Wednesday 10 August 2022

Hip-Hop, Genre and History: Pink Siifu Live

Pink Siifu and Tha NEGRO Alive Experience
Southbank Centre, August 6th 2022

Part of the ongoing show In the Black Fantastic currently on display at the Hayward Gallery, just round the corner of the Southbank’s concrete maze, the setting for this summer gig was an unusual one: the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall had been transformed into a gig space, with a stage set up in a corner and people wandering round the edges into the zone where the music was happening. This perhaps affected the vibe of the show—people wander around, find it hard to focus, the open-plan setting risking relegating the stage itself to a kind of background item. But perhaps that’s also the point—the music as part of a social environment, albeit one bracketed by ticket prices and cultural expectations. Trying to channel the vibe of a party inside an art space makes for an odd feel: but increasingly, as hip-hop and R&B artists enter the artworld, these are the social dynamics that the music has to reckon with. “Make some noise if you’re working class”, Goya Gumbani shouts out at one point in his set. About ten people respond.

Opening act muva of Earth led a solid, jazz-tinged band in songs about nature, positivity, and self-acceptance, accompanying herself on a couple of numbers on rippling, Alice Coltrane-esque harp, alongside the band’s trumpet, acoustic bass, cello, keys, and a drum machine. The music knows its vibe and stays there: a kind of hinterland between jazz, particularly the gentler end of the Afrocentric music of the sixties and seventies, (neo-)soul and R&B: a soundscape shaped by the sounds of the past as connotating a certain mood, a feeling successfully transmitted. That channelling of the sounds of the past as vibe—encountered as much through samples as through—in Goya Gumbani’s set. Another jazz-tinged band—bass, guitar, keys, and again, a drum machine—launched in with one of the familiar Ahmad Jamal samples prevalent in ’90s hip-hop. In their use by the likes of Pete Rock, those samples suggested a kind of critical nostalgia—the music of a prior generation, now often associated with middle-class attainment, repurposed to soundtrack contemporary urban realities. I wonder what their replaying now signifies, and how the relation between these different layers and levels of musical history relates to the broader project of the Black Fantastic exhibition. What attitude toward history might be taken here? Perhaps, though, these questions are too much for any one show to handle. London-based but Brooklyn-raised, Gumbani’s delivery tends towards a gentle upward inflection at the ends of line, as if every line were at once question and statement; the music gently strolls along at a jazzy mid-tempo. Gumbani is an engaging stage presence: the vibes are invariably good, even if the set lasts perhaps a little too long.

The pairing of the opening acts with Pink Siifu is in some ways a strange one. Presumably, they were chosen because all reference jazz within a context also shaped or inflected by hip-hop. But Siifu, it seems, has an entirely different sense of what jazz is. He can do mellow—and on other projects proves well capable of delivering the sort of woozy, jazz-sampling, gently mumbled post-Cloud Rap soundscape recently popularized by the likes of Earl Sweatshirt, Mavi, Mike, and producers like The Alchemist. But for this project, based on his incandescent 2020 album NEGRO, jazz, when it appears, is associated with a strain of politically-inflected Black experimentalism about as far from mellow as can be imagined. On the album—a sprawling of twenty tracks, doubled in number in a subsequent Deluxe edition—Siifu’s vocals—often distorted and buried in the mix—move through churning guitars, bursts of free jazz, everything from Amiri Baraka’s ‘Nation Time’ to the Black Panther Coloring Book, in response to the wave of police violence and the rebellion against it in the United States during the spring and summer of that year. NEGRO often challenges the distinction between music as energy, pleasure, and excitement, and music as reaction to trauma: notably on ‘ameriKKKA, try no pork’, where news reports on racist police killings build up into a chattering, feedbacked backdrop. Its opening words recounting a killing streamed live on Facebook, the track sparks reflection on the spectacular mediation of anti-black violence, the scopic fantasies delineated in David Marriott’s Haunted Life. Live, the news fragments form the introduction to an energetic number in which Pink Siifu encourages the audience to rock out, uneasily blurring the boundary between aesthetic pleasure and spectacle of blackness and class with which the history of hip-hop, and its representation in white-controlled media, has played such a pivotal role.

