June 30, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Age, EG, May 23, 2008.
After surviving as a child soldier in Africa, rapper Emmanuel Jal tells Dan Rule why life is so precious.
EMMANUEL JAL has an easy way with words. They seem to fall from his mouth. He is becoming well versed, it seems, in sharing his life.
In conversation, as on wax, the rapper broaches the most blood-curdling of accounts with almost casual ease. He makes cheesy wisecracks, he raps and sings his favourite lyrics, he giggles at his own expense.
“What I’ve come to realise is that I’m responsible for my own happiness,” he says proudly, with a distinctive east African inflection. “On a daily basis, I wrestle with trying to keep myself happy, not to blame somebody for taking my happiness away from me.”
Quips aside, Jal’s memories are not the kind that are easily forgotten. Born in a village outside Tonj, southern Sudan, about 1980 (he has no official record or knowledge of his birth date), he grew up in the shadow of the second Sudanese civil war, which has now gripped the country for more than two decades.
Jal can barely remember his father but knows he was a police officer who left without warning to join the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, when fighting broke out in 1983. He remembers his village being razed and burnt, his mother killed. He remembers being seven years old or thereabouts, gripped by grief and determined to seek revenge. He remembers enlisting voluntarily in the SPLA and leaving for Ethiopia to train as a child soldier.
And for the first time in our conversation – which takes place over the phone from his base in London – his voice drops noticeably. “When a kid witnesses something in their eyes, it remains a picture in their mind,” he pauses. “If someone tells you that this is the person who killed your mum or your dad, you don’t think twice, even if you’re young.
“So when we went to Ethiopia, we were willing to be trained. Everybody agreed, you know, because in your own little picture you could see your village burning and people running. You see your mum screaming, screaming. You see all the horrible things, and you say, ‘Yes, I want to be trained’.
“My desire was to kill as many Arabs as possible, as many Muslims. That’s what the politicians instil in you, and then you give a little kid an AK-47 and he has the same powers as anybody who has it. First shot, first kill.”
The fact Jal is still here to tell his story, let alone via the international platform of traditional folk and pop-flecked new album Warchild, is remarkable. His willingness to share his horrific experiences is even more astonishing. Aside from his album, a documentary film about Jal’s life – also named Warchild – has already picked up awards at this year’s Tribeca, Seattle, Edinburgh and Berlin film festivals, while an autobiography is due out next year. It’s within this frame of reference that the young rapper locates his purpose: to tell his story as loud, as clearly and as often as humanly possible.
“When you think about it, I’m one of the lucky ones,” he continues. “I’ve survived and I believe I’ve survived to tell this story.”
In relative terms, Jal was fortunate compared with most child soldiers. After fighting in two big battles in three years – armed with an AK-47 taller than himself – Jal and 400 other child soldiers deserted their posts in Ethiopia in an attempt to hike to freedom. They travelled for more than three months in the most trying conditions. Hundreds of the boys, including Jal’s best friend, starved to death. Others were ambushed by enemy forces, drowned or eaten by crocodiles. Many, remembers Jal, had to resort to cannibalism. By the time they made it to Watt in southern Sudan, there were only 16 of the original group left.
“It is not something you forget,” Jal murmurs, pausing for a time. “There was a point where I almost ate my best friend because there was nothing at all for me to eat. It’s a hard feeling to describe.”
But it was in Watt that the 13-year-old Jal’s fortunes changed. He met British aid worker Emma McCune, who adopted him and smuggled him over the border to Kenya, where she brought him back to health and enrolled him in school. But Jal’s brief experience of happiness and security wouldn’t last. Six months after the adoption, McCune was killed in a Nairobi car accident. “I talk about her in one of my songs as my angel, because she was the one who rescued me and turned by life around,” he says of Warchild’s closing track, Emma.
It was music that soon became his focus and, aged 18, he joined a church gospel choir. While singing proved fun, it was a different form of music – one he’d seen on television in which African performers seemed to “just talk over the beat in English” – that really captured his imagination. So he began demo-ing cuts on a second-hand tape deck. “It was the boldness of speaking straight and speaking about what’s happening in the community and speaking about what they want to get done,” he says. “The frustration, the anger – that’s what attracted me to hip-hop.”
