Tuesday 2 April 2019

Arka'n - Zã Keli (2019)

Country: Togo
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Feb 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

I've mentioned before how I'm loving the way that folk metal is sweeping the globe. It isn't all northern Europe any more, it's everywhere. Case in point: Arka'n from Togo. That's Togo in frickin' Africa, folks, which means that it combines sounds that I've never heard combined before and that rarely fails to make my day. Zã Keli did exactly that.

Now, I'm a fan of African music generally, from Toumani Diabaté's fantastic kora to the soukous of Staff Benda Bilili, but I know very little about the music of Togo, which seems to have been overshadowed internationally by the Ivory Coast two countries to the left and Nigeria two to the right. Well, it clearly has substance, because Arka'n have been making their presence known in Lomé since 2010 and they're very capable indeed.

Like any folk metal, I couldn't wait to hear the blend of traditional sounds and what, to the bands in question, would be world music. There's plenty of Togolese music here, not only in the intros to songs where it's particularly notable, but also behind the rock instrumentation and in the backing vocals, which tend to contrast rather than accompany. Many songs here feature a rock or metal lead but traditional backing vocals.

Given that Togo was transitioned from a German colony to a French one after World War I and the official language is French, the source influences here seem to be primarily American and most of the lead vocals are in English. It might not be surprising then to find that the styles Arka'n explore are rap and nu metal, with some hardcore elements too. Usually that wouldn't endear them to me but for a singular approach that they take.

Put simply, they don't play metal songs and add traditional instruments, as most folk metal bands seem to do. Instead, they play traditional music that they power up into metal and overlay those American styles. Just check out a song like Awala, one of the obvious highlights here, which almost seems like two very different songs, one layered on top of the other in a way that both works and somehow emphasises both layers.

This isn't an unusual approach for Arka'n and it's probably sourced from the fact that, as the band's website ably highlights, rock music is not promoted at all and many musicians coming into the band weren't particularly aware of what it was. Therefore they play what they know and add in other sounds when it seems to make sense to create something new. Viviti, for instance, is an enticingly bouncy local song that just happens to include a punchy electric guitar.

Another thing Arka'n do a lot is to pause that metal layer, with its crunchy guitars, double bass drums and nu metal or hardcore vocals, so that we get a fresh glimpse of the traditional layer behind it. This is highly engaging and reminds of the stylistic hopskotch of, say, System of a Down or Mr. Bungle, who switch styles out on the turn of a dime.

Of course, those bands, to the best of my knowledge, never incorporated this sort of music. Arka'n will be dancing traditionally one moment, then rapping over heavy guitars the next. This versatility also applies to each instrument in play, not just the vocals. The drums especially shift, maybe because the band include a drummer and a percussionist. The guitar plays quiet African melodies then leaps into crunch mode for a powerful riff. And then back. And forth. The band seem to refuse to stay in one place on the musical map for long and I'm all for that.

A little less often, the changeovers get neatly mixed up, such as on Return of the Ancient Sword. A traditional vocal over metal backing shifts into a hardcore shout over traditional backing, before launching into a rap over a metal riff. It's a weird thing to hear three completely different styles of vocal work on the very same song but it's fascinating to listen to.

If almost all the western flavour here is American, from alternative to rap to nu metal, that only lasts until the final song, Welcome, which has an odd Australian flavour to it. I'd love to know what's in the record collection of Rock Ahavi, the guitarist and lead vocalist for Arka'n. And I wonder how much influence he's having on the musical direction not just of Arka'n but other bands in Lomé and elsewhere in Togo. Dedication in unexpected places often builds scenes.

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