Fofoulah’s exhilarating blurring of the boundaries between West African polyrhythmic music, jazz, rock, dub and funk grooves has turned many a jazz club into a party space since their formation in 2011. Whilst their debut album has been anticipated for some time by those in the know, its gestation can partly be explained by the band members’ hectic individual schedules and also perhaps by an evident desire to get things right.
Fofoulah the album continues the band’s collaboration with vocalists, this time with a range of artists including Juju’s Juldeh Camara, Batch Guaye, Iness Mezei and eminent UK rapper Ghostpoet. Drummer Dave Smith (also of Juju and currently very busy with Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters) here adds a production credit to his CV, and with additional engineering from Matt Calvert of Three Trapped Tigers, and the band have clearly worked carefully on the album’s sound, without sacrificing their commitment to groove and rhythm. The album certainly feels like a natural evolution from the Bene Bop EP. The opening No Troubles, with its mesmerising echo effects on the vocal and a lightly menacing organ part neatly summarises Fofoulah’s intriguing combination of celebratory energy and studio experimentation.
Whilst the band is mostly drawn from London’s improvising scene (most specifically members of the Loop Collective), they draw both on their own studies in West African music (perhaps beginning with the Outhouse Ruhabi project in the Gambia in 2002) and on the experience and insight of sabar drummer Kaw Secka. Few could doubt this project’s authenticity given the extent to which the band members live and breathe this music. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a drummer better suited to these restless and insistent grooves than Smith, and Phil Stevenson’s spiderly guitar lines feel effortless and comfortable. Smith and bass player Johnny Brierley (also of the Outhouse Ruhabi project) are completely locked in, and handle both the complex grooves and the periodic hits with precision.
Senegalese singer Batch Gueye is a charismatic and exciting presence on a number of tracks and Juldeh Camara is commanding on the sprightly Hook Up, on which his vocals seem to contribute to an overall sense of movement. Ghostpoet is perhaps a less expected presence, but his softly spoken rap on the hilariously titled Don’t Let Your Mind Unravel, Safe Travels proves appropriately compelling. The way in which his words mesh effortlessly with the accompanying rhythms is fascinating. Other highlights are provided by Kaw Secka’s expressive sabar drum introduction to Make Good and the elevating West African guitar lines of No Troubles. The album’s best track, however, is the seven and a half minute Reality Rek, a brilliantly disorientating journey that veers from an exploratory introduction into the band’s most restless and stirring groove, with saxophonist Tom Challenger providing a crisp, memorable phrase that holds the piece together.
At just under 40 minutes, Fofoulah is a concise and breathtaking trip, and the full joyous impact of this band needs to be experienced by seeing them live. It is, however, a great example of the ways in which studio production and articulate musicianship can work supremely well together.