27 Mar 2021

The Sampler: Raiza Biza, Julien Baker, Edo Funk Explosion

From The Sampler, 1:30 pm on 27 March 2021

Tony Stamp checks out the latest from Rwanda-NZ rapper Raiza Biza, Christian indie strummer Julien Baker, and a collection of seventies Nigerian funk curated by the resourceful record label Analog Africa.

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A Summer In Retrograde by Raiza Biza

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Photo: Supplied

When I started researching the new album by Raiza Biza, it sent me down a bit of a Google wormhole. I’d never heard of turmeric tea, a beverage which gives the first track on the album its name. I wondered if there might be a link to Raiza’s birthplace of Rwanda. Turmeric farms in South Africa do seem to be abundant. But as far as I can tell the Hamilton-based rapper just likes to start his day with it. Apparently there are health benefits, and Raiza Biza is trying to live his best life.

On the track Raiza runs through a typical day, earning his money before finishing up with gin and soda and a shout out to Auckland venue Neck of the Woods. His last album Grand Opening Grand Closing followed a specific structure too, a four act journey through a relationship. He seems to be a big picture guy, and A Summer in Retrograde feels similarly thought through. 

Maybe that’s why there’s another track named after a drink on the album - this time it’s 'Lemonade Fruit Punch'. That one features some reasonably eyebrow-raising lyrics about sex, but more importantly represents the suitably summery vibe of the album. Grand opening Grand Closing had a house on fire as its cover image, and featured Raiza Biza dabbling in new sounds. He said he was in a creative metamorphosis, and that this album finds him "reborn like a phoenix from the ashes of his life".

He also recognizes that this time, it’s the world that’s on fire. I think the retrograde in the title is a reference to COVID’s effect on the planet, but also what was happening to him personally. On 'IDC', named after the internet acronym for 'I don’t care', he tries to shrug all that off.

I like the line “watch the news to entertain my paranoia”, and the hard-panned voices that murmur throughout the track seem to reflect that paranoia. I also like how much Raiza sings on this album. He handles the hook on most of these tracks, including 'Around The Way', where it’s pitched somewhere between singing and speaking (with some falsetto in the background), before an almost whispered verse.

After the last album’s experimentation, the press for this one said it was a return to his signature sound, and this track feels like the epitome of that, super smooth, with floating rhodes piano and even some cheeky saxophone textures.

Just to highlight some of the wordplay on that song, I noticed 'cruisey' rhymed with 'whoozy', 'brewski', and most impressively 'maneuvering', and there are a few I missed. Raiza Biza’s demeanor and flow is so chill it’s easy to miss how technically accomplished he is. 

I interviewed him a few years ago for his album Bygones, and we spoke about fatherhood. He has three kids, and one of the tracks on that album deals with his fears around raising them. Depression and anxiety seem to be increasingly common in young people, and he said he wonders if that’s linked to the increase in technology. He told me that his dad’s worries in Rwanda were more immediate, and that having kids in Aotearoa is easier in many ways, but brings with it a host of new concerns.

On A Summer in Retrograde, there are two tracks called ‘Family’, both featuring vocals from Hollie Smith. On the first Raiza seems to shout out his whole extended family, including fans and everyone who has stood by him. The two songs merge together, using Smith’s gospel flavoured harmonies as a through line.

The final track is called 'Blkness', and features two of his bandmates from the local hip hop supergroup BLKCITY. All five members of that group have African heritage - JessB, Abdul Kay, and the two featured here, Mo Muse and Blaze the Emperor. 

When RNZ interviewed all the members recently, JessB said in twenty years time we’ll be talking about this era as the origins of Black rap in New Zealand. 

Talking to Raiza Biza a few years ago he told me what it’s like having a foot in two worlds, one in Aotearoa and one in Rwanda. It’s something he’s understandably preoccupied with, and I love how on 'Blkness' he talks about connecting the two “like it’s Pangea”. The fact that he goes on to rhyme that with 'Pam Grier' is just the icing on the cake. 

“Don’t forget the meaning of your blackness” he says, no matter where you are on the atlas. It’s a touching way to end an album from such a thoughtful rapper, who manages to juggle a whole host of concerns, serious ones as well as playful, and do it in the most chill way possible.

Little Oblivions by Julien Baker

Julien Baker

Julien Baker Photo: supplied

Recently the American indie musician Lucy Dacus tweeted “sadness can be meaningful but I got a bone to pick with the “sad girl indie” genre, not the music that gets labeled as that, but the classification and commodification and perpetual expectation of women’s pain”

Like a lot of things on Twitter, it gave me pause, and made me wonder if it was in response to something specific that I’d missed. I think the subtext is that the market has been swamped with sad indie boys for decades now.

It’s worth thinking about when assessing the new album by Julien Baker. Baker and Dacus are in a band with Phoebe Bridgers called Boygenius, but of the three it’s Baker whose songs seem the most steeped in angst. Her new album is called Little Oblivions, and it’s a pretty apt description. Every song feels like a journey through struggle, toward catharsis. I don’t know if they’re ‘sad’, per se, but Baker isn’t shy about presenting herself as someone who’s going through it.  

