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Album review: Fofoulah “Fofoulah” (FRUK)

September 18, 2014

Fofoulah album coverFormed just a couple of years ago by members of Loop Collective’s Outhouse Ruhabi project, Red Snapper and Iness Mezel, it was clear from the outset that Fofoulah was a band with an exceptional palette of musical ideas, influences and sounds at its disposal. Listening to 2013’s Bene Bop EP, it’s evident that the core members of the band (Batch Gueye, Tom Challenger, Phil Stevenson, Johnny Brierley, Kaw Secka, Dave Smith) had a pretty good idea of the music they wanted to make from the outset and Fofoulah, their eponymous debut album, demonstrates how far they’ve come to achieve that aim in such a comparatively short time.

The complex yet fluid polyrhythms of Senegalese/Gambian Wolof sabar drumming remain the heart and soul of Fofoulah, but this is not to downplay the wealth of other styles at the disposal of this immensely talented band. Dub basslines, spacey synths, jazz-tinged horns and nervy guitars mesh seamlessly with the west African rhythms over which a choice selection of singers (Batch Gueye, Ghostpoet, Kaw Secka, Iness Mezel, Juldeh Camara) add a variety of melodic and rhythmic contributions throughout.

The lengthy riff-driven opener No Troubles (Kelinte) leads with Hammond organ punctuating the relentless rhythms over which Phil Stevenson’s guitar ducks and weaves behind Batch Gueye’s dubbed-out soulful vocals. Sabar drums form the backbone of Hook Up (Nango Dereh), over which the horns float serenely while JuJu’s Juldeh Camara lends his distinctive voice to the chant; the seemingly intuitive interplay between his kologo and Phil’s guitar all combine to make one of the highlights of the record.

Batch Gueye returns to take the lead vocal in Make Good (Soumala), a simmering downtempo number with jazz-inflected unison riffing from Tom Challenger’s sax and the guitar. A ghostly synth choir wails in the distance as glittering samples wander in and out, around and between the syncopated percussion before Dave Smith and Kaw Secka’s disciplined drumming brings the brooding atmosphere to a tight and timely conclusion.

Johnny Brierley’s dubby bassline underpins the lilting Don’t Let Your Mind Unravel, Safe Travels as guest singer Ghostpoet, wreathed in smoky clouds of echo, muses about navigating the harsh complexities of urban life, while Phil’s intricate guitar and Tom’s ethereal synth washes lead the song to a delicately gauzy coda. The tempo picks up in The Clean Up (Rahas) with Dave’s measured drumming creating an endlessly shifting rhythmic platform for Batch Gueye and Kaw Secka’s powerful chanted vocal interplay. Iness Mezel introduces a different timbre to the mix on Blest (Issaâdiyen); her sweet and tuneful vocals adding a distinctly north African vibe to this sunny, percussive roller.

Fighting Chance showcases the percussive talents of Dave Smith and Kaw Secka in a short but intense polyrhythmic dance-off around which Tom’s analogue bassline and retro synths tiptoe like a referee in a boxing ring. Multiple backbeats give the impression that it could all unravel any moment: it never does, of course, but it certainly keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Reality Rek drifts in like a sandstorm on a hot wind with Dave’s cymbals hissing like snakes as Tom’s bluesy sax wails and Batch Gueye’s vocals summon the faithful. Phil’s hypnotic guitar and Kaw Secka’s percussion coalesce the disparate parts into a driving groove which draws on ancient rhythms and contemporary beats. This is the real centrepiece of the record, pulsing and alive, it draws the listener ever further in, to the point where its thunderous ending deposits you back in reality, wondering where the last seven and a half minutes went. By contrast, Last Orders is a short percussive break with the chatter of distant voices which acts almost as a coda for both the previous track and the whole album.

In Fofoulah, the musicians have drawn on a huge reservoir of cross-cultural backgrounds, friendships, instruments and styles to make a record which sounds quite unlike anything else around at the moment. It is centred in the present but never forgets its roots, in the process creating an infectiously joyous, playful and intelligent sound, trancey yet danceable, for me it’s one of this year’s most enthralling listens.

Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (18 September 2014)

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