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Aksak Maboul
Un Peu De L'Ame Des Bandits Richard Foster , February 28th, 2018 14:15

Reissued, and still great, the riotous and breathtaking first release from Crammed Discs.

Crammed Discs tend to get overlooked a bit when the great alternative labels of the 1980s are discussed. Which is a shame. Set up by music freak and sonic polymath Marc Hollander (whose background with Recommended Records helped lay the ground for his activities), Crammed was a crucial element in a wider European underground network that encompassed the Dutch, German, Belgian and British post-punk and avant-garde scenes as well as the beginnings of what later in the decade became known as ‘world music’.

Like Cherry Red in the UK, Crammed’s multifaceted modus operandi and headspace was years ahead of its time. This was born partly out of an enthusiasm for reflecting the multicultural atmosphere of 1980s Brussels and partly out of the then-ubiquitous “do it yourself!” call-to-arms. If no one else was going to set up a band, label, magazine, act as A&R and booker, you might as well get on with it. What set Crammed Discs slightly apart was the fact that Hollander and his in-house producer Vincent Kenis (the other half of Aksak Maboul and Hollander’s bandmate in yet another act, Honeymoon Killers) fully embraced the idea of music as an artform without boundaries. This is apparent in an interview with Dutch post-punk magazine Vinyl in November 1981, where Hollander saw his work with Aksak Maboul as part of a process where “labelling music is becoming more and more difficult. Soon people will just be making music (without definitions)”.

The Vinyl article’s subtitle is “Fun and Cosmopolitanism”. And that is a perfect summary of what Aksak Maboul – whose second LP, Un Peu De L'Ame Des Bandits, is getting a welcome reissue this spring – was all about. Maboul looked to draw on Kenis’s and Hollander’s vast knowledge of African and Middle Eastern music and the wider western tradition, and their underground/punk pedigrees. Un Peu… can certainly be described as a charming musical journey over styles and traditions, but with – to quote Hollander’s old interview again – a “definite Aksak Maboul sound”, one with “sonic bonhomie and wit”. Hollander argued that Maboul’s racket was formed in the first instance by the cosmopolitan nature of Brussels, “the axis of Europe”, a city that afforded a wide variety of cultural opportunities to explore. Cherry picking isn’t often used as a positive term but Aksak Maboul’s riotous sound-shopping really was; although Hollander didn’t see their music as esoteric per se. Their trump card was to pick from a world of sounds included those from their own back door. That feel is born out on the record, which has enough stolid 20th-century western musical tradition to leaven out any arch flights of fancy.

To the long player, then. It holds up remarkably well over 30 years later – somehow the passing time has vindicated Hollander’s eclecticism and sense of fun. We start off in top gear with a riotous deconstruction of Bo Diddley’s ‘Not Fade Away’. Back then it was quite the thing to put classic rocknroll and soul through the existential post-punk mixer. We can point to too-cool-for-school takes like Wat Sanitäir’s deconstruction of the Fabs’ ‘...Me & My Monkey’ (to be found on the Science Fiction Park Bundesrepublik compilation if you want to check it out) or Flying Lizards’ take on ‘Sex Machine’ for proof of this trend. I wonder if ‘Not Fade Away’ was chosen as the opening track to reassure all those long-mac-wearing types that this kind of leftfield take wouldn’t shatter their own battleship-grey cool. The great thing about Un Peu… is revealed by the next four tracks on side one; you realise, over repeated listens, that you can’t really get a hold on it – there is a clear trickster intelligence driving the overall experience. The louche ‘Palmiers En Pots aka Tango’ is true post-punk palm court orchestra, something culled from Viv Stanshall’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson End soundtrack. ‘Geistige Nacht Rondo’ is a sharp about-turn – a rondo in the strict sense (a piece of music that highlights contrasts between a set of themes or passages) but a monstrously jazzy demolition at that. ‘Geistige nacht’ means “weird night” or “daft night” in Dutch, in a vaguely spiritual or positivist sense, and this track does sound like the remembrance of a night spent on the blue cheese and the absinthe, full of blurting and squeaks.

The record continues to bubble along at a rate of knots, displaying breathtaking eclecticism. Choirs mix it up with moogs, fusty synths and drones and Remain In Light-style guitar riffs on the Turk-inspiired ‘I Viaggi Formano La Gioventú aka Truc Turc’. By contrast, ‘Inoculating Rabies aka Pogo’ is a jolly mash-up of punk and enthusiastic parps on what sounds like an oboe. Then we get a suite of sorts: four tracks entitled ‘Cinema aka Knokke’. Knokke is a seaside resort on the crowded Belgian coast (just try getting to the beach in summer), famous for its artistic colonies in the last two centuries. Knokke boasts a massive casino decorated with in situ artworks by Keith Haring, René Magritte and Paul Delvaux. These four tracks bring those artists to mind; the spacey soundtracks with jazz intermissions recall Magritte’s wry humour and Delvaux’s often moonlit, sometimes claustrophobic world. There’s something of the Soft Machine or Peter Hammill here too, certainly in the third track. As a sequence they provide an often uneasy but essentially calming hippyish counterpoint to side one’s manic street punk energy.

What strikes this reviewer most in retrospect is that Un Peu De L'Ame Des Bandits represents what drove the Western European avant-garde back then – how diffuse and open it was for new ideas, and how interconnected many local scenes were at ground level. And how this record encompasses the spirit of adventure and arch ‘art-for-art's-sake’ spirit of squat acts like Amsterdam’s Gulf Pressure Ais, André De Saint-Obin or The Young Lions with sonic signals of what later became monetised as ‘world music’. It’s no surprise that I was also reminded of the brilliant Hector Zazou’s work (Kenis was co-producer on two of Zazou’s LPs), which reflected the same Western European dreamy spirit and sense of adventure. As Hollander stated at the time, Brussels was a melting pot for ideas with clubs like Plan B and labels like Sandwich Records – a city with a strong multicultural sense, and a meeting point for many passing through on the alternative circuit, from luminaries from Factory or then-unknown Israeli band Minimal Compact. And Un Peu De L'Ame Des Bandits is a great, still-giving testament to that time. Get it.

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