Tone Glow 077: Low
An interview with Low + our writers panel on Space Afrika's 'Honest Labour', RP Boo's 'Established!', and Amelia Cuni's 'Parampara festival 13.3.1992'
Low is a rock band from Duluth, Minnesota whose decades-long career began with a string of albums in the ’90s—I Could Live in Hope, Long Division, and The Curtain Hits the Cast—that would solidify them as one of the most crucial slowcore acts. While co-founders Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk have continually evolved the band’s sound across more than a dozen studio albums, the pair have consistently crafted songs that feel economically arranged and intentional in their pacing. Their most recent, including Ones and Sixes and Double Negative, found the two working with producer BJ Burton, and Low’s latest album, HEY WHAT, finds them with him once again. On the album, they build on the raucous sonics that defined their previous outing, and dive deeper into feelings of everyday hopelessness. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with both Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk via Zoom on August 5th, 2021 to discuss their childhood, their faith, their new album, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, hello.
Mimi Parker: Hello.
How are you?
Mimi Parker: Good, how are you?
I just had some meetings. I’m a high school science teacher and we’re staring up next week, so I was doing some last minute prep.
Mimi Parker: Where are you?
I teach at a school slightly north of Chicago.
Mimi Parker: Wow, starting already. That’s super early.
Yeah, but it’s not bad because we end really early. I wanted to start off by asking, and this is a question I like asking bands, do you mind sharing one thing you both love about each other?
Mimi Parker: (laughs).
Alan Sparhawk: (looking down, pensively).
Mimi Parker: I love that Alan is always 100 percent with everything he does.
Alan Sparhawk: I love Mim because I know that I can trust her. I think other people gravitate towards her because of that. There’s no bullshit. And she’s not gonna give up on me, or anyone else she’s committed to.
Mimi, can you give me an example of how Alan is 100 percent committed to something with an example that isn’t related to music?
Mimi Parker: It’s everything. His gardening. He’s researching stuff.
Alan Sparhawk: Nah, I’m not like that.
Mimi Parker: A little bit! He’s dedicated to his garden, he waters it sometimes at 3 in the morning if he hasn’t gotten to it yet.
What sort of things are you growing right now?
Alan Sparhawk: A bunch of San Marzano tomatoes this year. They’re a specific kind of tomato where you can just blanch them and grind them up into a sauce. There’s not a lot of water content compared to regular tomatoes. I’ve got some pumpkins, some eggplant, and some beets and onions and carrots. Tomatoes are the thing that take the most attention and energy.
Both of you grew up on farms, right?
Mimi Parker: Yeah, we had a huge garden every year and my mom would have the kids out there weeding. And when it was time to harvest we’d do that. She canned tons of stuff and store stuff in our basement—it was more of a roots cellar than a basement. It was a huge part of growing up.
Has gardening been a huge part of your lives consistently?
Alan Sparhawk: No, I only started maybe six or seven years ago.
Mimi Parker: We didn’t really have a great space for it here. We were surrounded by a lot of trees so there was a lot of shade.
Alan Sparhawk: There’s a house that my mom moved in close by and there’s space.
Mimi Parker: We kind of got this great sunny spot.
Is that something that you had been wanting to do for a long time? Was there an impetus for starting it up?
Alan Sparhawk: Getting the space somehow put the thought in my head. I hadn’t really done much gardening other than stuff on the farm a little bit as a kid. It hadn’t really dawned on me because my memories of it as a kid were loathsome. All I remember were the times I was forced to go out and weed. I was actually surprised that I fell into it because my childhood dislike of it was really strong. It was just the space, and then I tried it, and it’s something that gives back pretty quickly, and it teaches you stuff. Every year, I’m happy to have the opportunity to put a couple seeds in the ground and learn a little bit.
What sort of stuff has gardening taught you guys?
Mimi Parker: Well, you don’t have 100 percent control over your garden. Things will happen. I’m talking like this but Alan does most of the gardening. If it doesn’t rain, you gotta water. It’s a lot of work. And sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t salvage the plant—it gets blight or something.
Alan Sparhawk: Anything you can do that you can engage with that’s longterm… obviously one season isn’t that long of a time, but it’s in that middle ground enough that it can teach you. The other slow lessons in life go so slow that you don’t see them. Being able to see something and have a thought go that long (pinches thumb and index finger together and traces a horizontal line in the air), is a good exercise for your brain. I think there are deeper instincts and functions we have that we’ve inherited into our brains that thrive, that are prepared to engage those kinds of long thought processes. We have versions of that today, but something about gardening… you’re at the mercy of chaos and in the unique position of being able to steer it and influence it. There are a lot of lessons there.
That seems like a theme on your album, this idea of not having control, and it’s been there before on previous albums too. Just this embrace of the unknown and not having a complete handle on everything in your life. How was it when you initially come to that understanding? Was there a specific point in your life where you felt like you really understood that?
Alan Sparhawk: Everybody’s been faced with the opportunity to understand that in the last while. There have been so many crazy and large unexpected things happening, disastrous things happening that were only imagined before. People on an individual level are being pushed and strained to a level we never expected and weren’t built for. Depending on where you are in life, you’re either just discovering that something’s amiss, or you’re fighting against it and have some sort of idea that if you perhaps did it one way, you’ll finally conquer it. “Oh no, here’s some great new thing that I can conquer! Where’s the logic! Oh, there must be a reason!” But actually no, there’s no logic to it, and there’s no reason. If you’re looking for landmarks to hang hope on, eventually they’ll all be gone and you find yourself still there.
Some of that goes on when you’re younger, you think you can fight against it and solve it, and at a certain point you despair because, “Oh, I didn’t do this! I’m a failure!” But no, actually, it’s impossible. There are no answers. There are no good reasons to live on to the next day, but here we are. And now what? I imagine there must be some higher level of comprehending what’s going on beyond that, but that’s where we’re at, and I think a lot of people are there. At a certain point you have to realize that there isn’t going to be a superhero that solves everything. Even though we’ve been fed this three-act play our whole lives, it doesn’t actually happen that way. And from that, you can build something new. Like, now what? We’re still here, how did we do that? Apparently, even in defeat, the next day comes.
Mimi Parker: I think that comes with age. What’s that one phrase, how does it go?
Alan Sparhawk: The more you know, the less you know.
Mimi Parker: Yeah. If you’re still living in this black-and-white world where you think everything is cut and dried, you’re missing it (laughter). You are not living the full experience. You’re cutting yourself off from what’s out there.
