Hukwe Zawose, 2002
Tanzania has a made-to-measure musical ambassador in the person of Dr Hukwe Zawose: educator, instrument builder, cultural conservationist and - most importantly - a charismatic singer and musician of singular abilities who has introduced the music of his people (the Wagogo, of central Tanzania's arid Dodoma region) to an international audience. Still, despite two decades of concert performances around the world, Hukwe remained an enthusiasm shared mostly by the inner circle of world music aficionados.
Peter Gabriel, founder of Real World Records, was a Hukwe fan of long standing who felt the time was nigh for Dr Zawose's sound to reach a larger audience. With this goal in mind, he tapped the Canadian producer/instrumentalist Michael Brook to collaborate with Hukwe. The project that Gabriel had in mind would build upon traditional Tanzanian music and Hukwe's unique talents with arrangements and textures that could prove enticing to a broader spectrum of listeners.
Brook was the perfect candidate, a producer of international pedigree and a solo artist whose own recordings (Hybrid, Cobalt Blue) encapsulated both his studio expertise and a deep understanding of non-Western music. Many listeners without such understanding had become fans of artists who had partnered with Brook on Real World albums: the late, legendary Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Mustt Mustt and Night Song) and the Armenian flautist Djivan Gasparyan (Black Rock). Of course, there is no convenient 'East-meets-West' template for such collaborations. Each new project presents a unique set of dilemmas, and the album that united Michael Brook and Hukwe Zawose proved to be no exception. Before it was done, Michael would push both his studio's capabilities and his own creative ingenuity to new extremes.
'Assembly', the result of their combined labours, merges the poetry and grace of Wagogo melodies with science-fiction funk, the shape-shifting sound of a digitally enhanced roadhouse band. Shimmering thumb piano melodies and the many voices of Hukwe - some high-pitched and keening, others of seismic depth and resonance - are woven within dense rhythmic laminates of sternum-shaking beats and insistent grooves, gilded with the signature tone of Brook's own invention, the infinite guitar.
Prior to embarking upon his earlier collaborations, Michael had produced albums of traditional music for the artists involved. This time out, though, Michael's and Hukwe's working relationship commenced as they began recording Assembly at Real World Studios with Hukwe's nephew, Charles Zawose. The Tanzanian musicians performed on chilimba and ilimba (respectively, small and large thumb pianos constructed by Hukwe) and izeze (a fiddle configured for varying numbers of strings). The tracking sessions went smoothly enough, though Michael recalls an unplanned turn of events: "I played Hukwe one track, saying 'Here's another one, what do you think?' He and Charles talked a while. They agreed that they were both ready to play, then they both took their trousers off. What the hell was going on? It turned out that the way that they were playing the thumb pianos, the sound holes had to go over the skin on their legs to get a specific vibrato."
Richard Evans has produced and engineered many projects at Real World, including Hukwe's 1996 album Chibite. He had worked on the recording of Black Rock, Michael Brook's previous collaboration with Djivan Gasparyan, and was a member of the group that toured in support of the album. As co-producer and co-arranger of Assembly, Evans commuted to southern California after principal tracking in England was done, helping Michael complete the tracks at the latter's home studio. Richard provided important technical and musical input, be it transcribing thumb piano parts (later to be used by the horn section) or aligning the pitch of the Tanzanians' instruments in tune with Brook's guitars and keyboards.
Michael recalls: "[Matching instrument tunings] was a big challenge on this project because none of Hukwe's instruments are tuned to concert pitch, a major logistical hurdle. We had to pitch-shift all of my backing tracks to a particular pair of instruments that he thought would be right for each piece. We'd doctor all the tracks and then Hukwe would record against those. Then, Richard Evans and I had to pitch-shift (usually down to the nearest semi-tone) all of Hukwe's tracks so that we could do our own overdubs without re-tuning all of the backing tracks. This process took nearly a week in itself, for his instruments and his vocals."
Michael denies that there was an ordained design for Assembly, stating only that, inspired by the quixotic intensity of P18's Urban Cuban, he wanted to help Hukwe make an album with its fair share of energy and surprise changes. To hear any among Assembly's finished tracks is to know how well Messrs Zawose & Brook succeeded in that regard. Commenting on the sudden shifts in mood and rhythm within a song, Michael notes that: "The time signature changes arose from the fact that [Hukwe and Charles] are always playing a kind of three-against-four time, which is fundamental to much African music. It was a challenge, making changes. In the early days of the record, I was concerned that it would turn out as them chanting over a continuing riff. I wanted to create at least an 'A' and a 'B' section, where they do two distinct vocal passages. It was an after-the-fact thing, with much time spent in post-production, defining those sections. Also, because of the floating nature of what Hukwe and Charles did, there was no obligation to instantly jump back - you could work with one passage for as long as it was interesting."
Other musicians made essential contributions to the project during post-production. "We had a number of drum loops that Peter Gabriel gave us that were left over from his latest album," Michael recalls. "Assembly has a big sound, and the drum loops helped a lot. Peter suggested that it might be more inspiring for Hukwe to have better grooves and, man, was he ever right!" Lee Thornberg, who had played brass on the latest Vanessa Paradis album, overdubbed complete horn sections throughout Assembly, and as Michael notes: "It was one of those situations where one person overdubbing was tighter than several people playing as a traditional section." Two tracks benefit from additional vocals by Zap Mama's Marie Daulne, whose voice draws a line between singing and skywriting. (When asking her to participate, Michael had no way of knowing that Marie was inspired to sing professionally by one of Hukwe's recordings, which her mother used to play for her.)
