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Album Of The Week

Forest Murmurs: Abri Cyclonique By Polobi & The Gwo Ka Masters
Will Ainsley , February 23rd, 2023 09:22

Will Ainsley finds Polobi & the Gwo Ka Masters’ new album a tantalising – if not entirely unproblematic – listening experience

Image by Karen Paulina Biswell

There are those whose art seems created in a vacuum. Though the term ‘outsider music’ is rife with issues, it can serve its purpose when considering the ways others often become responsible for its delivery and promotion, for bringing it inside. The discovery of such artists raises questions. What if they hadn’t been discovered, and how many are out there like them? If Daniel Johnston had never been featured on MTV, would he have met Kramer, or had his album cover on Kurt Cobain’s t-shirt? More to the point, would his songs ever have seen the light of day? What if Sister Irene O’Connor’s vanity recordings never made it onto YouTube?

Wild Man Fischer could have stopped singing a capella on the Sunset Strip before Solomon Burke and Frank Zappa found him, thus being relegated to a footnote in the gig listings of mid-1960s LA. There’s a world where Roger Gentis neglected to preserve Marguerite Sirvins’ textile art. The list goes on.

Consider those who don’t become Wikipedia-fied, unlikely algorithm darlings, capital OA Outsider Artists. It’s a slightly head-spinning certainty that the art of Johnston, Fischer, Sirvins, et al’s influential, boundary-redefining, prophetic calibre has been created but simply never found. This might easily have happened to singer Moise Polobi who writes around improvisations in a Creole language “unique to him”. Despite playing regularly in a toumblak group, he’d never made publicly-accessible recordings under his own name. Had it not been for a serendipitous sequence of events that began with the artistic director of a music agency happening on a random, informal jam session at Polobi’s friend Klod Kiavué’s house, perhaps this music would never have never made it out of the Guadeloupean forest in which it first gestated.

There’s a lovely image rendered in the liner notes for Polobi & the Gwo Ka Masters’ new album: “Polobi, balanced on a rock, launches a melody towards the infinity of the sky”. It is a deft encapsulation of two key qualities about Abri Cyclonique: one, how for years its solitary creator sent searching yet declarative songs into the ether that found only his ears; two, more immediately, how Polobi’s singing – the album’s focal point – seems fired out of him. His voice is weatherbeaten and hoarse but supple, with a certain lived-in gravitas. He calls, carols and babbles, murmuring and bellowing through the thirteen tracks. 

Though the liner notes state that he first wrote these songs self-accompanied by Gwo ka drums, here he’s backed by more maximalist backing tracks. Their atmosphere is nocturnal with languid jazz piano chords and electronic detailing splashed over loping rhythms and deadened bass. The big, thudding kicks mean parts of Abri Cyclonique stand at the threshold of dub techno. Massive Attack are recalled in the juddering grooves and muscular production on the excellent opening track ‘Kawmélito’, a less paranoid younger sibling of ‘Karmacoma’. Elsewhere, you might hear Leftfield’s dancefloor-oriented blend of organic and electronic instrumentation. Polobi caroms between the rhythms, skirting across the surface, shouting and intoning, chanting and always launching. But there can be something distracting about this interplay.

The liner notes also feature a photo of a hand (presumably Polobi’s) resting, almost tantalisingly, on a heap of dusty, weatherbeaten tapes. Before Valérie Malot (the artistic director that chanced upon the jam session) visited Kiavué’s drum session, Polobi had recorded cassette tapes for himself in the forest. What do these tapes sound like, and how do they differ from what’s on Abri Cyclonique? The arrangements here are typically crisp and smooth, boasting the clean lines of trip-hop and dub techno. In some of the tracks, their propulsive qualities form a launchpad, but in other tracks act as a diluent. Perhaps this is something to do with the commanding and percussive quality of Polobi’s voice, which can jar with the equally clamorous backing, at points seeming to fight the conflicting rhythms both rhythmically and harmonically. Polobi wrote these songs accompanied by only a drum, so why are the basslines as prominent? This is not to dunk on the producer, Doctor L, whose production chops are clearly there. It’s more that this marriage only works some of the time. Though doubtless all parties concerned were happy with the finished product, on ‘Camargo’ and ‘Ojéliya’ Polobi seems swallowed up by the slightly uncanny music, the strains of which you might hear before some sort of incense-based treatment in the waiting room to a spa run by Robert Del Naja.