Warchild is brimming with such straight-talking sentiments. The follow-up to his multi-lingual 2005 debut, Gua – a huge hit in Kenya that allowed him to move to London – the album sees Jal trace both his specific experience (Warchild, Forced to Sin and Many Rivers to Cross) and the broader topics of exploitation and neglect underscoring Africa’s relationship with the West over a collage of rippling Afro-influenced beats, pealing traditional gospel harmonies and pulsing big-beat hip-hop. On album track Vagina, he calls for Western diamond and oil barons to stop treating Africa as their whore, while the pulsing hook of Shadow of Death lends itself to a parable of righteousness and pride in the face of adversity.
“50 Cent isn’t an attack on the man,” he says. “We should honour him. He’s come from poverty, he’s been shot nine times and he’s survived to make something out of himself. So let’s not disrespect him, let’s point out the dangers of what he’s doing. Why can’t he be a gangster turned good, you know? He’s made millions already, so who cares if his sales drop a little.”
Jal says the track arose from a distinctly personal standpoint. “You see, my cousin came to England as a refugee, given a chance by the British to stay here and make something with his life,” he says, his voice rising. “So he j oins a gang, calling themselves G-Unit and they go out and stab a white boy! 50 Cent needs to know about these things,” he bristles. “If he ignores them, then he is a fool.”
But for Jal, Warchild is embedded in a terrain far more universal and far more important than hip-hop gangsterisms. “I was brought up on hatred and bitterness and I had my entire childhood taken away from me,” he says. “So many millions more in Sudan have lost much more than that.
“I’m one of the only people who can speak for them in the West and all I’m saying is that human life is valuable. That’s why my album begins with Warchild and finished with Emma, because she was my angel who gave me life.
“It doesn’t have to be an African, it doesn’t have to be anybody in particular,” he pauses. “It’s just worth investing in human life.”
Warchild is out through Sonic360/Stomp.
June 30, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Age, EG, June 13, 2008.
The Herd aren’t known for their conventionalisms. Since trampling onto the scene in 2001, the Sydney octet have reshaped hip-hop in Australia, with hard-spat political ruminations, clarinets, piano accordions and acoustic guitars intow.
Even so, Kenny Sabir – aka Traksewt – is still a little uneasy about their latest musical incarnation. Among fourth album Summerland‘s clustered beats, melodic hooks and multi-accented musical intonations is a rollicking reworking of 19th-century Australian bush ballad Toorali.
“Man, I had a dark history of bush dances in my primary school days,” laughs the 32-year-old. “We did the Heel and Toe Polka, the Strip the Willow, you know, playing at barns with hay bales all around, so maybe it was that. But no. It was something we’d been thinking about since the last album. Like, what’s one genre that we haven’t massacred yet?”
Sabir’s take on the song isn’t just self-derision. Across 2001’s self-titled debut, 2003’s An Elefant Never Forgets and 2005’s brilliant The Sun Never Sets, the Herd have crafted a musical aesthetic so boundless that it has threatened to do away with the hip-hop tag altogether.
It’s a notion easier said than done. After years of battling self-definition and identity, the Australian hip-hop community has become predictably synonymous with interior politics. But as Sabir prefaces, the Herd’s philosophy has never been about striving for acceptance.
“Of course, Urthboy and Ozi Batla (rappers Tim Levinson and Shannon Kennedy) have always been much closer to the hip-hop community,” he says. “But I’ve always been quite detached from it, as have a lot of the guys. We never really seek approval from any one genre. But especially with this album, we just made the collective decision that we don’t need anything holding us back.”
Spend any time with Summerland – which was recorded in a tiny holiday house on the NSW central coast and debuted at No.7 on the ARIA charts last week – and you’ll realise that the record strays far from hip-hop archetypes. Summerland sees the group expand on their pop-tinged sensibilities, with the siren-like vocals of new member Jane Tyrrell, also part of Newcastle quartet Firekites.
