Next to my favorite table and intersection in Paris there’s a recording and rehearsal space called Studio Bleu. Yesterday we had a recording session there with bassist Omar Harb, for my albums Earth Variations and Interspaces.
I was blown away. I had reserved the studio for eight hours because I thought we’d need all that time to finish at least some of the tracks. Not had we just finished everything in four hours but Omar had made everything so much better than what I’d imagined.
Omar understands your music like a fish understands water when it meets it for the first time. He can play as figuratively and elaborately as you want (or couldn’t possibly imagine) or beat a machine in precision, duration and slight liveliness. There were moments when I had to hold back my tears because his melodic basslines made me simply recall how unbeatably lovely the world is – or hold back my idiotic grin of joy because of the ecstatic funkiness and a human-overcoming-the-machine of a kind of bliss of his playing.
Omar is originally from Damascus, Syria, where, since 2005, he used to run a very successful music production studio and company (“factory”) of his own, becoming a mainstay of a thriving new Syrian music scene, producing work that went on to win praise and awards across the Arab world as well as Europe. That all came to an end in 2011 when the war broke out, and eventually he and his wife had to abandon everything they had and flee to Lebanon. Since then he has lived and worked globally, collaborating with artists around the world. (He’s also one of the nicest human beings I’ve met.)
Since my Earth Variations started as an interdisciplinary sonic art project about migration and the refugee crisis but which got subsequently cancelled, I was struck: here I was with a guy who actually comes from the origin of all that, who has experienced it firsthand, personally having witnessed the bombing and killing and the destruction of his home and those of his family and friends, and having had to plan a daring escape through everything all these (art) projects try to grasp but can only intellectualise. Yet here he is in front of me, playing the most beautiful and life-affirming music that seems to know no crises, conflicts, borders, ideologies, territories, let alone any art projects, curatorioral practices and their momentary trends. This is life. This is why music exists.
The summer has finally turned into an autumn – the first time I felt my fingers freezing while cycling home late at night. Where did all that heat and endless blue sky go? Into working haphazardly on everything, meeting new people, cycling around Paris, going out, experiencing the city, settling down, pondering, searching for the meaning and motivation to continue making music: releasing albums digitally to muted response just won’t do anymore, I’m honestly done if that’s all there is for the function of music-making!
The end of the summer has fortunately coincided with the start of new conversations and collaborations. Paris, like any location, is an assemblage of different multiplicities, each multiplicity presenting a universe of ideas, encounters, possibilities. As the autumn leaves are preparing to fall, I’ve found myself on a plane connecting one such multiplicity to few others, entering exciting new becomings – meaningful and refreshing expressions of life, creativity and culture, if you will.
One such becoming is with this Swiss choreographer, dancer and director. Finally a long-term project that allows me to collaborate with other talents across the arts and other areas of the society for the next few years (why doesn’t this happen more often, especially since I’ve been more than ready for the past 20 years?). The details of our project may be discreet for now; the reason I bring this up is because it is our long conversations and shared experiences of Parisian culture that finally brought to an end my months-long impasse of trying to find the purpose for music-making. We don’t exist in isolation nor is the digital any answer: we need each other, real feedback and different talents to make the projects and worlds we care about happen. Behind every success story there are dozens of people with different skills working toward the same goal. My work has existed more or less in isolation (and digital ambiguity) up until now – not because I’ve wanted but because I haven’t encountered any like-minded scenes (and sceniuses) so far. I don’t really care about the popularity of my music per se: as long as I feel thrilled and passionate about what I’ve created, that’s all that matters; it’s the greater cultural and societal function of my creativity and dedication that bothers/matters to me.
And with this Swiss artist my long-term musical and societal interests have aligned with hers. Creating and imagining music for her project feels like serving a greater societal and cultural purpose than releasing albums into some digital amnesia that the internet represents.
Alongside this, Paris has presented some of the most fascinating live concerts I’ve experienced so far: between cultures, in a fourth world, between experimentation and tradition, like possible musics of the future (for one, check out the Palestinian composer Kamilya Jubran and her Terra Incognita project – and if you can’t find it, book her trio for your next festival/event ). And I’m excited to say that I’ll be collaborating with some of these artists for my forthcoming albums Sharawadji and Earth Variations. I’ve been working joyously with a kind of “idiot glee” (as the painter Peter Schmidt put it) in my studio for the past week and have to concede once again: there’s so much potential and beauty in everything – so much incredible material – yet only less than 0.1% of that ever gets released. I guess the life wouldn’t have it otherwise.
Below some random snapshots from this transitional period. Paris is love, a home in this galaxy of ours.
My collaborative album with musician, composer and instrument maker Petteri Mäkiniemi has been finally released.
The album is called ‘Outlands’ and it’s released under the name Aihio, our new musical duo. Aihio is a Finnish word meaning musical motif, sketch, a work in progress – or in my mind now “a space where new ideas can emerge and develop”.
The album consists of 11 instrumental pieces that weave elements and influences from minimalism, experimental electronic music and West African musical styles into an impressionistic and atmospheric sound of their own. The composers and artists whose work has inspired the music include Arvo Pärt, Cluster, Fela Kuti, Jon Hassell and Pan Sonic, to name a few.
