Matana Roberts

Coin Coin Chapter Five: In The Garden…

The uncertainty at the heart of this five chapter in the Chicago experimantalist's ongoing project doesn't take anything from the distinctiveness of its author's compositional voice, finds Vanessa Ague

Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin series, now in its fifth chapter, illuminates the long tail of African-American history. In the US/Europe-based multi-disciplinary artist, composer and musician’s works, sounds and stories collapse into each other, blurring lines between past and present, genres and disciplines. Age-old folk songs transform into abstract, expressionistic melodies and stories that hail from years past feel like they could have happened yesterday. The success of the Coin Coin series has been its ability to blend its elements, letting the fiery rise and fall of soundwaves tell a story as much as Roberts’ words. With Coin Coin Chapter Five: In The Garden, Roberts takes on the theme of reproductive rights, chronicling the anxiety, frustration and tragedy that reverberates from an ancestor’s story into the current moment.

The record draws on the ensemble sound of previous Coin Coin entries like 2019’s Chapter Four, letting the sound of frenetic violin meld with blown-out saxophone, urgent drums and meditative piano, played by a ten-person ensemble including Kyp Malone, Stuart Bogie, Gitanjali Jain, Darius Jones, Matt Lavelle, Mike Pride, Ryan Sawyer, Corey Smythe and Mazz Swift. But with this chapter, Roberts’ music takes a more brooding and anxious mood, conveying a sense of the unknown and unknowability, rocking back and forth between certainty and uncertainty and between being heard and being drowned out.

Where other Coin Coin chapters have felt like seamless blends, Chapter Five is more jagged, seesawing between explosive and introverted moments. ‘we said’ opens the album with hollow, jangling pulses and eerie drones, while ‘different rings’ follows up with blaring, dissonant fragments that burst and bleed out. Elsewhere, ‘a caged dance’ follows the sound of a forlorn saxophone, building a lamentation, and ‘shake my bones’, one of the album’s standout tracks, jumps from dissonant fragments to wispy shimmers to a defiant melodic repetition. Each of these tracks effortlessly conjures the swirling feeling of needing to make a decision – and questioning your own being – never quite settling, always moving. 

But one repeating refrain sticks through all the ups and downs: "my name is your name / our name is their name / we are named / we remember / they forget.” The line first comes out matter-of-fact and off-the-cuff, it shrinks to a whisper, and then it grows into an explosion, layering into itself over and over again. Though history has passed, the stories remain, and the one thing you’ll always keep is your name – and your voice.

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