Cuts including urgent opener 2020, the glowing roots-reggae flavours of A Few Things and the soaring surf-rock guitar of Zug Zug add an upbeat twist to the Herd’s musical plot. “Once we started playing around with these more melodic ideas, it was almost as if this whole new world opened up,” says Sabir. “There were just suddenly all these possibilities and there’s just a lot of room to explore them.”
Lyrically, too, the band – who have become renowned for their tough anti-Horwardisms – finally seem to have something to smile about. On first single The King is Dead, Urthboy and co. celebrate the end of the coalition era. “Fucking pirate, history will damn him,” he spits. “Crook, you got your arse played in Mandarin.”
But while Sabir describes Summerland as a “strange kind of holiday”, he’s quick to snuff any insinuation of complacency. “The record may not be as overtly political as some of the others but we haven’t gone easy on the politics either,” he says. “Not to be a complete whinger, but it’s not like the whole world is saved now that Rudd is in.”
June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, May 29, 2008.
“No microphones were used on this album,” reads the liner notes for Matmos’s seventh and latest album proper Supreme Balloon. It’s not the most striking of statements in the context of experimental electronic music, but when it comes to the wildly divergent creative product of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt – the San Franciscan creative and life-partners behind the group – it’s an absolute watershed.
Advanced microphonics has been central to Matmos’s 13-year-long career. Utilising ultra-sensitive surface microphones and strong stomachs, they have concocted a musical vernacular via the most bizarre and outlandish of sound-source material. In the process, Matmos have become two of the most quietly revered experimental sound and music makers on the planet.
While 2001’s now legendary album A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure was entirely rendered from sounds recorded during surgical procedures – the cuts, snips, squelches and crunches of blood, flesh and bone – 2006’s briliant The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast saw Schmidt and Daniel extract micro-recordings of anything from the sound of semen, to burning human flesh, freshly cut hair and the embalmed reproductive tract of a cow.
Crafted using a bunch of classic 60s, 70s and 80s synths, sequencers and effects rigs, Supreme Balloon breaks from the Matmos schema in a big way. Indeed, from the blocky keys, plodding beats, buzzes and clicks of opener ‘Rainbow Flag’, the album proves a creature of playful retro-electronic nuance, summery melodic overture and accessibly cute, shuffling rhythms. ‘Polychords’ is straight out of a Commodore 64 adventure game, while the funereal pastiche of ‘Le Folies Francaises’ seems an oddly medieval take on synth composition.
But Supreme Balloon’s playfulness doesn’t mean that Matmos have dumbed down their legendarily and radically complex music. Far from it. While cuts like ‘Mister Mouth’ and ‘Exciter Lamp’ lend a mind-bending intricacy to booty-bass, the 24-minute masterpiece that is the title-track proves an exercise in brilliant, prog-flecked, contemporary composition. The glittering, beautifully restrained melody of ‘Cloudhoppers’, meanwhile, proves the albums most emotive and perhaps effective vignette.
At a glance, it would be easy to discredit Supreme Balloon. Indeed, its unashamedly retrospective instrumentation and accessible sound hint at a twee piece of early electronic revivalism. But such an analysis would unfairly discredit this terrible two. Listen to Supreme Balloon more closely and you’ll realise that, true to form, there are sophisticated swathes of layer, lineage and reference embedded deep within these seemingly simple synth lines.
It’s just that Matmos are allowing themselves to have fun here. And for once in their career, they’re doing so with no surface mics, bits of flesh, hair, semen or strings attached.
June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, May 15, 2008.
A post-hiatus record is often cause for alarm, especially when it arrives via the creative loins of the Bristol scene. Massive Attack’s half-decade-in-the-making 100th Window was one of the most eagerly awaited, mythologised and ultimately fraught records in recent memory. In the context 1998’s epic Mezzanine – let alone the wondrous Protection (1994) or the certified classic Blue Lines (1991) – it was also one of the most disappointing. We can only shudder at the potential monstrosity Tricky has up his sleeve.
