Northern Thorns

Dance Rock | Seattle

Category: Inspiration (page 2 of 3)

New Song – Kill Me Again

At long last, a new song on the Soundcloud. Another mixolydian soukous-rock tune, and I like the way this one came out. The words are about wishing that an emotional state that you’ll never get back will last as long as it can.

Kill Me Again

Sound of Syllables

I’ve never been a fan of poetry on a page. But since I started writing lyrics for this project (I hadn’t written lyrics in a very long time prior to this, long enough that my previous work is basically just teenage breakup angst), I’ve really observed that setting words to music adds something. Something that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s a piece of the puzzle, the whole story of a work, in a similar way that a music video will add yet more depth to a song. How much more profound is David Bowie’s Blackstar as a result of the accompanying video? The words written on a page just don’t hit as hard, at least they never have for me. In fact, many lyrics in print form I would mistake for completely trite. The song makes the poetry.

The words have to flow smoothly. This can mean they rhyme, and I’m a great fan of double couplet rhyming and deep rhyme schemes. But more important to me is that good vocal lines are always somewhat conversational. The notes in a vocal melody can convey inflection. A meandering line that has a lot of movement might evoke incredulity or anger, depending on the movement and the note order. If you were to speak the lyrics to someone else in conversation, and the sentence lilted up or downwards at the end of a phrase, the vocal melody should reflect that. Paul Simon is the guru of conversational singing, though I constantly look to the entire hip hop genre for great examples as well, whether rapped or sung.

And, the sounds of the syllables need to sit comfrotably on the tongue and in the song. I have often changed words that I like only because I can’t deliver them naturally in the song. Bjork is a master of syllables, probably the best I’ve ever heard. She has such a command of them that she can create striking new timbres with just pronunciations. I’m always amazed when I listen to her.

Paying heed to all these things will make the vocals in a song sound natural, classic, flowing. And the ideas conveyed in the words will come across more clearly and sink in deeper, without the listener being aware of it in a lot of cases. Great songwriting is a marriage of words and music. And lately I can’t get excited about instrumental music. That may be another thing Pollens did to me. I’m addicted to the human voice as instrument. It’s so old, so primal, so ecstatic, so unconscious.

All this is the main reason lyrics are so difficult for me. It’s like a Rubic’s Cube; they have to be approached from so many angles at once.

Viva La Musica

How many more of my undiscovered favorite records is DJ Moos hiding over at Global Groove? Great post, great bands. Never heard Orchestra Viva la Musica before this (though I’d certainly heard of them), and now I’m hooked. This Cherie Lipasa song really burns, and the rabbit hole goes deeper.l'Afrique Danse 360.126

Analyzing the Highlife Guitar Style

A big part of what I like about soukous music and other Afropop is the contrast and oscillation within it. Rhythmically, each bar of the highlife guitar pattern is a tiny tension and release, the first bar or half bar syncopated and the second half straight quarter or eighth notes.

highlife guitar comp pattern

Harmonically it is typically a similar oscillation between two chords, an ad nauseum simpicity back and forth that contributes to the genre’s dance and trance sound. On a macro level, the best songs are structured with more tension and release within their parts, and as they are generally around ten minutes (four songs would fit on an LP or two halves of a song on a 45), there is plenty of room to build musical tension.

Repetition is key. The solos aren’t really solos generally, but “sebenes,” a term with a nebulous origin that I won’t speculate on. A sebene is an instrumental feature wherein a single player improvises around a theme without straying too far until a new theme comes along. This approach to instrumental sections really appeals to my musical tastes, as I couldn’t care less about the technical ability that solo sections generally showcase. The sebene is more about melody than chops, and the Congo artists were, and are, much more patient than American songwriters typically are.

Paul Simon

I need to remember to feed my creativity. When I listen to music I love, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, that’s when I get new musical ideas. I’ve known that for a long time, but for some reason I just today put together that music sung in Lingala doesn’t help me think of lyrics in English. I was listening to The Rhythm of the Saints by Paul Simon today while driving around, and his lyrical ability inspires my own. So, though I’m not so into most music in English these days (hip hop is an exception but much as I love the genre, I don’t feel any drive to write vocals or lyrics in a hip hop style).

