July 20, 2006

Ilando Gima Onge

One of the greatest, if not the greatest, screen entrances in motion picture history is the introduction of Omar Sharif's character in Lawrence of Arabia. Not unlike the proverbial riding off into the sunset at the end of movies, in this case, Sharif rides in from the horizon across the desert. From a mere speck, to an armed figure on a camel, to the sudden loss of Lawrence's desert guide for drinking from a forbidden well.

Great music offers great, dramatic entrances as well, not of actors, perhaps, but of melodies. Then again, melodies are the characters in the story that is the song. One song I've been listening to and thinking about a lot is "Ilando Gima Onge" by Extra Golden. I raved about Extra Golden's new album the other day elsewhere in this blog.

Click here to listen to the song. Be sure to read about and buy the album from Thrilljockey Records (or here's a link to Amazon's page).

The song begins plainly enough, a guitar plucking some minor notes, accompanied by some simple drums, bass, and a second guitar. Then a man's voice seems to say "Yesssss," as if saying to the band "Yes, that's it, that's what I was talking about!" He utters something else, not in English, at least I don't think so.

But before you've had a chance to absorb the "Yesssss", the song changes suddenly with the introduction of another guitar, this one with a fuzzy, electronic edge that's laser-sharp. If you listen to the song loud through speakers, you'll know what I'm talking about. And then the man laughs, as if amused by the introduction of this laser-guitar, slicing what began as a simple rhythm into something more menacing.

The very first time I heard this, I thought, sounds like a mash-up of latter-day King Crimson with an African band. Indeed, that laser-guitar sounds like something Robert Fripp would enjoy playing.

And so the song continues. Now we have the basics of the song underway. Multiple guitars plucking their way through minor chords, a bass guitar quietly delivering its own inventive lines, and a drum beat dominated by masterful hi-hat touches and what sounds more like a plastic bucket than a snare drum. I can visualize the multiple lines and rhythms as if they were knitting, with that laser fuzz guitar like dangerous fancy embroidery.

And we're only 20 seconds into the song.

It goes on like this for about 40 more seconds, until the drummer signals the band to slow down like a horseman pulling back the reins. At the 1:00 point, the laser-fuzz guitar wraps up its riff with a screeching sign-off.

And suddenly, everything changes.

One guitar begins a new set of chords, with a faster rhythm. The drums kick in, the bass kicks in, more rhythm guitar kicks in, and suddenly we're in a deep African benga groove.

This song needs to be played LOUD. And if these rhythms don't make you want to dance, then nothing can.

The lead guitar begins its storytelling on top of this great new sound. Sixteen bars consume the first paragraph of the introduction, at which point the lead takes on an alternate perspective for another sixteen bars. As if that weren't enough, it then changes again for sixteen bars of sublime syncopation that I could listen to all day and night, while the rest of the band continues its polyrhythmic pulse. I love the dance between the bass and the lead during these sixteen bars.

Just like clockwork, the band wraps up its introduction at the 2:00 mark, and then we go into the vocals. There is a great African-style call-and-response going on. Often in African music it's between the lead singer and a chorus of backup singers, but in this song it's between the singer, Otieno Jagwasi, and his guitar. It's mesmerizing. And complex. And powerful. And sad -- this is not happy-go-lucky music. Here's a snippet from a review by BBC's The World:

Jagwasi wrote the song, along with the two Americans. "Ilando Gima Onge" is a long, lonely song that foretells Jagwasi's death. And yet it's filled with gorgeous serpentine guitar lines that are crucial elements of the Kenyan pop style called benga.

The lyrics of "Ilando Gima Onge" recount how Otieno Jagwasi became sick in Nairobi. After his diagnosis, he returned to his village where he was nursed by his parents. Meanwhile, people in the village collected money in his name, assuming he was dead. But they didn't use the money to help out his family, as is the tradition in some parts of Africa. They used the money to buy beer instead.

It's a spooky song, made spookier by the fact that it's sung by the dying Otieno Jagwasi.

And it goes on for another nine minutes.

It's one of the best pieces of music I've heard in a long time.

Play it LOUD.

Posted by brian at July 20, 2006 07:41 AM

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