So it’s with great trepidation that Bristol fans await Third, iconoclastic trio Portishead’s first studio album since 1997’s self-titled sophomore (which was of-course followed by a live recording in 1998). From its first grit-scarred vignette, through its dense analogue discord, austere skeletal melodic drifts, and visceral, gut-wrenchingly psychological finale, Third will prove nothing but a revelation to even the most hardcore of Portishead admirers. Jeff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley are at the absolute top of their game here.
Third is deep, engaging, textural listening – lurking with urgency and pain and noise and glacial beauty. The sheer intensity of closing track ‘Threads’ defies description, while ethereal sketches like ‘Hunter’ echo with noir-like nuance and flow. But there are too many highlights to mention. Not even lurking opener ‘Silence’, the stunning ‘Nylon Smile’ or the jarring industrialisms of ‘We Carry On’ and ‘Machine Gun’ do Third justice as a whole.
Nothing will ever replace the quixotic elegance of 1994 debut Dummy, but nor would you expect or want it to. It had a time and a place and a context. Nonetheless, Third may well just be this otherworldly trio’s most fully realised piece of musical syntax to date.
It is a record intoxicated in atmosphere and personal paranoia – a record of indelible signature, grace and burning, rippling suspense and human emotion. It is Portishead, not only revisited, but reborn, re-imagined and redeveloped. Like in 1997, Barrow, Gibbons and Utley leave us hanging, brooding and begging for more.
June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, April 14, 2008.
On first appearance, it’d be easy to dismiss miss Santi White (aka Santogold) as the latest in a string of MIA-cloned, low bit-rate minxes. She’s got the musical hipsterisms down pat – the arty irreverence, the Brooklyn social circle, the PR-reared rebellious twist.
But the native Philadelphian is very much her own woman. Her burning self-titled debut reeks with individuality and reinterpretation.
Her references are clear enough. In essence, she takes us due east across the North Atlantic and then back about three decades, when Two Tone ruled London’s clubs. Santogold resonates with such a lineage; echoes of dub, dancehall, ska and punk swarm throughout her pop-twisted overtures.
While first single and album opener ‘L.E.S. Artistes‘ offers up a straight-up, new wave rock prologue, from that point on Santogold is scored with a healthy plethora of Caribbean flavours. ‘You’ll Find a Way’ draws from a smoking ska verse, only to drop to an earth-shattering rock chorus. ‘Shove It’, which features Downtown label mate Spank Rock, is dub and dancehall all the way.
But she’s unafraid to rock it post-2000 too. She delves into cracking, electro-jarred hip-hop on the ground-shaking ‘Creator’, which is straight out of the Maya Arulpragasam handbook. It’s no surprise that the track was produced by MIA’s in-house beat-maestro Switch, with a little help from Freq Nasty. On the other hand, the sentimentalist punk-pop of ‘Lights Out’ would find a home on any top-40 chart, while the stark, pulsing electro beats of ‘Starstruck’ offers an austere, new wave twist.
This isn’t a groundbreaking album, but what makes Santogold so appealing is that it rocks it with or without the PR, name-dropped hype. Santi White may rub shoulders in the right circles – “out of nowhere” she managed to open for Bjork at Madison Square Garden – but her debut proves that she’s gotten there under her own steam. It’s one of the more convincing, original and downright bangin’ debuts so far this year.
June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Age, A2, March 27, 2008.
Following years of conservative Australian programming, this week’s inaugural Melbourne International Biennale of Exploratory Music aims to put the far reaches of sound on the musical map, writes Dan Rule.
Brendan Walls can’t remember much, but for the crowd screaming and cowering and running from the front of the stage – a clatter of cymbals and wires and stage equipment falling and smashing around them.
“It was a really, really frightening gig,” sighs the 34-year-old of the fateful 2006 show at tiny Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, venue Bar Open.
“I was actually scared,” he says. “And the audience, they were bloody terrified.”
It would be fair to conclude that most musicians would be hoping to garner a reaction other than mass panicked terror while performing on stage, but there’s a hint of pride in the Sydney sound-artist’s account. He stifles laughter when he recalls his towering, self-built rig – a clamorous hotchpotch of cymbals strung up on stage-long lengths of wire – collapsing into the front three rows of the crowd; he giggles guiltily at the health and safety predicament.
