Take It and Drive

By Masta G

Tunisian-born musician Jean Pierre Smadja has been making and recording music since the early nineties, but this album seems certain to bring him to the attention of a wider audience. The first release on a new label backed by the enormously successful restaurateur Mourad 'Momo' Mazouz, Take It and Drive fuses the haunting and ancient sound of the oud, an Arab precursor of the guitar, with the latest in experimental electronic music. Aphex Twin meets a wandering sufi uptown...

While the world/fusion category of contemporary music has been debased by dubious projects involving panpipes and psychedelic trance, Smadj's melding of tradition and experimentation seems born of a genuine urge to innovate, rather than a desire for his work to grace the sound systems of hippy cafes at summer festivals. The complex, delicate melodies of the oud sit equally happily over bass heavy rumblings and engaging, kinetic, jazz influenced drum patterns. The most meditative and intimate tracks on the album (Betty and Sel, for example) exploit the possibilities of restrained minimalism. The combination of the oud and Smadj's computerised rhythms is perhaps at its most potent and fascinating when it is uncluttered and sparse – on Tristan, the final track, the ebb and flow between the two is compelling.

But the majority of tunes on Take It and Drive see Smadj enlisting a stellar cast of collaborators. The vocals of Malian torch singer Rokia Traore float ethereally over the bass-heavy beat (King Tubby would be proud of its dubbed-out vibes) and distorted vocal samples of He Said and add a sense of keening urgency to Fatwords. Another man who has successfully fused dance music with global influences, Talvin Singh, weighs in with his tabla to enhance the abstract techno feel of Vogue. Meanwhile, C'est Comme Si features more of the distorted vocal samples beloved of electronica pioneers Boards Of Canada over a grinding beat which is offset by a funky guitar lick. Amit Chatterjee guests on Drive with vocals and guitar and the track's combination of a propulsive beat, oud and Indian-influenced singing brings to mind Transglobal Underground at their best. The African chanting and handclaps of Meeting With The Bushmen (did he actually meet them? I'd love to know) combine with the oud and a driving rhythm to conjure an eerie ambience which evokes the rituals of this almost mythical indigenous people.

Take It and Drive defies any simplistic categorisation and, while Radio 3 will undoubtedly lap it up, the inventiveness and high production values it displays should ensure its wide appeal. From the point of view of the sometimes bland and earnest world of experimental electronica, the warmth of the live instruments and vocals which Smadj employs is refreshing, evoking as they do far older musical cultures and traditions.
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