Songs Of The Earth: Duval Timothy’s Meeting With A Judas Tree

The South London-based multi-disciplinary artist reconnects with the soil from Spoleto to Sierra Leone

Credit: Isabella Timothy

Living between Freetown and South London, Duval Timothy straddles diaspora and homeland, like many others in this generation of immigrants who have rekindled a connection with their roots. He explores these themes in much of his work, which spans music, visual art, textiles, cooking, and film. His 2018 album 2 Sim takes a head-on approach, directly referencing the cellular duality of living transnationally and drawing from field recordings of interviews with people in both areas. Meeting with a Judas Tree, his latest record, is more oblique in the way it treats the topic. Gone are the uninterrupted stretches of spoken word and explicit references to diasporic subjectivity. Instead, this is the result of Timothy wanting “to explore what the natural environment means personally.” But between the lines – in the break, as Fred Moten might have it – Timothy renders audible an entire world. A record about his experiences with nature in various locales (South London, Bath, Freetown, Spoleto, Ghana), Meeting with a Judas Tree catalogues his journeys across the Mediterranean and beyond and his relationship to the natural milieu of each.

So it is fitting that ‘Up’ and ‘Drift’ were composed in part during his time at the ‘Mahler, Song of the Earth’ residency in Spoleto. The term diaspora, after all, was originally popularised to describe the itinerant condition of Jewish people facing anti-Semitism; Mahler himself was not spared, having once been driven to New York by a hostile environment in Vienna. And as the residency was conceived “in the context of the global climate crisis,” the entanglements of land, nature, and forced migration drift to the fore of these songs influenced in part by the rolling hills of Spoleto. ‘Up’ takes an optimistic angle, decorating an ascendant melody with the pops and clicks of granite stones, snatches of conversation and breath, the crunch of footsteps. ‘Drift’ is more ambivalent, however. Its impressionistic piano line wavering in intonation as it disappears into the ether of vinyl crackle and reverb.

Timothy’s tried-and-true hip hop approach to minimalist piano loops remains the backbone of these tracks. Taken one way, his sampling could evoke the musique concrète of French composer Pierre Schaeffer; taken another, the practice follows in the tradition of DJ Kool Herc and his percussive prestidigitation. On ‘Mutate’, Duval Timothy moves between these seemingly orthogonal axes of sampling – one typically deemed Eurocentric, another deeply related to Black sonic practices – opening up new sound worlds. Guitar, strings, a Moog Grandmother, silver birch tree bark, all provide additional textures and rhythms that push these melodies into a dialectical sonic space between Richard D. James and Madlib. At over eight minutes, the track is a manifestation of Timothy’s dual tendencies.

Oddly enough, Timothy’s simultaneous subsumption and disruption of the Western canon finds other resonances with Mahler. Theodor Adorno, in a rather Orientalist characterization of Mahler’s work, noted that “the alienation effects in Das Lied von der Erde are faithfully imitated from the irritation that Far Eastern music unalterably causes the Western ear.” Such protestations seem quaint now. But resonances of these pentatonic “irritations” resurface, intentionally or not, on ‘Wood’, which features Chinese-Canadian Yu Su on piano. The two harness distortion and noise, turning aberration into something beautiful against the backdrop of purists like Adorno and the racial miscegenation theories that had similar effects on differently-racialised peoples. Glitches in Western modernity, Duval Timothy and Yu Su represent two different articulations of hybrid musicality.

In fact, many of the artists featured on this record are similarly transnational, one way or another: FAUZIA in London by way of Somali roots, Lamin Fofana growing up in Guinea and Sierra Leone before moving to the United States. These artists, as combined here, work from a place within the breaks of sound and genre that parallels their hybrid condition, resistant to categorisation. When Timothy is called a “white man” in Sierra Leone or Yu Su is labelled as a Canadian musician in the West, these efforts of classification along rigid binaries are as futile as trying to pin down, say, the sprawling improvisation on ‘Thunder’. As Martiniquan poet Éduoard Glissant once quipped about the opacities of diaspora, “to understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components.” Timothy’s sonic tapestries, then, are a potent example of such opacities made audible.

The immigrant condition might be characterised by the seemingly contradictory mobility it implies. But especially between the borders, checkpoints, and surveillance that mediate travel in the post-911, post-COVID state of exception, movement is rarely a smooth process. Timothy uses real life textures – the roughness of tree bark, granite, termites and their rupturing of wood – and translates them into sound, warping them in recognisable and unrecognisable ways. So these acousmatic sounds are not necessarily locatable without the added context of liner notes – just as one’s experience and relationship with land cannot be transmitted intact from one person to another, having to be mediated by the imperfect tool of language. Without the context that Timothy provides of, for instance, the granite stones in Sumalia Town that made their way into ‘Up’, it would be impossible to locate their sounds in the world. Yet abstracted from Timothy’s own unique subjectivity, these sounds take on a life of their own, their meaning reborn anew as they emerge in unfamiliar contexts.

Sampled by Solange, producing for Kendrick Lamar, collaborating with Vegyn and Mr. Mitch, Duval Timothy has travelled quite far via sound. But Meeting with a Judas Tree grounds his music in nature and location, at a conjuncture where questions of land are paramount. This year’s IPCC assessment projected that droughts could displace over half of Africa’s population by 2030. Duval Timothy’s attention on the miniscule – close-miking sounds imperceptible to the typical observer – brings into contrast the varying levels of scale at which nature operates. In the face of the daunting, global forces of capitalism and neocolonialism shaping the world, Timothy’s music is a balm. Meeting with a Judas Tree takes the musical directions he explored on Help and condenses them into just over thirty minutes, a distillation of Duval Timothy’s wildly diverse artistic practice into a project at once small and capacious.

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