“I’m not into controlled environments,” says Walls, known for writing and producing the critically acclaimed Set experimental music series for ABC TV in 2006. “I’ve used the engine bays of six-cylinder cars, trees, cymbals, telephone books, woks, ordinary instruments but treated in a different way and often amplified to almost grotesque proportions.
“It’s about exploring the correlation between gesture and object and sound,” he continues. “We’re taught to hate our bodies in this culture, but my work is about reconnecting mind and body, cause and effect.”
Walls will unleash his distinctly physical brand of dangerous cacophony in collaboration with similarly embodied American sound-artist Daniel Menche at the Corner Hotel in Richmond on Tuesday night. He is just one of the 50-plus Australian and international artists to perform at the inaugural Melbourne International Biennale of Exploratory Music, which opened last night at the Tote and will take place across various inner-Melbourne venues such as the Corner, the Toff in Town and the ABC Iwaki Auditorium until Wednesday.
Billed as an “exploration of new musical possibilities”, the event encompasses forms as divergent as Walls’ and Menche’s noise explorations, improvisation, composition, electronica, free jazz, contemporary classical and digitised audio-visual works. It’s far from your average music festival.
“At the moment, Melbourne underground and experimental music is in a pretty amazing place,” says Pateras, an internationally recognised contemporary composer and experimental musician. “Yet, the vast majority of programming in the major arts festivals or orchestras or music festivals just doesn’t even look at it.
“We’re lucky to even get an early 20th-century work in an established musical organisation.”
He has a point. Take a glance at the MSO’s current season – or the Melbourne Festival’s recent music programs for that matter – and you’ll hardly be struck by their engagement with the contemporary, let alone the avant-garde. Much of the MSO’s roster reads like a well-thumbed classic: Wagner, Handel, Mahler, Brahms and Tchaikovsky each take pride of place.
MIBEM’s curatorship, on the other hand, defines itself via its commitment to the progressive. Experimental Sydney vocalist Amanda Stewart, legendary Rotterdam jazz and noise-rock improviser Lukas Simonis, Amsterdam pianist and electronic musician Cor Fuhler, cult Sydney group Menstruation Sisters and Melbourne grindcore/free-jazz quartet Embers will each fill prominent spaces on the bill.
According to Pateras, he and Fox’s artistic direction lies in the concept of new language. “What we’re trying to do is capture this particular moment in time,” he says. “Experimental or exploratory music is by definition always changing, because the directions that these artists explore or experiment with will ultimately become forms or genres, so therefore the boundaries need to be smashed again.
“What unites all these people is the fundamental love of sound and exploration. Whatever music they play or whatever medium they use, they’re always trying to get something else out of it that hasn’t been done before.”
For example, French musique-concrete artist Jerome Noetinger – who plays his first solo performance tomorrow night at the Toff in Town – uses an antiquated Revox B-77 reel-to-reel tape machine to record and process analog loops in real time; the novelty is that he begins each performance with no prerecorded sound. “I create by manipulating different kinds of microphones, and sometimes I’m just taking the sound from the actual machine itself,” he explains. “I play with the sound from the engine or the sound from the loop running, or play with the right and left channel to create a kind of echo or feedback.”
Celebrated Berlin electro-acoustic composer Kirsten Reese (performing tonight at the Iwaki Auditorium), on the other hand, will create sound worlds from everyday found objects, such as rocks, old bottles and rusted cans.
“It’s about this action of taking a very simple, mundane object and creating something with it, and then putting it back having illuminated these qualities that you wouldn’t usually associate with it,” she says.
BUT does this notion of foraging one’s way through such sonic territories necessarily constitute worthy art, or translate to listenable music for that matter? Or does MIBEM more likely represent the well-meaning but underdeveloped wanderings of a bumptious Melbourne fringe? The traditionalists among us might argue that such material has remained absent from major festivals for good reason.
