‘There was no power in the world that could prevail with me to go through the mortal terror of another encounter with myself, to face another reorganization, a new incarnation, when at the end of the road there was no peace or quiet – but forever destroying the self in order to renew the self.’ – Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
I read those words mere days after first delving into the latest LP of Ricardo Donoso, and was struck by how strongly they echo – as indeed does the book as a whole – the subject of Saravá Exu. The album narrates a period of exile during which the Boston-based Brazilian composer strove to examine himself as well as the connections to both his past and the collective unconscious. This period, symbolised as a ‘Descent’ to the fiery depths, was channeled through the rituals of an Afro-Brazilian religious cult, Quimbanda. It is Quimbanda whence the ‘exu’ of the title derives – exus being male spirits of substantial power; ‘sarava’ seems to be another phrase of African origin, meaning ‘good luck’. The title thus establishes the sense of challenge that awaits both subject and listener.
Saravá Exu is ostensibly a drone record, but this is perhaps an adjectival relic from Donoso’s prior work. Like Steppenwolf himself, it is in reality the accumulation of many parts to reach a more complex whole. Traits of drone, experimental, glitch and noise are pronounced, added to which is an emphasis on rhythm and percussion borne of both Donoso’s other musical job as drummer for avant-metal band Ehnahre and his immersion in Afro-Brazilian culture. From such disparate influences comes a record as unclassifiable as it is disarming.
In form, Saravá Exu also honours cinema, but specifically the scoring of trailers rather than full films. Thus, in each of the dynamic seven pieces does jolting unpredictability lurk, ready to ensnare quick emotional responses with each abrupt change of scene. Crescendos are curtailed before too much is revealed, while quieter passages spill their unease through pauses and competing voices – the fractured throb of guttural rhythm, the swell of monosyllabic synth, the thrash and squall of static and hiss. Although in constant flux, these pieces are almost unrelentingly cold and hesitant, attuned to the cerebral concept and the wanderings of the protagonist’s mind.
While never settled, however, Saravá Exu does present an overarching musical narrative – one that burrows further underground as Donoso delves deeper into his ‘personal hell’. Latin titles chart this descent through the course of a single day, starting at “Crepusculum” (dusk – Quimbandan rituals generally occur at night) and moving through “Conticinium” (the dead of night) before arriving at “Diluculum” (dawn). Musical development through this day is subtle and masterful – the snatch of melody that enters to close the third track “Conticinium”; the barely perceptible piano that graces the second minute of “Intempestiva” and is then heard with greater clarity in the following track; the glorious catharthis, after many stillborn forebears, of the pounding 11/8 rhythm that finally endures in “Matutinum”. The descent ends at dawn with the lengthiest piece, during which a cleansing drone finally spreads calm and suggests the possibility of epiphany.
Examples of self-inflicted isolation and/or descent are rife in stories from bygone times – whether religious (Siddhartha Gautama’s six years in the forest – a tale Hesse also wrote about), mythological (Odysseus’ visit to Hades) or in epic poetry (Dante’s descent in Divine Comedy). The notes accompanying this release, however, highlight the absence of such periods in modernity – we are now simply encouraged to continually aim higher, achieve more. In focusing only on ourselves and our future, do we lose perspective? In our quest unrelenting for comfort and equanimity, can we even appreciate their arrival? Donoso offers no answers to such musings, but instead provides a welcome jolt from everyday reverie – a chance to inspect rather than avoid the darkness, to consider the shadow that trails us rather than be guided blindly by the light ahead. To quote from Steppenwolf again, “[I] would rather feel the very devil burn in me than this warmth of a well-heated room”. (Chris Redfearn)