Only one absolute exists in music: there is no beat so good that Tony Allen can’t make it better. Pushing 80 and in no way slowing down, the last few years have seen the original master drummer and Afrobeat founder release another of his own solo albums while popping up on albums with artists located everywhere from London to Rio. Now, he’s crossed the Atlantic once again, playing with musicians from all over Haiti, including members of top local groups like Lakou Mizik and the Yizra’El Band.
By all accounts, the group’s evolution has been singularly marked by chaos. Initially put together for a single public performance at a festival in Port-au-Prince after mere days of rehearsing, a smoke grenade kept them from going onstage. When they rescheduled for a later performance, their recording equipment failed. The music on Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra’s eponymous album comes from mixes of rehearsal tracks (and a few re-recordings to patch them together), where the chaos has been honed and polished into perfect psychedelic jewels.
Heat and life radiate like steam from each track. More than the sum of its parts, the Orchestra puts together swirling electronics, Tony Allen’s unstoppable beats, and hypnotic Haitian melodies to make magic from another world altogether.
Most songs are sung by groups, exuberant traditional elements of tracks that occasionally veer toward the futuristic. In terms of these vocals, one track stands head and shoulders above the rest: “Pa Bat Kòw”, where the usual chorus serves as a backup to two alternating lead performers: Yizra’El members Zikiki and Mirla Samuel Pierre, who switch off between languid, soulful lines and fiery counterpoints. Beneath them flows steady drums and keys, giving the soloists a full sandbox in which to build off of each other.
Building seems to be the Orchestra’s method of choice throughout the album; no matter what their starting point, they always end up with more energy five minutes later, whether on midtempo tracks like “Chay La Lou”, which sounds like it belongs in a neon-lit nightclub too cool for a crowd, faster tracks like the electro-Caribbean funk of “Bade Zile”, or even the slowest track, closer “Mon Ami Tezin”, a zero-gravity bolero with swaying, mournful song and space-age organ.
Genre-bending becomes a thing of the past. Here, the Orchestra obliterates the lines between cultures and styles. Few melodies can be traced strictly to Haitian traditions or Afrobeat; Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra bears almost no resemblance to Lakou Mizik’s debut album from earlier this year, and it adds an entire new color to Tony Allen’s well-varied repertoire.
Mostly upbeat and all outside the box, everything about Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra is brand new. What was a geographically unfeasible grouping came together for a brief time, a perfect storm captured in spite of every kind of disruption. Electronic, Afrobeat, Caribbean traditional music, and even acoustic folk and cumbia sounds make appearances. As much as it leaves you wanting more, this album is the epitome of quality over quantity; how could anything else be more than filler?
It’s no surprise that a group with Tony Allen delivers, and that’s the only obvious thing about this album. Everything else is a revelation.