A self-described “refugee from the classical world”, Melbourne electro-acoustic musician and installation artist Natasha Anderson is quick to snuff the assertion. An esteemed performer throughout Europe and Japan, she points to the idea of the “classical cringe” as an unfortunate, distinctly Australian idea. “I think the big difference lies in the classical community, in that European classical orchestras will play much more modern and more contemporary stuff than Australian orchestras would dare to touch,” she says.
The 39-year-old will take her towering contrabass recorder and laptop set-up to the stage at MIBEM in collaboration with Noetinger and Amanda Stewart on Monday night at the Corner Hotel. “I think it’s important that people understand that there’s a whole spectrum. It’s not just the noise boys,” she laughs. “It’s not just some minority, underground thing.”
Her suggestion carries weight. While Australian experimental artists such as Anderson, Pateras, Fox and others such as Oren Ambarchi and Thomas Meadowcroft are barely recognised by music programmers on their own shores, they spend much of their year headlining highly regarded shows and festivals in Europe and Asia.
In a sense, the arrangement suits Pateras and an event like MIBEM just fine. “I think the really important thing about the biennale is that the curators, Robin and I, are both practitioners,” he says.
“We’re not just arts administrators buying products from markets; we go on the road and meet people and play together.”
And as he’s come to realise, there’s more musical explorers out there, even in Australia, than one might predict. “Last year I was playing what was considered an experimental work with a chamber orchestra, and I had this octogenarian come up to me after the gig.
“I thought he was going to chastise me for being so loud and so noisy, and then he said to me, ‘Well, you know, that was great, but this prepared piano and computer stuff is a bit old hat isn’t it?”‘ he laughs.
“And you know what? He was absolutely right.”
June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, April 15, 2008.
Yoni Wolf is a savant of the taboo; he is awkward dinner conversation personified. He is the details; the vivid, disposable-camera snapshots, cut and torn and stuck back together askew. He is the man behind rap alias-turned indie rock quartet Why? and he has crafted another peculiar masterwork in new long-player Alopecia.
Having made a name alongside Adam Drucker (aka Doseone) and producer David Madson (aka Odd Nosdam) in revolutionary San Franciscan abstract hip-hop ensemble cLOUDDEAD, Wolf has spent the last half-decade flirting with melody and merging band dynamics, resulting in 2003’s ramshackle Oaklandazulasylum and the shimmering lyrical and melodic affectations of 2005’s widely celebrated Elephant Eyelash. And from the plodding, feedback-framed pop of opener ‘The Vowels Pt. 2’, Alopecia proves another stunning expansion.
This is a full band we’re witnessing here. Where previous records stitched crude bedroom instrumental takes into loosely ordered arrangements, Alopecia sees Wolf and co – brother Josiah, Doug McDiarmid and Fog’s Adam Broder and Mark Ericksow – layer assured guitar and bass hooks with swathes of shimmering keys, deft percussion and hints of programming.
But its Wolf’s lyrical overtures that make this record what it is. Where Elephant Eyelash saw him traverse the fragments of a broken relationship, Alopecia sinks into the confused desolation of childhood memory, identity and self. The grittily sketched monologue and heart-tearing minor-key melody of ‘Gnashville’ proves one of Why?’s most affecting tracks to date, while cuts like ‘The Hollows’ are riddled with striking, evocative detail. “In Berlin I saw two men fuck in a dark corner of a basketball court,” Wolf croons. “Just the slight jingle of pocket change pulsing.”
Wolf’s real magic, though, is his ability to inject deadpan humour into his intimately personal vistas. “Sucking dick for drink tickets at my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah,” he mumbles over the guitar-led break-beat of Good Friday. “Cutting the punch line and it ain’t no joke.”
“It feels exciting touching your handwriting,” he continues in the final verse. “Getting horny by reading it and repeating ‘Poor me’.”
Wolf’s all alone here, but he’s okay with that, and it’s this precise fact that makes Alopecia such a charming listen. Why? have created a creature of intriguing and positively unusual beauty here. Alopecia proves the stuff of awkward, everyday happenstance – of sadness, self-doubt and rarely whispered human data.