The Monthly music wrap: March 2019

By Anwen Crawford
Koffee’s debut EP brings a jolt of youthful energy, and new releases from local projects with global sensibilities

Koffee. Image source

Two Fridays ago I was standing amid a crowd of thousands outside the Sydney Town Hall, listening to a succession of teenagers describe the moral urgency of climate change. “We will rise!” they promised. Whoops of enthusiasm broke over our heads like waves upon a shore. I glimpsed a handmade sign that read “GEN X SUPPORTS THE CLIMATE STRIKE”, and wondered if I should go stand beneath it.

Anyone looking for a similar jolt of youthful energy as March draws to a close could do worse than take a listen to Koffee, a 19-year-old Jamaican whose debut EP, Rapture, arrived this month. Born Mikayla Simpson, the young musician imbues her songs with both old-school reggae vibes – horn melodies, skanking piano – and contemporary pop textures. Her voice and presentation is beguilingly androgynous (check out this performance of the EP’s title track for a sense of it), and her confidence winning. “Koffee come in like a rapture,” she toasts. “Place lift up like helicopter.”

Rapture gathers a couple of Koffee’s previous singles together with a new song, “Blazin”, and the EP makes a strong case for the present-day vitality of reggae, a genre that has been overshadowed in recent decades by global enthusiasm for its flashier musical cousin, dancehall. Not that Koffee herself sets much store by genre boundaries, or personal limits. “I want to try it all,” she told music website Reggaeville last year. “I want to impact the world.” “One people we forming,” she prophecies on “Throne”, a song that criticises gun violence in Jamaica, “‘Cause the disparity alarming”. All hail the new teen spirit.

The success of the worldwide climate strike was eclipsed by the murderous terrorist attack on Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, perpetrated by a white Australian, which happened on the same day. And in vain have we waited, here in Australia, for any hint of self-reflection since on the causes of that heinous crime from either our political class or those sections of the media that have traded in the business of platforming white supremacists under the specious banner of “free speech”. In such a context, I want to draw attention this month to the work of a project that is striving to expand the horizons of our local music community.

Music in Exile is a Melbourne-based not-for-profit initiative that launched late last year, which aims to create “space for artists working in culturally or linguistically diverse communities in Australia”. In January came the project’s debut release, by Gordon Koang, a South Sudanese musician and refugee who arrived in Australia four years ago and is awaiting a decision on his application for permanent residency. Koang sets out on tour next month (he’s not playing in New South Wales, alas), and interested listeners can get a taste of his sound via his Music in Exile single, “Mal Mi Goa / Salaam”, available on download and vinyl.

Koang plays a six-stringed, banjo-like instrument, described on his website as a thom, and his playing creates a twanging tone and springy texture that is woven through the nearly eight minutes of “Mal Mi Goa”. It’s a circular sort of song, or perhaps “spiralling” would be the better word; the parts repeat – along with thom, there are shuffling drums, a rubbery bass melody and a discreet organ line that echoes Koang’s vocal – but the repetitions have an off-centre quality, like the musicians approached each iteration with slightly different emphasis and timing. The song’s mood is steady but its effect is elusive: whenever you think you’ve got a handle on its instrumental lines, it changes. At the very end the organ steps forward, as if a for a bow.

Sung in Koang’s native language of Neur, “Mal Mi Goa” is, according to Music in Exile’s notes, a song “calling for peace between the people of Sudan and also around the world”. The single’s flip-side, “Salaam”, sung in Arabic, has a similar message. It’s a denser track, the thom strummed fast and continuously, the bass and organ mirroring each other’s up-and-down melodies. “Salaam … Allelujah,” sings Koang. We can but agitate for kindness.

Also of note this month: Japanese quartet Chai release their second album, Punk: J-Pop meets the Josie and the Pussycats. Afghan-American composer and rabab player Qais Essar’s latest EP, I Am Afghan, Afghani Is Currency Vol III: Zahir has him paying homage to both Afghan and Hindustani musical traditions; see “Ilahi Man Namedanam” for a sense of Essar’s precise yet dynamic style. (The EP is released through Worlds Within Worlds, another recently launched local project with a global sensibility.) Farewell to the mighty Scott Walker, whose career stretched from the hit-making Walker Brothers to his bracing, experimental, late solo work. And farewell also to Ranking Roger, lead vocalist of The Beat: to my mind the greatest of the British 2-Tone groups, and, ipso facto, one of the best bands ever.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Koffee. Image source

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