Alan, when you were talking about there being “no good reasons to live on”—
Alan Sparhawk: I wish I had a saying or reason, and from time to time I’ll be hopeful—hey, I’ll listen to McConaughey’s speech every once in a while (laughter)—but yeah, I’m trying to illustrate the stage when you’re hopeful but then start realizing things, and try to be real. Not to say that that’s negative, either—we’re still here. Surely there’s some other force that is moving us forward and is worth having faith in that does not have anything to do with all the things we thought we should hang our hope on. Is that hopeful? Yeah, I think that’s pretty damn hopeful. There’s something moving shit forward. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s there because all the shit I thought we were doing doesn’t work (laughter).
With this conversation of God, I think about how I was raised in a Christian household and how religion and God is often fed to people. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how so many Christians put so much stock into this eternity that comes afterwards such that they feel comfortable ignoring what can be done in the real world. They ignore these present realities.
Alan Sparhawk: (laughs). Yup, that’s very much a problem.
Mimi Parker: Yeah, I hear you.
If you’re comfortable sharing, I’m wondering how your relationships with God have changed over the years. Are there any albums or songs along the way where you can recognize what your faith was like at the time, or how it’s evolved since?
Alan Sparhawk: There are songs where in varying degrees we’ll be grappling with those things, sometimes it’s just referential or a metaphor, or us just using the language, but I don’t know… it’s hard because the question assumes that we’re intentional about writing. We don’t necessarily go in and say, “this is how I’m feeling about this right now, let’s write a song.” It’s more of a subconscious thing where bits and pieces kick out and, luckily, poetic license gives us permission to be fragmented and vague. As you’re writing it, you can see how a phrase references something and sometimes it’s necessary to finish a song so we’ll grapple with the first ideas present and see what the song is trying to say.
For the most part, I think we have songs that are sitting in that area of, well, I’m believing here and I’m hoping and I’m suspending reality a bit and assuming things are cool but I have to admit that I’m a little bit in doubt and I sometimes feel like there’s nothing, and what is that?
Mimi Parker: When it comes to faith, I’ve been kind of… maybe I’ve been taught this… I think it’s healthy to doubt. If you’re not doubting—
Alan Sparhawk: If you’re not checking it.
Mimi Parker: Yeah, if you’re not checking it, you’re missing out… well maybe not missing out… (pauses). I don’t know, that sort of thing is just so foreign to me. Blind faith. When we do have the ups and downs, the doubts and fears, and the moments where you feel like everything is for a reason, those are all things that make us who we are and allow us this very human experience. I guess maybe like Alan said, maybe you can see it in some of the music, we’ve never really written an intentional Christian song—except the Christmas songs. And even the ones we have, they’re vague. “Long Away Around the Sea” is a very specific song, but it’s complicated.
I think the fact that it’s complicated makes it nice. It’s a nice space to be occupying.
Alan Sparhawk: It makes for a struggle.
Oh that reminds me, I read this interview from the late ’90s where someone asked you about your favorite bands, and you said that it’s important to struggle to find music. You were talking about the difficulty of finding music when you were younger, and that there was beauty in struggling to find good music. Is that something you still feel today?
Alan Sparhawk: I think so, I think anyone who loves music loves that process. I think there’s something essential about it being hard to find. It resonates with you more, it means that you put more work into it, it means that you went to it. If you find it and it’s good and it comes to you a little bit, that’s the right balance. I might have been just referring to where, back at the time, we didn’t have the immediate “what’s going on.” We didn’t have MTV so I wasn’t seeing this stuff. I remember seeing an article in People magazine about CBGB’s punk scene. This must have been ’82 or ’83. I remember reading the article and this visual description of this scene in New York was really exciting to me. And I remember when I found it, it was built up in my mind as this huge thing—that it was amazing—and I had pictures in my mind of what it was like and when I found it and it ended up being even more intense than I thought it was, it was so endearing and exciting to me.
Mimi Parker: Wow, what a treat. Jeez. That’s rare that that happens.
Alan Sparhawk: Nowadays it’s, “Oh, what does this sound like?” (makes typing noises) “Oh, that’s interesting.”
Mimi Parker: Back then it was actually physically hard to find music. You had to go to the store.
Alan Sparhawk: You had to have a cousin in Minneapolis who could send you stuff.
Mimi Parker: Yeah, you’d go to the record store and the guy would give you some pointers.
Alan Sparhawk: (in the voice of a record store clerk) “Oh, you’re into punk music, check this out.”
Mimi Parker: Now it’s like there’s almost too much.
Alan Sparhawk: And then that provides its own difficulty. You wanna find something interesting? Well, it’s out there. You have to go through all this stuff (makes swimming motions with arms). I’m sure that’s endearing as well.
I know both of you grew up in musical households. Do either of you have endearing music-related memories from your childhood?
Mimi Parker: My mom was an aspiring country singer. She taught herself how to play guitar, accordion, and piano. She brought that to the household and one of my endearing memories is that she basically, I don’t know if she forced him, but she taught my dad how to sing. And he came from a family who never did that. I remember hearing those two singing together. He had a really nice voice. That probably had more of an impact on me than anything—like, look at those two! It was pretty sweet.
What sort of stuff did they sing? Do you remember?
Mimi Parker: Oh yeah, old country like Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson]. My dad liked Buck Owens.
Alan Sparhawk: There are a bunch of things. My dad would round us up and make us begrudgingly sing in church (chuckling). I remember going to a wedding dance. My dad played drums in a local country band and they usually played bars but he played at a wedding dance and it was probably one of the first exposures I had to what a band was. Like, “there’s drums, bass, all these people doing this.” It left an impression. It was the link between the stuff I thought was really wild and from a whole different planet and, “oh, people actually do this.”
Do both of you two feel like you’re similar to your parents?
Mimi Parker: A little bit.
Alan Sparhawk: Yeah.
Mimi Parker: (jokingly) Probably none of the good things (laughter). Isn’t that what the real reckoning is? When you realize you do the same things that your mom did. But at the same time, my dad was always comical and always cracking jokes. I don’t know if I’m funny, but if I am it’s because of him. My mom is a perfectionist, which doesn’t always work well (laughter). You think it’s a good thing but it’s a character flaw—it’s not conducive to many things.
Alan Sparhawk: I’m just like my dad—nuttier than a fruitcake (laughter).
Can you paint a picture of how your dad was like that?
Alan Sparhawk: My dad was maybe a little more ADHD. He didn’t have a lot of people going, “Hey buddy, chill!” as much as I have. He was in the Air Force and was a pilot, and went out because he was too wild. Really talkative. As much as I remember loathing sitting in the car, hearing him talk to some stranger he bumped into, I’m the same way.
Do you see yourself in your children?
Mimi Parker: Yeah, a little bit.
