ALBUM REVIEW: Soothsayers – ‘We Are Many’: conscious beats science for straitened times

SOUTH London’s Soothsayers come out of that vibrant as hell scene t’other side of the Thames that has brought us so many great records in this most trying of years – witness Huw Marc Bennett’s Afrojazz stormer, Tresilian Bay, and the cool and erudite stylings of  Scrimshire’s Believers Vol.1, for starters.

And they’re set to make it a holy trinity of releases for the twin suns of the Albert’s Favourites/Wah Wah 45s nexus with their follow-up to 2018’s Tradition and ninth album since their debut, Lost City, all the way back now in the year of the millennium bug.

That South London scene which they operate in displays so much that’s great about a multi-hued British culture that’s increasingly come under polemical (and real) assault. Coming out of a base of very deeply conscious roots reggae, full of both groove and awareness, it’s a scene that’s fully open; it listens, it hears, it incorporates and makes new from all the aural traffic flowing through. Thus Soothsayers spring out of that motherlode with lots of delightful elements of Afrobeat, dub, jazz impro and electronics to bring bite and edge and complexity to the listener. 

The record you get to hold in your hands, all virginally shrink-wrapped, at the end of this week, has its seeds in a trip to Brazil which Soothsayers’ founders, saxophonist Idris Rahman and trumpeter Robin Hopcraft, made at the beginning of 2019. While there, they hooked up for a session in São Paulo with producer and bassist Victor Rice, who they’d first made acquaintance with at Freedom Sounds in Cologne in 2018. 

He organised a session with a selection of local musicians. Percussionist and singer Ligia Kamara contributed lyrics and melodies written right there and then; drummer Bruno Buarque, guitarist Joao Erbetta and bassist Victor added their flourishes. What emerged was a place where Soothsayers’ characteristic dub-Afrobeat stylings encountered Brasilia – and sounded lush. 

Back on our rainer shores, Idris and Robin had part of a new album that needed fleshing out set about creating the remainder of the album in a different, yet complimentary way, and called on the services of woozy hiphop-tronicist Wu-Lu and Kae Tempest, MF Dooom and Shabaka Hutchings-collaborating sticksman Kwake to come aboard. The musical multivalence vibe was strong.

Come the lockdown times, March this year, and there were still  many finishing touches to be made; remote working and digital exchange were the answer; as was a further blending and fusion of that South London-Brazil thang;  to which end they enlisted the services of Sengalese singer Modou Toure for one track while percussionists Satin Singh and Maurizio Ravalico brought a strengthening of that Latin American percussive complexity.

And now? Now it’s time to drop the needle on that wax.

And what an opener we have in “Rat Race” – nope, not a Specials cover, although thematically of the same vein; the crispest roots brass leads us forth … and those three-part harmonies, bursting forth from Robin, Idris and Julia Biel, weaving and filling out a tale of the societal struggle they encountered in Brazil (but whose indicators we can also see under our own noses). Think classic reggae like The Mighty Diamonds brought bang up to the second with all those little touches that add so much; dubby echo and stretching, little trickles of electronica, massed and very human direct expression. The rat race? “It’s not our place,” caress the trio, their voices conveying both power and compassion.

It sets the tone for the album; there’s so many things to allure and hook – and educate. “Love And Unity” – the simplest of desires embattled in a year which the history books will have much to say about, concerns, in the specific, the predations wreaked upon Brazil’s indigenous peoples under the Bolsanaro regime; in the universal, of course, it’s hugely transferable. And it’s rendered for our ears in the shimmer of a Rhodes organ, bracingly uptempo, everything on the third beat; warm brass, clicky bass, an ice-cool space-age break. It’s luscious like forest ferns.

“We Are Many” – and we are, we should never lose sight of that in the divide and rule techniques which festoon current policy – is an instrumental of huge ambition; part ambient electronica chatter, part Afrojazz addictive rhythmic patterns; the ghost of Miles lurking in the precise tonality of that muted trumpet, it pulls it all off with panache and so much atmosphere. It seems suitable to embed such a potent groove of a title track below; so we have. Take an aural dive.

“Move In Silence” begins with the three singers setting out a mode of living in a world cerebrally full of constant digital hooks, advertising, advertising, opinions, clickbait, advertising, clickbait, more advertising. They begin alone over a funky organ riff and eerie microtones: “We move in silence, like the air around us / We breathe … we listen.” It’s a very beautiful appeal to find one’s own silence from the “noise upon noise” that comes rushing at us. “My head is filling up / With unnecessary stuff / And no one’s listening,” they plead over a coolly stripped down groove. 

“One Step Away” is a heartfelt plea in a tough Tuff Gong mode, voices cracking and reaching out as a safety net collapses. “This could this be you?” is the refrain of the precipitation into homelessness, stark, wrapped in rocky guitar licks a la Jamaica ‘75. “No Sacrifice” takes a more romantic and soulful, pastoralist roots trip: “I don’t wanna play these games … I wanna be in the countryside, I wanna be with you, all day and night.”

“Rolling” is a gorgeously impressionistic Afrodub (neo) instrumental, odysseying through proud horns, blissful background chants more of a texture than a vocal, warm organ. “Slave” is a downbeatz call to consciousness about the chains of the waged, the cycle of earning to live, fashioned in breaking beats and impassioned vocal grace, urging the owners of the means of production to “run, run, run / Your profits can be pain.” 

“Hands In The Ground” is a highlight, a scorching brass groove, edging from a blend of the Jamaican and the Afro traditions of the horns just onto the edge of the free jazz pocket, with an almost blaxploitation funk undercarriage keeping it nimble. 

Soothsayers finish our journey through the South London musics of 2020  – and the need to be mentally clear and proud and conscious – in the cool lyricism of “We Won’t Lose Hope” – it’s soulful reggae, graceful, saying it clear and also keeping it melodically sweet while standing united at the ghastly lurch into Brexit isolationism.

Which kinda sums up Soothsayers’ latest nicely. It’s complex, also fun, tickling your ears in all the right spots, as if you were a lazy cat; the music evolves and shifts from a strong and aware roots through jazz and Afro and more, all the while softly educating you and guiding you and letting you know you have to be watchful, stay alert, and also stay strong and connected both within and outwith yourself. That’s how we’re gonna get through all and any of this.

Let’s leave the (almost) final word to Idris and Robin: Whilst heavy questions of life and death and the future of our species surround us all, music is a guide that can help us perceive the challenges in a different way – a guide that can help us towards a deep inner peace.

“If we listen, music can help light the way. We hope you will listen, and we hope you will experience the joy, meditative power and beauty in the connection of different musical cultures that was experienced in the creation of this album.”

Nuff said. Let Soothsayers soundtrack your journey across the winter and bring melodic colour to steely days ahead. Stay ready, people, and stay open.

Soothsayers’ We Are Many will be released by Wah Wah 45s on digital download, CD and limited red vinyl on November 27th. You can pre-order a copy from their Bandcamp page, here.

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