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A woman stands with her arms outstretched to the side

Let My Country Awake

by Bishi

(Gryphon Records, CD, DL)

bishi.co.uk

★★★★★

Little England (growing littler and pettier by the minute) can rely on Bishi Bhattacharya to shake things up. Born in London of Bengali heritage, Bishi is a musician, composer and sitar player who has been putting the black in the Union Jack (to use sociologist Paul Gilroy’s memorable phrase) for some years now. Bishi’s methods combine a compositional sensibility that draws on many aspects of her heritage (from Indian classical music to disco and the queer vocabulary of ballroom to studies with the avant-garde singer Meredith Monk). Also in the mix are a taste for high glam and a remarkable fearlessness when it comes to working with set texts.

Let My Country Awake is Bishi’s third studio album and, like her previous releases (most notably, 2012’s ever-fresh Albion Voice), she entertains and challenges in equal measures. If her last album jumped off from settings of Chaucer, this one is inspired by Nikesh Shukla’s collection of essays, The Good Immigrant, and the writings of Rabindranath Tagore. A famous poem of Tagore’s, which expresses a yearning for humane and creative freedom, gives the album its title. The six songs make great use of collaged voices – we hear from Shukla himself, as well as poet Salena Godden, and Darren Chetty, an academic specializing in anti-racist pedagogy. The cumulative effect is of a carefully constructed argument that calls for empathy and strength in difference. Vocals, sitars and synths are marshalled to create a cathedral of sound in an album that is both polemical and visionary and which claims a rightful and necessary position in the forefront of a Britain that might yet be.

A group of people sit on a bench looking to the left and smiling

Shanu

by Monoswezi

(Riverboat Records, CD, LP, DL)

monoswezi.com

★★★★✩

Drawing its membership from Mozambique, Norway, Sweden and Zimbabwe (hence the name), the Monoswezi quintet steers a clear route through multiple musical pathways – with exhilarating effect. Listen to vocalist Hope Masike’s mbira and sweetly voiced Shona vocals and you’ll be catapulted into a Zimbabwean sonic culture; focus, on the other hand, on Hallvard Godal’s vintage Mellotron and the listener is into swoony electronic soundscapes.

Shanu (‘five’ in Shona) is the band’s fifth album and, like previous work, it benefits from an approach that is not proscribed in any way. Thus, a traditional folk song, ‘Hwiri Hwiri Hwiri’, dedicated to the mother-child relationship, retains an indigenous rhythm – Calu Tsemane and Erik Nylander’s percussion is gloriously understated – while accepting a structure that comes from a loose Scandinavian jazz vibe. At points some elements dominate – the electronic arpeggios on ‘Woshanda’, for example – but nothing goes too far. ‘Where Is My Mbira?’, very much a song about cultural heritage in a global world, offers a conversation between Masike’s instrument and a Ry Cooder-like guitar from Putte Johander. The instrumentation puts big, open spaces at its heart to express conceptual distances. The band get truly fierce on the brilliant ‘We Crown You Nehanda’: invoking the spirit of Nehanda Charwe Nyakaskiana, a historic female warrior who led revolts against the British colonialists of Zimbabwe in the 19th century, this song is for any woman who ‘is screaming against injustice, who is wrestling the invisible chains of oppression’. ‘Your bones shall never die!’ promises Masike, which is quite a thing.

New Internationalist issue 535 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2022 issue of New Internationalist.
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