Some people are extraordinary singers and some people have extraordinary voices. As a vocalist Nyati Mayi probably falls into the latter bag, able to project a stunning range of notes, tones, textures and feelings often within the same song. The thing with an extraordinary voice is that sometimes it needs grounding, a foundation that prevents it from getting lost in confusion and unpredictability. By teaming up with DJ soFa (aka. The Astral Synth Transmitters), it looks like Mayi has found that anchor and as a result of the pair have produced ‘Lulanga Tales’, a record of tantalising electro- African fusion music (available on Bongo Joe from 16th September).
Multi-instrumentalist/singer Mayi and DJ/producer soFa have circulated within the same wild oscillations of the Brussel’s experimental scene for some time but it took the relative isolation of the 2020 lockdown to bring the pair together. One of the many musical snapshots Nyati posted on his Facebook page during those isolation days prompted soFa to put together a lo-fi remix version, ping it back to the source and from there the real action got started. They convened a series of long improv sessions, captured the wave-forms on tape and from these possibilities ‘Lulanga Tales’ emerged.
It’s an album that intrigues and entrances, often revolving around the phrases Mayi plucks from his traditional instruments, the lulanga (a harp from his Congolese heritage) and a three stringed Japanese shamisen. Layer in his ethereal almost free-form vocals, sung Jonsi-like in an inspecific, imagined language, plus soFa’s shifting synth based strata and another dimension of the Afro-Futurist universe has touched down on your turntable.
Opener ‘Elderflower’ introduces the more earthy, acoustic roots of the duo’s music. Drifting around Mayi’s patterned lulanga twangs and his circling vocal incantations, the hypnotic atmosphere drones on the edge of breaking the throbbing pace. Imploring chants raise the intensity with an agility close to Ustad Saami’s recent Glitterbeat releases, naturally twisting from throaty warble to soothing coo while soFa’s synths sparkle cosmically. From the off ‘Lulanga Tales’ is gently guiding you miles away from any new-age territory to some fantastic no-age, otherworld.
‘Cry Woman’ sustains the unsettling beauty of Mayi and The Synth Transmitters music with its more improvised electronica. While the percussive swish and echoing bass synth chimes dive around Congotronic pulls from Mayi’s strings, his vocals trill on a melodic pitch that eventually takes the song into flight. Tinged with whispers and at times squeezed with throat sung overtones, the singer’s trickery could become overbearing if set in a less intuitive context. Ok, at times things might seem to strain under the dynamics, as on the fragmented introduction to the title track, but the partners use these breakdown moments to loosen you up before wading into the harmonic sway of some gorgeous, oozing dubtronics.
Such subtle structuring helps ‘Lulanga Tales’ hang together, a record that has direction rather than drift and a balance that gets reinforced by the more beat focused tracks. The quizzically titled ‘Jungle Dwarf’ smoulders with a trip- hop glow, all rolling cross rhythms and sharp snare taps. Soon Mayi’s spell-making chants shape shift through yodels, grunts and the hint of a James Brown scream to ensure that no-one gets too cosy. Slightly more conventional, ‘Try Sunshine’ blends a strolling skank with the shamisen’s rustic riff, while dialling up the bass line and weaving in some curdling kosmische electronics. It’s an inspired dub fusion experiment.
As ‘Lulanga Tales’ reveals itself further it becomes clearer why Mayi and DJ soFa maintain that ‘complimentarity’ is at the soul of their music. What’s happening here goes beyond chemistry to something less defined and consequently more exhilarating. Closing track ‘Heart & Beatroot’ perhaps best captures this potent mix. Scaling up from dark-wave, industrial vibes to an urgent, pulsating disco stomp, the song has the same unhinged energy released by the new generation afro-beat makers. Characteristically Mayi’s hyperactive vocal pushes the frenzy further, rearing from a Serpentwithfeet crystalline falsetto to an effortlessly rhythmic scat rap, before the track and the album coolly zips itself up.
Belgium has history as a springboard for electro-African fusion music (think Mpunga and Paul K , the Crammed Disc catalogue or more recently Chouk Bwa & The Angstromers) and Nyati Mayi & The Astral Synth Transmitters only enhance that reputation. ‘Lulanga Tales’ is a boundary pushing debut and the signs are that this partnership are set for their own significant journey.
Get Your copy of ‘Lulanga Tales ‘ by Nyati Mayi & The Astral Synth Transmitters from your local record store or direct from: https://nyatimayi.bandcamp.com/album/lulanga-tales