Matana Roberts

Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis

Matana Roberts returns with another instalment in her acclaimed Coin Coin project, this time eschewing the solo aspect of its predecessor, in favour of backing from a new band

Matana Roberts’ twelve-album Coin Coin series is a mammoth undertaking, combining written scores, improvisation, storytelling and performative theatre, that has already produced three works of stunning originality. Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres, was recorded with a fifteen-piece backing band. Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile, reduced the numbers to five, but added operatic tenor vocals in the form of Jeremiah Abiah. Chapter Three: River Run Thee, was the most collage-like, a solo venture that most accurately expressed Roberts’ own definition of ‘panoramic sound quilting’ and added additional emphasis on her unmistakable narrative voice.

For Chapter Four: Memphis, Roberts is backed by a new band, featuring Land Of Kush and Dwarfs Of East Agouza’s Sam Shalabi on guitar and oud. Fiddle, accordion, trombone, vibraphone, clarinet, double bass, jaw harp and bells also appear in the mix, added to Roberts’ wonderful alto sax and distinctive vocal. It’s another essential instalment in a series of albums that sound like little else, outside of themselves.

Roberts has described Memphis as “twenty-first century liberation music,” and it’s easy to see why. Opening track, ‘Jewels Of The Sky: Inscription’, acts as a kind of banishing ritual with its vibrational, aum-like vocal, percussion pattering like rain and a lyrical swell of saxophone. Banishing rituals are used in magick to create safe spaces for sometimes dangerous workings. Ritual magick (the art of causing change to occur in conformity with will) and performance art are both primarily concerned with the expression of operator intent in a non-standard setting. Both use forms of invocation or evocation. Or as William Burroughs saw it, magick is a form of “behavioural cut-up”.

Having established that space outside of everyday reality, the music shifts considerably. ‘As Far As The Eye Can See’ is a controlled cacophony of honking trumpet and trombone, fast drum rolls dying down to the twanging of a jaw harp with Roberts’ vocal beginning a refrain that runs throughout the album like a connecting thread: “I am a child of the wind, even daddy said so.” Roberts’ narrative has a fractured form that both requires and rewards the listener’s active engagement. Certain phrases repeat and develop over time but not necessarily in a linear fashion, though the themes themselves are almost inescapably obvious. “Going to church, we always had to sit in the back, dressed in our very best, it seemed wrong…” Roberts intones, her spoken word taking on a sung quality in parts.

‘Trail Of The Smiling Sphinx’ is the longest piece here, at almost ten minutes. Like the majority of the music, it’s far from an easy listen. A jarring vocal of intoned sounds rises amongst a stuttering drumbeat. A guitar sound with an African quality washes up against a strain of Appalachian-flavoured fiddle. The music is swirling and uncertain, as if tectonic plates of sound were colliding, creating new and unstable registers. Roberts’ narrative mirrors this process: “Life goes on like the mighty water on its way to the gulf, sometimes calm, sometimes dashing, waves high”. Describing a moment of longed for justice, in a fantasy that betrays the unpalatable nature of the actuality underlying it, Roberts relates: “her eyes would light up and lips curl, when she told me of the heaven where black folks could enter any of the twelve pearly gates. And they walked on streets of gold and they all had shoes”.

Several instrumental pieces follow. ‘Shoes Of Gold’ offers a welcome shift in the sound palette with the introduction of vibraphone. ‘Wild Fire Bare’ settles into a relatively smooth groove after a tumultuous start, and as such is a standout track musically speaking. ‘Fit To Be Tied’ mutates into a kind of woozy big band, with a New Orleans feel. ‘Her Mighty Waters Run’ is another high point, with deeply affecting, multi-tracked vocals singing: “Life goes on for as long as it lasts. We’ll roll the old chariot along, and we’ll all hang on behind.” ‘All Things Beautiful’ returns to the narrative voice, describing a different kind of ritual, one where “they were all wearing those strange hoods over their heads again”. ‘Raise Yourself Up’ matches the strength of the title’s sentiment with the album’s most propulsive piece of music yet, and the intoned message: “You are proud of who you are”. Finally, ‘How Bright They Shine’, returns to an atmosphere similar to the opening track, closing the loop and encapsulating the experimental evocation of the recording.

This is another incredible addition to Roberts’ Coin Coin project, and one can only assume that when the 12-album cycle is completed, it will be regarded as a singular masterpiece of twenty-first century sonic and narrative art.

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