Alan Sparhawk: Probably more of the other person’s traits than my own. I don’t think anyone really knows themselves well enough to know all the things you’re passing onto your kids.
Mimi Parker: We like to think we’re doing a little better than our parents did for us when we were kids. We’re trying to be a bit more self-aware. And they’re better than us. They’re so much better than us for the things of this age. They’re wise to this time that they live in. And maybe we can take a little credit to that.
Alan Sparhawk: (laughs).
Mimi Parker: We kept them alive all this time.
Alan Sparhawk: I don’t think we traumatized them as much as our parents did, that’s for sure.
Was there a fear with that? I feel like with being a parent, you sort of know you’re going to traumatize them in some way.
Alan Sparhawk: When anyone becomes a parent, it’s always like, “how can I do this better?” But then inadvertently, in your efforts to do something differently, something else becomes damaging.
Mimi Parker: You wanna break any bad cycles if there are any.
Alan Sparhawk: Society has moved and that’s helped a lot. Just the idea that, hey, you can’t beat your kids. Turns out, as our generation suspected—because we were on the edge of being victims of that—doing that maybe isn’t right. And it turns out we were right (laughter). Most people now understand that and a generation or two ago, most people didn’t. You would have physical trauma. What we know now about what happens to kids and the effects of trauma and violence and stress… people are a lot more aware that you should provide a safe environment.
I wanted to talk about your new album, HEY WHAT. It’s the third one [after Ones and Sixes and Double Negative] that’s involved producer BJ Burton. After learning more about who he is and how he works, what was it like making this?
Alan Sparhawk: It was a pretty strong trajectory. I feel like we’re still breaking new ground and possibilities with each other. We were pretty primed to go into this one and we were able to discover some new ways and further the ways we approached things last time. Some things were more focused. Having worked with him a few times, it was more reassuring. At first it was about digging around and finding stuff, like, “How does this sound?”
I remember with the first couple records, I was really anxious about not getting certain sounds immediately, especially with Double Negative. I was a little more calm during this dark period where we were trying to figure out what we were doing. We were talking about faith earlier—we put a little more faith into having experienced this before and knowing it would go a certain way. There were new things we tried and they were surprising. We wanna avoid getting to a dead end and not coming up with anything that’s new or interesting, but that hasn’t happened yet. His approach and willingness to make the simplest and oddest ideas and sounds turn into something is unlimited.
Mimi Parker: He’s really creative, and we trust all the things that he brings to the table.
Earlier, there was this idea brought up about being invested in something, about finding music and how the difficulty in finding that led to greater enjoyment. What was the hardest song to write on the album? And was that the one you feel most satisfied with?
Alan Sparhawk: There were songs that were puzzles to figure out how to write. “All Night” took a little while to figure out. I had a version at one point that didn’t feel complete and it needed some depth and variation.
Mimi Parker: I feel like we’re still discovering these songs. We haven’t played them enough to have a favorite yet. Once I do, that’ll kind of change on me too as we tour the songs. It’s always fun to play new songs and discover more about them as you play them.
Is that something that regularly happens for you guys?
Mimi Parker: For me it does.
Alan Sparhawk: Yeah, you get a different relationship with a song after you play it for a while. Some songs that seem like, “Okay, well that’s cool” and they worked on the record end up being new favorites. Some songs that sound great end up being frustrating because you can’t find a way to do it live that equals it. With these songs, we kind of had them figured out when sitting down with the acoustic versions. There were a couple songs that came together and really bloomed in the studio and now it’s like, okay how do we do that live (chuckling).
Was it a hard process to translate songs from Double Negative to a live setting?
Alan Sparhawk: We knew what we were getting into just from past experiences. Just from the beginning, the song you think is gonna work out in the studio ends up not being that great, and the song that ends up being great on the record ends up being the hardest one to pull off live. But then again, there are surprises where you have a song that you roll up with at the last minute in the studio.
Are you the sort of people who also try to make yourself uncomfortable in daily life, pushing yourself in new directions? Is it even uncomfortable to do these things, like working with different producers or trying out different styles?
Alan Sparhawk: I think we really believe that that’s cool. We believe that doing stuff that’s extreme or different is cool. If there’s any trepidation, it’s always just, well, we like this. Should we put some thought into what other people think? From the beginning, we’ve always kind of done things the way we’ve wanted to, and I think people who follow us like that. There are people who like certain phases and sounds and have favorite albums but for most people, they recognize that we’re gonna be pushing ourselves. And that’s great, because we don’t have to worry about that. We probably would worry if all our fans were like, “Oh, play that song again!” We don’t need to be worried about jumping off that cliff—it’s easy for us. We always want to make something interesting when we go into the studio, we think it’s cool. I don’t know if it’s reactionary but…
Mimi Parker: You’re always forward-thinking, you’re always trying to push the boundaries.
Alan Sparhawk: It’s called mental illness.
Mimi Parker: I tend to be more satisfied with where I’m at. So he’s been pushing me along all these years. He’s courageous, more bold, more daring. That’s just who you are.
Alan Sparhawk: Unhealthily obsessed (laughter).
Mimi Parker: Perhaps that’s it (laughter).
On that note, do you two mind sharing what you two feel you bring to the band that the other person can’t bring? And I know Mimi you’ve just mentioned this to some extent.
Mimi Parker: He’s always trying to see what can happen, like “what if we did this?”
Alan Sparhawk: And she’s the control valve for that. As much as it’s frustrating sometimes, she reins things in, and I would have easily burnt out my wick pretty quickly if she hadn’t always been there, trimming things, making sure things don’t get too far off. You’re always right and you only pick the things that really matter and I’m able to run free and we pull things off because it still looks like logic—it’s because Mimi keeps a lid on it.
Can you give an example of a specific song where that dynamic was crucial to the creation of a song?
Alan Sparhawk: It’s more than just editing. Over time, I’ve learned to react. She doesn’t want it to be loud on stage—I want it to be loud. I want shit to burn. I want ears bleeding (laughing). But because she doesn’t want that, I have to think about how I can do that. What do I really wanna do? What I really want is for the guitar to sound really big and dynamic and to sound like (puts almost-closed fist to side of head and starts shaking it) this screeching metal-on-metal noise that is constantly going off in my brain whenever I’m trying to get myself to shut up—
Mimi Parker: Nobody wants to hear that (laughter).
Alan Sparhawk: And that’s what I’ve been doing. We’ve been trying to figure out how to do that without getting too loud. That’s just an example of how I’m trying to make the most of things with this limitation. I’m gonna bang on that ceiling so damn hard. And I’m glad that ceiling’s there—there’s something that happens when I’m banging on it so stinking hard because something happens that wouldn’t happen if I were just shooting shit into the sky. It’s taught me to format things, to have context, that I can’t just keep going off all the time.
