Congolese, Belgium-residing Baloji is a hard artist to pin down. His music crosses continents, genres and eras, seamlessly integrating everything from Afrobeat, hip-hop, soukous, gospel and even opera into one highly distinctive, dizzying whole.
There’s something extremely contemporary about him, encapsulating the way in which the world is moving, both musically and socially. One interpretation of his name is ‘sorcerer’ and it feels appropriate given the way that he magically weaves sounds together on his third album, 137 Avenue Kaniama.
Opening track Glossine sees him cram all of his influences and ideas into just under four minutes. It’s a vivacious, impactful beginning which appeals both to the heart and the body. Yet, there’s also plenty of evidence of skilful management of sounds, elements being introduced and withdrawn at the opportune moment. L’Hiver Indien/Ghetto Mirador extends the joyful theme, bringing brass into the equation. Even at this early stage it’s clear resistance is futile; these are life-affirming sounds that celebrate musical and, in a wider sense, human possibilities.
During these opening tracks attention is equally drawn to the ebullience of the circular guitar lines and his rapping, which is rugged and muscular but also with a lightness of touch and flair. Bipolaire/Les Noirs sashays by in carefree style, in possession of an unquenchable joie-de-vivre. It’s music to dance in the streets to, some of the most wonderfully unselfconscious sounds we’ve heard in a long time. On another note, it feels like quite a coup for Bella Union to have this on their label.
Ensemble (Wesh) maintains the early high standard, benefitting from gospel-tinted backing vocals, everything stitched together with crisp, perforating beats. Spotlight provides possibly the most energetic workout on the album, highlife music ramped up to the next level. He’s worked with Konono No 1 in the past and here it shows. Soleil De Volt is similarly extroverted, featuring some sharp turns and a strong funk aesthetic. It’s one of the many tracks where a supporting cast of vocalists broaden the range.
It’s maybe to be expected that the pace then begins to slow. Ciel D’Encre strikes a more pensive note, giving Baloji space for his lyrics to be heard. It’s on tracks like Peau De Chagrin/Bleu De Nuit where the strength and flexibility of his voice can be seen, with less in the way of competing elements. L’Art De La Fugue/Le Vide even manages to conjure up something approaching a near-idyllic atmosphere.
Some of the tracks towards the end of the album don’t carry the same strength as those stacked up at the beginning and if we’re being a little harsh the album probably doesn’t need to be eighty minutes long (although Tropisme/Start-Up packs one pleasing final punch late on). Closing track Tanganyika starts strongly but arguably ends up a step too far, possibly showing why the combination of rap and operatic voices remains an under-explored genre. It can’t be denied however that it’s a suitably ambitious and bold finale.
Regardless, it shows how 137 Avenue Kaniama is an album that demands to be noticed and reckoned with; surely this marks the moment where the name and music of Baloji becomes far better known and appreciated.