[photo by Jaclyn Campanaro]
It is infrequent that an Oregon-based experimental pop trio becomes a hit in Niger. Portland’s BRAINSTORM (all caps everything), however, are just that – proper cultural anomalies. Today, they are sharing their Niger-approved track “Vanessa” via a 7” split release with musician Mdou Moctar off Sahel Sounds Records.
Invisible Children Music loves a bit of cultural exchange, so BRAINSTORM has our attention.
In 2011, Chris Kirkley of Sahel Sounds Records, dedicated to exposing music from West Africa, released a compilation called Music from the Saharan Cellphones featuring a collection of songs he discovered on cellphones during a trip to Kidal, Mali. In an area where vinyl melts and computer access is limited, the common method of music distribution is exchanging SIM-cards via bluetooth cellphones. (We see you, M.I.A.) Within months, Kirkley’s findings took over the Internet and inspired droves of musicians to re-write, tweak, and cover the original tracks.
BRAINSTORM, comprised of Adam Baz, Patrick Phillips, and Tamara Barnes, jumped on board, doing variations on two songs by auto-tune-adoring guitarist Mdou Moctar. The band re-wrote Moctar’s “Anar” into a new track called “Vanessa.”
We had a quaint e-mail interview with drummer, keyboard-er, and singer Adam Baz about the Moctar collaboration, future culture-clash projects, and the need for quotation marks when discussing “world music”:
Invisible Children Music (ICM): What initially drew you to Chris Kirkley’s Music from the Saharan Cellphones, specifically Mdou Moctar’s tracks?
Adam Baz (AB): As a band, we are long-time followers of African music, particularly field recordings, weird psych and pop, and most things that fall outside the commercialized box of “World Music”. We first discovered Chris’ compilations at a local favorite record store, Mississippi Records, and were immediately struck by the idea of SIM-card music trading and the global cellphone revolution. Mdou’s tracks were particularly compelling due to the sincerity of his catchy love ballads, and his heavily auto-tuned vocals. Auto-tune is so prevalent in contemporary radio pop, and it was exciting to hear it used in a totally different context.
ICM: Can you describe the process of re-writing the lyrics to “Anar?” Were you attempting to guess what exactly the words were, or were you just trying to construct a coherent song?
AB: I was unsure of how to rework the lyrics initially, as I had no idea what Mdou was singing about (due to the language barrier). So I decided that the most faithful way to interpret them was to write English lyrics that most closely resembled the literal sounds of the original words. So I listened to the song on repeat, writing my own lyrics that were a close phonetic match to Mdou’s. What resulted was a string of English words that make very little sense linguistically, but share the cadence and acoustical qualities of the originals.
ICM: The original lyrics of “Anar” are pretty similar to the re-worked “Vanessa” lyrics. Did you have a feeling you would create a similarly-themed song?
AB: We had no idea that “Anar” was a love song when we started re-working it, so I was excited and surprised to find that the lyrics I rewrote were eerily similar to his in content. Some kind of cross-continental sub-consciousness at work maybe…
ICM: Can we expect any further West African collaborations from BRAINSTORM?
AB: Absolutely. We are working with Sahel Sounds and Mdou on an event for the Time Based Arts Festival in Portland this September. And we are in the process of applying for a grant through the Nigerien Embassy, to go to Niger and record and play with Mdou in person! We hope to keep working with him as much as possible. Our original music is very inspired by west African guitar playing, so the collaboration is particularly inspiring for us. Our upcoming full-length Heat Waves (out October 2nd on Tender Loving Empire) is subtly laced with African highlife and Tuareg influence, while still under a banner of contemporary art-pop.
ICM: What are some other bands // projects out there doing “world music” correctly like you all?
AB: Glad you threw ‘World Music’ in quotation marks there. We try to be careful throwing that phrase around, as there is a lot of overly-commodified African music, tailored for western ears and wallets, that we aren’t particularly inspired by. But bands like the Dirty Projectors, Delicate Steve, Akron/Family, and even Lightning Bolt have been referencing non-western music in really cool ways.
There you have it. We are officially geeking out over BRAINSTORM and their authentic blend of influences. Listen to the two tracks off the split, and visit the links below to see how you can support.
“Anar” – Mdou Moctar
“Vanessa” – BRAINSTORM
The Vanessa/Anar split is out now on Sahel Sound Records. [here]
BRAINSTORM’s event for the Time Based Arts Festival is on September 10. [buy tickets here]