So you’re all good with how these past two albums sound then, Mimi?
Mimi Parker: Yeah, I think they sound great!
Alan Sparhawk: She’s very crucial to the noise still sounding beautiful. There have definitely been times when the noise becomes indulgent and selfish, and then it crosses over into, okay now you’re just being a dick. And even just her presence is enough for us to be like, okay let’s try harder, we’ve gotta find a way to make it so it passes through the gates. It’ll often make us work harder and come up with better sounds. BJ and I are more inclined to destroy people’s ears (laughing) but because Mim is there, even without her having to speak, there are parameters that our music still has to fall in. And it comes out to better stuff.
You mentioned the music sounding selfish. Do you then see your music as being something for others? Like a gift?
Alan Sparhawk: Yeah, that’s one side of it. That more stems from the idea that when music comes through, you recognize this thing in the universe. Depending on if you believe in a God, most musicians and artists recognize that there’s some force here that dictates things, or is shining a light, or that there’s something you’re brushing up against that gives you inspiration. For me, I recognize there is stuff I’m doing because, in my soul, I know it has to exist. And there are things I do because I want it to exist. I think it’s dangerous territory when you want it to exist—it can get too indulgent. We get away with it when playing live a little bit more—we’ll play a big wall of sound, I’ll look down at the floor, and turn toward my amp and there’s gonna be this long passage of feedback. It’s hard to approach that without it turning into selfishness and indulgence. As soon as it crosses from channeling to controlling—rerouting so it lands on you—then it becomes selfish. Sometimes it’s like, “okay let’s just hit that fuzz face and tear people’s faces off for 20 minutes.” Is there a point? Even if it’s just some made-up explanation. It’s hard to describe. There’s a fine line between channeling and “creating.” And when you start “creating,” you have to be very careful.
Earlier we were talking about being hopeful, and I’ve been sitting with the lyrics for “Days Like These”: “Always looking for that one sure thing / Oh, you wanted so desperately / No, you’re never gonna feel complete / No, you’re never gonna be released / Maybe never even see, believe”—
Alan Sparhawk: “That’s why we’re living in days like these.” It’s just this idea that maybe the first step in really being hopeful is to stop being hopeful. Are you really being hopeful or are you hanging your hope on things, when clearly we can’t count on things. Hopefully it’s not cynical sounding. It’s just the next stage of grappling with the universe.
It makes sense, it’s shedding the notion of putting hope in things that’ll be a quick fix for everything. You end up finding hope in different ways, and in smaller things.
Alan Sparhawk: Or, like, the definition of hope becomes more true and more… hopeful (chuckling).
What sort of things keep you guys going each day then?
Alan Sparhawk: I spend my day quietly circling around all my addictions, great and small. Sometimes something comes along that distracts me for half the day and I can feel a bit of air in my lungs.
Mimi Parker: I like having things to do. Projects. I like projects. I always have a project, like, “Oh I have to make a meal tonight.” Just basic ones.
Alan Sparhawk: She’s a good cook and she cooks a lot.
Mimi Parker: We’re just working on playing stuff, and that’s a good project.
What’s the plan for dinner tonight?
Mimi Parker: We bought some kale. I have green beans that my sister picked in her garden that I should cook tonight. And then we’ll see what else we come up with.
Are there things either of you two are into that people wouldn’t expect?
Mimi Parker: I don’t have any shocking secrets. We’re pretty boring.
Alan Sparhawk: I’m definitely not as well-read as everyone that I run into. I’m an expert on broken ribs (laughter).
Mimi Parker: An expert on walking the dog (laughter). We acquired a dog recently, we’ve never had a dog before. His name is Blue. That’s new for us.
Was there anything that either of you wanted to talk about? Was there a rant brewing inside that you wanted to get out?
Alan Sparhawk: Nah, I already did it (laughter). I think it’d be fun to teach people how to milk goats. I grew up milking goats and know a lot about that. I know a lot about growing beets, and I know a lot about driving. Because that’s what being in a band is all about—you spend most of your time driving.
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share thoughts on albums and assign them a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Space Afrika - Honest Labour (Dais, 2021)
Press Release info: The album title is tiered, alluding to a legendary patriarch from co-founder Joshua Inyang's Nigerian family tree (who was lovingly called “Honest Labour” for his loyalty and resilience) as well as the nature of self-designated work, such as Space Afrika's music – a “labor of love” in its truest sense. With fellow co-founder Joshua Reid recently relocated to Berlin, the pair began sharing files last fall, piecing together poetic vignettes of looping haze and found sound, inspired by the notion of “records that leave an impression, and help the listener deal with their life.” As the isolation of Covid compounded with the worsening winter, the songs skewed increasingly introspective and emotive, reflecting a mood of dissipating futures and the infinite nocturnal unknown.
The artists cite two core motivations for Honest Labour: to transcend the sum of their influences, and “to show what we're capable of.” Both ambitions are entirely realized. The collection's 19 tracks flow with a synergy and sophistication as rare as they are radical, untethered to the dusty dub-techno templates of Space Afrika's early years. These are interstitial anthems, expressionistic and open-ended, delirious but deliberate, attuned to the drift and dreamstate of the present moment: “Ultimately this is an homage to U.K. energy, and an album about love and loss.”
Purchase Honest Labour at Bandcamp.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Space Afrika’s hybtwibt? utilized field recordings and samples to draw a line from the past to the present, making evident the shared experiences, ideologies, tragedies among generations of Black people. Whether the duo was culling from the Zianna Oliphant speech that followed Keith Lamont Scott’s murder, Aretha Franklin’s “It Hurts Like Hell,” or the Ico video game (notably, a track titled “Heal”), each sound was a bridge connecting the album’s varying ideas. Honest Labour follows suit, employing vignettes so its rough-sketch presentation amplifies the overall haze. The title, evocative and underpinning every moody synth pad and spoken word, projects both sincerity and hardship. On “Lose You Beau,” a warped vocal sample echoes the nocturnal queasiness of Burial’s music, but its ambient dub meanderings are imbued with full-bodied heartbreak after the previous track’s closing question, “How do you know when you’re in love with a person?” On “Preparing the Perfect Response -,” Arthur Russell-like strings create both tension and tenderness for musings on the difficulty of love and letting go. The caustic start-stop garage rhythms on “<>” fade in and out like club memories experienced in an apocalyptic world. There’s no real resolve; even the closing track’s charm feels like far-away fantasy. This is life captured as it often is: spectral, sad, like something you’re both trudging through and passing by in an instant.
