Sometimes bands combine seemingly disparate music styles into one cohesive sound. In doing so, they remind listeners that styles which may seem far apart either physically, stylistically, or both, are actually closer to one another than they appear. The Danish group Kalaha allows us to experience this phenomenon through their new EP Mama Ngoma. As the group’s first release in almost two years, Mama Ngoma paints a dreamscape of energetic electronica from a foundation of traditional West African music.
Kalaha was born as a live act at the Strøm Festival in Copenhagen where the band members - Rumpistol (Jens Christiansen), Spejderrobot (Mikael Elkjær), guitarist Niclas Knudsen, and drummer Emil de Waal - came together in haste to offer a “supergroup” performance to enliven the festival. Since then, Kalaha has recorded four studio releases and taken the stage together more than 100 times, where they’re acclaimed for whipping audiences into dance-driven frenzies. “All of the band members have very strong knowledge in at least one of the musical styles/genres mentioned,” Emil writes via email. A prolific percussionist, he’s described as the “backbone” of the band. “Nevertheless, we have very different ways of approaching the music…Somehow we respect each other´s approaches in a way that allows the diverse music styles to flow and blend freely.”
The EP pays homage to West African musical styles, particularly highlife, which earned its name because performances originally took place in exclusive, high-society settings where musicians played traditional Akan (a West African meta-ethnicity) rhythms and melodies through amplified instruments. These motifs are jumping-off points for Kalaha, but not ideas to be emulated “I don't think of Kalaha as a band that aims to recreate tradition,” Mikael writes. “We are more into being inspired by music we know and like. The different genres and traditions are more of a inspirational framework that allows us to make and play music we love.”
The two electronic musicians in the group, Rumpistol and Spejderrobot, are also its producers. In this role they are absolutely dialed-in, no pun intended. They mix electronic and acoustic material masterfully. The drums, rich and organic in timbre, shuffle and strike like a strong dance beat while synthesizers shine in colorful contrast to electric guitar licks. Kalaha has no traditional bassist, and usually Jens and Mikael mix synthesizers with different characteristics to create driving bass rhythms. On Mama Ngoma, however, they invited Danish bassist Flemming Muus and Louis Winding to track basslines.
“Dragon Jenny”, the first single from Mama Ngoma, is also its most plainly beautiful song. At just over six minutes long, “Dragon Jenny” moves through different atmospheres that are first inviting, then disorienting, but ultimately euphoric. Tonal percussion and a deep, twanging bassline by Muus (“We bring the bass part with us live in Spejderrobot´s computer,” says Emil) combine to create an undulating pocket groove. Just past the four-minute mark, one of Knudsen’s most choice guitar licks rings out, and one can’t help but smile upon hearing it.
“Malaika” demonstrates a natural psychedelia, a feeling of mind exploration that’s not schmaltzy or forced. “When we did the very first two rehearsals of ‘Malaika’” Jens writes, “we tried it with a straight up disco beat but also with a 'Higher Ground'-like funk shuffle. None of them really worked, so I suggested the idea of turning the tempo down 30 bpm and making it into a kind of G-funk track for the first part merging into afro-beat on the last part. Niclas came up with the talk-box and the little catchy afro-funk riffs, Louis provided the bass, Emil the drums and in the end it became something entirely different than originally intended, which I think is the magic of working collectively.”
On his “anagram” remix of “Malaika”, the New York City-based producer (and co-founder of The Rust Music) MALAKAI picks up on the psychedelia and delivers a digitized, spaced-out reimagining. The swing and hip-hop influence in MALAKAI’s drum pattern is a nice change of pace among the EP’s galloping afrobeat style. The “Cape Star” remix from fellow Danish producer Bwoy De Bhajan is the sleeper song on Mama Ngoma. If you’re not actively listening to it, the striking minimalist beauty may pass over your head. But get cued in for this cut, and you’ll find yourself immersed in a refreshing psychological swim across the meditative musical spaces that Bwoy de Bhajan creates. “I find it very enjoyable when the personality of the individual remixing is clearly present in the remix,” Mikael writes “I think both remixes share that quality.”
By bridging gaps across geography, time and style, Kalaha continues to make the music of the future in the present. The band’s own future includes a full-length release in 2019 titled Mandala, to which Jens calls Mama Ngoma a “prologue”. If you enjoy the vibe of Mama Ngoma, you already know to stay chooned until then.