The Borderlands of South Sudan
Posted on 15th April, 2014 in RAS News
New Release: Lion City by Dirtmusic
What’s Dirtmusic? According to the record label, borrowing from Tim Winton’s fictional character Luther Fox’s words: ‘Dirtmusic is anything you could play on a verandah’
This simple statement already gives us some insight on the broad and open approach of this musical project, born in 2006 within the walls of Glitterhouse records. Created to ‘get their hands dirty with new music experimentation and to return to rock’n’roll basics’ (their 2008 debut album of the same name), Dirtmusic brought together 3 artists, Chris Eckman (The Walkabouts), Hugo Race (Bad Seeds, True Spirit, Fatalists) and Chris Brokaw (Come, Codeine).
The turning point of the band’s journey towards the exploration of their own – and – new sounds was their participation in the Essakane Festival of the Desert in 2008. During that particular experience the three artists found themselves unexpectedly spending three days jamming with their tent neighbours, Tamasheq desert rock (or desert blues) band Tamikrest, from Mali’s Kidal region. This instantaneous connection, probably fostered by the shared love for electric distorted guitars and the festival’s creative ferment, left the trio yearning for more collaboration.
Only a year later the two bands reunited for a recording session, which gave birth to two different creatures, Tamikrest’s acclaimed debut album Adagh and Dirtmusic’s album BKO (acronym for Bamako’s airport). Even if the influences of the North Malian band are considerable, it is only with a third trip to Mali’s capital city that Dirtmusic managed to reach a less hybrid and more unified sound.
BKO was born out of pre-conceived songs which were re-arranged and readjusted on the spot with Tamikrest.
Their last two albums, Troubles and Lion City, both came out from a recording session in September 2012. They are the result of a more open and spontaneous collaborative process of music making. According to Hugo Race, in fact, both him and Chris Eckman (Chris Brokaw didn’t take part in this particular project) arrived in Bamako only with few random lines written down on a piece of paper.
Everything else was to be built together through improvisational sessions with other incredible musicians such as Ben Zabo and his band, Samba Touré, Virginie Dembele, Aminata Wassidje Traoré and Zoumana Tereta among others.
Both albums are both influenced by the hazy and tense situation which Mali was facing in the aftermath of the political upheaval, bringing to the forefront topics such as National unity, peace, exile, religious and regional identities. Unlike the previously released album Troubles (2012), Lion City investigates these same topics and feelings from a much darker and more intimate perspective.
It is as if the artists want the audience to experience the individual interior struggle and the anxiety marking the uncertain times following the coup d’etat and the seizure of control of the northern regions by extremist Islamist forces.
The atmosphere of the album seems to embody a suspended state of being, and a sense of imminent state of emergency, vividly described by Hugo Race in his account of his experience:
‘The aroma of the city is as keen as ever, but the background buzz of distant motorbikes and street life is strangely low-key, reinforcing the impression of a city holding its breath before an oncoming storm.’
The listener is immediately projected into this world from the very first track, ‘Stars of Gao’, driven by Super 11 band’s distinctive Takamba (‘a distinctive staggered rhythm clapped on a calabash, and a gritty distorted terhardent accompanied by slow ghostly dance, typical of the Gao, northern Mali), blended with some digital sounds and echoing effects produced by Race and Eckman’s tablets’s apps.
Talking drums and hand slapped congas intriguingly introduce the track ‘Clouds are cover’ which, together with a steady but slow bass groove and resonating guitars, manage to successfully evoke the incumbent storm oppressing the sky and the hearth of a distant lover.
The track ‘Blind City’, with its more aggressive bass grooves and repetitive guitar riffs, draws out the image of a corrupted and deeply hurt city, whose renowned vitality and ferment has been substituted with a ghost-like landscape:
So little to do/ But to get drunk and hate/ So little to do/ But to slither and wait
Crow fly junction/ In a one-ghost town/ Don’t kid yourself/ You’ll never see me around
Aminata Wassidje’s cry for unity and call to fight back the looters and the enemies of peace (‘Narha’) echoes on top of a solid bass line intertwined with distorted guitars and digital soundwaves.
‘Moving Carefully’ (featuring Tamikrest’s members), with its slow rhythm and reflexive tone, tries to capture the adversities and nostalgia faced by displaced people, probably inspired by the thousands of people fleeing from the Northern parts of Mali:
Don’t turn around / Just to be sure we are goin’ faraway
Would be best if we could just forget that place /Cut it into scraps got one for every day.
While maintaining the same haunting atmosphere, the album also offers more lively songs, such as the balafon-driven ‘Starlight Club’ and ‘Ballade de Ben Zabo’.
The album finally closes with ‘September 12’, where the Senegalese singer Ibrahima Douf sings an ode to his Grandmother in an intimate and sweet mood which takes us far away from the conventional public griot praise-singing style.
Glitterbeat, which is the subsidiary label of Glitterhouse producing the album, was born in 2012 out of these musical collaborations. It has a clear aim: to elude established genres definition and theory, to break cultural walls and divisions, believing that ‘the global musical conversation’ is being reinvented and reconfigured every day.
Do they managed to reach this goal? Clearly this album shows they are going in the right direction, even if I have the feeling there is still more to do and to experiment in order to achieve a more mature and fully convincing sound. However, it will be interesting to hear how Malian audiences will welcome this experiment, and if these sounds can really resonate with some of the experiences of their everyday life and experiences back in 2012.
Regardless of the audience reception, it is though evident that Dirtmusic stayed true to their name: what you can hear on this album seems in fact to come out from a jam session on a distant verandah wrapped in the red dust and the tense air of a restless and anguished Bamako.
Anna De Mutiis is a freelance researcher particularly interested in music and migration, with a focus on African music. She has collaborated with MTV World and Nomadic Wax.