrancing, circling exotic menagerie and a shimmered procession on the album’s opening ambient fusion ‘My Love Knows No Bounds’. Esbe also evokes the torrid romance between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony on an updated vision of the sword and sandal soundtrack, ‘Carry Me Away’. Half Mills & Boon, half alluring lovelorn exotic camel trail; the two star-crossed lovers are cast adrift to a sound-bed of ponderous synthesizer vapours and cluttering drums.

The desires of escapism of a slave girl, seconded to laboring under the deathly heat on the pyramids, form the yearning sorrows of the Celtic-Arabian ‘I’ll Fly’. Subtle tubular Japan-esque synth percussion and sand dune jazz, dusky trumpet serenade and snake rattles converge to create the musical accompaniment.

Biblical augurs of doom are given a pining 80s synth dreamwave of crystal rays on the duel environmental and lunar phenomenon ‘Paint The Moon’, and low key acid-Arabia undulations permeate the caressed astral ‘Bedouin Prince’.

Moving further east to the subcontinent of India, Esbe lulls and coos melodious devotionals in the style of the Sufi music of Qawaali. Inspired by that forms doyen Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Esbe spindles an electronic spiritual version of Transglobal Underground on ‘Qawaali Dance’, and builds up a filmic drama of unfurled beauty on the epic ‘Qawaali Siesta’.

It’s a cinematic musical world that fuses tablas, zither and electronics with the sounds of the desert wildlife. Vocally Esbe draws on her eclectic Polish, Lithuanian and Jewish roots whilst embracing the phrasings, melodies of North Africa, the Middle East and mystical India. It makes for an ambiguous and impressive vocal that soars aria-like and chorally fills the space: A voice that even smolders.

Saqqara is a dreamy soundtrack that perfectly encapsulates an Egyptian fantasy: one that has a lushly performed lyrical and thematic message for the present epoch.






Maitrii Orboreal Ceremony ‘Prismic Passageways’
(Moonside Tapes) Album/11th August 2020




An ethnographical fiction, bordering on Atlantis myth, the shrouded instigators behind this latest experimental ambient peregrination for the always intriguing cassette label Moonside Tapes set sail for an imaginary land of shaman rituals and mysticism.

With a backstory mined from the annals of real historical anthropology and the field recorder’s archives, those mysterious forces of the Maitrii Orboreal Ceremony build up a half-convincing soundscape catalogue of fantastical atmospheres from the missing geographical link of Maitrii, a South Pacific realm that could have been part of another fantastical dreamed-up sunken continent, Aninomola. Because it never existed, it acts as an inspiration and blank canvas for an atavistic soundtrack of quasi-tribal primitivism and spiritualism.

The back-story goes that the only remnants, evidence of this obscure place and civilization are to be found in the notebooks and recordings of the anthropologist Dr. August Maynard, who it seems disappeared; his belongings in turn, found by villagers on the shores of that equally mystical, though very real, abandoned oasis, Easter Island.

Split into two lengthy recordings of grouped together themes, Prismic Passageways is divided into Trance and Meditation suites. “Presented here unabridged” and in “stereo”, the trance quintet of seamlessly strung-together tracks swirls around in Shamanistic communion, whilst the meditation sextet of dreamy esoteric atmospheres ventures past the misty coastline holy places into the interior. That first side of the tape feels like a misty ether veiled rowing boat drift to Skull Island. Summoned forth into a strange landscape, obscured creature calls and the haunted presence of the Maitrii spirits lure the weary travellers into an ambient sound world. A sorcerer’s crystalline ray reaches out to break the omnipresent foggy mirage at one point, and later, those so far feint rolls across a frame drum and lightly woody beaten pallets are ramped up into heavily reverberating, echoed elongated rhythms. It ends in an intoxicant spiral of drug-induced hallucinogenics: a spiral wispy drowsy and unsure ceremony in the catacombs.

That flip side, which traverses a ‘dawn prayer’, the fabled sun eater, and references the Hebrew biblical place of the ‘Land of Beulah’ – a place somewhere between Heaven and Earth -, features a venerable resonance of South Seas ancient mantric voices, bobbing trickled wooden marimba and minimal ambient suffusions.

For those wishing something different from their ambient traverses, enter the strange anthropological mystery of the Maitrii Orboreal Ceremony.





