The Lead Review: Tristan Bath On Billy Bao’s The Lagos Sessions

Released on Michael Kasparis' Night School Records this week, Tristan Bath explores the mysterious world of Billy Bao and his experimental sonic portrait of modern Lagos

The population of Nigeria’s biggest city Lagos has recently been measured at over 20 million residents, making it easily the largest city on the African continent, and nestling it somewhere around the top 20 largest cities in the entire world. If noise and the avant-garde have achieved anything during the last few decades, it’s been to massage our eyes and ears in preparation for such 21st century moments of singularity; when exponential growth sees populations and cities explode in size, turning demographic line graphs from paltry Ben Nevises into towering unwieldy K2s. The insertion of modern urban textures so directly into this music goes back a long time, such as the moan and groan of Soviet composer Arseny Avraamov’s Simfoniya gudkov ("Symphony of factory sirens"), first performed in November 1922 in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. The symphony made use of a quite literal arsenal of flotilla foghorns, artillery guns, machine-gun regiments, hydroplanes, and all the city’s factory sirens to assemble a spectacular mass of industrial noises. Avraamov himself conducted proceedings, wielding a pair of flaming torches from up on high. However, the symphony is now nearly a century old (and was quite clearly engineered through sheer iron fisted bolshevism rather than a purer artistic will), so its vast scope and almost peaceful sense of space seem practically ancient, and utterly devoid of that modern sense of urban paranoia, or that claustrophobic wall of city noise. Most vital of all, Avraamov and the several generations of noise and industrial music that followed him were mostly unaware of the dissonance of urban multiculturalism.

Billy Bao is the project of William, a young Nigerian troubadour from Lagos who wound up landing in the Basque country’s largest city Bilbao back in 1986, and soon became one of the many agents of chaos in the city’s punk scene. Most punk of all perhaps, William doesn’t even really exist. He’s the creation of Basque musician Mattin, a long-serving noise artist who’s collaborated with the likes of Oren Ambarchi, The Dead C’s Bruce Russell, and Skullflower’s Matt Bower, and avows a vehemently anti-copyright, anti-capitalist ideology. The Billy Bao project has gone on to spawn several aptly confused releases since its inception. 2010’s Urban Decay released by PAN, and 2012’s Buildings From Bilbao were two of the more substantial artistic leaps forward. Both albums collaged the group’s red raw noise rock alongside lengths of confused conversation, studio rustling, field recordings, and swathes of silence into woozy and confusing concrète portraits of the city. Notably, a mid-2013 entry to The Guardian‘s excellent 101 Strangest Records on Spotify blog highlighted Urban Decay, describing "Nigerian band Billy Bao", completely buying into the existence of fictional band leader, William from Lagos.

Only a few minutes into The Lagos Sessions it’s clear that the Billy Bao project has been building up to this. In the manner of Buildings From Bilbao, it’s a beautifully scarred portrait of the Nigerian metropolis, but it’s surprisingly listenable for something both so radically experimental and coarsely textured. The production throws the listener about like loose change in a washing machine, hurling us quickly between angered screaming noise of the Hanatarash variety and passages of unsettling quiet. The addition of Lagos’ own sonic fingerprint take the whole rugged affair to the next level. Billy Bao travelled to the city for 12 days, recording in the local studio of Eko FM, and gathering material including contributions from a cast of local musicians such as Orlando Julius, former Fela Kuti Keyboardist Duro Ikujenyo, and Russo-Nigerian Afro-Jazz singer Diana Bada. There are practically no projects in existence that seem to have quite so starkly stared into the heart of a multi-faceted and culturally dense African city as an outsider, and come up with something that neither steals nor ‘appropriates’, yet still embodies its subject as wholly and honestly as The Lagos Sessions.

Cultural appropriation has been just one of the many complex issues to arise amidst the din of post-post-modernity’s moral self-probings, but it’s one that’s resonated increasingly deeply with the recent maturation of noise music criticism. For example, one blog post entitled Fascism and colonialism in the work of Cut Hands and Blackest Ever Black (just one of very many on the subject by the way, and none of them ever seem get published by a respectable site) targeted the works of William Bennet and his excellent Cut Hands project, suggesting its imagery was contributing to the concept of ‘African otherness’, and utilising the wonderfully vague adjectives of "troubling" and "problematic" to describe the project. (The article itself also seemed to view the billion strong population of the African continent as one great monoculture, failing to differentiate between even sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, let alone delving any deeper into the 54 distinctly different sovereign states of the continent).

