So let’s debate – what’s the holy trinity of seminal afro-electronic albums? Anything by Onyeabor would come into it, Konono No 1’s ‘Congotronics’ would be a contender, Manu’s ‘Electric Africa’ would have a look in… but possibly the first record on the list would be ‘Noir et Blanc’ by Zazou Bikaye from back in the early eighties. A pan-national conference between Congolese vocal spirit Bony Bikaye, French cross genre composer/convener Hector Zazou and electronic experimentalists CY1 the album was a totem, a catalyst not for imitation but for inspiration. It opened up the possibilities for African musicians to take the synthesiser and redefine its possibilities.
Now some forty years after that album’s release Bikaye returns as part of more circuitous collaborative activity, teaming up with Parisien afro-house and disco activators TONN3RR3 and releasing the head turning ’It’s A Bomb’, available now from Born Bad Records. So how did we get here after so long? Firstly TONN3RR3’s Guillaume Gilles met Bikaye when they were co-contributors at a workshop on Congolese music for Paris students. Drawn to each other’s rhythmic sensibilities, the possibility of Bikaye’s traditional vocal syncopation powering a new beyond-fusion project was soon on the agenda. Gilles called on his TONN3RR buddies, Olivier Viadero and Yoann Dubaud, plus percussionist Gaëlle Salomon along with synth player Guillaume Loizillon and the ‘It’s A Bomb’ clock started ticking.
There’s certainly a fluidity that runs through all the tracks here, an energy that Gilles frames as ‘hybridisation’ or music setting out to ‘bring disparate cultural fragments together, and to resonate’. The suggestion here is something more alchemic than fusion, that varies the ingredients from song to song but keeps up a continuum. So yes there is clear variation on ‘It’s A Bomb’ but also a sense of what is meant by the TONN3RR3 x BIKAYE sound.
At times that vibe skirts closer to TONN3RR3’s disco house fundamentals as on the frothy Sylvester twirl of Are U Ok, where plinking synth beats sparkle and the chorus comes stomping back for the inevitable final twist. But there’s an agitator here, Bikaye’s unconventional vocal input. Sometimes a growl, sometimes operatic, often strident and unapologetically striking, a contribution that happily pushes the song into unhinged euro disco territory. Such singular “singing” consistently seems to elevate the music that flows around him throughout ‘It’s A Bomb’ as on the driving trance opener Balobi. To say Bikaye has presence is an understatement, it’s more of a visitation. Bana Disco plays things a little straighter, Bikaye’s falsetto gliding across a bumping beat to find his husky Dibango chant, but the pulse pushing Keba Na Batu returns to more leftfield afro-tronic territory. Here the percussive vocals add shakes and shivers to the tense locomotion that Gilles and crew whip up, recalling the abandoned invention of the classic ‘Noire et Blanc’ moments. There a sense here of a mojo returning.
In the same way as on those seminal Zazou Bikaye moments, the euro-beats don’t look to impose themselves on the soundscape on ‘It’s A Bomb’, often it’s that cross-weave with traditional Congolese rhythms which binds the songs together. On the sultry ballad Zela, a delicate rhumba sketched by electro and acoustic percussive pops, the light skanking synth somehow works with Bikaye’s weathered passion. Proof then that Ibrahim Ferrer fronting Yazoo could have worked. That eighties spark meets spiritual flame also lights the way on the atmospheric afro-trance Zala Gentil where balophon toned keys and some Damo Sazuki free-form scatology heats up the mystique.
Elsewhere other afro-beats ease into the TONN3RR3 x BIKAYE messaging. Prisoner steps out on a mix of dembow shuffles, tingling highlife riffs and layers of falsetto, then leaves with the smile of an afro-pop mission completed. The ‘It’s A Bomb’ signature track looks for a similar upswing that’s maybe tongue in cheek given the incendiary title. Setting the breathless tension in Bikaye’s vocal in a bopping, electro soca soundtrack while the ‘it’s a bomb’ hook line chimes along, only adds to the friction.
Most attention grabbing though are the moments when the partnership sets out together into less familiar, more experimental sound worlds. Akei builds like some unsettling avant jazz ballad. The looping afro-latin piano vamps and chattering percussion seem safe enough but the breaks for Bikaye’s anguished pleading, ‘please come back to us someday’, come from somewhere deeper down in the unchartered shadows. Perhaps the poetic La Foret et Les Dieux sees TONN3RR3 x BIKAYE plunging even further into the unknown. Over lo-fi new age loops, dogs barking, bird song and metallic ticking, the spoken word unwinds a long warning story.
Such free-form seems to fit TONN3RR3 x BIKAYE’s original motivations perfectly and perhaps give the clearest view of where this ingenious collaboration could find themselves going. World fusion music sometimes struggles to find an identity but 2023 has seen some exceptional music with real personality emerge. Chouk Bwa & the Angstromers, Polobi & the Gwo Ka Masters, Onipa and now we have TONN3RR3 x BIKAYE nudging into the frame. You sense there’s more to come from this meeting of minds.
Get your copy of ‘It’s a Bomb‘ by TONN3RR3 x BIKAYE from your local record store or direct from Born Bad Records HERE