Mark Cutler: I first encountered Space Afrika as part of Where To Now?’s stellar 2014-2015 run of woozy, beatless dub and watery, lo-fi techno. At the time, the two Joshuas were making deep, rumbly dance music that sounded like it was blasting from a dark room three floors underground. Since then, the duo’s work has gotten both more and less accessible, incorporating sentimental-to-schmaltzy vocal and instrumental interludes, while tending overall towards shapeless, fragmented songs that now regularly clock in between one and two minutes in length. There are scraps of old-school trip-hop, string arrangements, ambient washes, field recordings and drum loops, all shuffled together in seemingly arbitrary combinations, in between some very mediocre crooning by various British women.
Consequently, it’s hard to know what to say about Honest Labour overall—it thrives and sputters from track to track. I can’t say I disliked the experience of listening, but there are only a few tracks here that really excite me. On the one hand, I want to say this is ambient music in the truest sense: that it is perhaps best suited to putting on in the background while smoking a J with a few friends. On the other, one senses from the album and track titles, as well as the consciously placed monologues and recordings of what sound like protests and sirens, that Space Afrika have something vaguely political they want to convey. What that is, however, remains lost in all the murk.
Gil Sansón: What Space Afrika is attempting here is quite interesting. Normally, dub techno has a sort of anonymity derived from the trappings of the style, relying on synth washes and blurry surfaces that make a lot of artists sound similar. Here, the duo stretch beyond that into something much more deliberate and arty, focusing on short vignettes instead of long, expansive tracks. As they say in the press release, they intend to show the wide scope of their musical interests, so within the range of the album we find some Durruti Column-like guitars, electronic treatments, and found conversations featuring content that actively corrodes the dub techno template of just floating into warm sounds and forgetting about reality. Reality shows itself as an essential part of the music in a way that makes the album closer to, say, The Faust Tapes than run-of-the-mill dub techno despite retaining the same arsenal of sounds. By choosing to focus on fragments rather than fully-formed statements, they make for an experience that’s both familiar and quite restless, reflecting the complexity of life and its uncertainties. Over the duration of the album the leading role of the voice becomes evident, even if it’s not present on all tracks. As a listener, I no longer see these newer contemporary explorations of dub as a balm to forget the reality of life, but rather as a genre that isn’t content with navel gazing. It’s ear candy with nutritional value.
Vivi Hansen: If nothing else, Space Afrika had me expecting the unexpected. There was little to suggest that the beautifully glacial ambient dub soundscapes of 2018’s Somewhere Decent To Live would have led to the harrowing gut-punch of 2020’s politically-charged sound collage mixtape hybtwibt?, which felt almost like a cleaner, more cerebral English counterpart to Pink Siifu’s NEGRO from the same year. However, Honest Labour doesn’t feel like another step forward so much as a self-conscious, unsuccessful attempt to consolidate this more conceptual, collage-based approach with the narcotic, nocturnal atmosphere of their earlier work. The main problem here is a lack of clear focus: where hybtwibt? committed to sheer, unflinching emotional intensity and Somewhere Decent To Live was a single-minded mood piece elevated by its immersive sonic textures, Honest Labour deploys both album’s stylistic flourishes in the service of underdeveloped musical ideas and poorly-articulated themes of social isolation and uncertainty in a post-pandemic world (a theme that will no doubt inspire a lot of similarly underwhelming art for years to come).
This could have worked had the album had more of a raw, unfiltered, sketchbook-like quality, but for an album that purports to be about so many emotionally loaded themes (the press release cites “the yearning solitudes of life under lockdown,” “dissipating futures and the infinite nocturnal unknown,” and “love and loss,” among other things), Honest Labour feels weirdly reserved, gesturing at its emotional centre in only the most frustratingly diffuse and distracted ways before meandering off in a different direction, as if the trauma were so fresh that the group would simply prefer to change the subject. At its worst, as on a handful of its vocal cuts, it has the blandly anonymous quality of late-’90s landfill-downtempo groups like Morcheeba and Thievery Corporation, but with the most perfunctory veneer of avant-garde abstraction to remind you that you’re engaging with some Serious Contemporary Art™. For all that, though, there are enough glimmers of potential (as with the gorgeously plaintive violin melody on the closing title track, easily the conventionally pretty moment in their discography thus far) that I could see them getting it right next time. They’re down, but not out. Like a lot of us, I guess.
Samuel McLemore: Ambient music seems to be at a crossroads in the year 2021. Following the same pattern every genre of electronic music has been through since at least the mid-’90s, ambient is now possibly more popular, more critically praised, and more creatively stagnant than at any previous point in its history. We have all the hallmarks of this descent: the careerist hacks churning out playlist-ready Ambient To Work/Study To; the awkward pandering of companies muscling their way into the market; the reflexive critical backlash. And, worst of all, a wave of narcissists who believe the best way to make their mediocre music stand out from the crowd is to build a gimmicky narrative around it so transparently manipulative it’s hard to see how anyone could take the music seriously. This isn’t even getting into the outright ghouls who market their music as having “special healing properties.”
We shouldn’t really be shocked by any of this. One of the most critically acclaimed and influential ambient albums of the past two decades was also one of the most blatant attempts to exploit public tragedy for a personal brand the music industry has yet seen. Do we expect artists to see that incredibly successful example of lowest common denominator pandering and not try to imitate it?
Space Afrika, in one interview I’ve read, certainly seem to approach their music with a sincere and thoughtful attitude, and I don’t think they deserve to be lumped in with the artists I mention above. But since their last three full length albums are firmly within the realm of modern ambient, I am forced to make a comparison with their peers in the genre to fairly discuss their newest album, Honest Labour. It’s sad to say, but in my estimation their music is barely up to par with the hacks and ghouls of the ambient world. Like many in the new ambient genre, their music is flawlessly produced, deeply boring, and so simple that it’s impervious to any serious analysis or criticism. Nineteen tracks flit by in an indistinct and unmemorable hour, and the only exceptions to this rule—the few tracks with guest vocalists, which are inarguably the most unique aspect of their musical project—such as this baffling choice of a lead single, are so poorly conceived and executed they only serve to make the listener wish the duo had stuck to playing it safe.
RP Boo - Established! (Planet Mu, 2021)
Press Release info: On Established! RP looks back to that time when he was inventing Footwork, going out listening to disco and linking with the creators of house such as Paul Johnson. For tracks like ‘Another Night To Party’ or ‘Finally Here (ft. Afiya)’ he takes himself back in time to when he started DJing, playing ghetto house and being inspired by jack tracks. These moments were the foundation point to create his own style, elevating his sound into new territories for the future. With Established! RP wanted to return what he soaked up over his journey and remind people of the layers of connections between various Chicago dance musics.
