INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Delusions Of Adequacy APRIL 11, 2014 - by Chris Eckman
ARTISTS ON ALBUMS: CHRIS ECKMAN ON MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS
As an echo of Brian Eno's love of random gestures and creative accidents, I close my eyes and open my dog-eared copy of Nigerian author Amos Tutola's 1950s novel My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and press my finger to the page. I then open my eyes and read forward a few lines. Actually, I repeat this process three times in all, not quite satisfied with the text I discover on the first two attempts. But the third try yields this: "As he was going hastily zigzag in the bush it was so he was dashing at both trees and hills and always mistakenly falling into the deep holes and several times he would jump on thorns unnoticed..."
This extract from Tutola's maze-like novel dreamily evokes the sonic disorientation I felt the first time I heard Brian Eno and David Byrne's namesake album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. I can still remember the LP spinning in my bedroom at college and feeling that I was somehow unprepared to absorb it. I had loved the previous Eno and Bryne collaboration - Talking Heads' Remain In Light - but this was a thornier proposition full of 'found' voices and rhythmic abstractions. Whereas the communal funk and polyrhythms of Remain In Light glowed and flowed, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts - released just a few months after the Talking Heads album though recorded before it - felt comparatively spiky and claustrophobic and even lacking that elusive sense of 'soul.'
Like many of my most loved albums at the time, my experience with Remain In Light had already started re-scrambling my record collection and my musical experiences. I had bought as many Funkadelic records as I could afford with my meagre student allowance. I had read an article where Byrne and Eno name-checked a book entitled African Rhythm And African Sensibility: Aesthetics And Social Action In African Musical Idioms by the American percussionist and scholar John Chernoff. Apparently it had been one of the catalysts for Remain In Light and I scoured the limited collection of my college library and the vast collection of the Seattle public library, looking for a copy of the book, but to no avail. I next started roaming the racks of my most beloved record shops looking for examples of the 'African music' that the band and their producer had name-checked as an inspiration during the album's inception. In Seattle in 1981, that was not an easy task, but I did I manage to snag a used copy of Nigerian drummer Olantunji's Drums Of Passion and found a few beat-up Nonesuch Explorer collections (I remember one having the word 'voodoo' in the title).
Finally, during one of my regular record buying afternoons, I heard a clerk playing something very extraordinary on the record store stereo. The rhythms and the voice quickly identified the song as being from Africa, but the arrangements seemed more translucent than those on Remain In Light, though still every bit as complex and contemporary. In a very High Fidelity moment I asked the clerk who it was. He said "Fela Kuti." I then asked about the price and he answered "it's not for sale." Disappointed, I shrugged away from the counter but remained in the store still listening. As the song played on, I sensed that the relationship between a Howlin' Wolf record and a Rolling Stones record was probably quite similar to the relationship between a Fela Kuti record and Remain In Light. I was hearing the source and my senses were on full alert, and I felt my musical tastes morphing in real time.
But no matter how transporting Remain In Light was for me, it didn't really prepare me for My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and as mentioned my first impressions of Eno and Byrne's album were not very positive. I, of course, did give it another listen if only because back then if I bought a record I had to commit some time to it. The investment was too great to be cavalier. As is often the case, after a few concentrated plays my opinion began to change, and after a few more I was completely entranced.
It was probably the opening track America Is Waiting that had thrown me off in the first place. It is still one of my least favorites, a stiff funk rhythm with scratchy electronic overlays and a 'sampled' talk show host repeatedly incanting "America is waiting for an answer of some sort or another." The political barbs seemed a little too simplistic to me even then.
But the magic of the album really starts to reveal itself on the third track, Regiment. Starting with a hard funk groove and atmospheric drones after a couple of minutes the song gives way to an astonishing Middle Eastern female voice. The dark, urban motifs of the music are seized by the emotive power of the singer. The ingrained signs and signifiers of our cultural programming are at first are rubbed wrong by this, but after a few repetitive cycles it starts to settle in, and eventually we float inside of it all.
The effect is an unwinding of the supposed continuum between past and future, traditional and avant-garde as well as First World and Third World. At the time of the release of the album some critics strongly questioned the ethics of this sort of juxtaposition. Is it right to strip traditional music or 'found' voices from their original contexts? This point does of course have some validity (though it should be noted that the samples were properly cleared) but then again from the perspective of the cyber-hyped world we live in now the ruckus seems almost quaint. The nerve net of communication we are surrounded with has almost made context a thing of the past.
