Shangaan Shake (Various Artists)
, February 27th, 2012 05:03
Honest Jon's have taken an interesting trajectory over the last couple of years. Since 2010 they've become synonymous with a certain sort of uncategorisable electronic music, many of the the modern artists they've worked with - Basic Channel's Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, Vladislav Delay, Actress, T++, Shackleton, Pinch - occupying a liminal zone somewhere where dub collides with London bass culture and the outer reaches of techno. It's especially interesting that the label's careful curation (probably as simple as a matter of good A&R taste) has resulted in such a tight aesthetic. These artists may sound little alike, but they're bound by their common drive for individuality. It's also particularly enjoyable to hear the sound of many of the label's artists referencing, however obliquely, the African musics that Honest Jon's remain strongly involved with: in Shackleton's polyrhythmic percussive structures, for example, or T++'s de/reconstructions of old East African 78s on Wireless, or Actress's demolitions of musics typically associated with pan-Atlantic Afrofuturism (Detroit techno, electro, Chicago house, jungle).
Then there are the future sounds of Africa in Shangaan Electro itself. 2010's compilation New Wave Dance Music From South Africa showcased a completely self-contained sound: rapid-fire electro at 180bpm, hyper-coloured, whorls of canned marimba, synthetic struck instruments and half-chanted, half-sung vocals. An electrified take on traditional Shangaan sounds, it offered a curveball for UK dancers unaccustomed to its rapid tempo - drum & bass comes close at around the 170bpm mark, but even then it's halfstepped, the mid-bar kink making it easier for the body to follow. But in the text accompanying its release, Shangaan producer Nozinja reminded listeners that "Shangaan dancers, they dance, they can go on for almost an hour with that speed, without getting tired. When you see them dance you feel like they have got no bones." An apt way to put it: the few times I experienced even three or four minutes of it a club floor - Hessle Audio's Pearson Sound/Ramadanman was fond of dropping Zinja Hlungwani's 'Ntombi Ya Mugaza' at the end of sets from time to time - it was enough to thoroughly rattle the elbows and knees of a crowd who had previously been comfortably locked to a 135-140bpm lurch.
So it's interesting that none of the artists Honest Jon's brought in to reinterpret Shangaan Electro opted to simply re-frame their source material in a UK/Europe-friendly dancefloor context. One of the most important things about the Shangaan Shake project, which has run across a series of 12"s over the past year or so, is that the additional artists Honest Jon's drafted in mine similarly distinct spaces as the label's more long-running collaborators. So alongside Actress and Mark Ernestus, this 2CD compilation of the 12" releases features Detroit techno/house innovators Theo Parrish and Anthony 'Shake' Shakir, Bristol junglist (though never jungle producer) Peverelist, some of the founding names behind Chicago footwork (Rashad, Spinn and RP Boo) and London dubwise pop duo Hype Williams, amongst others. Between them, the full roster reads like a who's who of groundbreaking and boundary pushing current electronic musicians. There's nothing even approaching a generic contribution here.
That's probably one of the reasons why, across the course of two hours of music, these reinterpretations never resort to simply setting a full vocal a capella to a new musical backdrop. Most of them also suggest that the nature of the original recordings may have made it difficult to fully isolate individual segments. (The crumbling vocal on Burnt Friedman's take on Zinja Hlungwani's 'N'wagezani My Love', which drifts scratchy and uneven across a rough-hewn, jazzy backdrop, works in support of that idea.) Instead, across the whole length of Shangaan Shake similar brief motifs crop up again and again. Despite the wildly differing natures of the interpretations on offer, it's lent a great sense of coherence by the same short snippets of voice appearing in several different contexts.
Again thanks to careful curation, nothing on Shangaan drops below a uniformly high standard. Even at its least enjoyable - Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer's dry, granular contribution which recalls last year's Re:ECM album - it's still a fascinating listen. There's too much material to go through the whole compilation in detail, but several in particular stand out as highlights. The first is a pair of tracks from Honest Jon's signee Actress. His scrambled, rapidly decaying music suggests some alternate version of Detroit techno, plucked from a parallel reality where the genre's seventies germline has been fundamentally altered by blasts of cold war radiation. His two versions here offer different views of his sound - the first disc's, like Demdike Stare's track on the second, is one of the few things on here to sound indisputably British, its stumbling rhythm regularly rent with long blurts of Radiophonic interference. His track on the second disc is more in keeping with the Shangaan original, faster, brighter and barbed. Long-running Berlin operators MMM turn in a galloping slab of party house, and Oni Ayhun (aka Olof Dreijer from The Knife) drops the frosty techno sheen in favour of clompy rhythms and pitchbent vocoders.
Peverelist, as ever, stands head and shoulders above most of the competition: his take again recalls the soundtracking experiments of the Radiophonic workshop, but puts them to the service of stoned, swung house. As usual, jungle is never far away - it's remarkable that Pev's always able to infuse his music with that genre's rolling momentum and space-time folding properties, even when drastically dropping the tempo on this and other recent material. The result has a sort of prickly inevitability, as though what we're hearing will continue forever just out of earshot.
One of the enjoyable things about hearing a set of artists this diverse tackling the same source material is to lay bare their similarities and differences in approach. Parrish, for example, offers up the only contribution that keeps Shangaan electro's manic, toe-tapping tempo intact, a hacked version that's reminiscent of some of his recent Ugly Edits work. Chopping the original into miniature shards and spinning them in a centrifuge, the result is a near-overwhelmingly busy twelve minutes, a carnival-of-the-damned scarred by unruly zaps of synth.
Parrish's is the only track here that approximates the bodily and sensory overload of the Shangaan originals, though those that come closest - footworkers Rashad & Spinn and RP Boo - share a similar attitude. Like Parrish, they're fearless in their willingness to disassemble their source material down to its basest building blocks and rebuild with barely anything of the original track left. Boo's version, for example, accompanies his flurry of 808 hits with only a couple of song snippets, breaking them into juddering glitch sketches beneath his own vocal addition, "Africa soul is comin'/From my body/And I use it with my legs/Footwork". One of the few new voices added to the album, his jittery monologue offers an astute perspective on African music's relationship to electronic dance music - the soul of the continent, locked in music, channeled through movement - as well as footwork's own growing importance. Utilitarian, hypnotic, intensely functional and designed purely with bodily motion in mind, that genre is proving to be one of the purest expressions of the 'Africa soul' still buried at the heart of modern dance music.