Strut’s Inspiration Information series has already yielded intriguing match-ups between Amp Fiddler and Sly & Robbie, then Ashley Beedle and Horace Andy. Now it makes a leap into relatively uncharted waters, getting free thinking hip hop jazzers The Heliocentrics to lock horns – literally – with Ethiopian bandleader Mulatu Astatke and some of his associates.
For this latest meeting DJ Karen O deserves a special mention, as it was one of her ever-eclectic Broad Casting nights at Cargo that got the two bands together on stage for the first time, in April 2008. A clear musical chemistry was achieved, and following the instinctive principals of the series, the whole album was recorded over a week in September.
To both bands’ credit, what could have been a musical car crash turns into something a whole lot more appealing. With so many textures available to them, it must have been tempting to throw the kitchen sink at the production, but the results are rarely congested and allow the beauty of the African instruments in particular to come through.
The most striking of these is the begena, a 10-string harp-like instrument that dates back to the 15th century. This really comes into its own on Phantom Of The Panther, its distinctive sound given plenty of room to breathe. Yet the brass of the Heliocentrics are sensitively used too, often muted or placed towards the back of the sound picture for extra effect.
Just occasionally the results are dislocated, with opener Masenqo essentially a call and answer between the two ensembles, each other kept at arms’ length. Yet when the opposite occurs, and the two backgrounds meet head on, the results are invigorating. The cross rhythms of Addis Black Widow are an obvious example, the firm beats hinting at hip hop while the African instruments add subtle but effective ornamentations to the melodies. Meanwhile the winding melodies of Blue Nile are subtly bewitching, topped off beautifully with the begena at the end.
A lot of the Heliocentrics contributions centre on the studio productions applied after the original recording sessions, and these are sensitively treated, the rhythms projected so that the inside parts are not lost. Almost all of the music is instrumental, but speaks with keen emotion at times, particularly when the begena is involved.
All of which offers further evidence that the Inspiration Information series is going from strength to strength, and continuing to yield some highly inventive pieces of work. More please!