Justin Adams

JUJU – JUSTIN ADAMS AND JULDEH CAMARA
IN TRANCE
Not long ago, on a night lit up by a fat golden moon, Juju took a trip. Fuelled by
rocking guitar and one-string swing, by backseat bass and Afro-jazz beats,
Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara travelled to the place where tradition meets
psychedelia – and then teetered, out there, on the edge. Theirs was a journey of
rhythmic circles and open spaces, a journey over age-old grooves and along
futuristic highways: a journey where the destination - with its whirling spirals and
other kaleidoscopic motifs - counted as much as, well, as the journey.
“We just came together, plugged in and played,” says Adams of In Trance, a
one-take marvel that begs repeated listening. “We played it exactly as we play it
live, channelling these trancey rhythms from traditional Africa, leftfield jazz and
the wilder end of rock. It was a bit like controlling a runaway horse,” the Brittish
guitarist adds with a smile. “A runaway horse that is completely spooked.”
All of which is a normal state of affairs for Camara, a Gambian singer and ritti
maestro who was taught to play the single-string West African fiddle by his blind
father, who himself was taught directly by the djinn. Having lived and worked in
traditional Fula society as a griot – the hereditary poets, praise singers and
musicians who carry the cultural knowledge of their people – the UK-based
Camara is used to vibing in ways that draw people in then send them
somewhere else - to a consciousness-expanding, often mind-blowing state.
“I remember seeing a documentary years ago that had three Gambians wearing
sunglasses and playing one-string fiddles, really letting go,” Adams muses. “I
thought they were the missing link between the Velvet Underground, Fela Kuti
and The Clash – the music I loved growing up.”
The two men’s spooky musical empathy is evident to anyone who’s ever seen
them tear the roof off - and/or kiss the sky - live. “Justin’s playing gets inside my
body, and I can hear the music in his head,” insists the laidback Camara. “Justin
plays African style,” he adds, matter-of-factly.
If Juju’s chemistry was evident on their acclaimed 2007 debut Soul Science and
its equally praised follow up Tell No Lies, it is almost palpable here. In Trance is
precisely that: an album that sees Adams’ Les Paul goldtop vying and blending
with Camara’s keening bittersweet vocals and fiery ritti playing, and embracing
dub reggae and avant-garde jazz en route. Tracks build and circle, layer and
knit. Melodies interlock, rhythms cross and the drone guitar builds a web of
sound with an African aesthetic – these tracks are long, man – and heavy rock
fervour. Prepare, then, for lift off.
“Sonically, we’re stretching it,” says Adams, a child of punk whose long and
varied CV includes producing albums by Saharan desert bluesmen Tinariwen
and collaborating with the iconic likes of Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel and Jah
Wobble. “It’s African syncopation. We’re keeping the call-and-response and the
integrity of the polyrhythms - and we’re exploring the common roots of trance.”
He pauses for a beat or two. “In a way it’s like we’re creating authentic
rock’n’roll,” continues the musician widely regarded as one of England’s most
innovative and original guitarists. “I mean, trance is at the centre of all rock. Why
else did rock’n’roll take over the world? ‘Cause people lose themselves in it,
that’s why. They find it calming and exciting at the same time.”
The album’s opener, Night Walk, is a case in point: a track inspired by an old
rock/blues rhythm originally played on one-string guitar, reinvented and
delivered here with all the wild abandonment of, say, Captain Beefheart wigging
out in Banjul. It’s no secret that the roots of rock (and indeed, blues and reggae)
are earthed firmly in the Motherland. Calling on the griot skills he honed in
childhood Camara peels off riffs on his ritti like some be-robed Gambian
Hendrix, his Fulani-language lyrics – which caution young women against
venturing out late at night - only adding to the hallucinogenic feel.
“I half-remembered this weird Fifties tune called Cherokee Dance that was
recorded by a bluesman named Bob Landers,” says Adams, who researches
such things. “I started playing a two-note riff and Juldeh got inside it
immediately, made himself completely at home. It’s got a Led Zeppelin or Kings
of Leon feel; Juldeh is absolutely on fire. It’s probably the most rocking track
we’ve ever done.”
