Dec 18, 2014
1986. The year the United Nations declared as the first International Year of Peace. The year that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was first observed as a federal holiday. The year President Ronald Reagan instituted sanctions against Libya, South Africa began severe censorship of their press, Oprah premiered her first national broadcast, and Elie Wiesel accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. The year that musical group Zazou-Bikaye premiered in the US at The Kitchen with what UK music magazine Sounds described as mind-bending “textures married to an Afro-electro beat.” While a performance and a UN declaration may not appear immediately connected, a concert from a collective led by two African men (one white and one black) from two separate countries (one north and one sub-Saharan, the latter one still experiencing civil wars under colonial violence) is in conversation with globalization’s effects on art, media, and collaboration.
Following The Kitchen’s 1985 move to its current location in Chelsea, Zazou-Bikaye was one of the inaugural performances in the new space and the opening concert of the Strange Mutations music festival that began on January 16, 1986. Former Kitchen music curator Bob Wisdom described the festival in the New York Times saying, ''It's a kicky title, but underneath there's a real seriousness of intent. Whether it's jazz or new music or pop, I believe that everything we present speaks to the times.'' Led by Algerian electronic composer Hector Zazou and vocalist Bony Bikaye of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Zazou-Bikaye’s seven-member French-African ensemble included percussion, vocals, horns, and a prerecorded electronic score meant to immerse the listener in an unsparing collision of synths, beatboxes, and multi-lingual African singing. This performance did not just speak to the times – it spoke to an emerging atmosphere of uprisings with the independence revolutions of 52 African countries, the peace and violence of the socio-political consciousness of the Civil Rights Movement, and the birth of diaspora studies in American universities.
The music, like its makers, is a complex rendering of identities and genres that seeps from composition as a gesture of self-representation, sameness, and difference. Received at the time by Rockpool newsletter as “innovative and offbeat…truly a bizarre cross cultural mix,” Zazou-Bikaye’s records called listeners to engage with music that was outside of their normal spectrum. Vocal and percussive polyrhythms were transposed into synthesizers and sequencers that evoked the minimalist and experimental music of the era while also retaining deeply resonant, popularly African, tones that seemed separate from their electronic origins.
Listening to Zazou-Bikaye’s first album Noir Et Blanc – which was recorded with CY1, a duo who specialized in electronic research – syncopated bass and bell patterns pair with Bikaye’s multilingual African singing to rest in a landscape of Zazou’s computerized drone melodies. One can only imagine hearing this music in The Kitchen’s new performance space. What an experience to be sitting amongst spectators, pulsating with funky bass lines and synth horn solos, and swaying to the synergetic potentiality of these French-African performers. For many, this may have been a first encounter with such trenchant, transcultural musical happenings.
And yet what of this encounter? What remains from contact and exposure with something unfamiliar? In an interview about the first album he and Zazou were producing, Bikaye asserted that “African people received Noir Et Blanc quite well because they could relate to the fact that it showed that there are African people who are willing to come out of this supposed exotic ghetto. The problem is I think a lot of Western people want African music to be confined.” What did Zazou and Bikaye find in The Kitchen? Could it be an attempt to establish an area of the west that seemed outside of Eurocentric ideology? Was it, like Wisdom said, a chance to speak or sing to the times? As we move forward in a landscape echoing the history of the 1980s with social revolutions, political uprising, and public discontent regarding the ongoing consequences of systemic violence, it is important for us to consider the answers to these questions. And perhaps, in hope and respect for art and the artist, we could bear in mind the words of the Strange Mutations invitation: “Music is mutable and strange mutations explore the delightful and sometimes bizarre influences that flow freely from musician to musician and from country to country…”