While I find it hard to agree with such half-baked arguments, there has definitely been a fetishisation of certain African phenomenon in a wide variety of media – and it’s at its most reductive when it comes to poverty. Putting Mr. Geldof to one side, flick through any writings about the Congotronics movement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital Kinshasa – another city with a population in excess of ten million residents – you’ll more than likely stumble across a line referring to ‘rusty old speakers’ or gear built from ‘recycled car parts’. As if they’d all rather use $30k Dumble amps if they could. Bands such as Konono Nº1, Kasai Allstars, or Mbongwana Star utilise distortion with precisely the same understanding as Merzbow, Whitehouse, or even Jimi Hendrix. Even a brief delving into contemporary pop and dance music from central African regions (Ndombolo for example) reveals an all too familiar crisp and clean radio-friendly production to be the popular standard. Hardly music sewn together in shanty towns. Either way, to view The Lagos Sessions as anything other than a benevolent and honest document made on location would be “problematic”. It’s the avant garde cousin to Owiny Sigoma Band’s recent album Nyanza, which was made using similar methods some 3,000 miles to the East of Lagos, in the eponymous South-West regions of Kenya. Even compared to a country like Kenya though, Nigeria represents an especially complex mix of languages, cultures, ethnicities, and religions, with Lagos the epicentre. What better form of music to embody such a place than confused cut-ups mired in noise?

The four 15 minute ‘chapters’ of The Lagos Sessions form a blurry narrative somewhat in the shape of a diary. Chapter A opens to the confused and jarring recordings of sound artist Emeka Ogboh’s project Lagos Soundscapes, evoking the Lagosian wall of noise that greets anybody soon after their arrival at Murtala Muhammed International Airport. It then launches right into some ball-bustingly heavy guitar riffs from Mattin and co alongside a reading from widely celebrated Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s 1960 novel No Longer At Ease:

"Going from the Lagos mainland to Ikoyi on a Saturday night was like going from a bazaar to a funeral."

Busy walls of deep needle-burying guitar noise roar on all sides, supplemented by some truly mental drum playing from both Joel Isioma Okoh and Alberto Lopez Martin, sparring with the processed parps of Orlando Julius, twisted into a drooling monster. The rest of the first chapter slowly seeps out of the speakers with  improvised detritus including Yoruba Talking drum and a guitar, married with the eerily hushed and distant chants of Duro Ikujenyo. Like much of the record it comes to life when the pieces seemingly interlock by chance. The impression is that all the pieces were produced independently of each other, then brought together like the disparate channels of John Cage and David Tudor’s indeterminacy, beautifully criss-crossing at chance junctures. Chapter B documents the second day of our visit, opening with a mega heavy slab of heavy punk noise rock, before giving way to several lengthy snippets of sound artist Emeka Ogboh talking on the state of Nigeria with journalistic insight ("We are listening to ourselves now"). The final third ushers in a bubbling bleepy mass of generator noises behind the freestyle vocals of Diana Bada, occasionally punctuated into actually properly groovy passages with the addition of some percussion. Bada’s voice switches from quick fire rhymes to more haunted singing into the distance, and the generators fall silent as night falls.

The grab bag of noises and textures continues to expand throughout the album. Chapter C features more field recordings, as well as metallic bangings and woody rhythms, assisting a narrator through his life story, including a trek across the Sahara in search of pilgrimage to Europe. His delivery is manic though, and Orlando Julius’s tenor sax later enters, musing more calmly while the background grows sparser, and dub echo effects and employed to great effect on a handful of snare hits. News broadcasts off the telly and Muslim calls-to-prayer intervene halfway through, contrastingly painting the multi-ethnic, multi-religious country as both united and divided. Almost entirely solo, Julius plays gently and pensively until the chapter ends. It’s one of the most affecting moments on the entire record. Chapter D’s first half is another highlight, investigating the criminally unexplored region between the semi-groovy noise of Wolf Eyes’ Burned Mind and Nigerian rap. Spoken word artist Ambido yearns to life over some truly weird-yet-funky synthetic sounds. Lilting bass tones punctuate a slowly grooving bed of hisses and sawtoothed pads, while Ambido’s voice gets processed into the same monster heard on countless stories by US weirdo troupe The Residents. The seven minute song is the most potent mission statement of noise-rap this side of clipping. Ambido’s voice is slowly swallowed by a hurricane of fuzz and bloops, and the chapter closes with a ridiculous gnarled jam of guitar, drums, and vocal tribute titled "Eko ile" (Lagos my home). It’s so deep in the red (save a weird excursion in the centre of the song) that’s it tough to take. The jam burns like red hot fire, and after one final barrage, this Lagos experience is over.

The Lagos Sessions is one of those fortuitous projects, where both the aesthetic and the mission of an artist marry so perfectly it’s essentially impossible to imagine the task completed any more completely. Its closest cousin is perhaps Sam Shalabi’s Osama from 2003, where the Canadian composer montaged a mix of improvisations, surreal satirical poetry, and Arabic-tinged radio pop into a cohesive statement on the then current state of the Middle Eastern experience. Here the narrative is reduced perhaps even further, to little more than highlife rhythms, Lagosian voices, and the harsh crunch and hiss of the city, all sewn together like Burroughs rifling through newspaper snippets on the floor of his apartment in the search for that next sentence. The results are as inviting and fresh and listenable as they are rotten and harsh and challenging, blending musical characters that have never yet been properly introduced. As a portrait of the infinitely interesting chaos of modern Lagos, it’s hugely valuable, but as an expansion of the aesthetics of noise, punk, and concrète, The Lagos Sessions could end up labelled a decisive moment in years to come.

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