Another side of Established! is the ‘battle track’ mentality. The battle dance circle of course comes from Hip-Hop and also earlier forms of American Black Music. Tracks like ‘Haters Increase The Heat!’ reflect this competitive aspect of Footwork – RP notes “I was feeling heat that I detected targeting me in the scene and I grab it and tracked it out and that’s what fueled the track.” He adds “I'm not bothered by haters and no one should be – there’s no valid reason to.” He goes on to explain the track ‘Now U Know’ – how the track takes that hater energy and uses it as a way to “set the seed for footwork battles” transferring the energy “to a dancer (who can then) display it with goodness of their art.“ RP goes on to indicate how this reflects Chicago – “I’m a witness. Without understanding how, you can have hate implanted in society.” Footwork to RP is a way to counter these social ills – “to then grow out of it and have people understanding greater change - to start heading in the right direction.”
Established! is also a record about Black pride, Black dignity, Black beauty and Black creativity. This is perhaps best reflected in the track “Beauty Speak Of Sounds.“ The track was one of the last compositions completed for the album and RP was imagining himself “in the grasslands of Africa” and he set about thinking how his “spirit” felt in that setting using sounds and grooves that he wouldn’t normally use.
Purchase Established! at Bandcamp.
Nick Zanca: The memory of hearing “Eraser” for the first time is still ripe: it blasted from a set of yellow KRK speakers in the freshman dorm room that a few budding producer friends and I used to hotbox on the Columbia College campus. With towels under doors we had all devoured footwork from a Chicago tourist’s glance just as its next wave was unfolding—Rashad was still alive; Roc’s The Crack Capone soundtracked several weekend pre-games; every white male club producer in the UK that we revered at the time was borrowing Nate’s rapid-fire tom patterns to blissful oblivion if they weren’t already playing them out during their Boiler Room sets. All this paled in comparison, though, to first encountering Kavain Space’s murky subs, the arrhythmia of his suspended snares, his ear for the occasional irresistible sample flip or charismatic ad-lib—his productions were on an entirely separate echelon from his cohorts, more minimal, more menacing.
When once asked by a fan about the time signature of a particular Captain Beefheart tune, guitarist Henry Kaiser replied, “they’re all in one.” This is precisely how I learned to hear RP Boo: emphasis entirely on the whole note, no telling where the other elements might end up splattered on the grid, and so long as a kick introduces centrifugal motion, no caring. This sense of akimbo pulsation inhabits the heart of Established! even when it veers towards the four-on-the-floor archetype; I find this manifesting in my own movements as I listen, a slow rowing-machine push-pull as opposed to the usual quarter-note head bob that has become the style’s signifier. He often allows his choice in samples to carry the weight of the tracks—note how effortlessly Phil Collins’ roto-toms, lifted from “I Don’t Care Anymore”, collide with the choked-up 808 percussion on “All Over.” A source of joy in watching the progression of Boo’s records for Planet Mu is his increased attention to the arc of sequencing—as an original fountainhead who has witnessed the genre evolve, a record like this is no longer merely juke for juke’s sake; the start of the party and the point at which the party is brought home now warrant equal attention. What occurs between bookends can only be described as a firestarter; the late style of a footwork pioneer in all its stark and syncopated glory. That’s what you do when you’ve got the flow.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Planet Mu’s string of three footwork releases this year—DJ Manny’s Signals In My Head, Jana Rush’s Painful Enlightenment, and RP Boo’s Established!—showcase the many varied approaches one can take with the genre. While DJ Manny aimed for more romantic atmospheres, and Jana Rush delivered one of the best outré takes on the style yet, RP Boo always comes through with music that zooms in on fundamentals. RP Boo is the originator of footwork, but his developments over the decades have been less about wild genre-pushing as much as laser-focused refinement, capturing what made such repetition so enthralling in the first place. This has involved a precise sonic palette that forgoes lush sounds that would leave one too comfortable; he forces a deeper concentration and appreciation of his production.
The one-two punch of “Oh!” and “Finally Here” shows two opposite approaches: the former emphasizes the anxiety innate to such drum programming, with alien synths and reverbed vocals creating a dread-filled black hole, while the latter is a masterclass in slow, quiet propulsion through meticulous edits and layering. The moody piano on “Ivory Surface” threatens to be something too meditative, but incessant beeping—like the sound of microwave buttons being pushed—keeps everything tense. None of this is to be taken as solipsistic self-seriousness, though; there’s an awe-inducing spectacle in how “Just Like That!” has its disparate parts cohere, or in the blazing heat conjured by the samples on “Be Of It!”, and it always sounds like RP Boo is there to help you recognize the gleeful absurdity of footwork. Established! feels like a series of small miracles, and when it concludes with the joyous “Another Night To Party,” it’s a reminder that footwork is just plain fun, too.
Marshall Gu: My problem with footwork is that because I’m not a dancer, the fast tempi and pummel of its drums are hard for me to take in large doses. If you give me a footwork album, I have this gnawing sense of, “What do I do with this music?” I’ve never had this problem with RP Boo, which I attribute to two things. First, RP Boo has always had an incredible sense of space which continues to distinguish him from the legion of footwork artists that have come after: every drum beat and cut-up syllable on the martial, Jlin-like “Now U Know!”, for example, is felt in equal measure. Elsewhere, he knows just how awesome that piano vamp on “All My Life” is, so he lets it shine even when he’s piling on other sounds, including a staccato alien synth as harmony.
Second, there’s Kavain Space’s use of well-worn samples to establish mood. When Phil Collins’s unmistakable voice goes “Tell everyone I’m a down disgrace / Drag my name all over the place” on “All Over,” you would think the song would have a melancholic feeling. But RP Boo scratches the record, lasers in on a portion of that sample and repeats it to an insane degree, adding a humourous voice going “footwork” on top in case you didn’t already know what you were listening to. The effect is that we’ve transformed this self-pitying sample into a rhythmic weapon. While Phil Collins kept repeating “I don’t care anymore” in the original song as if to convince you and himself, that feeling is conveyed here with brilliant looping.
Each track on the album with punctuation has an exclamation mark, befitting this kind of dance music: “How 2 Get It Done!”; “Haters Increase the Heat!”; “Oh!” You would think closer “Another Night to Party” would call for the same type of celebration, especially when the soul sample that RP Boo uses makes it the most funky cut on the album. At first, it’s another night to party, but the sudden pitch-shifting at the end makes for a dramatic close: it’s over, just like that.
