Style: Blues Rock
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
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Here's something wonderfully primal from France via Haïti, where Moonlight Benjamin was born to a voodoo priestess. She grew up singing hymns in an orphanage, moved on to western rock and then studied jazz after moving to France. She'd already released world music albums by the time she had her own initiation into voodoo back in Haïti, but shifted to her very own voodoo rock style in 2018 with an album called Siltane. She followed that up with Simido in 2020 and now Wayo. It's a strong style, emphatic and commanding but full of excellent grooves.
Initially, I was reminded of Yma Sumac, of all people, even though the style is very different. Sure, both moved from poorer countries in the Americas to rich first world nations and incorporated an array of western styles of music into their sounds, but I'm thinking more of the way that they both create songs through vocalisations as much as by delivering lyrics. There's a lot going on vocally in the opening title track, but there aren't a lot of sung words. Of course, beyond some vocalisations that sound like birds chirping, the two sound very different indeed, because Sumac was thrown at exotica and Benjamin at garage rock. That shifts as the album moves on but it never quite leaves entirely.
There are other formative rock sounds here too. The guitars on Haut là haut remind of songs like Spirit in the Sky, but Benjamin dips the song firmly into Dr. John territory for a cajun swamp blues approach with plenty of handclaps. Sing along, cher! There's gospel here too and spirituals, some straight ahead blues and a smattering of shock rock. Moving her music in this direction was always going to trawl in Screamin' Jay Hawkins as well as more sedate personae as Dr. John.
The album moves along quickly. None of these songs are long, most of them in a range from under three minutes to three and a half. Only three of eleven exceed that and only Pè comes close to five minutes, not remotely outstaying its welcome. It's probably my favourite song here, because it's a pristine combination of world music and rock 'n' roll, Benjamin's low croon a sultry delight while a tribal beat and a rhythmic rock guitar fashion a groove behind her. It adds further world elements as it goes, the punctuating guitars and the vocal chants reminding of African music. It's simple for us to think of this as a voodoo ritual.
I say probably my favourite, because Freedom Fire right after it gives it a firm challenge, with a deliciously dark invitation of an opening that's utterly evocative. I saw this song as much as heard it and those are dangerous visions. I wonder what Benjamin does on stage, because this ought to have some sort of visual element to illustrate the danger. I checked out some of Benjamin's early world music and she didn't sing remotely this low on them. This is clearly for effect and it's a very good choice because the effect is powerful. I'd love to hear Benjamin tackle Earth Kitt's I Want to Be Evil, translated, of course, into French and shifted into this voodoo rock style.
There are other strong tracks too. Taye banda just won't leave me alone. Bafon has a real swagger to it that rolls along inexorably like a tank. Lilè does something similar but with more of a focus on those deliciously round sounds that Benjamin pours out. Sometimes it feels like she's only singing vowels and it sounds amazing. The core melody in Alé sounds very familiar, enough that I was with it singing along on my first listen, even though I don't know the words. It's a jaunty song with some of the most memorable guitars on the album, which combine with the tribal beat to nail another groove.
I like exploring world music and it's rare that I hear someone so clearly world music manage to find a strong synthesis with rock music. It happens but not so often as you'd think. What's more, for an artist to do that and end up in an original place is precious. It's not unprecedented, of course, with the names I've mentioned thus far clear influences and probably more too, but it's not something I've heard in a new album in a long while. I like.
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