RealWorld, the label and studio launched by Peter Gabriel in 1989, has developed a reputation for nudging traditional musicians from all over the world into the realm of today’s high-tech pop. A star in this process has been Canadian guitarist and producer Michael Brook, whose two collaborations with the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan proved particularly successful. On the new Assembly (RealWorld), Brook teams up with Tanzanian roots singer and instrumentalist Hukwe Zawose. He risks making the extraordinary ordinary by introducing familiar-sounding loops, guitar riffs and machine-generated beats, but in the end, he preserves the fundamental magic and mystery of Zawose’s unearthly music, a seductive montage of deep-toned thumb pianos and bowed strings and voices so rich in overtones that you might well mistake them for synthesized, electronic sounds in the first place.
This was an album Hukwe Zawose needed to make. With his talented son, Charles, he’s produced a number of excellent traditional recordings, notably Chibite (RealWorld; 1996) and Mkuki Wa Roha (WOMAD Select; 2000), so it was time to try something new. The odd part is that he had little idea what he was getting into, even when he finished recording. "In the studio," Brook explains over the phone from Los Angeles, "I’ve found is that the best thing is to make simple backing tracks. I used to make them more elaborate and it ended up a real mess. Now I keep it simple and sculpt after the fact. Hukwe just played over a basic guitar progression, a keyboard, a drum loop, and a basic bass line."
This meant that Zawose never heard the fabulous blare of horns that Lee Thornberg added to Assembly’s electrifying opener, "Kuna Kunguni (The Bedbugs Bite)," and other tracks, or the tablas and ambient percussion that weave through his resonant violin playing on "Mbeleje (Sweet Deceiver)." On "Ntambalize Lijenje (Pumpkin Pie)," Zawose sang a lead vocal over a fast, funky, guitar-driven groove and then layered Pygmy-like vocal polyphony over a slower beat without realizing that they would become A and B sections of the same song. "Putting changes in the backing track is not a good idea," says Brook. "If I want that, I present a different piece of music and stitch it together later." And Zawose did not hear the vocals added to two numbers by Zap Mama singer Marie Daulne — who as it happens grew up hearing her Congolese mother play Zawose’s early records in their home.
That’s a lot of trust to put in your producer, but for the most part, Brook comes through brilliantly. Thornberg’s brass-section passages are a particularly inspired touch. The racing, drum-and-bass-oriented "Awuno Mganga Ndeje (Cry of the Bush Bird)" culminates in a layering of horns and interlocking voices that’s shot through with Brook’s spiky guitar riffing. He says he was thinking about horns because of his fascination with the gonzo, Cuban-derived dance-pop group P18. "The thing I liked about it was that it had no obligation to stick to any genre, and there’s a kind of exuberance and recklessness."
Reckless exuberance is a nice way to describe the wilder tracks on Assembly. Even at its most energetic, it isn’t really a dance record, in part because it admits so much sonic and rhythmic complexity. Plus there are more-contemplative pieces, like the concluding "Songa Mbele (Moving On)," which mostly consists of Zawose and son Charles playing ilimba (thumb piano) and singing in a deeply resounding voice that Brook calls the "foghorn voice." Zawose told me two years ago that he actually discovered that voice during a particularly arduous session on the toilet, but that takes nothing away from the spiritual mood it evokes.
Like Brook, Zawose is a musical innovator among his people, the Wagogo. In addition to inventing unique vocal sounds, he evolved the zeze from the original one- and two-string varieties to new forms involving an added gourd resonator and as many as 14 strings, and he experimented with different-sized ilimba before arriving at the two variations he felt sounded best. His openness clearly extended to his work on Assembly. "Hukwe is terribly polite," says Brook. "He tended to say that everything is great — which, of course, isn’t helpful. There’s a real sense of joyousness about what he does. Even when the topic of the song is not joyful, there’s an underlying sense of celebration. I think in the West, we have this tendency to feel these things are mutually exclusive, whereas other cultures are happy to let them co-exist."