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- Posted on Apr 6th 2010 5:30PM by Steve Hochman
Or not. In gathering samples and ideas for 'Paspanga,' the new album by Burkina Electric – a collaborative effort of four artists from Burkina Faso with Austrian-born composer-musician Lukas Ligeti and German electronicist Pyrolator – a particularly bad example wound up standing out.
Ligeti was strolling around an open-air market in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou a few years ago.
"There's a bell that comes from the Mossi people, called a tchema," he recalls. "I happened upon somebody who was trying out that bell in the market. But he didn't really know how to play. He was playing it sloppily. But I recorded it."
And the rhythm he recorded became the foundation of the songs 'Bana':
Burkina Electric, 'Bana'
"So we based it on that wrong rhythm," Ligeti says.
It's his way of cautioning against any conclusions one might draw from listening to the album about what is traditional or authentic and what is newly created. In this particular song, the rhythm is authentic – but authentically wrong.
Ironically, that's one of the few instances on the album where a song is in fact based on an ethnographic tune collection, erroneous as it is. Sure, some of the songs largely sound like they could be of traditional Burkina Faso origin. It would be easy to assume that Ligeti and Pyrolator wrapped various elements, both organic and electronic and mostly percussive, around the contours of pieces brought to them by singer Mai Lingani and guitarist Wende K. Blass, their main collaborators on this project. Regardless, it's an arresting sound that eschews the standard clichéd samples-and-beats approach of Afro-electronic projects. They didn't just take some African material and fit it into some dance or chill-out tracks. It's a much more integrated and creative result.
"A lot of African-electronic records where you have basically African traditional music and house beats superimposed on top -- that's exactly what we're trying not to do," he says. "We're not taking any known traditional music but elements and approaches from it and writing out own songs, and writing them together. That's what we always do. We take ideas, but in these songs the idea that there are going to be electronics involved are there from the get-go. So it makes for maybe a more connected situation between the traditions and the electronics."
That's startlingly evident on the track 'Naab Koobo,' in which the distinctly African cadences of Lingani's vocals are tattooed with madly pulsating electronic tics. The two distinctly different elements become one piece of art:
Burkina Electric, 'Naab Kono'
"That song is the most traditional," he says. "The lyrics are traditional, but we didn't play it in a traditional way. That consists only from the singing of an electric guitar, unamplified and close-miked, and a drum machine I programmed to approximate the rhythm but not be that rhythm. Anyone hearing it would recognize it as familiar. It's very repetitive, a traditional story that gets told to children about all the animals."
For the most part, though, the melodies on the album – released on the Bang on a Can collective's label Cantaloupe -- are not particularly traditional.
"We definitely play around with the vocabulary of traditional music," Ligeti says. "And also they have a lot to do with African pop music, which is very influenced by the music of other countries. In Burkina Faso the local music scene, as is often the case of isolated, land-locked countries, is influenced by external things. It's not like Mali, which is more homogenous with a distinct sound there -- which is also in part because Mali was taken up by the world music industry and Burkina Faso was not at all. That's what we see as part of our mission, to bring the culture and music of there to the world."
He also stresses that this is no dilettante dip into African exoticism or fly-by-night project.
"We go back a long time," he says. "Four of the six of us in the band have worked together a long time. I've known Pyrolator since 1994 and the singer Mai since 1996. I was sent to the Ivory Coast by the Goethe Institute in '96. They sent me there to collaborate with local musicians. I was studying composition in Vienna where I grew up. I was very influenced by African music and some of the compositions I wrote were influenced by that. The Goethe Institute heard that and recommended Pyrolator go with me. Was the first time in Africa for both of us -- a life-changing experience for both. The possibilities seemed endless."
That latter statement is something Ligeti comes to naturally, and not just with this music. He's the son of György Ligeti, a composer whose vast reach and voracious interests fueled a catalog that at once seems to encompass all the possibilities afforded by life in the latter half of the 20th century – and made him one of the keystone music figures of that time. The best-known works of the elder Ligeti, who died in 2006 at age 83, span from haunting vocal soundscapes (the mercurial Lux Aeterna became globally iconic via its use by Stanley Kubrick as the sound of the monolith in '2001: A Space Odyssey,' if without Ligeti's permission) to post-Dada absurdity (the '70s-vintage opera 'Le Grande Macabre') to experiments with electronics and the serendipity of mechanical music (1962's 'Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes').
But at the heart of his sensibilities was the heritage of pioneering Hungarian composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, with their strong affinity for and usage of Magyar and Carpathian traditions often prominent in his own music -- a consciousness that inevitably led to explorations of music from other cultures and regions. That very much was handed down to the son, whose works veer into formal composition, experimental improvisation and jazz frontiers, as well as these African collaborations.
"I have a very strange background," Lucas Ligeti says. "Everyone things because of my father that I was trained to be a composer. That was not the case. I got into music after a fashion in high school and started listening to any music I could get my hands on and would swap with my father. He was into African music at the time. That was not the only thing. Gerhard Kubik (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerhard_Kubik) , who was on the faculty of the University of Vienna and is still there, was the most fruitful Afro-ethnomusicologist ever. No one writes more clearly and more deeply at the same time about African music, and through his seminars I heard the traditional court music of Buganda and Uganda. And it's very obscure, but it's the some of the first African music I heard and it changed my life. I finally got to go there and hope to go back this spring."
The experimental tendencies turn up strongly in the intro to 'Bobo Yengué,' a song that unfolds from an idea of dancer Zoko Zoko, telling the cautionary tale of magic gone awry. What Ligeti does as a prelude sets the tone perfectly, chaotically:
Burkina Electric, Bobo Yengué
"The beginning is me playing solo on my marimba lumina," he says, the instrument being his own invention. "It is an organ sound, but you couldn't play it that way on the keyboard. The reaction on hearing this might be, 'What the hell was that?' It's a very sophisticated marimba-like MIDI controller."
More important than the particulars of his legacy, perhaps, are the sensibilities handed down.
"Hungary is a country where classical music, the choral tradition, was very steeped in folk music. In my father's case, he grew up in a village in Transylvania, a lot of gypsies playing. This music came at him a number of ways. After he left Hungary, he wasn't involved in folk music for a long time. But in the '80s, still a while before I started to get into music, he had a student -- Roberto Sierra -- from Puerto Rico. He introduced my father to Cuban music and Puerto Rican music, and he fell in love with it and started listening to African music. He never went himself, but read a lot and listened a lot."
Lukas went. And that's been the biggest joy of his explorations. The first trip to the Ivory Coast in the '90s with Pyrolator led to the formation of an experimental band, Beta Foly, with more than a dozen musicians, with both Lingani and Blass joining as it evolved. Lingani then moved back to her original home in Burkina Faso and fell out of touch with Ligeti, who had moved to New York. But they reconnected when the band played in Burkina Faso in 1999. And in 2004, an Austrian organization approached Ligeti about doing a project combining Burkina Faso musicians with electronics.
"I knew who we could use for that," he says. "We got two dancers and did some shows in Austria, intended it as a one-off. But it went so well that we decided to make a band of it, though it took until 2007 until we were able to work together regularly."
Keeping that up is a challenge, more logistically than artistically. But the group has been touring while Ligeti develops new concepts both for this ensemble and other projects, including a collaboration with choreographer Karole Armitage.
"We're planning to work on new repertoire, go off in new directions," he says. "Too new for me to really say what it will be."