See also:

Jimmy W ‘Midi Canoe’ (here)

Cousin Silas And The Gloves Of Bones ‘Kafou In Avalonia’ (here)




Reissue Features:


Rüstəm Quliyev ‘Azerbaijani Gitara’
(Bongo Joe) Album/18th September 2020




The history and travails of the fecund oil rich country of Azerbaijan are atavistic. This is a nation that has striven to gain independence from a string of empires: both Tsarist and Soviet Russia, Iran, Albania, and much further back, the great Mongol Khan Timur. Desired not only for its abundance in fossil fuels – providing 80% of the Soviet’s oil on the Eastern Front during WWII, and continuing even now to be a vital pipeline for the post-communist Russian Federation – but for its geographical corridor to its fellow Transcaucasia neighbours of Georgia and Armenia in the west, to the south, Iran, in the north, Russia, and to the west, the vast inland lake, the Caspian Sea.

Khanates, caliphates, communism and secularism – Azerbaijan’s first declaration of independence came in 1918 and with it the first secular Muslim state – have all made their marks on this fertile land that in recent years has attempted to make inroads with NATO, the EU and China, whilst shaking off corruption. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it Azerbaijan’s second declaration of independence, coups and counter-coups have hampered a smooth transaction towards democracy. Though the country remains stable, if governed for at least the last two decades by the Aliyev family.

 

Bordering as it does so many cultures, its no wonder that one of the country’s most celebrated guitar pioneers Rüstəm Quliyev absorbed and embraced such a diverse range of customs from abroad and far; from local modals, wedding celebrations and traditions to the regal music of the Persian court, Bollywood musicals and dreamy evocations of Arabia. Reissued by those tastemakers at Bongo Joe Records, this incredible sounding compilation brings together a smattering of eclectic guitar led tracks from the late legend’s expansive diy produced catalogue.

As with many of his forbearers and peers, Rüstəm would firstly master the region’s traditional instruments, the tar (an ornate curvy looking waisted long-necked lute) and saz (another long-necked lute instrument, shaped like a teardrop almost) before picking up the guitar; an instrument or version of which first trickled into the country from the Czech factory makers Jolana in the 1960s. But Rüstəm’s first introduction to the “gitara” was whilst serving in the Soviet military in Russia; an episode that soon ended, allowing the burgeoning talent to return to a civil war in his own homeland.

 

Hailing from the disputed mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, Rüstəm’s backyard was in the middle of a war. A convoluted history, but circumstances saw the autonomous Armenian ethnic-majority southern Caucasus area internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but governed by the Republic Of Artsakh. Both breakaway states locked horns in the wake of the Soviet implosion; old rivalries, disputes were bought to the surface and violence soon ensued, including ethnic cleansing atrocities. In 1994 Russia secured a ceasefire after six years of conflict. As a consequence of this upheaval, with populations dispersed in some cases, Rüstəm moved further west towards the country’s Caspian costal capital of Baku; a move that would connect the rural visionary’s formative training with the lakeside cosmopolitan city’s network of international visitors and students, one of which, a student from Afghanistan, would introduce Rüstəm to such Afghan luminaries as Ahmed Zair. Included in this collection, ‘Əfqan Musiqisi’ is inspired by a track on a mixtape his Afghan student pal made for him. As an honour to him this pining song includes the heartfelt lines, “Let’s meet each other again, my friend, because separating is like unexpected death.” It sounds, as does most of his music, like a cross-pollination of influences; a Silk Road lament of bobbed hand drums, threaded lute and synthesized moaning choral voices. That synthesizer patch work is an integral part of the music by the way; a cheap sounding keyboard theatre of misty gazing ambience, punctuation of bass and percussive rolls that accompanies the often rapid, if elegant, nimble guitar performances.

 

Imbued both by doyens of the country’s “gitara” scene, including fellow Karabakh legend Rafiq Hüsey (aka Ramis), yet experimenting himself by refashioning a Jolana Czech guitar, Rüstəm managed to craft a unique merger of the past and present, the traditional and innovative. It helped that he came from a family of engineers, and with his brothers was able to set up a home studio. You can, if inclined, read more details about his tweaks, tunings and such in the liner notes provided by the album’s compilers Ben Wheeler and Stefan William. But in short, his style incorporated a wealth of inspirations, even wider than those already mentioned. For example, you can hear that wealth of influences on both the scenic searching, rough ’n ’ready Persian blues and rock number ‘İran Təranələri’, and the misty-eyed classical, popular Iranian street number, ‘Fars Musiqisi’ – the former via a transmogrified Niles Rodgers. Looking towards India, a famous Bollywood song imbues the strangely windy, horn heralding Western gallop ‘Tancor Disko’: imagine Pino Ruches riding shotgun with Ry Coder and Link Wray. Rüstəm transforms the highly complex classical poetic and improvised folk traditions of the country’s Mugham culture with the silken courtly, echoed fret work of ‘Neyçün Gəlməz’, and replaces the saz for his rapid guitar riffing on the Baba Zula like psychedelic ‘Yanıq Kərəmi’ and 80s sheened wedding dance ‘Baş Sarıtel’.

