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St. Germain: St. Germain
by George Graham
(Nonesuch Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/25/2015)
Two weeks ago, we featured an album by Joss Jaffe that combined world music with electronica, reggae and ambient dance beats. This week we have another in what is turning out to bit of an interesting trend.
While dance music can be entertaining on the dance floor to get you moving, the steady beat of most contemporary electronic-based dance music can get pretty tedious if it were listened to by itself. I supposed one could ask, why would you want to listen to dance music and not dance to it? But making the music interesting by adding distinctive ingredients can’t help but make it better all around, on or off the dance floor. And this time, we have one of those recordings that features some sonic exotica combined with the beats, loops, samples and other elements that electronic dance producers use. The CD is by another of those one-person musical projects, this one is from France and it’s called St. Germain. It’s the third album in twenty years from the gentleman behind the music, Ludovic Navarre.
In 1995 Navarre launched St. Germain with an album called Boulevard, which is said to have helped inspire a French electronic music scene whose best known exponent is the band Daft Punk, who won the 2014 Grammy for album of the year. Navarre’s The second St. Germain album and the first to be released in the US, Tourist, followed in 2000. Now, 15 years later Navarre is out with the new St. Germain project called St. Germain. For this album. Navarre drew on his fascination with the blues and African music, and combines them with intriguing results. This is hardly the first such cross cultural album to combine African folk music with the blues, but the St. Germain album brings in easy-going atmospheric electronic dance grooves, along with mainly West African instruments like the N’Goni along with vocalists in the often plaintive style. They are combined on two tracks with archival recordings of blues performers from the past, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Burnside. The result is an album that is exotic-sounding, has echoes of old folk music recordings and can get into a trance-like groove that is frequently skilful. It’s a dance record so most of the tracks are on the long side to allow the musical momentum to build. Like most experimental music, some of it works better than other parts -- sometimes the combination of the African instruments and their very human method of playing can be in a bit of a conflict with the computer-steady rhythmic grooves -- but overall it’s an appealing record that will figuratively grab you the ears with its interesting sonic pastiche.
Navarre is joined by Didier Davidas, who plays a lot of the keyboards, plus the African musicians including kora player Mamadou Sherif Soumano, and Sadio Kane on the N’Goni and guitar, plus other occasional guest vocalists and percussionists.
Leading off is one of the tracks that combines the world beat electronica with a historic blues recording, in this case of Lightnin’ Hopkins, while the musical background is dominated by the African-sounding percussion. The tune is called The Real Blues which I think is an interesting title to consider. <<>>
There is more of an electronica beat on the following track Sittin’ Here, which features vocalist Nahawa Doumbia and guitarist Guimba Kouyate providing a Malian sound. The slowly evolving electronic grooves keep the piece interesting and quite appealing. <<>>
With a bit more exotic a sound is Hanky Panky which is dominated by the West African textures with the N’Goni instruments. An interesting touch is the jazzy-sounding acoustic piano. <<>>
Didier Davidas’ piano also features prominently on a piece called Family Tree which features a jazz-influenced soprano sax in the midst of the African folk music and the dance groove. <<>>
The other track featuring samples of a historic blues recording is called How Dare You which features bluesman Robert Burnside with the plaintive West African sounds featuring vocalist Zoumana Tereta. Meanwhile the electronic beat has an almost Latin American sound. It’s one of the most intriguing tracks on the album. <<>>
Hinting at funky jazz-rock fusion is the piece Mary L, in which the Western influences are more dominant with the African sounds providing more of a texture. <<>>
The album ends with Forget Me Not which is the one track I don’t think worked as well artistically. It combines the African and the electronic ambient sound, but the lack of harmonic motion in the music makes it pretty monotonous after a while. <<>>
St. Germain, the new third album by St. Germain, the musical persona of French producer Ludovic Navarre, is another engaging record that combines electronic dance grooves with World Music sounds, in this case mostly from styles originating in Mali in West Africa. It’s a distinctive combination of the often-plaintive, rural music, evoking dusty African villages, with the very urban electronic dance grooves. Adding further interest if the use of a couple of historic blues recordings which are sampled and woven into the pastiche. It makes for music that can be danceable, in a chill-out kind of way, with a distinctly exotic texture that provides intriguing listening off the dance floor. While there are a few bumpy spots where the combinations do not fit together quite as well, or a track that may go on too long, overall it’s a creative and appealing record.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” This kind of music is heavily processed by its nature, but the sound is satisfyingly clean, the atmospheric quality is nicely handled, and it’s not too badly volume-compressed.
Exotic cross-cultural dance music has been around for a very long time, going back to the tango and the rumba in the last century, but these days mixture of very Western electronic dance beats with very disparate world music ingredients are popping up with some intriguing results. St. Germain’s new album is a stellar example.
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