‘Tha NEGRO Alive Experience’ include a number of musicians who collaborated with Siifu on the album itself; this group previously toured Europe last year, but the music hasn’t grown old in that time. Chris Williams plays trumpet—often heavily processed—channelling the hard edge of seventies Miles Davis, where the trumpet seemed to swallow itself and be reborn as a kind of hybrid guitar/hornet/cornet. Many numbers are drenched in Grant Jefferson’s guitar feedback and Parker McAllister’s booming electric bass, while drummer Mekala Session. Siifu himself, wearing a vest and giant skiing goggles, moves round the stage, an electric presence even when he’s letting the band have their say. He functions as catalyst, bandleader, and lead singer, but he’s also part of a group: the energy is collective and shared. That energy draws much of its sound and fury from hardcore punk: ‘Run Pig Run’, played early on in the set, is a good example. Siifu encourages people to mosh at the end, and they do. But the music consistently refuses both genre and a stable pattern of mood or tempo. Following a high energy number, the band switch into a ballad on gentle guitar strums, but cut it off before people can settle in. A number from Siifu’s newest album, Gumbo—its title aptly suggesting his musical aesthetic—gets reconfigured from smooth and mellow to gnarly and edgy.

On both NEGRO and Gumbo, Siifu takes the feel of the contemporary, online playlist, whether curated or algorithmic—constant switches, a logic that’s sometimes rendered more subliminal than apparent—and takes it somewhere else. The music constantly chafes at the constraints of the well-crafted pop: the songs are too long or too short for smooth narrative trajectories, more like shards of avant-garde poetry than crafted short stories. Likewise, it has an ecstatically coruscating sense of the relation between genres, and of the signifiers—particularly racialised—that genres contain. In interviews, Siifu has invoked—among others—George Clinton, Sun Ra, Dungeon Family, and Bad Brains, to the latter of whom the guitar-based punk energy of this show is clearly akin.

This kind of thinking is not new. In the late sixties, Amiri Baraka’s essay ‘The Changing Same’ suggests a kind of united front of Black Music, from free jazz to R&B, putting this into practice on his album It’s Nation Time-African Visionary Music a few years later. Siifu’s invocation of Baraka’s ‘nation time’—here a kind of mellow, spaced-out reflection that sounds as if Siifu is either flying or floating from the heights or from subterranean depths—suggests an ongoing reckoning with musical strategy deeply imbricated in the ongoing history of anti-racist struggle in—and beyond—America.

Hip-hop is over four decades old. Siifu channels its original, hybridising spirit—not as a recognisable genre as such, but an assemblage of elements from seemingly incompatible sources, channelled through the verbal and moral authority of people who use their voice as instrument or the instrument as a voice, whether speaking, rapping, singing or screaming--all of which Siifu can and does do. Listening to and moving with Siifu’s relatively short set—perhaps thirty minutes in length—I also think of Miles Davis, whose music of the ’70s the seventies and its kinship with the hip-hop generation was so memorably chronicled in the writing of the late Greg Tate. At times, in spirit as much as in sound, the music also channels the various New York-based Downtown scene fusions of the early eighties, with its interface of jazz, punk and no wave, or the equivalent scene of British experimentalism, from The Pop Group to God, in which vocals are treated as a kind of structural or instrumental element, breaking down definitions of what we mean by ‘song’. Pink Siifu’s music is clearly what might be labelled ‘experimentalism’, even as the term ‘experiment’ is a misnomer: it draws on numerous predecessors, follows an exciting and still-relevant lineage. Is it an art music or a popular music, and is that an either/or question? The gig took place in a gallery. The music is available for free online: the record or cassette will set you back double figures. Whatever all this tells us about the future of hip-hop, its intersection with class, with social space, and with the available frames for art, Pink Siifu’s music is a real force, and this gig gave a good snapshot of its energies.

Friday 5 August 2022

Time Jumping Over Itself: Roscoe Mitchell in London, June 2022

Wigmore Hall, 28th June 2022

Roscoe Mitchell: saxophones
Simon Sieger: trombone, tuba
Kikanju Baku: percussion
Dudu Kouate: percussion

No-one does abrasiveness quite like Roscoe Mitchell: his tone, on numerous saxophones, sharp and sour, each note sounded out into space like a rock dropped in water, his approach to form bordering on the ascetic, a calculated restraint, in which the space between the notes is, as the familiar adage goes, as important as what’s played around those spaces. For this concert at the Wigmore Hall, the 81-year-old Mitchell, on alto, bass, and curved soprano saxophones, along with a rogue piccolo, was joined by Marseilles-based Simon Sieger, on trombone and a giant borrowed orchestral tuba, and two percussionists, Kikanju Baku and Dudu Kouate. An unusual set-up which balanced the chamber music timbres of his composed, new music works with the structural openness of Mitchell’s improvised work, the range of registers allowed by the array of horns allowing an expansive play between high and low sounds, encouraged by the Wigmore’s excellent, chamber music acoustics.