A caucuses Dick Dale, Omar Souleyman, Hank Marvin, perhaps as some people have proposed, even a touch of funk Mardi Gras Eddie Hazel, Rüstəm was an extraordinary gifted guitarist; one that could riff and strangulate, wrangle a constant trickle of quickened notes and multilayering, resonating poetry. Often he mimics a voice, at other times the lute or saz, yet always sounds mesmerizing and untethered. A rich showcase indeed, it’s time to traverse the Transcaucasia, the Steppes and beyond for those bored with western guitar slingers. Dip your toes into a whole unique and heartening guitar landscape.






Maalam Mahmoud Gania ‘Aicha’
(Hive mind Records) Album/October 2020




After various cultural excursions in South America, Arabia and West Java, Hive Mind Records return full circle to the “Gnawa” music that launched them with a striking reissue package of the beatific Aicha album by the form’s late great doyen Maalam Mahmoud Gania. It was of course Gania’s final studio album Colours Of The Night that first kicked off the label a few years ago. Now, picking up on that saintly venerating Moroccan music again, and in collaboration with Gania’s family, the label have chosen this moment of great turmoil (you could say it was a calm, healing balm just when we needed it most) to release a previously shrouded 90s cassette tape of entrancing communion and invocations from an artist rightly celebrated for pushing Gnawa beyond his hometown of Essaouira to an international audience. For one thing, Gania is celebrated for, perhaps, releasing the first ever Gnawa record, but also for working with such luminaries as Pharaoh Sanders, Bill Laswell and Santana.

The Islamic spiritual devotional poetry, dance and music of the Gnawa ethnic group – a group of Sub-Saharan people descended from slaves – this trance like sound is said to be one of the roots of the “blues” rhythm. Though a scion of the Islamic faith, this music is less restrictive in paying devotion and paean to a host of earthly saints and supernatural “mluk” (or “melk”). These abstract entities, the mluk, are represented by seven saints and seven colours; colours that “entrancer” dancers can wear in the form of robes or scarves. On the album’s bluesy, even jazzy threaded ‘Assamaoui’, those trancers wear blue in reference to the song’s sainted “Sidi Sma” (or “Samaoui”) and their implied ascendant relationship to the sky.

 

Gnawa is, in short, a music, culture of displacement because of its origins, but taken hold in Morocco, especially Gania’s home the key port of Essaouira, a strategically important fortress trading port on the country’s western coastine with the Atlantic. Gania’s home is where this set of recordings was made with an intimate setting of musicians. Though information remains scant, Berkley scholar and curator of the Moroccan Tape Stash blog Tim Abdellah attempts to dig deep and uncover the details; invited as he was to write the extensive liner notes and context for this special reissue. In fact, I’ve learnt a hell of a lot from his writing and scholarly notes on the subject. There’s even a translation of the exonerating call and response lyrics, which are often short lines of veneration for sainted shrines and deities that can be both combined with or sung in any order depending on occasion and mood.

Aicha, itself a reference to “she of many monikers”, a powerful female entity with untold mythical origins, is rich with the anticipated quivery strums and throbbing tensions of Gania’s “gumbari” – a camel-skin covered three-string lute. Bowed, stringy and incessant, but gentler and deeper than his playing on Colours Of The Night, Gania’s signature instrument weaves a nice bluesy accompaniment to his soulful exaltations. As always Gania’s gumbari lead is joined by the scuttled, scratchy tin paddled percussive rhythm of the iron castanets, the “krakebs”. It makes for a lively but soothing liturgy of entrancing adulation and praise.

Hypnotizing as always, with the galloping kept to a minimum, this spiritual six-track album is a Gnawa highlight, and a great place to begin discovering this immersive and special music. The label’s done another first class job of bringing this to a wider audience.





See also…

Maalam Mahmoud Gania ‘Colours Of The Night’  (here)

Houssam Gania ‘Mosawi Swiri’  (here)

Moulay Ahmed El Hassani ‘Atlas Electric’  (here)

Rodrigo Tavares ‘Congo’  (here



Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.


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 

LP REVIEW: WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA




Malawi Mouse Boys ‘Score For A film About Malawi Without Music From Malawi’ 21st September 2018

 

The cheek of it, yet sadly all too common practice of the film and music industries I’m afraid to say, the authentic sound of the much-loved and acclaimed Malawi Mouse Boys was unceremoniously dropped from the first ever Malawi feature film; replaced by the music of an ‘experienced’ composer from outside the country. The location and story of impoverishment is one the Mouse Boys know only too well: a group if anything that after seeing footage from the film felt they were even poorer than the stories poverty-stricken protagonist, whom they felt was actually well off in comparison.

