Vashti Bunyan inspires, Vandou Game grooves.
(Fat Cat/Dicristina Stair Builders)
Watch the video of Vashti Bunyan’s 1965 single “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind” and you’ll see a young, painfully shy singer standing alone, swaying awkwardly, clearly uncomfortable to be in the spotlight. We all want those we admire to find great success, but success is defined differently for everyone.
On some level, this writer is glad that Vashti Bunyan never made it as a pop star; glad that she took a horse-drawn cart to a commune in the late ’60s; extremely glad that she played by her own rules in the creative realm as a solo artist.
Her new album, Heartleap, is to serve as her third and final proper album, following the lithe, frolicking English folk of 1970’s Just Another Diamond Day and 2005’s excellent comeback Lookaftering. Although it isn’t a prolific career, it is nearly a perfect one—there is much to be said about output restraint, favoring quality over quantity.
The serenity of Heartleap makes it an album-length lullaby, with Bunyan gently coaxing her singing out, softly and unassertively, and warmly disclosing her secrets. Although meticulously assembled, the arrangements sound effortlessly understated and balanced, free from any jarring moments; typically built upon circular acoustic guitar note patterns, her songs bloom with pianos, strings and subtle synths that blend tastefully with the acoustic instruments.
Bunyan delves into the personal, covering the pitfalls of communication and disposed memories in “Gunpowder,” and her vivid dreamworld, like in “Jellyfish,” a reverie of being mistaken for a Portuguese Man o’ War while drowning in a blue dress. Perhaps the most affecting track is “Mother,” where Bunyan relates, as a child, eavesdropping on her mother dancing and singing alone, serving as a reflection regarding whether or not her mother was able to fully explore her artistic potential.
It seems appropriate that Bunyan’s own daughter, Whyn Lewis, created the cover painting for Heartleap, which then inspired Bunyan to create the album’s title track, a meta-love song with simple expressions of joy and comfort.
The superb Heartleap is a representation of giving and taking between generations, apt for an artist whose 50-year career has inspired devotees from multiple generations; for Bunyan, it closes one loop, but for others, it opens many others.
Any armchair ethnomusicologist will roll his eyes when hearing a painfully broad term like “African music” or “Brazilian music,” which is the equivalent of lumping every kind of music made in the United States over the last few centuries under the nearly meaningless term “American music.”
So, what gets an armchair ethnomusicologist salivating is the opposite—doing the deep dive and exploring those small sub-genres that might otherwise fall through the cracks of general cultural consciousness.
The album at hand, Apiafo, is the debut of the six-piece group Vaudou Game, led by singer/composer Peter Solo from the west African nation of Togo who has relocated to France. What we have here is not merely Afro-funk, but Togolese Afro-funk. And, apparently, it’s inspired by voodoo culture and incorporates the two primary musical scales used in the tradition of voodoo. So, the next time you are at your friendly neighborhood record store, just check the “Togolese Afro-funk Voodoo” section.
Admittedly unfamiliar with voodoo scales, ostensibly, to this writer, what Vaudou Game sounds like is an extra-funky cousin to Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, with compelling, tight funk drumming, brass charges, prominent organ melodies and psychedelic flourishes, like wah-wah guitar.
Solo’s singing—in both English and the Mina language—is clearly influenced by Wilson Pickett and James Brown, to the point where one wonders if he is simply trying to imitate them with his shouts and exclamations of “yeah-uh!”; the momentum and fluidity of tracks such as “Pas Contente” owe a lot to Brown’s early ’70s work with Bootsy and Catfish Collins. Upbeat funk grooves dominate on Apiafo, although there are diversions, like the spiritual “Ata Calling” with a slower pace that evokes the soul of an Otis Redding number.
Funk fans will eat this up, and it’s consistently a fun and stimulating album that’s well-recorded; however, this writer can’t shake the nagging feeling that it’s a little too clean-sounding, which is a minor problem.
As-is, it’s a fine debut, but with a little more grit, sweat and humidity, it could have been a monster of an album.