The song ‘Faith Healer’ sees her building up to the sort of primal howl that made her earlier song ‘Turn Out the Lights’ so affecting. For the most part, this third album continues in the same vein: emotive, confessional songwriting, with a bit of working-class Springsteen in the mix.

Baker grew up in Tennessee, in a Christian household. She has a tattoo that says “God exists”, but in a recent interview said she’s started to “dismantle her beliefs”. She came out to her parents as gay at age seventeen and was surprised to find them supportive. By that stage she’d already struggled with an unspecified substance addiction, and would release her debut album two years later.

She was sober for a long time, but suffered a relapse in 2019, and that informs a lot of this album. She’s back in recovery now.    

On ‘Relative Fiction’ she sings about a weekend-long bender, but also says she doesn’t need a saviour. She says she’s got no business praying and is done being good. It’s worth mentioning that Julien Baker is just twenty five. She’s been through a lot. 

The approach on this album was different for her. Most notably it’s the first to include drums. These are a combination of drum machines and her playing. She said she’s not a great drummer, but parts of takes were spliced together and looped. I really like this element of the album. Each rhythm track is an intriguing combination of crudely human and rigidly robotic. Turn Out The Lights had string and brass elements from outside performers but on this one she plays every instrument. It sounds like the computer was involved a lot more, and the result is a pretty radical expansion of her sound. On songs like ‘Ringside’, the fuller sound makes its emotional crescendo hit that much harder.

Little Oblivions is a lot. A lot of feelings, a lot to process, and often conveyed through thick slabs of sound. When almost every song follows the same arc of fragile opening through to triumphant swelling finish, it can start to feel repetitive. But that’s not a knock on Baker’s songwriting. She articulates and struggles with a very particular perspective, and puts it all on record. 

On ‘Favor’ she’s joined by her Boygenius bandmates Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers. At one point they sing "What right had you not to let me die". It’s not exactly a cheerful line, but like all these songs, it feels like its sadness is something to be managed and overcome.

Edo Funk Explosion Vol​.​1 by Various Artists

Edo Funk Explosion cover

Edo Funk Explosion cover Photo: supplied

On the Bandcamp page for the record label Analog Africa, the bio simply reads ‘The future of music happened decades ago’. It’s a lovely bit of copy, that sets you up nicely with what to expect from the label’s extensively curated collection.

Their latest release, Edo Funk Explosion Vol. 1, also does what it says on the tin. This is a collection of music from the late seventies, made in the Nigerian state of Edo, that merged the sounds of regional culture with what was coming out of West African nightclubs at the time. Synths, electric guitars and effects racks joined the mix, and Edo Funk was born.

This is music that’s raw and primal, and riding on the cusp of new discoveries. On 'Sakpaide no.2', by Sir Victor Uwaifo and his Titibitis, there’s a wonderfully nimble-fingered bassline, but a highlight for me are the sudden bursts of shaker, up front and confrontational in a way I haven’t heard before. 

Incredible band name aside, Uwaifo was the man behind Joromi Studio, where all these tracks were recorded. The extensive liner notes of Edo Funk Explosion Vol. 1 credit him as responsible for channeling the energy of the time into a distinctive sound. 

It is distinctive, but part of what I love about the album is its diversity - it’s the kind of scrappy, playful approach you get when artists are figuring things out as they go. Another track called 'Aibalegbe' is made by the same outfit, but has a rhythm that’s much rougher around the edges, and horns dueting with a delightfully wonky synth.

I must confess that prior to hearing this compilation I had never heard of Edo funk, and that’s been the case with a lot of the music released on Analog Africa. 

It was founded in 2006 by DJ and researcher Samy Ben Redjeb, whose story is as interesting as some of the artists he’s uncovered. He was born in Tunisia and raised in Germany, and was regularly travelling between countries when he started a club night in Senegal. He said he became aware that much of the African music that was reaching him in Europe… had been recorded in Europe. It was African music filtered through Western sensibilities. So he set about uncovering tunes that were recorded on the ground.

Here’s his process: "I spend a great amount of time going through collections of records, and then I listen to the stuff I found on a particular country. I record them on a mini disk. I erase the songs that I don't like. I shuffle the songs to find a good running order. This is a process that takes years.

“Once I have the selection, I go back to the country. I try to find the musician, but I always try to get to the source of the song."

Edo Funk Explosion Vol. 1 focuses on three musicians. Osayomore Joseph is credited in the album notes as one of the first to bring the sound of the flute to African Highlife - a type of music that originated in Ghana, featuring traditional structures played on Western instruments.

The most pristine tracks belong to Akaba Man, referred to here as the philosopher king of Edo music. In the eighties, some years after this was recorded, he found success in Edo’s capital Benin as a purveyor of funky highlife. 

Delving into the Analog Africa catalogue can be a bit daunting at first, but Samy Ben Remy has put in a lot of work as a researcher and curator to hold your hand as a guide on the journey. Edo Funk Explosion Vol. 1 is a wonderful hour or so of music, but it’s well worth sinking into the liner notes, which make it an educational experience as well as a sort of time-shifted musical tourism. 

On tracks like Akaba Man’s 'Popular Side', you can hear how this music would go on to ripple out and influence genres around the world. Like the blurb says, “the future of music happened decades ago”.