For many decades, western record labels such as HMV, Folkways, Ocora, Kaleidophone and Nonesuch Explorer would send ethnomusicologists with lathe cutters or tape machines to make field recordings in Africa, documenting drummers from Burundi, flute-playing Baka pygmies, or the polyphonic Banda horn players of the Central African Republic. The results were often fascinating but voyeuristic, presenting a musical world where the actual musicians were passive rather than active participants.
Nyokabi Kariūki is part of a new generation of African musicians who are using field recordings to explore something more personal, taping the sounds of nature and people to explore notions of home, of ancestry, of dislocation and of the relationships between natural and digital worlds. Kariūki grew up in Kenya, played classical piano from an early age, moved to the United States to study composition at NYU, and is now based between Nairobi, New York and Maryland. Her debut album uses recordings she made in Kenya on her phone or video camera, often time-stretched and layered with tuned percussion, electronic textures and multi-tracked voices to create heavenly soundscapes.
There is a recording of her feeding mangos to noisy goats, but it is blended with gospel-style vocal harmonies and the sound of tuned percussion played on clay pots. On A Walk Through My Cũcũ’s Farm, you can hear Kariūki and her grandmother talking in Swahili about lessons learned from nature, but the footsteps and voices are accompanied by a quiet riot of harmonised humming, farmer’s whistles and electronic percussion. Galu was recorded before she swam in the Indian Ocean, near Mombasa, and the sound of lapping water is echoed by a series of jazzy cymbal improvisations and harmonised voices.
Best of all is Equator Song, in which recordings of chirruping weaver birds are shadowed by a babbling, multi-tracked choir of digital voices and a robotic vocal, also chanted in Swahili. It is a wonderfully disorientating piece: fully grounded in nature but utterly transcendent in its scope and space-age in its sonic ambition.
Also out this month
Open (Hush Hush Records) is a fine collaboration between Finnish woodwind player Tapani Rinne and composer Juha Mäki-Patola, a series of haunting tenor sax and keyboard duets that explore the hinterlands between ECM jazz, ambient soundscapes and drone-based minimalism. Ana Carla Maza is a Havana-born cellist, composer and singer whose album Bahia (Persona Editorial Records) is a gorgeous multilingual voyage through Cuban, Brazilian, Argentine and Peruvian songcraft. What’s particularly remarkable is that she recorded this entirely live and unaccompanied, leaping between double-stopped bowed passages, jazz-like bass lines and guitar-like chords like a one-woman chamber orchestra.