Mikael Seifu


"But you cannot win freedom on instincts you can only win freedom on reason, therefore the unconscious are those that react on instinct, the conscious are those that react on reason. The job of the conscious is to make the unconscious conscious…"

Conscious, unconscious. Reason, instinct. Freedom, restriction. These are the dualities set up in the opening moments of Zelalem (meaning ‘Eternity’) in imposing philosophical intonations. It’s a quote which seems to reflect Seifu’s journey so far. As revealed in a Pitchfork feature last year, Seifu grew up in Addis Ababa, but an ambitious aspiration to make a considerable mark on the music industry – a desire only an unassailable, ingrained American mass culture can ignite – led him to America and a period of study in New Jersey. Although the brutishness of American life and it’s often unforgiving societal and economic conditions led to disillusionment, Seifu did end up enrolling in a music class, under the tutelage of Ben Neill, a former pupil of La Monte Young. It’s tempting to speculate that America as a cultural influence could resemble a source of unconscious conformism, of spirit-stifling mass media dogma, and of overbearing restriction for Seifu, with Addis Ababa – his reaffirmed home – a place where, for him at least, consciousness and liberation allows freedom and creativity to flourish. But such a simple polarity seems too much of an assumption. Neill, after all, is an American based composer and Seifu’s time in America seems to have been as decisively inspiring as it was fatefully discouraging.  

Neill is renowned for inventing the ‘mutant trumpet’, a hybrid instrument which started out as a kind of fortified brass arsenal (three trumpets, one trombone), something later amalgamated with electronics through a collaboration with Robert Moog. It’s an endeavour which seems underpinned by the intangible but vividly futuristic projections evoked by electronic music, and the earthly, corporeal, soulful expressions often found in music led by acoustic instrumentation. Those are the same auspices Seifu appears to have been operating under throughout releases for Dawit Eklund’s 1432 R label, and now for RVNG Intl.; a sound which pulls in opposing directions, acknowledging tradition whilst endeavouring to discover new ones, and in doing so offers up an expansive vision, like Mulatu Astatke, Francis Bebey, and Larry Heard’s airier moments brought into happy unison.

On Zelalem it’s the freeform and untethered which is explored, as opposed to the percussively ruffled but relatively dancefloor anchored material Seifu has previously produced. After the opening of ‘The Protectors’ seems to point to an ambiguous, erudite but meditative manifesto, ‘The Solipsist’ feels bathed in light, it’s skittering percussion trading contrast with a persistently radiant ambient-mysticism. After the similarly stuttering, lysergic string bleed of the introduction, it sounds like the arrival of a serendipitous vision in a sweltering landscape. A blissful awakening, as if Seifu has encapsulated in some small way his realisations concerning America, Ethiopia, and the presence/absence of personal spirituality he has experienced and identified in each of these places.

‘Soul Manifest’, a track featuring a guest turn from L.A. is pervaded by a similar sense of earnest, fervent optimism and is effectively another dosage of profound serenity, sprite and dazzlingly illuminated. In this instance however, the zen is punctured by the overreach of the vocals, which rap with a deliberated air and a cadence which suggests rhymes are clawed at rather than intuitively grasped. It’s a shame as the common hip hop theme – of expressing triumphant self-validation – is essentially rendered awkward and comes off like narcissistic neo-self-help waffle. It jars with the subtlety that surrounds it, even despite repurposing Biggie’s immortal "it was all a dream…" line.

Fortunately, there are no more instances of flat rap soliloquies, and with ‘How To Save A Life (Vector of Eternity’ there’s an immediate sense of captivation in its first few atmospheric and hushed moments. As it develops there’s an incredible, eye-widening feeling of sacred dread to the onrush of folkloric drums and strings that unfurl, the former barrelling away in indeterminate paces and the latter caught in an improvisational fever of chaotically shifting tones. It’s almost like a moody, impactful, riotously sped rendition of Don Cherry’s ‘Organic Music Society’ adapted with Jon Hassell’s conception of ‘Fourth World’ music in mind. Primarily though, it’s as rewarding for the head as it is for the body, cinematic and immersive but simultaneously rooted in a magnetic and enticing intensity.

‘Vector Of Light’, as Zelalem‘s conclusion, continues in a similarly vehement vein but draws nearer to the motifs that a UK or US audience might find familiar, it’s percussion not dissimilar from what you might find driving an Anthony Naples or Four Tet A-side. Yet gradually vocal incantations resound, setting off an influx of elements which pinball around each other, and the track is taken from a gleaming, uncertain divination into a space where clipped voices are piled into a reverberant glossolalia-like collage.

It’s almost as if there’s a day and night side to this record; the first three offerings defined by casts of resplendent light and the longer final two passages channelling something alluring but unnerving and crepuscular, an aspect which gives the record a mooring even in spite of the meandering tracks and fluctuating jazz-like dispersal of percussion that often dictates its course.

It feels somewhat salient to discuss the likes of Jamie xx and Four Tet at this point, as two major producers who have also transposed this shredded, gravelly style of micro house and UK garage onto their own productions. Kieran Hebden has also mentioned a love for spiritual jazz and various rare outer world records yet Zelalem – at least in regards to it’s final two tracks – feels infinitely more successful in bridging and hybridising those idents and interests into a sound which speaks of both flux and equilibrium. It draws from both worlds – that of Western dancefloors and traditional African music – without overly favouring or dulling either.

However, in this exploration there’s not an attempt to disparage what Seifu might find distasteful in his recollection of time misspent in America but an intent to glorify where he’s from whilst remaining receptive to the influences he’s picked up on his travels. Zelalem is the sound of someone joyfully realising where home is, and powerfully conveying a celebration of coming to that conclusion. The quote is apt, it’s all about consciousness.

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