Alien Materials: Lamin Fofana’s Blues

Taking inspiration from Amiri Baraka's seminal text *Blues People*, Lamin Fofana creates ethereal soundscapes channeling diasporic Black experience, finds Kashif Sharma-Patel

Blues starts with eerie electronic chirps, the wash of water running in static disarray and a brooding underbelly. Birdsong interspersed as wind blows past; ominous forebodings are marked by dissonant synth lines building into a plateau of hybrid sounds that sediment into an ethereal soundscape. The record is the final part of a trilogy of albums by by Lamin Fofana that linger on placelessness, ambience and race through the cipher of key theoretical texts. Blues in particular cites Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, a 1963 study of African American musical history and culture that develops a theory of Black life and sociality in the face of violence and commodification. Fofana’s challenge is one of transmuting text to sound.

Blues largely consists of ambient soundscapes cross-cut with archival sampling, electro-acoustic field-recordings and a cinematic sense of sound design. The album is book-ended by the tracks ‘After Rain’ and the fifteen-minute ‘And All The Birds Sing Bass’, both of which synthesise elements of organic and inorganic life into extended ambient soundscapes where rainforests are cybernetic systems and tropical mists glitch and stutter, dwelling in an expanded Minkowskian time-space.

‘Emanation’, too, follows this warped temporal line of play, operating almost like a short interlude where one can take a breath. Fofana is pushing us to think and feel breadth in that breath. ‘In The Ravine’ transports us to a windy, dusty plain of lumpen labour and an acoustic guitar playing rustic blues lines. The title track is perhaps the most insightful, a five-minute long vamp haunted by saxophone riffs that are interspersed with a ghostly rhythm section. A poetic voice is heard murmuring, wilfully opaque and reticent, hinting at jazz poetry and the refusal to articulate for the market.

Chino Amobi’s Airport Music For Black People might seem like a good counterpart to understanding what Fofana is trying to do here. Conceived partly as a response to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports, Amobi’s 2016 album for NON Worldwide channelled Black displacement and subjectivity as central to both musical and social endeavours, in a manner heavily at odds with Eno’s deracinated subject floating from node to node with seamless ease. This line of thinking would also act as a supplement to Simon Reynolds’ recent theorisation of the contemporary return to ambient music as part of a borderless, digital immateriality. Instead, Black diasporic experience and migratory patterns are formed under very different imperatives, from the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade to the contemporary refugee crisis. In Amobi’s world, ambience becomes a place of rest and thoughtfulness in a context far removed from Eno and Reynolds’ imagination.

But while Amobi and NON certainly cleared the ground for a future-club conceptualism predicated on racialised experience and radical subjectivation, Fofana’s work feels far more embodied, organic and intentional. The Sierra Leone-born artist’s modulation of placelessness and being as a Black subject through stripped back club sound holds kinship with the likes of Actress and fellow Berlin-based luminary Lotic. This is found particularly in the way space surrounds the music, like an architecture resonating, situating the listener within a liminal sense of incompleteness. Similarly, the stretches of silence, the yearning somatic restfulness of the music, which consistently works against the discomfort and violence of the everyday, is somewhat reminiscent of the work of Klein. One finds oneself moving in place.

The two previous parts of Fofana’s trilogy, Black Metamorphosis and Darkwater, were responses to the work of Sylvia Wynter and WEB Du Bois. While one might view this as just a conceptualist conceit, part of a wave of ‘conceptronica’ (another Reynolds formulation), you can find in Fofana an embodied sense of lingering that meditates on the nature of electronic music and race. What these conceptual traditions help to do is animate contemporary culture and social activity, and in doing so they create forms of consciousness that are historically-grounded.

In the context of the current Black Lives Matter protests worldwide and the movement for police abolition, forms of sociality are being reconfigured, often refashioning cultures of solidarity and social consciousness into strange new formations. Much of the groundwork of these socio-political irruptions has been developing for many years, and music too operates in a similar space. The work of artists like Fofana both reflects and sustains a critical contemporary culture that works towards liberation and joy.

Fofana has also branched out into art more formally with an exhibition this year at New York’s Mishkin Gallery with a mix of sound, image and film. One of the works produced for this occasion was a music video for ‘I Ran From It And Was Still In It’, a deeply meditative piece focused on the surrounds of trees, ripples of water and self-embodiment shot in stark monochrome. This move towards art and multimedia emphasises Fofana’s attentiveness to a wider strain of thinking at work.

Recent discussions around the Black (and queer) origins of electronic club music put into sharper relief the relationship of contemporary dance music and the conditions of its production. The question of appropriation has always been tied to commodification and the need to homogenise both time and experience, something actively resisted on the original dance floors of Detroit and Chicago.

Fofana’s exploratory sound design, evidenced in Blues and the full trilogy of records which it is a part of, situates a need for a thoughtful and grounded approach to the moving parts of contemporary electronic music and its wider relationship to the historical present – something only made more relevant as lockdown has brought nightlife to a standstill. In its stripped-back aloofness, one hears the rumble of a hardcore continuum embedded in a deftly crafted ambience, submerged under the tides of a white-washed mainstream.

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