Review: Anthology of Contemporary Music From Africa Continent – The Unexplained Sounds Group

The evolution of Electonic Music, in many ways, exists on a parrel timeline to the birth of a post-colonial Africa; both beginning as they do in the years that followed the First World War and flourishing in the decades that followed the Second. They are both narratives of modernity too, of technology, identity and Cultural heritage. Yet as Africa continues to break down those Social, Economic and literal borders drawn by the Western powers; the music of the continent is still viewed by many as either limited to traditional forms or existing as a pastiche of English, French or American Pop.

In reality, much African art music (as exemplified by this release) is possessed of a conceptual imperative that has either been abandoned by Western composers or was perhaps never there. It is a political concept and one that touches on colonialism but also represents a wider ethos that takes in issues as varied as gender, family, poverty and corruption (both political and personal).

The forms and directions of the Music are naturally as vast as the continent itself. But a constant does emerge and is foregrounded by its absence from current trends in Western Experimental practice; it is the presence of meaning. It is the use of sound to tell a story or to explore a narrative beyond one’s self.

Seemingly, as the so-called developed World retreats inward in the face of new technologies; Africa is looking outward.

Thesis

It may be deemed trite to make such sweeping generalisations of a musical output that spans so many disparate cultures, nations and outlooks. Each piece featured here does, however, in one way or another provide an example of much that is lacking in current European and American Electroacoustic.

Imposer le Savoir from Cameroonian artist AMET is one such example. It is Radiophonic in nature; beginning with a Musique Concrete of cutting and slicing, juxtaposed against a foreboding synth. It is then a collage of Radio and television excerpts that explore the absurdities of the current political climate in Cameroon and in many ways the world at large. It is an example of the Plunderphonics prevalent on Soundcloud or Bandcamp but it has a simple message, as cutting as its opening montage. Imposer le Savoir is unique too in the field of current Experimental Music, representing as it does, the voice of a Black African Woman.

At the heart of Imposer le Savoir is the notion of a void of Knowledge, filled in this case by whoever has access to the microphone. TaP{- from South African artist Healer Oran comes at this same concept from a different angle. Featuring archive recordings of the traditional songs of the Tsonga people, it forms part of larger work The Carvings in Burnt Tape. An album that explores both colonial British attitudes to traditional African cultures and the disconnect many contemporary South Africans still feel in the wake of decades of segregation.

It is unclear if fear or ignorance has removed such themes from Western Music but it is not so long ago that American Folk artists sang of the Civil rights movement or British and Irish bands laid bare the absurdity of the “Troubles”.

Antithesis

The techniques employed on Imposer le Savoir and TaP{- are common to many of the other works on this album. The latter’s use of effects, for instance, blurs and distorts the source material and in doing so holds up a mirror to the thematic structure of the piece. And it is the use of a stuttering Granularisation in particular that reappears in the work of other artists featured here.

Two tracks from Eryck Abecassis, Cascades and Mailles, feature these glitchy textures and spectral distortions and take the listener into a digital sound world; albeit one in which the data stream has become corrupted. Both these tracks also suggest a direct lineage from the greats of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde. with the disconnected instrumentation of Cascades pointing to John Cage or David Tudor and the cold electricity of Mailles suggesting the abstractions of Iannis Xenakis.

Present on these tracks and common again to the works found here, is the use of stripped-down Electronic textures; free of the delay, reverb and chorus that adorn the sound of so many Synth presets. It is an aesthetic that means a simple filter sweep or LFO modulation can completely change the mood or direction of a work.

Two pieces from Angolan musician Victor Gama; A Luta Incia and Second Movement Kalian Mode; represent a style that is perhaps the closest to Electroacoustic in the strictest terms. Featuring the artist’s self-designed instruments they utilise sonic transformations and multiple overlays to create soundscapes that are evocative of a West African heritage, yet suggest inner worlds that are universally human.

Synthesis

The great geographical and cultural divide of North and Sub-Sarahan Africas is represented by the mix of artists on this record. The commonalities of Electronic music production blur these distinctions however and the work of artists such as Mehdi Halib feature the same granular textures and Acousmatic tones mentioned above. On his track E IX these are combined to great effect with sparse Electric Guitar and reversed musical fragments.

If E IX provides too, the faintest nod to Arabian musical traditions, then the work of Abdul Saleh and Abdellah M. Hassak brings these elements closer to the foreground. Saleh’s track Right Side has a flute melody filled with semitones and minor thirds that floats above Electronic drones like a hawk. Again however this traditionalism is obstructed by bit-crushed jitters and insistent metallic rhythms. It suggests that a dislocation of time and history that is only just seeking equilibrium.

Abdellah M Hassak’s piece Yearnings Complacency Similarly frames traditional vocals and instrumentation with drones and broad filter sweeps that suggest the dystopian visions of eighties science fiction and create a sense of mourning for lost futures. His track 7 heavens too, evokes the Blade Runner universe with its background rain and resonant glassy Electronics; conventional percussion and Vocals are laid over this sound world in the manner consistent with the tropes of the Film Soundtrack. It suggests a world where Holywood doesn’t have a monopoly on Post-apocalyptic visions.

There is also something of a cinematic-like quality to Meditteranean, the work of Cario native Nur. It blends the Concrete and the Electronic in such a way that one is unsure of the boundaries and the manner in which sound images are assembled suggests a homage to Luc Ferrari or Walter Ruttman. The listener is taken on a Psychogeographic trip along the North African coast; something that perhaps applies to this album and the continent as a whole.

FRKTL is an artist also hailing from Cairo and there is an evocation of the great city in her work too, albeit infused with more of a dream-like aesthetic. The time stretched vocal drones of Hverfa af himni heiðar stjörnur suggesting echos of urban noise in a mind close to sleep.

Discourse

Two tracks here, (J. Krishnamurti) from In_o and
+cage-(overhaul.075-=-gives-you-6)solution#2to-kill-hurts by 1§ÅdØrÅ dµ§+m1+(∑) jµnk (sic) are probably the most opaque in conception, though no less effective in their execution. The first features a speech from Guru J Krishnamurti; treated and overlayed to such an extent that his words are lost in echo and electronics; a fractured Lo-fi beat underpins it all and ghostly chattering Synths stalk and circle the listener. The effect is one of constantly feeling the need to look over one’s shoulder.

+cage-(overhaul.075-=-gives-you-6)solution#2to-kill-hurts is an excursion in noise and blends dark Musique Concrete with a Nihilistic English Langue voice-over that unexpectedly culminates on a note of positivity. Both tracks tread a fine line between light and dark and interestingly neither artist possesses the social media presence so ubiquitous to our age.

The lack of obvious conception in these final two works does, however, utilise a trait particular to Electronic Music and inherited perhaps from 20th Century Classical. It is the ability to place the onus of meaning squarely on the shoulders of the listener. It removes the artist from the work and forces us to ask not what relevance these sounds had to the act of composition but how they relate to our own memories. The hidden status of the artists behind these works only serves to reinforce this idea.

Narrative

This Anthology is one filled with much darkness and light; it encompasses historical narrative alongside future hope and frames the present as somewhat absurd and hopeless. To say that this was bleak, however, would be to miss the point; because another thing that serves to unify the music on this album is honesty.

We do live in a world where much injustice was done by and to our forefathers; our leaders are corrupt and our worship of the internet is absurd. Only, however, with the presence of Art and Music that shows us such things, can we ever hope to create a better future.

It seems then that the Music of Africa is streets ahead in this regard and whilst Western Experimental Art applauds itself on Twitter, is busy exploring the human condition.

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