Blame Juju’s new band: having previously worked with such respected
drummers as ex-Shriekback rhythmist Martyn Barker – present and correct here
on Mariama Trance and Deep Sahara, two storming tracks from last year’s
lauded EP The Trance Sessions – their heads were turned by a couple of young
Turks whose reputations preceded them. Bassist Billy Fuller has collaborated
with everyone from fellow Bristolians Massive Attack and out-there triphoppers
Malachai to Robert Plant and The Strange Sensation (in which Adams plays lead
guitar); he’s a member of cult indie industrialists Beak (alongside Portishead’s
Geoff Barrow) and does a whole lot more besides.
Then there’s Dave Smith – one of the finest and most versatile young drummers
in Britain. Both influenced by and steeped in West African percussion and
classic jazz drumming his explosive style and musical sensitivity has won him
shed loads of respect, regardless of genre. As co-leader of Outhouse, a group
founded under the aegis of London jazz cooperative Loop Collective, Smith has
collaborated with numerous international experimentalists; his group Outhouse
Ruhabi – which he developed in the Gambia with five sabar drummers – explore
the parallels between jazz improvisation and traditional West African music.
Basically, Smith knows his shit.
“We worked magic,” says Adams of their moonlit creative summit. “Everything
fell into place. Juldeh tapped into these old transcendent grooves and stayed
true to his tradition without ever seeming too separate from the bass, drums and
guitar. We ended up with songs that make your body pulsate.”
The drone guitar helped: most of the songs were developed around the one
minimalist chord, which acted as a kind of hazy aural horizon. Songs such as
Djanfa Moja - a fifteen-minute trance excursion whose lyrics tell of betrayal as it
careens and wheels through a sonic landscape as deep as it is wide.
“This is the sort of music I’ve always dreamed of doing with Juldeh.” Adams
flashes a grin. “We didn’t have the right musicians to play it until now. It’s raw
and swinging and has that slightly distorted sheet-of-sound vibe that Moroccan
artists like The Musicians of Jajouka have, where everyone is doing their own
little pushes and pulls and twists and twiddles and weaving this incredible sonic
web.”
“It goes way beyond that thing of ‘This is the traditional music of so-and-so and
he’s thinking of his love for his camel’,” he quips. “Djanfa Moja is a very visceral
experience. There are moments when I can’t tell whether it’s me or Juldeh, or
bass or drums, that’s playing. Sometimes it almost sounds like it is going
backwards. It’s a whole lot more than just four people making music together.”
The dream-like Waide Nayde is underpinned by North African rhythms; rhythms
played on bendir frame drums in chaabi and Berber music and like many such
rhythms, found in varying forms across West Africa – just as they’re often to be
found tucked away in blues and boogie as well.
“This is a song about respect,” says Camara. “Respect, to me, is everything.
You could give me millions of dollars but without respect, it means nothing.”
The dancing, circular groove of Jombajo – a praise song for an outré bride –
evolved from a riff Camara played to Adams, who duly translated it onto bluesy
guitar. “Juldeh is African but he’s gone into all forms of music now,” says Adams
of Camara, whose ritti playing has been likened to the guitar work of great Delta
players like Big Joe Williams and even the hallowed Malian axeman Ali Farke
Touré. “People often asked me why our fusion works so well, and the reasons
are simple. We listen to each other. We respond to what the other is doing. We
have a genuine musical conversation.”
Nowhere is this more evident than on the final track, Halanam, with its traces of
early reggae and blues and of course, those circular trancey rhythms. What was
once traditional African folk becomes something more psychedelic, more urban.
Echoes ripple. Amps are ramped. Limits are pushed. Smith’s jazz-kit drums
come with shakers and sabar, Ginger Baker-style; Fuller’s bass patterns are as
intuitive as they are accessible. Musical discussions go four-ways, not two.
“The whole album evolved in a very fast and spontaneous manner,” says
Adams. “We just went into the studio and did five live takes without headphones
or overdubbing. We set out to make swing music, dance music, trance music;
we got all those things.”
All those things, and more: “It’s still brutal, basic, rough rock’n’roll with one
string solos,” says Adams, as Camara looks on and laughs. “Call it what you
want but there was definitely something in the air that night.”
We call it Juju.
Ends
Jane Cornwell

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