One of the common end-points of modernity as we now live it is the notion that there is no alternative. And yet, if you even but glimpse at the world of post-colonies you will find a myriad forking paths of a struggle that has scarred entire lands and people with the question of whether we belong in the future or not. “No future” might be the poetic way to manifest the underlying cracks of the modern visage of the colonizer, but in many cases that is already going too far into a timeline not of our own making, the wounds constantly reopened by dominion seeping with a truth that holds that we might not even have a present. This is why “contemporary” plays a dual role in this anthology, as the signal of a fracture in which it becomes both a burden and a tool to lift that burden. Its task is to say that this music belongs to the now, that it is distinct from the image of an Africa forever petrified (a classic justification of colonialism), and yet in performing that work it also risks the assumption that the music outside of this field does not fit in the present moment. This ambiguity, which potentially undermines any effort made towards crawling out of the wreckage of history, is nevertheless one of the starting points from which to speak about the possibility of appropriating the here and now, because, unlike the hypermodernist that once asked “who cares if you listen?”, the colonized cannot afford to go unheard.
FRKTL’s opening track, “Hverfa af himni heiðar stjörnur” (“The Bright Stars Vanish from the Skies”), the name of which comes from a section of an Old Norse poem called “The Wise Woman’s Prophecy”, prods these questions of time: its tense rhythm and its echoing chant-like drones meld the past and the future, the volcanic eruptions of Iceland under the dense, urban lens of a cosmopolitan artist based in Cairo. It is not we who crossed the border – the next two tracks, from Abdellah M. Hassak and Ahmed Saleh, complete the panorama of Northern African artists with tracks that incorporate both modern and classical Islamic rhythms, songs and instruments to electronic frameworks of drone and ambient music – but the border who crossed us. The power of this introduction to the anthology lies in its capacity to break the image of a (cultural) unity in space and time, but its fragmentation also parts from the meaningfulness of borders not as sites of unified distinction but of hybridity, the places where the present, finally, is born, and then goes on to fruitfully mutate everything around it.
Victor Gama’s “A Luta Inicia” (“The Struggle Begins”) softly detonates the rest of the journey, becoming the gate to Western, Central and Sub-Saharan Africa by means of mutated percussions and electronics that serenely evolve the idea of the title under the guise not of open confrontation and romantic bombast but its opposite: rhythmic complexity with an absolute precision, devoid of dissonance and chance, a silent ambush in the making. Subversion becomes the operating concept, turning field recordings and folk music sequences into springboards for experimentation, an approach that salvages electroacoustic techniques from hypermodern onanism and puts them at the service of transformation, of new meanings arising from the ashes of the old ones. Healer Oran and mehdi halib’s pieces grow with background drones that are made to sing when in contact with conventional songs and guitar riffs, granting them with a warmth and softness rarely present in the post-industrial nature of drone music in most other parts of the world.
We are used to the narrative of avant-garde disruption over a calcified tradition, but in this music it does not make sense, because the wall that separates the new and the old is not the same. For instance, Hassak’s “Yearnings Complacency” unburdens itself from the vanguard’s tale, using the tones and microtones of a beautifully sung Islamic piece to construct all of its aural elements, creating psychedelic reverb effects and ambiences that sound half-human, half-electronic. The hypermodernist would be baffled that something so conventional could be so radically novel, and his confusion would be rooted in a failure to understand the essential hybridity that is taking place, the border that has crossed us all, whether from an empire or a colony.
The final third of the anthology returns to the cosmopolitanism of FRKTL’s interpretation of a Norse poem, once again with a Gama piece that explores percussions in Southeast Asian style, and which aims entirely towards the experimental. Nur’s “Mediterranean” crackles with bright, simple melodies, its noisy, angular filters and its weird flow in and out of a time signature creating a simultaneously anxious and meditative mood. You never know which way the piece will go, its ambiguity a result of both technique and metaphor (a sea of great beauty and horror in equal measure). “+cage-(overhaul.075-=-gives-you-6)solution#2to-kill-hurts” sounds just like it reads, a surprisingly dramatic electronic sequence, like a humanist version of an old Stockhausen piece, interested in the relationship between expression and abstraction posed no longer as antagonism or synthesis but uneven mixture. The anthology ends with AMET’s “Imposer le savoir” (“To Impose Knowledge”), rescuing the musique concrète collage’s value-positivity, articulating the fierce question of who the subject of knowledge is, who or what becomes oppressed by that particular form of power.
What the distinct and yet recognizable paths of this anthology achieve is to depict an alternative. One that’s always been there, one that’s always been contemporary, and yet has also been relegated to the past, anchored to an impossible dissociation of temporality that allows entire cultures to be thought of as living not here, not now, and therefore lesser. To go unheard in such a context is a matter of life and death, and what we have here are truly new voices that emerge not from any sort of national or regional essentialism, but from the movement and vitality of a modernity fractured and repurposed, the knowledge that has been imposed now a weapon in its own demise. (David Murrieta Flores)