The West African nation of Niger is known for its Tuareg guitar rock, such as that from Tinariwen, Bombino and Group Inerane, but one keyboardist named Hama—who works as a businessman’s driver as his day job—has been gaining popularity through radio exposure and his instrumental MP3s being traded and swapped on phones.
The confusing thing is, however, these MP3s were first unlabeled, giving no credit to Hama; then, eventually, they were labeled incorrectly, attributing the assassinated rebel Japonais, a member of the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) and also a keyboard player, as the musician behind the tracks.
Very likely, this misattribution may have actually helped Hama get his music heard, since listeners who considered Japonais to be a hero probably thought that by sharing these infectious, hypnotic keyboard pieces, they were honoring him.
On his album Torodi, released on vinyl and as digital downloads, Hama exclusively uses a Yamaha Portatone PSR-64; on first glance, this model looks like the typical keyboard one might get a department store, but it differentiates itself by having the capability to play quarter tones for programmable Arabic scales and having Arabic percussion sounds, alongside the expected rock-band drum sounds.
With a slightly warbling synth organ sound, Hama taps through enthralling runs, processed with a gentle echo, embracing the keyboard’s artificiality unabashedly; on “Tarhanam,” Hama is unafraid to use the cheesy tom drum beats, sparingly, as a flourish. There is a sort of outsider spirit to this music, with the feeling that Hama is tapping directly into his consciousness through scale runs and improvised pathways, but it never gets to the point where it seems amateurish, among the homemade, non-slick recordings.
On paper, it might not sound remarkable—a fellow tapping out wandering melodies on a cheap keyboard—but there is a mesmerizing quality to Hama that can’t be discounted.
Tokyo artist Masami Akita, better known as the noise outfit Merzbow, is often considered to be the most prominent noise artist in the world, with a huge body of work spanning over 35 years that has an impressive degree of variation and an astounding, often visceral richness to it.
A large percentage of listeners will likely find much of Merzbow’s work to be unlistenable, especially his harsh-noise method that began to dominate his style in the ’90s; however, like effective abstract visual art, Merzbow’s sonic creations reflect a way to provoke and challenge beyond conventional means, using more skill and thought than what may be apparent.
For such music that can elicit a strong, instinctual negative reaction in many, the alienating effect can actually be appealing for certain hardy listeners, as part of some underground subculture with eardrums of steel and a rare aural stamina. It would be insulting, however, to assume that this is the only appeal, and listening to Merzbow’s latest effort, Nezumimochi, this writer can imagine a range of reactions that would help to explain why aficionados are drawn to Merzbow’s recordings.
Nezumimochi is comprised of a vinyl picture-disc record and a CD, and there is no overlapping material between the two mediums over the 91-minute total running time.
The general formula for the five long songs of Nezumimochi employs a small, looped electronic riff, over which Akita presents his palette of abrasive, sharp-edged sonic brutality that veers into squealing feedback and white-noise sheets that are shaped with an envelope effect (think wah-wah pedal) to boost frequencies, rather than depending on pitches like a conventional song.
Although each track has a similar approach, this writer had violently different reactions, with the tracks “Rat,” “Tamatsubaki” and “Joteishi” seemingly feeding the listener with energy, stimulating him, but for the tracks “Rice Cake” and “Matebashii,” there was instead a wearying, draining effect, making it more like an endurance run rather than a brisk sprint.
Your mileage may vary, but keep in mind that being maddened and frightened and riled up are certainly valid reactions in the world of Merzbow.