Combine a long-standing rock artist, some very current Kiwi vocalists, a rapper or two, a Sudanese culture and set it all in the sub-genre of electro dance, and what do you have? An awful lot of buzz about the latest album from Jon Toogood’s own musical vehicle, The Adults. It’s called ‘Haja’ – the term derived from Arabic to mean ‘the pilgrim’ or ‘higher’, but also a title often given to an older woman, or ‘blessings of the woman’s ancestors’.
Writing in the album notes, Toogood describes ‘Haja’ as being inspired by Aghani Al Banat, or “girls’ music” – joyful, rhythmic, traditional Sudanese music that focuses on women’s lives and stories.
There’s gold just in the story behind the genesis of this album. The vocalist and vocal frontman of legendary Kiwi rock act Shihad quite recently married a Sudanese bride, the daughter of UN Diplomat, and in doing so immersed himself into Sudanese culture – he fell in love with the music played at a Sudanese traditional bridal dance at his own wedding.
Toogood recorded many samples on his phone, packaged some demos with co-producer Devin Abrams (adding Western instruments to the mix), sent files to some fellow Kiwi artists for vocal additions, et voila, a new The Adults’ album was born!
The wonderfully rock and roll thing about all of this, is that Aghani Al Banat is the sound of the Sudanese working class.
“The post-colonial state in Sudan has been seeking tight control over women’s power and privilege”, says Saadia Malik, and Aghani Al Banat is often used as a cathartic/protest voice. Unlike other music that gets aired on national Sudanese media outlets, Aghani Al Banat is never played on the radio, so ironically perhaps it is freer to challenge the status quo.
‘Haja’ is a celebration of womanhood, identity, race and female power, and honours the idea of Aghani Al Banat in a very Kiwi way. It probably couldn’t have come at a better time. This X-Factory article will look at some of the musical features that makes the album killer. The focus here is on three songs, Bloodlines, Take It On The Chin and Like The Moon. But before you read any further, it may be prudent to listen to some Aghani Al Banat music, performed by Alsara, a Sudanese-American singer, songwriter and ethnomusicologist.
Bloodlines is primarily built around the 3 against 2 polyrhythm or Tom Tom rhythm as described by Saadia Malik. The Aghani Al Banat sample contains hand clapping and drum playing that you initially feel in 3. When the bass and drums enter 20 seconds in, the groove shifts to a 2 feel, which is akin to turning the beat around – a rhythmic ‘slap in the face’.
Polyrhythm stems from Africa and even though Sudan is highly influenced by Arabic culture too, it is reassuring to hear it in ‘Haja’. Bloodlines features Estère and JessB and the vocal message is strong. ‘I know I can make it, if we breathe higher than fear.’
The synth bass line acts as a drone and provides an ominous backdrop, congruent to the meaning of the song. The two main sections of the songs bounce between a feeling of darkness and light, warning and hope, and this binary pattern is integral to the track, musically onomatopoeic perhaps to the inner conflict that we all have a sense of.
Take It On The Chin is reverse engineered, in the way that the sample that inspired the track has been removed and replaced completely with NZ performers. It features MAINZ graduate Kings on vocals, who reportedly wrote and recorded his part in under half a day.
Kings’ vocal persona is always honest, characterised perhaps by the intentional cutting short of his syllables, and his almost continuous use of assonance in his rhythms.
The production is interesting with the use of harmonies, octave doubling, and stop breaks to stress particular lyrics such as, “I’ll find that out” (10s), “In the end we in the same boat” (1m25s), and “I hope you’re ready for a war” at 1m30s.
The track uses analogue style synths and multi-layered guitar parts. Generally speaking, it is the minutiae of the detail that adds interest to an otherwise repetitive but solid and driving groove. For example, pockets of vocal treatment e.g. 40s, a balance of sparse verses and harmonic choruses (using a Brahms-esque IVm-I progression e.g. 1m 53s), and careful antiphonic guitar lines (1m 34s) add a subtle complexity. In addition, it’s not difficult to imagine the Sudanese sample which formed the muse of Take It On The Chin.
In stark contrast to Take It On The Chin, Like The Moon predominantly comprises two Aghani Al Banat samples, supported but not overpowered by drums, synth pads, guitar, and bass. Harmony (by way of a quasi skank pattern (e.g. 59s) built around C Aeolian mode (Cm, Eb, Fm chords).
Classic build-drop techniques found in electronic music occur on this track, separated by sections only consisting of bass and drums. Synth pads are very effective here, adding colour tones such as 9ths and 11ths to an otherwise stationary harmonic palette (e.g. 1m58s). Melodically, the most effective section starts 2m10s were F#, or the #11/b5, an unusual choice (outside the blues anyway) to end a line with; this has quite a haunting effect.
I wish I had the skill to be able to translate the lyrics being sung in Like The Moon, but on a purely aesthetic level the mood seems powerful and hypnotic – music does seem to be the universal language!
Respect to the artists and origins of these samples is key to ‘Haja’. Even In the reversed engineered tracks, Aghani Al Banat still seems to flow through their veins.
It is wonderful that ‘Haja’ exists, in a world where more than ever we need music to mean something, stand for something, help us to become better. One might argue that if art exists as a philosophical medium to celebrate our idiosyncrasies and help us reflect on our flaws, then ‘Haja’ is an important album, delivered by an artist who seems to have done this reflection on behalf of us all.