Mapstation - "Bells and Lions" (The Africa Chamber)
Sometimes, understanding an artist’s intentions enriches the experience of their work; other times, it’s best not to know. The latter is the case with The Africa Chamber, the third album by former To Rococo Rot and Kreidler bass/electronics player Stefan Schneider. Schneider, according to the record’s publicity blurb, “treats this region not only as a geographic location, but more so as a symbol of unknown terrain, of distant shores awaiting our exploration. Indebted to myth rather than reality, this destination becomes an envisioned and visionary realm – which in turn triggers responses in our body.” In other words, another European has projected dreams of the exotic Dark Continent in order to get in touch with his inner groove. Perhaps he wore a dashiki or donned an Indiana Jones hat in the studio to get in the mood?
Half a century after Martin Denny used similar strategies to conquer lounges around the Western-occupied world, they’re getting a bit old. Given the one-click-away accessibility of information about the real, contemporary Africa, it’s only unknown terrain if you choose not to know. Given Schneider’s declaration, the chanting on opening track “Mchiki cha” incurs more queasiness than wonder.
But get past these hurdles and the record opens up into something worth hearing. His knack for crafting short, catchy melodies that perch comfortably atop crisp, propulsive beats has not deserted him; “Work Song” and “Unital” would sit quite comfortable next to anything on To Rococo Rot’s Veiculo. Even better, he’s enlisted some musicians who help him develop both the grooves and the tunes in fresh, appealing ways. Having two drummers, Kreidler’s Thomas Klein and real, live African Nicholas Addo-Bettey (whose solo debut Na Teef Know Da Road Of Teef, recorded during his formative years working under Fela Kuti, was unearthed last year) on the session, adds depth and complexity to the rhythms. And trombonist Annie Whitehead, a veteran of Robert Wyatt’s fantastic Shleep, has the sort of tone that transforms airs that might be merely pleasant if articulated on a synth or bass guitar into things of warm, voluptuous beauty.
Schneider’s layered keyboard textures on “Return of the hunters” hits the same sweet spot as mid-70s Cluster and Harmonia. There’s a lot to like about The Africa Chamber; it’d be even more likable if Schneider had shared a bit less of his process.