Gil Sansón: Footwork is a very self explanatory style of music, made to highlight the type of dance derived from breakdance that focuses primarily on, well, footwork. What I find interesting is that the genre has left the hip-hop base that used to be the foundation of varying dance musics to focus on more recent developments like dubstep, showing a kinship with changa tuki, a style of dance music that’s very popular in Venezuelan slums. RP Boo is one of the main figures of the footwork scene in Chicago, ditching purist approaches in favor of an everything-goes attitude that nonetheless feels razor sharp and focused. The beats seem both inspired by the dancers and a challenge to them, to see what they can do with the jagged and repetitive rhythms, at times quite involved with voices and R&B references, and incorporating elements like the skipping CD element of vintage Planet Mu releases. Repetition is used on beats and voices, putting both at a similar level musically, and the tracks are quite involved and busy despite being made of just three or four layers (even laid-back tracks like “How To Get It Done!” eventually get stuffed with breaks and skipping beats aplenty). At first glance, all these tracks are similar, but close attention reveals an artist in full control of his language, showing plenty variation in his chosen style. There are no duds here; it’s a strong statement on a genre in constant evolution.
Sunik Kim: There is a synthetic sheen to RP Boo’s sound here a few steps removed from classic raw tracks like “Bang’n On King Dr.”—the deft vocal chops on “Haters Increase the Heat!” trail off into canned digital echo, and the MIDI pianos on “All My Life” plunk with a certain static flatness. That subtle synthetic feel directly serves a broader sonic eclecticism at play on Established!, expanding its sonic palette beyond the bare minimum footwork necessities—bass, hats, snare, chops—to include warped G-funk samples (“How 2 Get It Done!”), ghostly filtered rave hoovers (“Oh!”), and clipped, bubbly double-time acid lines (“Finally Here”). To be clear, this is only a good thing, a lovely development for RP Boo, and proof that the basic rhythmic formula of footwork—spiraling rhythmic criss-crossing, rigidity and fluidity flowing into one another—has near-infinite extensive as well as intensive possibilities, and can absorb various fragments of adjacent dance music languages without losing its inherent, fiery momentum. The aforementioned flatness, far from being a detriment to the album’s sound, actually elevates it, proving that a MIDI bass guitar preset (“Beauty Speak of Sounds”), when arranged in just the right way, can have the same visceral impact as the boomiest bass drum.
Vincent Jenewein: Coming in with twelve straight footwork cuts, RP Boo isn’t one for the ornamental. There is something honest and workmanlike about this approach. But this album feels uneven to me. The tracks appear to be selected at random without a thematic overlap or narrative, giving it a grab-bag “hard drive clean-out” feel, and not all of them work. For example, “How 2 Get It Done!” starts with a promising downtempo beat but then switches into a rhythmically dull beat accompanied by a short, annoying vocal sample rapidly triggered ad infinitum. “All Over” goes for a poppy ballad vibe with its sampling choice, but feels undercooked and goofy when contrasted with the track’s tracky, bare-bones footwork rhythms. “Another Night To Party” focuses on a grating sample reminiscent of the worst kind of clichéd 90s French house.
Some of the other tracks do better. “Ivory Surface” features a clever amalgamation of samples—a piano interleaving with sine-y bleeps, accentuated by an acoustic drum kit brushing over footwork beats. “Be Of It!” channels cinematic drama through a well-chosen horn sample, whose natural dynamics contrast well with the pressurized, almost techno-like rhythm. When the tracks work, the production’s quick, off-the-cuff quality lends them a certain dilettante charm that is further accentuated by the frequent use of cheeky spoken vocals in the style of old school Chicago house. Still, I can’t help but feel like Established! would have benefited from more polish and a more careful track selection. As it stands, this is a serviceable collection of footwork tracks with a few highlights, but I think at this point, an artist as “established” as RP Boo could do more with the formula he helped develop.
Alex Mayle: If I’ll Tell You What! was a look forward into what footwork could be then Established! is a trip back in time to show you where footwork came from. Everything extraneous has been removed and all that remains is slick dance beats surrounded by RP Boo’s signature samples. Every song has a singular story built from a handful of vocals chopped up and fed into the beat that is laser-focused on a single idea for the entire track. This is exemplified with the opening track “All My Life,” which is a skeletal dance beat, a piano, horns, a synth, and a seven-word vocal sample. The album sticks with that general sonic palette on almost every track to varying success. “Haters Increase The Heat!” is where the stripped-back style starts to shine by utilizing an infectious vocal sample that dances with the beat, though it does feel a bit stretched thin by the end of its 4-and-a-half minute runtime. Established! hits its stride with the magnificent “All Over” and its use of Phil Collins’s “I Don’t Care Anymore.” I do not like Phil Collins’s music, but the way RP Boo chops his drumming and vocals is incredible. The track works as a perfect encapsulation of the way RP Boo recontextualizes samples in new and inventive ways: initially he uses the sample—“drag my name all over the place”—before a record scratches and “my name all over” is repeated as a form of braggadocio.
The album stumbles a bit when it feels like a track doesn’t have a good enough hook to justify the four-minute length, like “Ivory Surface” which is an excellent collage of sounds stretched out longer than needed, or “How 2 Get It Done!” which could have used a few extra elements to make it interesting. The same cannot be said for the most interesting track here, “Beauty Speak Of Sounds.” With a distinct nature recording sample interspersed with various sounds of African wildlife, the sampled phrase “dancing on the grasslands of Africa” is apt, especially in the latter half when the beat strips down and most of the sound comes from the aforementioned locale. It stands out from the rest of the album, harkening back to early RP Boo tracks which were primarily for dancing. Established! finds RP Boo recognizing his origins and reimagining his early style by making use of the tools he’s picked up in the decades since, combining his old minimal style with his newer collagic approach. For fans of footwork, it’s a treat from the master himself.
Maxie Younger: Established! throws caution to the wind, swallowing doubt whole in brash thunderstorms of infectious energy; there’s not a single track on this new collection that doesn’t feel birthed from the same wellspring of raw emotion and self-awareness that has continually placed RP Boo’s work in a world light-years apart from his contemporaries. Even the most aggressive, hard-hitting songs—“Haters Increase The Heat!” (my favorite), “Oh!,” “Be Of It!,” “Now U Know!,” which all contribute to a dynamite mid-album run—feel entirely removed from the overclocked, chaotic sprawl that, say, a Ripatti record embraces in its quests toward dancefloor euphoria. It’s heartening that RP Boo is still experimenting heavily with the genre that he pioneered, incorporating fresh influences from across the universe of Chicago dance and beyond, sculpting samples like clay, alchemical circles of chopped syllables and frayed instrumentals; there’s an excitement about it all that imbues even the clunkier cuts (“How 2 Get It Done!,” whose interpolations of various elements from “Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang” never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole) with a singular, unpretentious sheen. Listening to RP Boo is a rare privilege, the sound of an artist who has been and will continue to do exactly what they’re meant to be doing. Established! embraces that angle and runs with it, all the way out to the moon and back; it hums gently with the light of distant stars. Play it loud on a good set of speakers if you can.