Played over two long sets, this is music of intense focus. It begins with Sieger’s throat singing and Mitchell blowing some spare notes on curved soprano saxophone. “Time to move on, perhaps”, Mitchell suggests, and Sieger, picking up the trombone, sits there holding it in silence for some minutes. Much of the contribution the musicians make is about listening: we’re beyond the logic of the solo and the showcase, into the world of sound and silence. As the percussionists set up a transparent wall of sound, Mitchell leans forward into the bass sax—an instrument so big he has to play it sitting down—and blows a single note. He sits back and folds his arms, eyes closed, listening. A pause, and then another note. He sits back once more. The enigmatic space between enigmatic notes erases linearity while forcing us to listen for linearity all the more. The notes form a kind of dispersed melody, each one an entity, a world or even an entire piece in itself, yet also part of a structure that could, potentially, extend infinitely. This is Mitchell’s gnomic method in a nutshell: his tone sharply precise and yet woozily loose; the structure intensely focused and open to any direction, within a self-limiting set of confines.

By contrast, the two percussionists provide a veritable forest of sounds and textures. On one side of the stage, Kikanju Baku leans over a drum kit with expanded gongs, bells, and wooden and plastic cowbells; on the other, Dudu Kouate deploys a whole array of sound-making devices, from a giant gourd filled with water to cymbals and gongs, flutes, a thunder-maker, and bowed crotales. Sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, Kouate in particular draws the audience in like a magnet. At one point, he starts swinging a pink whirly-tube—more officially known as a corrugaphone—over his head, narrowly missing the Wigmore’s vase of plants and the top of Sieger’s tuba, and setting in motion the aethereal strains of the harmonic series. At another, he submerges flutes attached to plastic bottles in the water-filled gourd so that they’re played by the water itself. None of this, however, feels like showmanship: Kouate’s playing throughout is characterised by a profoundly melodic sense, whether varying the pitch on a drumhead to play counterpoint with Sieger’s horns, or in dialogue across the stage with his fellow percussionist.

During the second set, Mitchell finishes an alto excursion to be met by a single audience member’s vigorous applause: weathering the interruption, he follows up with a piccolo solo that touches on the repertory associations of the solo ‘classical’ flute repertory yet ends up—and starts from—somewhere entirely different. He puts it down, never to take it up again. The music is like that: discrete moments, self-contained, yet bleeding into each other with cumulative intensity. It’s not about narrative, momentum, or progress, though some of the most effective moments contrast Mitchell and Sieger’s slow, fractured melodic counterpart with regular percussion rhythms, paradiddles and polyrhythms, a kind of elongated procession, pausing for thought along the way. Time’s doesn’t so much stand still as jump over itself in somersaults.

In rehearsal, Sieger notes afterwards, the band spend hours playing scales, and Mitchell duly plays a major scale to close the first set. In the second, I swear I hear him perform a kind of cubist reconstruction of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. These moments—a kind of refractive woodshedding, at once private and instantly accessible—seem to lie behind Mitchell’s playing even at its most rhythmically-staggered and tart. Strangely familiar or familiarly strange, they echo the kinds of playing you do when you’re starting out, or the singing you might do to yourself at quiet moments—a point of access at a point of privacy, a threshold over which to enter the music. There’s humour here, and what I would go so far as to call love: a love that manifests in listening, in attentiveness, in a sharing no less meaningful for its sometimes thorny difficulty, and perhaps all the more so. And then, suddenly, Mitchell and Sieger launch into the Art Ensemble’s familiar theme tune, ‘Odwalla’, as he calls out the names of the band members. In the row in front of me sit a father and three teenage sons. Throughout, they’ve been totally with the music, even at its most abstract points. As they hear ‘Odwalla’, they nod their heads in knowing acknowledgment. Coming back to its roots for replenishment, this conclusion, as ever, is only temporary: renewal and resting point, only the latest stage in the ongoing journey.