Though unconventionally discovered by the Grammy Award winning producer, instigator and field recording maestro Ian Brennan (no stranger to this blog) at the side of a Malawi freeway selling barbecued mice skewered on sticks as a fast food pick-me-up for passing motorists (hence the group’s, as it turns out, self explanatory if odd nom de plume), their earthy gospel blues vocals revealed, caught on tape and subsequently beamed to a global audience, the Mouse Boys lives changed it seemed for the better; the revenue from their first LP showcase with Brennan He Is #1 making things a little more tolerable; enabling them the fundamental comforts of an air mattress, as opposed to sleeping directly on the hard dirty floor, English lessons and a bicycle. Despite this they remain embedded in the same community, but resented by some of their compatriots for the little success they’ve had but destitute enough to have no access to a reliable electricity source or running water. And two of the core quartet that emerged out of an originally wider circle of mouse-hunters and coal-hawkers (slightly safer than catching mice in the snake infested dangerous wild bush) from the Sunday Church imbibed community, have through desperation fled across borders to find work in an increasingly hostile-to-incomers South Africa.

In a country where most of the population live on less than a dollar a day, the Mouse Boys have at least reached out beyond their impoverished state and received a small compensation for their unique gospel imbued talents: Not the first Westerner to discover this community of phenomenal rough-around-the-edges singers and players, the revered producer is the only one to keep to his side of the deal, returning to Malawi and handing over every cent they’re due.





Saving what could have been a major financial setback for the group after they forked out the money and time to produce the material for a soundtrack that wasn’t to be, Brennan, who’s done more than most to facilitate and bring the music of isolated communities to an international audience (often as part of a healing process after various traumas; see his work in Cambodia and Vietnam), has helped to salvage their spurned material; collating an alternative cinematic score, releasing it as the Mouse Boys fourth official album. Of course the title says it all; instead of abandoning what is a highly supernatural otherworldly but also earthy dusty sketchbook of vignettes, fragments and longer pieces of mostly stripped-down-to-an-essence vocal and Musique Concrete – the real sources used to create an almost esoteric sound environment deriving from water buckets, a broken spoke, beer bottles, an alpha monkey’s call, shovel scrapes and a machete – that fateful ghostly soundtrack lives on.

Raw and atmospherically in-tune with the film’s premise, it would have been great to experience the audio and visuals together. But we are where we are. And we are asked to experience the sounds and music in isolation; our imagination left to fill in the blanks.

Track titles describe what would have been the film scenes; from the distant sonorous booms and crackle of the opening ‘Power Lines’ to the tool-clanging and ad hoc rhythmic patterns that emerge from clambering over a ‘Tin Roof’. Those celebrated gospel choral vocals, when they do appear (spread out between the more experimental environment soundscapes), are transcendent, plaintive and venerable. Making an afflatus call on the beautifully yearned hymn ‘Hunger’, or, tongue-clicking and soulfully gathered in ‘Hope’, the vocal chorus is as heavenly as it is earthy and sad.

Experimenting like never before there’s plenty of strange, sometimes eerie, sounds being used to conjure up both the spiritually alien and all too real tragedy of survival in Malawi. ‘Dirt Floors’ for instance stirs up a spindly, twanging synthesis of rustic blues from striking, scraping and pulling at and running up and down the frets of a homemade amplified and distorted guitar, whilst ‘Ghosts’ appropriately features an apparitional looming scene, produced in part from a chirping chorus of jarred bugs.

The Malawi Mouse Boys first leap into cinema may have hit the buffers, but with Brennan’s help they manage to save what is a most unique soundtrack from total obscurity. Few albums will sound as raw, remote or strange this year as this truly haunting, as it is beautiful and experimental, score.





Words: Dominic Valvona


REVIEW/FEATURE
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA




Various  Artists  ‘Hidden Music Volume 4:  Abatwa (The Pygmy): Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?’
Glitterbeat Records,  18th August 2017

Renowned producer (and author of some note) Ian Brennan, yet again probing the furthest, most inhospitable and outright dangerous places in the world to record marginalized voices, journeys to the post genocide borderlands of Rwanda on the latest volume in Glitterbeat Records illuminating Hidden Musics series.

Taking the unmarked, haphazard, road (less traveled) to the edges of Rwanda, avoiding the animosity and embers of vengeance that still burn and remain between the country’s minority Tutsis and majority Hutu communities, Brennan visited and recorded for posterity the Abatwa tribe’s seldom heard lament, anger and incredible soulful, if raw, blues.