Assembly's authors are elusive as concern their ambitions for this unusual music. By his own admission, Hukwe Zawose is a traditional musician, albeit one unafraid of experimenting with Western musical forms. Was he concerned that Assembly compromised his Wagogo heritage? In his words, "Composers remain with their original material, unaffected." Michael Brook, for his part, explored new means to engineer radical changes within a track. Of his latest collaborator, Michael enthuses: "Hukwe's an unparalleled singer. One of Peter's main goals in proposing this album was to say to everybody, 'Hey, check out Hukwe'. It became one of my goals, too."
This article was written before the sad death of Dr Hukwe Zawose at the end of 2003.
- Michael Brook & Hukwe Zamose : Assembly Real World : CDRW100 - Canadian guitarist / producer Michael Brook brings a new dimension to the work of legendary Tanzanian singer / musician Dr Hukwe Zawose. Huge grooves delivered with the aid of Zap Mama's Marie Daulane and Lee Thornberg's latin brass in a melodic explosion of sound. A total global fusion. Piccadily Records (UK)
- ...rhythmically enchanting, riotously beautiful... 'A cacophonous, sonorous, rhythmically enchanting, riotously beautiful sound emerges, now tribal and ambient, now funkified and electronic...to identify all nine tracks on this phenomenal CD as the only music there is - the music of the world.' Napra Review (USA)
- An Assembly of Canadian Spiff and Wagogo Trance '...one hears two distinct talents from different worlds and experiences working in tandem to create a hybrid entity with a singular life force. When the parents of this entity are of the caliber of Zawose and Brook the future of the musical gene pool is enriched for us all.' Global Rhythm (USA)
- Part traditional music, part hip-hop, and part ambient... ...the project nicely balances its constituent parts and even leaves room for lovely vocals reminiscent of the Baka Pygmy people by Zap Mama's Marie Daulne... The Beat (USA)
- ...purely wonderful voices. African Beat (USA)
- ...Assembly is a masterpiece... 'A gripping fusion of traditional African song and electronica, Assembly is a masterpiece created by Tanzanian singer Dr. Hukwe Zawose and Canadian musician/producer Michael Brook. Zawose brought the music of the Wagogo people to the sessions. His vocal performance, singing in the Kigogo tongue as well as Swahili, is inspiring. Brook is an electronica savant, well known for his work with Brian Eno, Youssou N'Dour, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Zawose's Tanzanian songs are elemental, yet suggest almost endless mix possibilities. Brook absolutely caught the wave, providing an amazing array of textures and rhythmic ideas to supplant Zawose's songs, resulting in tracks as distinctive as the tribal-electronica of "Ntambalize Lijenje," the crisp funk of "Chilumi Cha Kwetu" and "Awuno Mganga Ndeje," (enlivened by the considerable punch of Lee Thornberg's brass), and the ambient vibe of "Songa Mbele." PVV Billboard (USA)
- Tanzanian roots music given big, western makeover. 'Hukwe Zawose is a Tanzanian singer and instrumentalist. Producer/musician Michael Brook previously worked with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, producing one of the most varied and explosive world-music collaborations in recent memory. Assembly has great moments: The Bedbugs Bite, with its big beats, dub and searing vocals from Zawose: the sudden rush of thumb piano on Tricky Voices: Pumpkin Life's scratchy guitar sections. At times, the sound is almost too busy, threatening to overpower Zawose with a rush of fairground rhythms, accordions, horns, weeping guitar lines, even ukulele. That said, the confidence and ingenuity is admirable.' Chris Stapleton Q Magazine (UK)
- Everything locks cleverly together, from popping bass riffs to big, brittle horn ensembles... 'Everything locks cleverly together, from popping bass riffs to big, brittle horn ensembles...' The Guardian (2002) (UK)
- Spinning traditional music into modern anthems is nothing new for producer-guitarist Michael Brook. In the past, he's recast the voice of the late Pakistani Qawaali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Armenian duduk of Djivan Gasparyan. This time, he takes the gentle tribal hymns and chants of Tanzania's Dr. Hukwe Zawose and turns them into a throbbing groove for a transglobal nightclub of the imagination. Zawose's multitracked voices and plaintive kalimba melodies are embraced by Brook in a techno-noir jungle that includes ethereal harmonies from Zap Mama singer Marie Daulne, horn sections that echo the kalimba themes, and guitar and bass that supercharge the rhythms. Brook infuses Zawose's music with a structural drama, a sense of journey and transition that makes tracks like "Haliko Chijende/Let's Walk" an urban African symphony and "Mbeleje/Sweet Deceiver" a surreal swirl. Assembly is far removed from the more traditional and pastoral sounds of Zawose's previous Realworld album, Chibite. Zawose may have lost his innocence, but the music still retains a joyous exuberance. John Diliberto Amazon.com (USA)
- Record of the week - 13.5.02 Real World : CDRW100 - Canadian guitarist / producer Michael Brook brings a new dimension to the work of legendary Tanzanian singer / musician Dr Hukwe Zawose. Huge grooves delivered with the aid of Zap Mama's Marie Daulane and Lee Thornberg's latin brass in a melodic explosion of sound. A total global fusion. This week's thoughts... And It's the merging of two diverse styles that we choose as record of the week. Real World's new "Assembly" from Michael Brook and Tanzanian vocalist Hukwe Zamose does attempt to try new and different things, often with great effect. Www.piccadillyrecords.com (UK)
- The World music boss Peter Gabriel has long been on a mission to turn Hukwe Zawose into a star. Yet, to date, appreciation of the Tanzanian's intriguing songwriting has remained a minority sport. Enter Michael Brook, the American world music producer who helped the late Nusrat fateh Ali Khan reach a wider audience. He has done the trick here, too. The Times (UK)