Amelia Cuni - Parampara festival 13.3.1992 (Black Truffle, 2021)
Press Release info: Accompanied by Gianni Ricchizzi on vichitra vina (a plucked zither played with a glass ball slide) and her own tanpura, Cuni stretches out for a languorous side-long performance of the late night Raag Bageshri, the limpid tones of her vocal improvisations illuminating the droning strings like flashes of the moon revealed by rushing clouds. Initially working patiently through a series of subtle dialogues between Cuni’s melodic extemporisations and phrases in response from Richizzi’s vichitra vina, the performance builds to a series of strikingly beautiful, virtuosic held notes from Cuni at the beginning of its second half, before picking up some brisker rhythmic articulation on the way to its conclusion.
On Devino Amor, Cuni presents her own composition, a setting of mystical texts by the 13th century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi, elaborated through various traditional raags. Like the words used for most dhrupad compositions, the text Cuni has selected from da Todi praises divine love, thus linking her otherwise unorthodox use of Italian text to the dhrupad tradition. The result is a performance of a yearning intensity that communicates across any language barrier. On the final performance, Cuni and Ricchizzi are joined by Helmut Waibl on the two-headed pakhawaj drum for a piece using a 14 beat rhythmic pattern that sets in motion a cycle of tension and release, metrical dissolution and resolution, possessing a subtle grandeur.
Purchase Parampara festival 13.3.1992 at Bandcamp.
Samuel McLemore: Dhrupad, the North Indian poetic and musical form with a pedigree extending back millennia, is probably most familiar to Western audiences through the perspective of one of it’s most famous teachers: Pandit Pran Nath. A classic case of being in the right place at the right time, Pran Nath introduced the musical vocabulary of Dhrupad to his many famous students in the West, managing to not only single-handedly influence an entire generation of the Western Avant-Garde, but also inject the Dhrupad style into modern Western musical culture. I would even argue that in order to understand the Avant-Garde musics of the last 50 years you must be familiar with this history and the Dhrupad form. What most in the West aren’t quite aware of is just how idiosyncratic and personal Pran Nath’s style was. Instead of the dedicated traditionalist he often painted himself as, if we look at Dhrupad practice as a whole, we see exactly how strange and personal his music is.
A good example of a more traditional Dhrupad is Amelia Cuni, who was never a student of Pran Nath, but is one of the most celebrated Dhrupad singers of modern times. Cuni’s performance of the Raag Bageshiri here betrays none of the funereal pacing and gloomy intensity that Pran Nath was known for, but the hallmarks of Dhrupad remain: the notorious fractal-like complexity of the compositional form which carefully folds and unfolds the harmonic and melodic material at hand, the incredible precision and stamina demanded from the performers, and the intense and cathartic beauty born from the combination of the two. Even her own original composition, “Devino Amor,” radical and unique in its own way, still stays within the limits circumscribed by the Dhrupad style. It’s an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with Dhrupad, and another stunningly beautiful set of performances for those already entranced by the style.
Mark Cutler: A very clean, lovely recording of an excellent concert—although the stereo mix drifts a little to the right, to my ear. Cuni’s exceptional patience allows her to guide the late-night Bageshri from its earthy, sleepy attitude, into an upbeat, celebratory dance. Over the course of half an hour, the piece becomes totally unrecognizable, without ever actually straying from form. The two shorter tracks here are interesting, though less technically impressive. As McLemore noted already, despite the fact that Hindustani music had a titanic influence on everyone from John Cage to Miles Davis to the Beatles, Western musicians tend to engage with the music only insofar as they mimic its sound or vibe. It is still surprisingly rare to hear a non-Indian composer engage rigorously with traditional forms of the music, but I am grateful to Cuni for doing just that.
Gil Sansón: It has to be said. This is not a record for purists or gatekeepers of tradition. While Cuni’s credentials are solid (no small feat when it comes to classical Dhrupad Indian music), she remains a foreigner and that is something that reveals itself in subtle ways, bringing a strong identity and musicality to her chosen repertoire. Impeccable intonation is evident throughout, and right after the alap raga that has the lion’s share of the program, there’s an original composition by Cuni that reveals the subtleties of her between-worlds stance. With “Devino Amor,” which features medieval texts, you’ll be fooled into believing a tanpura is a hurdy-gurdy instead. In this non-orthodox approach, one where Europeans make music with traditions other than their own, it’s most fruitful when research offers common ground, right before the tradition sets into cultural singularities. There’s no cutting corners, nor forcing outcomes and syntheses to fit the Western mind, but rather a genuine interest. Again, purists tend to shy away from offerings like this, but listeners willing to approach the music without snobbish attitudes and expecting simple goodwill from the artists will find an engaging program casting a sweet spell for the entire duration.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Dhrupad is wonderful because it’s an oral tradition. Given that teachings aren’t typically transcribed, there’s a beauty to this music holding millennia of history within its lineage of loyal practitioners. This lends nicely to the music’s form, which provides space for improvisation within a defined structure. Couple this with Dhrupad’s history—16th century texts state that it originated in Man Singh Tomar’s court, while others cite a more divine genesis; it’s largely known as sacred music but has been understood as secular entertainment; there are many similarities and distinctions between Dhrupad and other forms of North Indian and South Indian musics; and the increased number of non-family members who became disciples during the mid-20th century have meant further evolution—and you have an artform that’s readily identifiable but in constant flux. Amelia Cuni’s Parampara festival 13.3.1992 is an exciting document because of its inclusion of “Devino Amor,” a composition which utilizes Italian texts but still sounds familiar for the style. Even more, there’s a vichitra veena used on these performances, which is different from the typical rudra veena present in Dhrupad (the former is fretless and played with a slide). Still, despite all this, Parampara still sounds like Dhrupad, with a mesmerizing contrast in the song’s busier and sustained passages, a lovely ebb and flow of sounds that make each layer—the vocals, the tanpura, the tabla, the vichitra veena—feel both separate and part of a collective process. Each twang is felt, each rhythmic shift feels momentous, and its patience puts you in the sort of prayerful headspace that defines Dhrupad itself: it’s a search and embrace of the unknowable.
Thank you for reading the seventy-seventh issue of Tone Glow. Let’s try to remain hopeful, whatever that means.
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