Eno and Byrne's remarkable fusing of cold and hot, north and south, electro and handmade continues to unfold stunningly for the rest of the album. The most effective moments for me are when the appropriated voices establish their places in the duo's washes of sound and rhythm. The talk show preacher on Jezebel Spirit still scares the daylights out of me. The gospel singers on Moonlight In Glory are both disturbing and blissful. The voices play both against and with the backing tracks. Expectations are upended and new paths and connections become possible. There is beauty and there is dread and most of the time one is not sure which is which.
This album served as a full reset for me. As I drifted deeper and deeper into its opaque soundworld, I felt as though I had been given a more tolerant and curious set of ears. Quite literally whole worlds of music previously unknown to me started to come into focus and my earlier listening diet felt very dated as I raced past My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts onto new sonic adventures. Over the next year or so I wrestled with:
23 Skidoo, Grandmaster Flash, James Blood Ulmer, The Pop Group, Edikanfo, Rip, Rig & Panic, Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Pigbag, Material, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, The Bush Tetras, This Heat, CAN, Defunkt, ESG, Jah Wobble, Brian Eno and Jon Hassell's Fourth World Vol.1: Possible Musics, African Headcharge, A Certain Ratio, Miles Davis' On The Corner, Don Cherry, Steve Reich's Drumming and so on...
Though I may have eventually embraced some of these sounds through random exposure or via other catalysts, I am pretty confident that my path to them was in whole or in part guided by my experiences with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
And that story still moves forward. It is somehow appropriate that I am finishing up these paragraphs in a dim hotel room in Bamako, Mali. I have come to West Africa many times in the past years, first as a music-hungry traveller, then as a collaborator and producer and on this trip as a curator for Glitterbeat, the record company I co-own. This strange life detour is also certainly connected to the types of sounds I was opened up to by Eno and Byrne's album. In fact, that album eerily foretold a world much like the one that momentarily surrounds me.
Outside the temperature is well over a hundred degrees and the night air is densely laden with music. There are at least four different sound systems pulsing and colliding out of sync against the relentless traffic noise and the babble of chickens and goats and crying children in the adjacent yard. The sound is raw and distorted and contradictory. But it is also wildly intriguing: the random cross-talk of polyrhythmic hand drum beats, griot declamations, synthesizer melodies, n'goni syncopations and auto-tuned backing chants blending into a kaleidoscopic and haunted whole. For sure these sounds are not unknown to me; their ghosts have been with me for a very long time.
NOTES ON THE ARTIST
Since 1984 Chris Eckman has co-led The Walkabouts with Carla Torgensen. Originally birthed in Seattle, The Walkabouts have released a rich and eclectic body of work across thirteen studio albums, several compilations and a clutch of live records for the likes of Sub Pop, Virgin and most latterly Germany's Glitterhouse label. Having explored everything from cow-punk and desert-blues to country-rock and string-soaked orchestral balladry - and equipped with a masterful knack for cover versions - The Walkabouts continue to be an Americana institution with a genuine global reach.
In parallel to work within The Walkabouts, Eckman has also released a handful of solo albums, slipped out a raft of regular and self-released albums with Torgensen as the Chris & Carla duo, composed several TV/film scores and co-driven Dirtmusic (a group shared with erstwhile Bad Seed Hugo Race and - initially - Come's Chris Brokaw). Additionally, Eckman has also collaborated with and/or acted as a producer for the likes of Willard Grant Conspiracy, Tamikrest, Samba Touré, Steve Wynn and Midnight Choir (amongst many others); co-founded the African music-led Glitterbeat label; and established the Studio Zuma recording facility in his latter-day hometown of Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Most recently, Eckman has put out his first solo LP since 2008 (the dusty, raw and redemptive Harney Country via Glitterhouse) and two almost back-to-back Dirtmusic albums cut with local musical collaborators in Bamako, Mali (2013's Troubles and the newly-released Lion City, both on Glitterbeat). In-between various touring commitments and studio duties during 2014, Eckman is also preparing deluxe reissues of The Walkabouts' now hard-to-find Virgin-era albums - 1995's Devil's Road and 1997's Nighttown - for release on Glitterhouse this summer.