[13 May 2008]
Babylon Circus seems to have started off years ago as a ska band, and then let its sound creep outwards to incorporate other genres. There’s reggae in the title track of this album, an accordion in “De la Musique et du Bruit”, a cowboy guitar in “My Friend”, a jazzy chanson swing in “Interlude Barbare”, and various other bits of inspiration grabbed here and there as needed. Excitement: that’s what the group is after. It likes speed and change. It jumps and kicks. The lyrics are often political, but there’s a kiddieness in its hectic jouncing. There are moments when it sounds as if it should be called the International Too Much Sugar Band.
“Consciousness, invading the dance floor”, the band members sing in “Musical Terrorism”. They mean a political consciousness, anti-war and pro-harmony, the good people of the world peacefully united by skanking trombones and the tooting, spiralling carousel organ notes that are there to make you realise that the second half of the group’s name is more than a cute piece of word association. They really do use circus music.
The tootling organ turns like a cog wheel through “J’aurais Bein Volou”, and then other tilting noises appear throughout the album to suggest big tops and barking men in ticket booths ordering you to roll up, roll up, for the greatest show on earth, come and see lions, tigers, elephants, apes, camels, seals, women wearing sparse spangled clothes on galloping horses, marvels strange and rare, etc, etc. In most cases, the circus music is integrated with the rest, but “J’aurais Bein Volou” and another track, “Petit Caravane Barbare”, are almost pure circus. They act like extended pauses, keeping us waiting in this giddy interval for whatever is going to come next.
A band with a different character to that of Babylon Circus might have introduced the circus idea in order to make a satirical point, contrasting, let’s say, a lyrical picture of carefree entertainment against some kind of harsh political reality, comparing a fat ringmaster to an oligarch, or telling us that the dull masses need circus-like distractions to mollify the rebellious impulses of their feeble brains, but this group seems to be adopting the carousel trill with a straightforward intent. In other words, it’s there to be fun. The clown in “Mr Clown” is not there to serve as, say, a satirical portrait of a policeman, and there doesn’t appear to be any hidden irony in the lyrics to “My Friend”, which really does celebrate a genuine friend. “Such a good man!” they tell us. When they sing about war and violence on “Warlord”, then the circus music disappears.
In spite of the circus, the accordion, and the Stateside guitar, there’s enough ska left to give Dances of Resistance a definite ska atmosphere, the whole thing kicking along to the sound of brass pumping upwards with that brisk, punching rhythm that seems to be poking you in the ribs—jab jab jab jab—until you start dancing around out of agitation. The quick, tip-tilted pace lends it a whiff of the Manu Chaos, but without Chao’s vehemence or his whirling sirens.
The musicians, who are based in Lyons, sing sometimes in French and sometimes in English, and it’s when they sing in English that their reggae side comes out, or maybe it’s when their reggae side comes out that they sing in English. The word ‘fire’ in “Warlord” is pronounced ‘fi-YAH’ and a ‘slave-driver’ is a ‘slave-dry-VAH’. The sound of French-speaking people pretending to be English-speaking people pretending to be Jamaican-accented people sounds less strange on the album than it possibly does on screen, and it works.
The politics on Dances of Resistance are sometimes at the forefront of the music and sometimes not. Generally speaking, the members of Babylon Circus are against exploitation, competitiveness, and brutality, and in favour of friendship, unity, and good times. Footage of the group’s live performances shows seas of people shaking their arms, and after listening to Dances of Resistance nothing in that picture feels exaggerated. Yes, you think, that’s exactly what a Babylon Circus show would look like. Lots of movement, lots of energy, lots of putting your hands in the air and waving them like you just don’t care. Lots of singing along to lyrics about peace and fellowship. Something visual to go with the circus music. A ringmaster atmosphere. Maybe elephants.