The music features Petteri on Ginette (an electronic musical instrument designed and built by him and based on the French electronic instrument ondes Martenot, developed in 1928) and me on Afrorithmics (afrobeat + algorithmic composition). The pieces have been improvised and recorded live in the studio with no overdubs; they have emerged during two rehearsal sessions when we were developing material for the Musica nova 2019 festival’s Tribute to Pan Sonic concert, to which we were invited to present new work with musicians from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra at the Helsinki Music Centre, February 2019.
I can only describe the album as a journey through varied terrains while immersed in the landscape, wondering the universe above; or orbiting the Earth and seeing the patterns of geologies and civilizations unfold without borders (no experience of that however); or travelling across galaxies and soaking up some stardust (some previous experience of that); or just watching a deer wander across a nocturnal meadow engulfed by mist and a golden midnight sun.
The French music blog The Black Box has been the first to note the release, calling the album “a musical curiosity”. The review is in French, but here’s the main segment translated by Google:
“A strange mechanical rhythm seems to support the album, like the hum of an engine, or the timing of a machine tool. Yet behind it is well long organic synth tracks that shape the rest of the pieces. This duality is present throughout the album almost, forcing the listener to take his trouble in patience, to listen carefully to the music to detect all that is hidden there, namely a universe. So simple album? Movie soundtrack? Video game? It’s a bit all at once, and more.”
I rather like that description “to listen carefully to the music to detect all that is hidden there, namely a universe”, because that’s what I felt when mixing the pieces in the studio: it felt often as if I was looking at this world from a higher orbit, or gazing up at the stars, or being immersed in rich and varied terrains, outlands. It’s quite rare to have this kind of impressions when working in a more technical and objective mode, but that’s what Petteri’s playing always did to me. It’s also a great compliment when you don’t know exactly how the music was made, what constitutes the elements, which instruments have been used. It takes the music slightly back to that condition of appearing “as strange and mysterious to you as the first music you ever heard” (from Brian Eno).
“Outlands is a highly original album, in sound as well as in its background concept. Even in the ‘experimental’ electronic genre, many sounds and processes are alike. Aihio manages to step outside the box and create their own unique sound. Literally!”
He wonders about the inclusion of Fela Kuti in our list of inspirations though. It was actually Brian Eno who said that the closest form of popular musics to ambient and generative music was Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat: they all evolve from a loose set of rules and ingredients, proceed organically through the layers of interlocking rhythms and elements, balance discipline and freedom, and create immersive environments – music as places. Naturally we didn’t try to imitate Fela’s Afrobeat but to use some of the textures, sounds and aesthetics, and transform them into new kinds of rhythmic terrains and, well, outlands.
The Bandcamp release includes higher quality audio and additional album artwork. The album will be available on Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and all the other digital music platforms from Aug 2 onwards.
I hope you’ll enjoy this journey and landscape as much as Petteri and I have. It’s been an adventure.
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.
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.
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.
A wistful yet inspired last night in the studio before it closes for good. This studio has been my dedicated workspace for the past 3,5 years (apart from the 1,5 years I spent in Germany), and I know its sound and acoustics so well – hence the wistfulness of leaving. The space we operate in shapes greatly our being-ness / becoming-ness, and I’m curious to see how the next space will influence my output. I’ve worked on three albums here: Sahara, Pulses / Radiance, and the forthcoming Flash of the Spirit – or actually four, if one counts Egwutronica I + II, the 1-hour long composition I made for Emeka Ogboh’s installation in the Seattle Art Museum (those six months were one of the greatest adventures I’ve had in this space). Tonight finished a forthcoming single from the new album, currently titled Fela Mechanic. More info soon. X
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.
It’s difficult to work on music while the sound of nocturnal rain drifts through an open window: to me, the rain at night always sounds better and more interesting than any music ever made.
A guideline for music-making: “Does it sound better than evening rain?”
Against the subdued soundscape of the night, I’m currently finishing my new album (titled ‘Pulses/Radiance’), developing an accompanying piece to Monday Morning in Lagos (the idea of exploring street voices as musical source), and making a recording of Future Forest Space, the generative installation music that I made for Radio Forest in Klankenbos, Neerpelt (the recording will become part of their permanent soundscape collection).
“This universe is truly a magnificent spectacle, and needs to be mirrored.” -Björk
Recently I came across this comment by Björk, in an interview in which she was reflecting her passion for music and future dreams (you can read the interview here), and I felt suddenly greatly elevated – experiencing that feeling of Idiot Glee or “sheer mad joy at the world” as painter Peter Schmidt put it. Now, I think this would make a good guideline for economics and politics too, to mirror the magnificent spectacle of the universe instead of the tiresome waste of intelligence and life’s potential in the form of power struggles, ideologies and profits.
Listening to the nocturnal rain, most of the problems in the world appear so unnecessary, just pure waste of that intelligence and potential. And all of this waste while we’re living inside this wonder that is the universe.
With the rain comes a scent, a fresh smell of trees, plants and concrete. How extraordinary is that, one might wonder, in a universe so infinitely empty and lifeless?