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- Posted on Sep 22nd 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Ben Mandelson very purposefully confounded -- and delighted -- many in the guise of Hijaz Mustapha with the high jinks (and high-standards in music) in the "forward in all directions" embrace of '80s/'90s band 3 Mustaphas 3, not to mention opening a lot of ears and doors to global sounds as proprietor and field producer with his GlobeStyle Records label. Justin Adams slid from adding global sounds to Robert Plant's music into producing desert blues warriors Tinariwen and making his own intercontinental hybrids in two albums with Gambian griot Juldeh Camara. And Lu Edmonds has been part of the provocateur post-punk world with the Damned and John Lydon's Public Image Ltd (with which he is about to do a set of U.K. reunion concerts), while more recently being part of the roots-punk-activist Mekons and serving alongside Mandelson in English troubadour Billy Bragg's band the Blokes -- not to mention that he bears a striking resemblance to one Uncle Patrel Mustapha bin Mustapha.
And then there's the song's association with the Animals, who transformed it from Nina Simone's simmering original into a big rock hit in 1964. Arguably, what the Animals and their British peers were doing at that time mining the "exotic" territory of American blues and soul was world music -- and it certainly helped instill an exploratory spirit in the generation that produced these three musicians.
"There probably is," says Mandelson, on the phone from his London home. "But I don't know what it is."
Maybe, he concludes, it was a simple case of "Why not do it?"
Well, that may have more to do with context than subtext. In this case, that has the song being performed by essentially an acoustic string trio employing such tools as guitar, mandolin and saz, and paired in a medley with a traditional Jewish-Romanian piece, 'Hora Anicuta Draga,' with a 7/8 rhythm break tossed in the middle of 'Misunderstood' for good measure.
Les Triaboliques,'Hora Anicuta Draga'/'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood'
"It was one of those organic things and we weren't worried about the earlier versions," Mandelson says. "The lyrics of that song are fantastic. And why not do it? If you're a trio with mandolin and cümbüs and electric guitar, why not do it? Get the song to a new place. Sometimes there are sacred elephants and you have to tackle them. It's a good one."
And indeed, he does see a strong connection between his early music fandom, turned on to new sounds as a youth by the Animals, et al., and his lifelong pursuit of great sounds all over the world.
"All of those people, the Animals and Stones and Yardbirds and Beatles, they helped with the sense that we were a secret club of insiders given a gift of knowledge," he says. "People you met at school -- one person with a blues record. 'Wow! You've heard of Big Joe Williams?' You'd be the two guys. That gave you the teenage obsession to practice the blues all day and kind of do it. And then the same with African music. That must still be happening. There are 18-year-olds all over the place that feel the same way about some music, might be lost soul classics from the '70s or something, but there is that same innocence and enthusiasm. I can't get mine back, but I try to stay enthusiastic."
It was the enthusiasm of someone else, World Village Records president René Goiffon, that brought the project about, though it took a while to develop after he first proposed it in 2005. After some consistent prodding, the trio got off the ground in 2008 with some shows in Siberia, the Tatar Republic and Kazakhstan before trying it out at home in London. Rehearsals, recording and mixing of 'rivermudtwilight' took place in spring 2009.
Most of the songs are new, collaborative compositions by the trio, drawing on and neatly meshing their vast collective range of influences and expertise, from the Mississippi Delta to West Africa to the Middle East to Eastern Europe to Central Asia, fueled by a desire to keep the sessions spontaneous (the recordings largely done live in the studio) and not overwork the sources.
"In general, we were free to explore what we were doing," Mandelson says. "We tried to not play a lot of different instruments -- tried not to make it into an instrument museum. Just is mostly playing electric or acoustic guitar, I mainly play mandolin and bouzouki and Lu saz and cümbüs. But we tried not to impose things like, 'Albanians wouldn't do it like that, so we can't do it like that.'"
There are a few places where, inevitably, the influences emerge, of course. The relatively rollicking 'Afsaduni (I Have Been Corrupted)' has a clear Middle Eastern cadence and feel, And the setting of a Russian poem for 'Gulaguajira (I, The Dissolute Prisoner)' certainly evokes that setting, complete with vocals in Russian by Edmonds.
"On 'Afsaduni,' we wanted to do that, work in that direction with the Arabic and up groove," Mandelson says. "And Lu has that Russian thing in his background and a Balkan thing, but he gave it almost a punk aesthetic."
It's just a natural expression of the musicians involved, overall a bit muted in tone and even somber ( "Dusk-core" is the term they've coined) and yet spirited and vibrant.
"Justin is very interested in Middle Eastern music but is better known for desert blues with a rock thing. I'm known for Balkan and African, but I also have a background in ceilidh and also 1930s and '40s music, different styles. People have preconceptions about us, never mind about the music. I read a thing that said they do have all that stuff, but the common element is the blues. I wrote a note to Lu about that and said, 'Is that all we have in common?' Lu said, 'No, no, no! We have in common a love to wander down riverside paths together.' OK. Anyway, we tried not to impose cultural rules. We were interested in the sounds."
"For 'Jack o' Diamonds' we just sat and played it with the microphones in the air," he says. "It's real-time recording pretty much. That makes a little more tension, which is very good. You have to sit there and nail it, and if you don't you have to do it again, together. And I like that."
Les Triaboliques, 'Jack o' Diamonds'
And that's not much different than the field recording projects Mandelson and his cohorts have done. His latest, in fact, bears some comparisons.
"I just came back from working in Kenya on a project based on finding the influence of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, in Kenyan musicians," he says of a venture being called the Chemirocha project. "Very curious. We went with two American musicians, Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri. We met Kenyan musicians who had great influences of Jimmie Rodgers and forged this African blues-country. They had these roots of African music coming a certain way in roots of popular music, but we never think of American roots entering African music and being re-mangled. But Jimmie Rodgers had a big influence in Africa in the '20s and '30s, and praise songs about him have been collected from very traditional sources."
So there's the line from Eric Burdon's love of American blues to these musicians' interest in roots from around the world and a nearly parallel one as Jimmie Rodgers mutates to Chemirocha? Careful with raising such theories around Mandelson's fellow Triabolique Edmonds, though: An e-mailed question asking him to "set straight" notions about his and the others' varied experiences and interests feeding into Les Triaboliques drew a sharp rebuke.
"The last thing we want to do is set anyone straight, and if we have then we have failed! Miserably," Edmonds wrote, shortly before embarking on a trip to Tajikistan to work with Soviet-era music archives. "There are enough straight lines in this world. I don not know how anything fits together and am not sure there is a connection, just that things happen and we all meet people in this short life and decide to do something or not. Your question suggests some measure of control, which I would love to say we have -- but I do not. Sorry."
Just making sure he's not misunderstood.