The most effective tracks on Abri Cyclonique are ‘Bouladjel’ and ‘Levé Yo Mano’. Both open with the sound of the rainforest (at last!), and the Gwo ka drums Polobi was first influenced by. Doctor L’s superb arrangement is soupy and pungent, sounding as if it’s playing on a dusty turntable; it’s a world away from earlier tracks. The bristling sound carpet seems organic and natural, with less of those resonant kick drums and snickering hi-hats. At its best, the constituent parts of Abri Cyclonique approach the loose grooves of Gil Scott Heron or African Head Charge. ‘Levé Yo Mano’ was recorded where Polobi was discovered, at Kiavué’s house. Do I detect more confidence? That muscular bleat is a smidgen more dynamic than on the other tracks recorded in a studio, those melodies launched a little higher. It’s on this track that we might have approached the qualities of the cassette tapes. 

The process behind Abri Cyclonique is nothing new. Sister Gertrude Morgan is an artist who, like Polobi, wrote songs around vocals and a single drum (in her case a tambourine). An album she recorded in the early 1970s, Let’s Make A Record, was picked up in 2005 by the Ropeadope label. Although she was never taken to the studio to record (she died in 1980), a record label added drum machines, electronic processing, and a certain gospel-psych feel to the sparse recordings she’d made. Similarly, after Polobi’s vocals had been recorded, “production was entrusted to Liam Farrell aka Doctor L”. A quote in the liner notes also runs: “This music is moving forward,” agrees Polobi, for whom this excursion into the electronic world is a first. Although he adds: “But in the end, the spirit of gwo ka remains!”

The spirit, as far as it’s been presented in tracks like ‘Bouladjel’ and ‘Levé Yo Mano’, has remained, but perhaps in other sections been diluted – or even obscured. Andrew Weatherall once said remixing Can would be like putting arms on the Venus de Milo. Weatherall’s comment is particularly pertinent to Polobi and Sister Gertrude Morgan. It suggests that, though the essential spirit lives on, needless appendage has been added. That Polobi’s music has been recorded and transmitted does in no way diminish it. To suggest otherwise is to exoticise both the man and outsider art in general (we all want to hear this stuff, and can basically put up with a bit of arrangement over-egging). But the peripheral elements of the music can obscure Polobi’s voice in both senses of the word: his particular timbre and grain, as well as the stories he tells. Polobi said that the Gwo ka drums are “our strength, our identity”, and the liner notes state that these drums “carry a message of memory and hope, a spirit of independence. The Gwo ka bears within it the stigma of slave society”. If that’s the case, shouldn’t they be more prominent on an album partly by the ‘Gwo ka masters’?

Irwin Chusid, the man who popularised and adapted the term ‘outsider art’, wrote that outsider artists are “performers who lack [an] overt self-consciousness about their art”. Regarding this, yet more questions are raised: Does the lack of self-consciousness pervade the physical nuts and bolts of the song as seen on a score or chord sheet? (We’re probably just around the corner from ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ being featured in an M&S Xmas advert, so watch this space). Surely part of this is down to the timbre of Daniel Johnston’s voice, the scratchy recordings, the recitations of his crayon-drawn, 1960s-style ditties. Without wanting this review to turn into pure exegesis, the liner notes, again, offer interesting context: Polobi “emanates an authenticity forged in the rare communion with the nature which he has made his kingdom”. Can it really be said that the busy, switched-on production reinforces this ‘communion with nature’ or ‘authenticity’? If anything it draws attention away from the Polobi’s tales of “The river, the birdsong, the wind in the trees” – i.e. one of the fundamental points of the album. Ironically, to find the songs in the backing-heavy tracks it can often feel like you’re searching past thickets of electronic texturing, through muddy bass, under a stifling, percussive canopy. 

That all said, the most important fact of this album is that it was discovered. Of all the questions thrown up by hitherto-undiscovered art that’s been repackaged, the main one is: Was it worth it? Here, the answer is a resounding yes. As abasing as it seems, if a Supreme collaboration brings Daniel Johnston to a new audience then it’s worth it. If people hear Sister Gertrude Morgan, albeit over the top of something Primal Scream-lite, then it’s worth it. Polobi is the same. Abri Cyclonique makes us think about how much art lies unnoticed, and how many decaying tape reels, notebooks, canvases, DAW project files, and sculptures are stacked haphazardly in some forgotten corner. Next time (and I hope there’s a next time) Polobi should be given more prominence and not ornamented with electronic baubles. But it is undeniably a net positive that this work was discovered. Here’s to more songs launched out of the forests of Guadaloupe.