In memory of Adja

Adja in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

RIP Adjanohun Loetamini.

I’m saddened and shocked to hear about the passing of Adja, one of the most incredible human beings and musicians that I’ve known. Adja was a musician and artist in the town of Grand-Popo, Benin, where he was revered and much loved locally and regionally (eg. in Burkina Faso where I once traveled with him), not to mention by the constant stream of Finnish artists who came in contact with him during their stay at Villa Karo, the Finnish-African culture center in Grand-Popo. That’s where I also met Adja, and during my three-month stay we recorded, performed, partied, laughed, danced, philosophised and traveled together – across Benin, Togo and Burkina Faso – and became very good friends.

What confounds me is the realisation that once such a gentle soul and a vigorous force of life walked on this Earth – and now he is no more. (I remember watching him walk barefoot across the Burkina Faso-Togo border, red dust from the red soil rising under his feet, looking so carefree and content with his customary black instrument case in one hand where he always kept his flute; afterwards I asked him why he didn’t have to queue to have his passport and other documents checked like the rest of us. He said that as a musician he was free to travel everywhere since musicians were revered in that part of Africa. Not sure how true or universal this was, but I observed him living it. Then he told me about the significance of the red soil uniting people across the borders, making the nations and divisions built on that soil seem more like that ephemeral dust hovering in the air.)

Under the stars in hot Ouagadougou nights we debated about the cosmos and meanings of life while the dusty speakers at our neighbourhood bar kept blasting the most amazing West African funk, disco, afrobeat, dancehall and gospel – raw, distorted, full of soul – and beer and pastis flowed; we chatted up women at the FESPACO film festival, trying our different approaches just for fun (Adja’s down-to-earth exuberance proved more popular); when this singer failed to turn up for my rare live gig in Cotonou, leaving me performing my electronic backing tracks alone on stage, Adja, who was to perform with his band CLAN right after me, immediately joined me with his brother and together they improvised vocal, guitar and percussion parts to my tracks they’d never heard before, bringing that human liveliness back to the music (or as Adja would tell me: in Africa they never improvise, they just play); and whenever during our travels I might feel down, confused or stressed by the challenges inevitably brought forward by the cultural differences, it was Adja who was consoling and cheering me up – and who wouldn’t be reinvigorated by those deep compassionate eyes, patiently listening ears, infectious smile and (literally) elevating bear hugs of his!

At the Fespaco 2013 film festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Adja had his own shortcomings and challenges like the rest of us, naturally, but what always struck me was the humility and balance he kept exuding regardless or because of those; he always seemed to be the most content and happiest wherever he was, whatever he was doing.

And I never remember seeing him without a musical instrument of some kind in hand: he seemed to be able to play any instrument he got his hands on and to find his voice in any given (musical) situation. Never a virtuoso though – at least not in the archaic Western sense and in the same way that, say, Lee “Scratch” Perry was never a virtuoso singer or Moe Tucker was never a virtuoso drummer – he instead embodied music as a living philosophy, rooted in and emanating from the very environment and life he was inhabiting; his playing radiated from a much longer now and greater here, free of current trends and institutionalised aesthetics. It was cosmic music: pure, sincere, raw, open to the outside world, diffusing the distinctions between art and life, music and nature, inside and outside. When we recorded his guitar for the song ‘Adja’ from my album Sahara, it was me who had to retune/detune my synthesizers to accommodate the living (and lived) character his guitar had aquired. Even though most of our recordings didn’t make it to that album, I never forget the commitment and enthusiasm with which he proceeded to record those various instruments of his over my tracks. He was simply a pure joy to work with.

I never learned how old Adja actually was, but based on the wisdom he’d gained, I think he was close to 200; judged by his vigour, he was probably around 18. My bet, however, is that he was simply a timeless person, a childlike sage, a maestro, leaving his footprints on that red soil before continuing his walk from one realm to another. ‘Säkenöivä voima’ indeed (the direct English translation “sparkling force” doesn’t quite capture the depth and grace of this Finnish expression). Walk and rest in peace, you beautiful soul.

Shimmer and Bloom

An end of the year reflection.

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.

My last bedroom studio in London (Dalston), 2004-05.

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.

Flash of the Spirit – new album out now

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.