Spring makes noise – and certainly so in the studio! A short update on what’s kept me busy and inspired recently.
I’m currently working on three different albums which will be released this year. The process of finishing them is slower than usual since I’m also researching and writing my Master’s thesis at the same time: it’s a philosophical adventure about generative music, complexity and “new future environments” but let’s not go into that now…
The first, still untitled album is my collaboration with Petteri Mäkiniemi which will be out in June. It combines Petteri’s self-designed and -built instrument Ginette with my “afrorithmic” system, and the result is rather beautiful and human, new kind of electronic music, mostly thanks to Petteri’s playing and the sound of Ginette (I’m just trying to hide in the background as much as possible). Musically it’s inspired by artists like Arvo Pärt, Cluster, Fela Kuti and Pan Sonic, to name a few.
The second one is my follow-up to Flash of the Spirit (2018) which will be out in July. It builds on the discoveries I’d made on that album as well as on Shimmer & Bloom (2011) and Arrival City (2013). 10 melodic and rhythmic ‘electronic contemplations’ of (the complexity of) the world. Somewhere between Seun Kuti’s Afrobeat, Aphex Twin’s electro, Kraftwerk’s pop, Erik Satie’s piano compositions and Grace Jones’ funk…so hard to define. (it’s basically me failing to make pop music that sounds like ‘pop music’ and ending up somewhere different 😉)
The third one is my experimental “World” album, currently titled Earth Variations. It started originally as a more extensive sound art project about migration, conflicts and borders, but since I wasn’t able to secure funding for its realisation, the initial sketches gradually evolved into instrumental compositions of their own. It still carries those themes at its core but in more abstract forms. The music builds on the ideas touched on Pulses / Radiance (2017), and is inspired by Jon Hassell’s Fourth World, Ben Frost’s industrial music and Steve Reich’s ensemble pieces among others. It’ll be released in October.
Ah I love you DJ Meredith from NYC ❤️ She’s played my whole album Flash of the Spirit in the last 12 episodes of her Afrobeat Show on the BTR Radio! I’m amazed at how she’s managed to find suitable spots even for the most delicate pieces like Dreamer and Hopeful Stars (well usually towards the end of the set to bring her vivacious global journey to a calmer end). I’m taken by the length at which she’s introduced the album in most episodes, it’s been hugely flattering to be featured alongside such icons of mine like Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti, Rokia Traoré and Tony Allen.
It’s always interesting to hear your pieces on the radio or playlists surrounded by a lot of different music, because then you realize how different your music often sounds. I was never aware of this until some friends mentioned years ago that I had my own sound and that I should explore it. For a while I considered it a failure, then the words of Samuel Beckett appeared: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” For me, the idea of making music has always been to “produce things that are as strange and mysterious to you as the first music you ever heard”, to quote Brian Eno. Music holds the promise of a different world, and I’ve never understood the point of making music that just sounds like more of the same. Remember the first music you ever heard, what did it make you feel, imagine? Music is art and research like anything else, responding to the evolving world. “Stop making music, start making something that excites you right now.” (my personal note).
This year I’ve received some truly heart-warming feedback about my debut album Shimmer & Bloom which came out seven years ago in November 2011. It’s always a life-affirming surprise when the ripples of your old work reach you after the years, to hear that the work still resonates to this day (considering the world was pretty much quiet when that album came out). This got me reflecting on the music and ideas between that first album and my newest one, Flash of the Spirit, which was released in November 2018, in particular since I feel the newest album represent a closure of a period begun by my debut.
Shimmer & Bloom was my first “official statement” of how the pop music and the world could be. After the album was released, I guess a lot of the interested people and fans expected me to continue building on the musical direction of that album: to continue becoming more pop, better and successful. One reviewer wrote: “Shimmer & Bloom is one of those albums that will continue growing for weeks and months after the first touch. Its surface seems calm at first but beneath the ethereally thin sound layers there is a lot going on that just isn’t revealed immediately. The main thread of this ambitious debut album tends to run away at times but on the whole Shimmer & Bloom is rewarding and beautiful”. This ambitious debut album…but towards what? Many didn’t know that the album represented a closure for me, of the music I’d been exploring, sketching and producing over the previous 15 years in my bedroom studios in Iisalmi, London, Helsinki and Berlin. The album was a statement for myself, to start taking my own musical interests more seriously and put an end to the endless sketching and experimentation (1). Shimmer & Bloom wasn’t a beginner’s discovery, it was me finally releasing what I’d already found, explored thoroughly and lived with for so long. And it was time to move on.