Though not directly involved in the ensuing genocide that followed on from the country’s apocalyptic civil war in the mid 90s – officially and despite much skeptical revisionism over the years, this genocide was started by the Hutu and carried out with terrifying savagery upon the Tutsis, the population of which, depending on the source you use, was decimated by up to 70% (that equates to between 500,000 to a million murdered, all within a matter of three months) – the Abatwa both lost around a third of its own tribe and carried out some of the attacks.

If the Abatwa name is remains mostly unknown outside Africa, that’s because, due to their limited growth, we know them better as the ‘Pygmy’. A derogatory name loaded with infamy, yet preferred by the very people it derides, the tribe rather that put-down than (as Brennan puts it) “the official PC mouthful/post-genocidal replacement: The people who were left behind because of the facts of Rwandan history.”

In part, those size limitations have were shaped and made worse by the fact that traditionally the tallest women in the Abatwa attracted outside attention, and were taken as wives by other tribes – one answer to the album’s rhetorical title, “Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?”


Local comedian Simbuvara photo by Marilena Delli




In this environment – described in linear notes with the signature frank, un-PC, highly informative and entertaining Brennan travelogue style – peppered with teenage breakdancers that ‘could out-battle any South Queens sidewalk challenger’, a enervated surreal ‘tag-team lounge duo playing an off-key Bob Marley medley’, and plenty of anecdotes to dispel a rafter of myths and assumptions – the hands-off field recorder finds both inspiring and veracious acts of endurance and survival.


Patrick Manishimine photo by Marilena Delli




There are a number of themes that run through both this, volume four in the series, and the previous three documentations, Hanoi Masters, Khmer Rouge Survivors and Paul Chandler’s phenomenal Every Song Has Its End: Sonic Dispatches From Traditional Mali (all of which made our albums of the year lists): including the saving of traditions and voices of communities under attack from the onslaught of modernism and erosion of cultures outside the mainstream; and drawing attention to the legacy of problems arising from war and insurrection. But there is also similarities sound wise between all four volumes; namely a form of atavistic, primal, and in my opinion the best kind, of blues, that is eerily echoed in what is one of the genres birthplaces, Mali, but can also be found ringing in the deltas of Cambodia.

Sitting in for, and one of the progenitors no doubt to the six-string, are the ragtag assembled instruments of tradition: the one-string ‘Umuduli’ and eleven-string ‘Icyembe’. Practitioners of these two stalwart attenuate instruments can be heard on the scratchy, tangled spring-y Rwanda Nzizza (Beautiful Rwanda) paean by the great soulful voiced Emmanuel Hatungimana, and the caressing, peacefully played Ihorere (Stop Crying Now) duet lament by the wife and husband duo Emmanuel Habumuremy and Ange Kamagaju.

A kind of boxed canoe turn surfboard with strings the icyembe stands almost as tall as those who pluck its reverberating, sharp spindly quiver. It’s umuduli counterpart, both far less cumbersome and mobile, does despite only having the one string and repetitive scratchy twang, provide a suitable, evocative rhythm.


Emmanuel Habumuremy (husband) & Ange Kamagaju (wife) photo by Marilena Delli




Make no mistake; this is performance in its most deconstructive raw form. Devoid of embellishments and overbearing production, recorded in situ with only the rudimentary elements and atmosphere for company, it sounds great.

And so you hear some of the most stripped and revelatory of performances that make their equivalents back in the West sound sterile and bloated in comparison. Artists such as the 19-year-old female rapper Rosine Nyiranshimiyimana who improvises vividly on the stylophone clickety-buzzing sassy, take-it-to-the-yard R&B Umwana W’umuhanda (The Child From The Streets), and the sublime but humble Beatrice Mukarungi, who leads her ‘sons’ on the spiritual chorus plaint Urwanikamiheto (War Song), perform somehow different and askewer fresh takes on the music we find familiar.

Battery powered electronics and rusty, ramshackle dusty instruments come together in hybrids that evoke ritual, the ceremonial but equally the blues, soul and hip-hop; all played with an undeniably emotional Rwandan verve and lilt.

 

Once again Brennan highlights the forgotten musical legacy and voices of a traumatized community – alcoholism and depression rife in their isolated communities; allusions made by Brennan that draw similarities with the pre-casino era American Indian reservations -, recovering in the uneasy truce of one of the 20th century’s worst genocides – and as we are all aware, it had some stiff competition in those stakes.

Hidden Musics has become an unmissable and equally important series; field recordings of hope and recovery in the face of despair.





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).


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