Discorporate Records DISREC23, 2013, DD CD & 2LP album, 52m 1s
€7+ DD €10+ CD €15+ 2LP
Post world-music is one term used to describe ZA! in their promotional materials; well, in the sense that such a term doesn’t rule out anything whatsoever, it’s not a bad characterisation! The music is experimental from start to finish, but it is the product of a process addressed directly to the business of music-making, in the same way that a completely conventional rock band or dance music producer would address themselves to it. Much experimental music emphasises the first term of that pair, which often produces interesting results, but could be criticised for placing the cart before the horse. ZA! are serious about the progressive and innovatory aspects of their practice, and they don’t go out of their way to make their music accessible, or attempt to squeeze their intellectual schtick into pop-songs, but they use sounds with an attractive, punchy impact, and the recordings on Wanananai are often kinetic and exciting, even if they do frequently frustrate conventional expectations of cyclical regularity. This music is a lot of fun, and some of it is pretty good to dance to, although it can be hard to tell one way or the other until you start… ZA! are eclectic to say the least, gathering their materials from all over the world, and from all cultural strata, incorporating sounds and ideas from tribal music, underground rock, Afro-Cuban music, jazz, electronic dance music, modern classical music, experimental music and other sources too numerous to list. What they do with them is not beholden to any sense of what they should do with them, although they clearly have enough respect for their sources to understand them, and to present them with feeling; their approach is a collagist one, without that seamless sense of style that animates the most successful conventional fusions. Instead they make it very clear where the different elements of the sound are stitched together, and although they certainly do succeed in creating a distinctive and coherent voice, they do so without nailing their colours to the mast of any particular stylistic tendency. The music on Wanananai is never predictable, but it is consistently inventive, and it is all entirely unexpected, even on the second or third listen; there isn’t a sense of inevitability in the developing narratives of the compositions, although their gestural sequences do make perfect sense once you’ve heard them. ZA! very simply sound like nothing else you’ve ever heard.
Much of ZA!’s creative attention is focussed on rhythm; cyclicity and regularity are present, but not as the non-negotiable qualities which they appear to be in most music. Not only are rhythms frequently inverted and transformed, they are sometimes allowed to collapse, from a conventional musical perspective, or, as under the effects of the Reichian phasing in ‘Gacela Verde’, to separate into parallel realms too dis-coordinate even to interpret as meaningfully polyrhythmic. These effects are clearly realised to some degree through automated processes, but to a large extent they are performed by Spazzfrica Ehd and Papa duPau using physical instruments, which is a lot harder than it may sound. The phrasing of these pieces isn’t bound to any divisible and repeating time signature, but is basically additive, subject to unannounced augmentations and diminutions, its meters bewilderingly contingent. This is not to say that there are not extended sections in a regular meter, such as ‘El Calentito’, a three part Afro-Latin workout in 7/8, or the spacey 4/4 funk of ‘Mr. Reality’, but by the time the listener encounters these havens of regularity they have already been conditioned to a degree of insecurity that no quantity of heavy ground beats can quite dispel. At times the texture is led by a raw guitar sound, which, given the complex rhythmic context, gives proceedings a mathy flavour; at other times squelchy synth bass promotes a hip-hop or dancehall vibe; and yet at other times, the texture is a tapestry of percussion and vocal or brass samples, looping in a profusion of fugally interlocked cyclicities. Although there are clear nods toward various traditions of musical practice, stylistic significations are kept predominantly ambiguous; Wanananai presents a coherent sound, but an extremely varied one, that is too unpredictably eclectic to represent a style, however particular. Instead, the music seems to transcend style, or to forge one in a meta-textual zone, separated by a level of mediation from the material character of its sounds and vocabulary.
If that makes the music sound willfully abstruse, it is. But it is also, in many ways, accessible, entertaining and even funny. The listener will require an open and unprejudiced pair of ears to get much out of Wanananai, but the experience it offers on a sympathetic audition is far more playful and enjoyable than an intellectual beard scratching exercise. There is a chaotic air to ZA!’s work on this album, a deliberate and comprehensive refusal of the conventional tokens of musical order, but it is the chaos of wild and liberated creative exploration, not the chaos of a random or un-planned approach to music. Every arrangement on this album is an essay in precision, and in the knowing evocation of specific effects; although there are aspects of the sound that may well have arrived unexpectedly through the stochastic interactions of different cycles set in motion by the artists, by the time they reach our ears they have been selected, curated, and most probably re-interpreted as models for instrumental performance. It’s easy to focus on rhythmic and compositional aspects of this album, but it also showcases some playing that, while not overtly flashy, represents the mastery of some extremely challenging musical materials; Wanananai is also very well produced and sonically crafted, and all of its technical aspects are worn very lightly. Although it is in many ways quite forbidding, it is in many other ways a barrel of laughs; it showcases some formidable musicianship, and a sustained barrage of imagination and invention the like of which I have rarely heard. ZA! are clearly committed to a very specific artistic agenda, and equipped with the ears and skills to pursue it by any means necessary. This is not only one of the strangest records to come my way recently, it’s one of the best.