The next destination was Africa. My interest in Africa and its music goes all the way back to my childhood, to my earliest memory of making music: at the age of six I saw a documentary about a village somewhere in Africa, and its imagery and music fascinated me so much that I felt compelled to try and recreate the music and the atmosphere of the film with the electric organ at our home. I tweaked the organ’s setting in a “wrong” way until suddenly there it was: a pulsating, minimalist bass and organ motif mirroring what I’d just seen and heard. Few years later I discovered the hypnotic, minimalist mbira music of Stella Chiweshe from Zimbabwe, followed by lively, minimalist Pygmy music from Central Africa, and when I began to dabble more seriously with music production at the age of 14, these influences sought their way into the music (2). The fact that I’d never been to Africa became a fuel of imagination for a lot of the later music that I produced in my bedroom studios in London and Berlin: I wanted to create a new kind of sonic world inspired by Jon Hassell‘s Fourth World concept, the underground techno from Detroit, Warp‘s new electronica, David Byrne and Brian Eno‘s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, dub music by African Headcharge, Fela Kuti‘s Afrobeat, and by countless of other influences. I kept reading Ocean of Sound by David Toop and More Brilliant Than The Sun by Kodwo Eshun while producing nearly a thousand of sketches, backing tracks and finished ideas. Most of them are now lost to broken and stolen technology.
This “African electronic” thread was also present in our post-punk band l’ectro Q’d in London which operated between 2001 and 2004, as well as in the ethno-electronic ‘art pop’ music that I created and performed with artist Megumi Matsubara between 2004 and 2009, as Green & Ilpo.
In the Spring 2011 I collaborated with the Nigerian-American painter Odili Donal Odita for our track Colourist, for a feature at Another Africa. The track was my reaction to Odita’s West African-influenced abstract geometric paintings, “the music I’d always wanted to see”. He was showing in the ARS 11 exhibition at Kiasma in Helsinki at the time, and in the same exhibition were two sound works by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh. Annoyed first by the sonic intrusion that Ogboh’s pieces created in the tranquillity of my solitary Helsinki walks (one of them was broadcasted outside Kiasma) and the simplicity of his presentation, I was moved by the incredible richness of his Lagos Soundscapes once I began to listen. I knew immediately that there was a whole new musical dimension embedded in these soundscapes: music that would emerge from the everyday life, be woven in the fabric of living like buying clothes at a jostling market or hustling for a medicine on a crowded bus. An ‘urban music’ created by a city itself.
Finally I got to visit Africa: first in Senegal for the Dakar Biennale in 2012, then at an art residency in Benin for three months in 2013, during which I travelled also to Burkina Faso, Togo and Nigeria (where I met and stayed with Emeka Ogboh in Lagos, among others). These travels infected me with rhythm fever, joy and colours of life. The West African funk, afrobeat, highlife and gospel that I heard at this corner bar in Ouagadougou alone, through its dusty one-speaker soundsystem, changed me forever: the sound was so raw, distorted, full of soul that I felt flashes of spirits charging through me (could’ve been also flashes of pastis, not sure). I kept having epiphanies.
I rediscovered a new joy for making music, for being here, for this multitude of colours and cultures and shared possibilities that the Earth presents.
This West African experience subsequently gave rise to the albums Arrival City, Sahara, LOS-HEL: Possible Cities (with Emeka Ogboh), Pulses / Radiance, and Flash of the Spirit.
And now I feel that with the new album a certain chapter is closing. The period from Shimmer & Bloom to Flash of the Spirit has seen me refining, exploring and discovering my musical voice, my sound, and reason for making music. I call this my “pop period” even though the music can hardly be called pop. Pulses / Radiance aside, it’s characterized by short 3-minute melodic tracks, youthful experimentation, search for my place in music, and by my desire to please audiences (3); it’s also unified by the fact that most pieces on these albums were initiated during those innocent and productive “imaginary Africa” years in London and Berlin 1999-2010, when I dreamt of becoming a pop producer akin to Brian Eno, Timbaland or Quincy Jones (etc.). With Shimmer & Bloom I set out to see if I can actually finish a whole album of the music I believed in and present it proudly to the world. This was followed by the passion to create a new kind of music that would bridge my interests of the West African musics and the Western electronic music. And I feel I’ve achieved all that – apart from becoming Quincy Jones (Michael Jackson never called, bugger). Personally I found the pop music of the future world I’d like to inhabit.
