Altin Village & Mine Records avm 044, 2012, 2x LP album, 57m 59s
Altin Village & Mine will shortly (at the time of writing) be releasing The Kenya Sessions as a vinyl album, but they will be doing so about a year after its original CD and MP3 release on Pingipung, which gives me a welcome excuse to cover a recording that managed to pass me by on its initial foray. Sven Kacirek is a drummer/ tuned-percussionist and composer with a conservatory training, and a CV full of experimental and avant-garde collaborations. His working practice on this album is one that invokes a variety of discourses and debates around ‘world’ music and its appropriation, which must inevitably have a bearing on the reception of the sound, but which treats his resources with an even-handed sense of the aesthetic. What makes a recording a ‘field’ recording is debatable, particularly when it’s a recording of a musical performance, but it is surely related to the degree of active participation of the subjects in the recording process. I raise this because Kacirek’s Facebook page refers to the source materials for this production as such; I have also read (but can’t confirm, as the press pack doesn’t include a PDF of the full sleeve) that the Kenyan musicians were all paid and credited, which would tend to suggest that they are not strictly field recordings, in the anthropological sense.
In either case, the album consists of recordings Kacirek made on location in Kenya, layered with additional material recorded in Germany. It is often completely impossible to distinguish the two, although it’s obvious enough that the piano (for instance) has been recorded in a studio. The Kenyan material is ‘traditional’, which is to say that it’s rural music, recorded in non-commercial contexts, rather than guitar based Kenyan pop music, and is dominated by percussion and the human voice. I know virtually nothing about East African traditional music, but there’s a real sense of organic synthesis in the way Kacirek integrates his own interventions into the soundworld. He steers a careful path between an over-respectful aping of Kenyan idioms, and at the other extreme, a disregard for the context from which his musical materials are derived: his responses to the field recordings are clearly articulated in a Western (for want of a better word) harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary, yet they accommodate his partners in this semi-reciprocal jam session with intelligence and sensitivity.
We live in a rhythmically saturated society. The audio culture of developed economies has been overstimulated by its beats, in a commercial arms race that began with the adoption of the bass guitar in American pop, and has developed through progressively more sophisticated musical production technologies, to the point where a single ‘bass drum’ hit strikes with the force and timbral complexity of an orchestra. We expect our ground beats to be set out with ineluctable power and overwhelming sonority, much as we expect our diet to be overloaded with salt and sugar. As such, many studio crafted artefacts of long range musical fusion involve the subjection of traditional sounds (from all over the world) to the demands of the Euro-American dancefloor, in acts of unalloyed appropriation, that treat musical value as textural equivalence, and fully realised musical performances as little more than synthesiser patches. Kacirek does not fall into this trap, or even contemplate its attractions. We must regard this album as a composed piece, of which he is the author, rather than a collaboration, given its means of production: he has removed certain sounds from their original context, and made use of them as he has seen fit, but he hasn’t simply appropriated them in the manner of a dance music producer. Instead he has taken them as a point of departure for a creative practice that treats the studio, the act of collection and curation, and the playing of percussion instruments as materials from which to forge a composition. His response to the field recordings is such that their percussive character dictates the pace, and although the Kenyan performers have no chance to respond to him, he seems to leave them the space to do so. What he does never gets down below their beat, never dictates a particular interpretation of their stress patterns, but rather highlights and develops aspects of their playing.
The integrity of traditional cultures has never been more threatened, but it has never seemed more questionable, more impossible to locate or define. Acts of curation, in any field, must strike a balance between imposing an external ideology, and patronising their subjects as naive and unreflecting. The Kenya Sessions is undoubtedly a piece of musical composition, founded on a relatively traditional act of anthropological collection, but it also curates its found sounds in the same way a museum might: Kacirek re-contextualises them with European materials in a way that enhances a European audience’s appreciation, and assists his listeners to enter their imaginative space. The effect of this album is an aesthetic one: the sounds are beautiful, absorbing and moving. But there is more to it than that: it bridges the gap between commentary and response, and it engages with the Kenyan musicians it features on equal terms, exploiting them no more than African musicians have exploited the Cubans whose sounds so influenced commercial popular music right across the continent. Sven Kacirek’s album is a cultural encounter, it is about cultural encounter, but most of all, it is a space in which its listeners may find their own encounters.