/ 19 July 2012

Music review: Sun Araw, M Geddes Gengras & the Congos – FRKWYS Vol 9: Icon Give Thank

Music Review: Sun Araw

Sun Araw, M Geddes Gengras & the Congos — FRKWYS Vol 9: Icon Give Thank

About three years ago the vowel-shy record label RVNG Intl started an exciting series in which contemporary artists and their progenitors record an album together.

Called FRKWYS, it is a play on the name of the influential Folkways label founded in the late 1940s to document sound from around the world.

For the ninth volume, experimental musicians Cameron Stallones,  better known as Sun Araw, and Mark Geddes Gengras, who plays in Pocahaunted and LA Vampires, and a film crew went to record an album with reggae vocal legends the ­Congos at their headquarters in St Catherine, Jamaica. It must have been 10 days of sheer magic during which, according to the record label’s website, “the musicians and filmmakers ate, slept, and smoked”.

The result, the trippy reggae-inflected psychedelia of FRKWYS Vol 9: Icon Give Thank, is one of the most beautiful and unusual albums I have ever heard.

The recording did not have the smoothest of starts.

Stallones told The Wire magazine that when they got to the Congos’ headquarters there was no drum kit. He and Gengras had to jam around the loose musical themes they had prepared in Los Angeles and the septuagenarians (“Congo Ashanti” Roy Johnson, Cedric “Bongo” Myton, Watty Burnett and Kenroy “Tallash” Fyffe) had to intuitively feel their way vocally around them.

“I remember, I think, [Congo] Ashanti Roy saying ‘Man, this is a different kind of music’ in this way that was really ambiguous,” Stallones told The Wire. “And I didn’t know how to take it. At some point a little bit ­further in the recording he turned to me and said, ‘Oh, they’re like chants’. And from that point it made so much sense to everyone.”

What also helped to transcend this collaboration from good on paper but crap in execution to absolute brilliance on record was Stallones’ healthy self-awareness.

“Human beings are human beings and we need to engage with each other as such,” he said in the same interview. “With the Congos, if we had gone there and tried to be ‘Hey, we’re coming to you as white musicians from America, but it’s not like that and we’re going to do it this way’, you’re setting up a hierarchy, understanding the situation more clearly than they do, and that’s incredibly condescending. And incredibly false.”

The Congos are a vocal group that have been around for a long time — their late-1970s Lee Perry-produced The Heart of the Congos is one of the best reggae albums of all time. But FRKWYS Vol 9: Icon Give Thank is not reggae, or even a dub record in the strictest sense of the word, even though all the artists involved clearly brought dub sensibilities of time and space to the recording. The album, just under 43 minutes long, is more a series of exquisite and often haunting experimental soundscapes provided by Stallones’s basslines, guitar and percussion and Gengras’s synths, with the Congos’ musical meditations woven throughout.