I’m done with trying to be popular, trying to play safe, trying to prove my credentials. Been there, done that. From now on I’m just making music, crafting what I feel is the most exciting thing sonically, musically and culturally. I have found my voice: pop or experimental, African or European – I really don’t care. It’s just music, it’s just me. All I know is that I want to go deeper with what I’ve found.
1 And none of this might have happened if I hadn’t met with my dear London-era friend Lee in Berlin (where she now lives), when during our breakfast at Ankerklause she said that you never become an artist unless you finish and release your work, and take the responsibility for that.
2 Not as straightforward sounds or music but more in terms of rhythm, sensitivity and overall aesthetics: repetition, patterns and complexity through simplicity.
3 This is not to dismiss the seriousness, criticality, passion and commitment that I’ve invested in every track and album – I wouldn’t have released any of these if I didn’t think there was a worthwhile idea behind each of them.
Afrorithm in the house. I’m currently preparing for this special concert with a good friend of mine (and very talented musician) Petteri Mäkiniemi, at the Helsinki Music Centre next February. The concert will be a tribute to the pioneering Finnish electronic music duo Pan Sonic, and it’ll form part of the Musica Nova Helsinki contemporary music festival 2019.
Our idea is to create a new kind of music in which the aesthetics of Arvo Pärt and Olivier Messiaen meet those of West African musics, through the minimalist and sometimes brutalist aesthetics of Pan Sonic (we are also inspired by Jon Hassell’s musical concept known as Fourth World). Petteri plays his self-built instrument Ginette, which is based on the ondes martenot (and which appears on my album Pulses / Radiance), while I play my generative system called Afrorithm (Afrobeat + algorithmic composition). We’ll be joined on stage by a cellist and a bass clarinettist from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.
So far we’ve had two rehearsals. While these began as innocent jam sessions for the concert only, we soon realized that we’d created an album’s worth of beautiful, new kind of music – less polished and produced, more spontaneous, candid and human; pastoral, orchestral, African and futuristic (the word ‘evergreen’ keeps also coming to mind). After six extensively crafted studio albums it feels invigorating to arrive somewhere fresh and fully formed so effortlessly, as if we had simply channelled this music onto the tape. Our plan now is to bring this serendipitous album out into the daylight early next year, possibly around the time of the concert…
The film composer Hans Zimmer said that music is at its best when it’s about people playing together in a room. I agree with him. As a music producer you mostly release your long crafted labours of love as digital downloads and streams only, and the work then drifts in isolation in an obscure world of internet clouds and distant servers. It’s all fine as a distribution model (barring the energy consumption of those servers) but you rarely get to hear and feel how the listeners react when they listen to your music; the function and purpose of your music, if any, remains mystery. But when it’s just even two people playing together in the same room, immersed in the moment and moved by each other’s sound and playing, you remember why you love music, and why it has become such an important tool for you to explore and understand this complex world pulsing with new possibilities.
My new album Flash of the Spirit is out now. This is my sixth album, and it builds on the direction begun on my previous albums Arrival City, Sahara and LOS-HEL: Possible Cities.
The album is inspired by my travels and experiences in West Africa. It’s a reflection on a kind of liminal global space, imaginary and real, that exists in between and beyond cultures, nations, borders, ecosystems, beliefs, social constructs, identities and differences. This space is always in the state of becoming: changing, emerging and suggesting new possibilities.
Similarly, the music defies any clear categorization and well-established aesthetics, existing and moving between Minimalism, Afrobeat, Electronica, Krautrock, Gospel, Ambient and West African traditional musics – as if heard and treated through a slightly futuristic perspective. My idea has been to make an approachable yet artistically uncompromising, melodic, rhythmic, emotive record, one that can grow on repeated listening over time. I always imagine the music that I’m making belonging to a possible future world (“music holds the promise of a different world”).
The title refers to the book of the same name by Robert Farris Thompson, which I’d read during my residency in Benin. It’s also a nod to the album of the same name by Jon Hassell & Farafina. It’s also a reference to those great “flashes of the spirit” that I kept coming across on my travels.