Paul Simon is a favorite of mine. Obviously he bridges the divide between American and African (or Brazilian) music, deliberately so. And he’s one of the greatest American songwriters of the 20th century. Love him.

Ryan and Soukous Music

In early 2014 I found this post on Brian Shimkovitz’s Awesome Tapes From Africa blog. Jeff Bryant from my old band Pollens had turned me onto this blog (and a lot of African music in general). In 2014 Awesome Tapes was still a music sharing download blog. Today it’s actually become a label and distribution outfit for African music in the United States. Shimkovitz tours doing DJ sets of amazing African music, and if you get the chance go see him. It’s unique.

Anyway, I had pulled a fair amount of albums off Awesome Tapes by this time, but this mixtape just grew on me endlessly until I was obsessed with it. Soon I started looking for more music by Kiam/Orchestre Kiam, and trying to learn everything I could about them, falling further and further down the rabbit hole of trying to find English search results for Congolese French/Lingala music, but Kiam became the most profound musical influence in my life since I played in Pollens. Never did I expect that my favorite band would be singing in a language I couldn’t understand (and also broken up before I was born).

Kiam played rumba rock, cavacha, soukous music in the early to late 70’s in Kinshasa. They were one of the Verckys stable of bands, and were relatively obscure within the scene. They had a few hits but never achieved star status, and never had a big vocal name fronting them.

However, they nailed all the elements like no one else I’ve heard. The vocalists were all very strong, the rhythm section was super solid and bouncy and driving and exciting, the songwriting was top notch, and most strikingly they had the best guitarists in the whole scene to my ear. Technically, the only hard soukous player on a higher plane from this era is probably Orchestre Stukas’s lead player Samunga Tediangaye,. The real magic however was not in Kiam’s technical prowess but their melodic ability. Both their vocal choruses and calls and their sebene lines are absolute platonic forms of catchiness. The lead guitar plays perfect melodies with a soaring treble and plenty of reverb. When the rhythm guitarist takes over, his tone mid-rangey and scraping in comparison, the lines are fascinatingly weird. I swear he was tapping years before Eddie Van Halen thought of it, a lot of self-taught African musicians came up with unique ways to play their instruments.

Unlike countless musicians and bands that came out of the rumba and soukous scene, Kiam never achieved the kind of recognition that would even warrant a Wikipedia page. However there is a strong cult following online, and broad consensus from those who heard them is that they are one of the best hard soukous bands of all time. They’re often put on a level with Zaiko Langa-Langa, who played in the same era without horns and also featured great guitar and vocal work in driving soukous. But to me Kiam was comparatively very consistent. Langa-Langa has decades of material and I’d name about 15 songs of theirs that I really like. Of Kiam’s 35 or so songs (most of which are around ten minutes in length as was common in this era), almost all are fantastic. Thinking back on the music that resonated with me over my whole life, I came to realize that I had found a band that had everything I’d ever wanted. It was one of those moments when you love a piece of art so much that you get a little angry because you didn’t create it. It just seemed to fit my tastes perfectly.

To give an idea of the difficulty of finding good information about an obscure soukous band from the mid-70’s, here is the best site I found with the most information in one place about Kiam. Yes, that’s a Geocities site, in Japanese and French. I’m shocked it still exists.

In mid-March 2014 sent the Awesome Tapes mixtape post to my brother Ryan in a text message. Ryan was a huge fan of many African genres and I knew he’d enjoy it. He texted back, “Great sunny soukous dance music.” At the time I had barely heard the word “soukous,” and didn’t know to ascribe it to Kiam. So Ryan’s remark gave me something to google, which of course I did. It was a watershed moment.

A week or so after our exchange, Ryan killed himself. He’d been struggling with severe anxiety and mental illness for a decade or more. His text about the band was the last communication I had from him. I went on a planned musical retreat soon after that, and channeled everything about his death into a set of Garageband demos that became the first Northern Thorns songs.

Though I’d love Kiam no matter what, this music will forever be linked in my mind with Ryan and his suicide. I can’t listen to it without thinking about him.

– Adam

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