The album is available now on my Bandcamp site, and on all the other digital music stores and streaming services from 2 November onwards.
My new album Flash of the Spirit is finally reaching completion, ready to be mastered and released soon. Only one piece is still on the cusp of becoming either funky pop electro disco (LCD Soundsystem) or funky avantgarde disco experiment (Kraftwerk), always a tough choice. The album is based on my experiences in West Africa and on the adventures and conversations with my dear friends scattered around the globe, and it incorporates my field recordings from West Africa into the music. I’m immensely happy about this album and its emotional landscape – I often ponder why I spend months in the studio joyously perfecting something that has absolutely no practical function in the world (I wish it had but it doesn’t). Am I wasting my passion, skills and dedication? Currently I think that I am since my music has no broader cultural resonance. But I can’t help it: when making music I feel like I’m participating in the whole scientific, social and cultural conversations in levels that go beyond ideologies, mindsets, borders, identities, beliefs…I feel free, inhabiting a culturally diverse, playful, socially and economically equal green world. Art becomes a tool to imagine and pull oneself towards a preferable future.
Yet this possible future keeps remaining just a ‘hope’ for most people on this planet, for totally unnecessary, outdated societal and financial designs. Why? On the planet where there are more resources – food, water, shelter, money – to cater for everybody than what’s needed, then why come there’s scarcity of everything: food, water, shelter, money?
I’m currently working also on new pieces by Emeka Ogboh for his exhibition in Paris, revisiting Lagos soundscapes and our LOS-HEL: Possible Cities, but this time from a whole different angle. It’s a refreshing departure from my album work, and Lagos has never sounded more contemporary and futuristic, thanks to Emeka’s musical vision. More info on this soon too.
Please redesign the world. All the problems in the world are utterly ridiculous, childish.
Update on the lengthy silence: I’m having fun and productive days in the studio.
I’m currently working on a new album (actually three new albums but two of them require more time to mature) which will be out this summer. The music feels exciting though the funny thing is that all the pieces were originally made in the early 2000, 17+ years ago when I was living in London and obsessed with combining my ideas, impressions and passions of everything African, a continent where I’d never been to, with the cutting-edge electronic music at the time. I made probably over 300 tracks but in the subsequent years most of these became lost due to broken, discarded or stolen technology; some survived on old DAT tapes and harddrives. When this Kenyan poet and I initiated a project few years ago, where we were to combine her spoken poems with my electronic compositions – inspired by our collaboration on the Wild At Dusk track from my album Arrival City – I reworked several of those surviving pieces, enlightened by my extensive travels and musical experiences in West Africa by then. Nothing emerged from this collaboration (as is naturally the case with 99% of all the potential ideas out there) and I forgot most of them.
Amid my depression resulting from the release of Pulses / Radiance (for a while I felt that was going to be my last album ever: I had made it with huge enthusiasm, excited about its new musical landscape, rhythmic invention, new kind of feeling and the joy and energy that the tracks seemed to exude…only to be met with utter silence upon its release), I stumbled upon these reworked early London pieces and was amazed how complete they sounded: music from a colourful possible future! (This is a familiar pattern: the initial self-criticism gets lost in time and you hear things fresh). So I began to rework some of those tracks again, to fill the spaces originally intended for the spoken word to inhabit. And I must say, this will be one of the most melodic, emotional and funkiest records that I’ve put out – a sort of hybrid between Shimmer & Bloom, Arrival City and Sahara.
In the music business there’s always so much pressure on you to repeat the same thing over and over until you’ve polished/reduced your work into a marketable sleek product, devoid of any interesting life; to make music that just sounds like more music. I can’t do that, I get bored so quickly. Once I’ve explored something, I want to move onto new things, start experimenting again: to continue making music that feels like life, or a possible world, with all its imperfections, fragility, uncertainty, randomness, beauty, inventiveness and vitality. Yet there’s often so little encouragement and demand from the world for you to do that. To quote the words of the acclaimed artist Laurie Anderson: “No one will ever ask you to do the thing you want to do…do not wait for this to happen, it will never happen…so just think of what you’d like to do, what you dream of doing, and then just start doing it.” Of course the thrilling thing is when you discover that the work you did 17 years ago feels suddenly exciting and fresh again, that you’d been sort of ahead of yourself but not knowing how to harness that potential at the time. There’s a continuity to your ideas and colourful, if uncertain, journey.