Does anyone remember “world music”? In the mid- to late 1980s, you couldn’t go to a middle-class dinner party without hearing The Indestructible Beat of Soweto or something by Ladysmith Black Mambazo or the Bhundu Boys. Graceland would have been way too obvious and a little bit gauche. You probably wouldn’t have heard Flash of the Spirit by Jon Hassell and Farafina, however. Originally released in 1988, this album set out to combine Burkinese rhythms with jazz and the other hip style du jour – ambient, but is a little more “challenging” than many of its contemporaries. It might have clashed a little with the crème brûlée.
Flash of the Spirit certainly ticked a lot of boxes – aside from the world music influence, it was co-produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who were on a hot streak after working on records by Peter Gabriel, U2, and Robbie Robertson. It doesn’t sound like any of their albums, much to the chagrin of those buyers who picked it up because of that association. In fact, it’s closer to Miles Davis’ landmark 1970 album Bitches Brew, where Davis attempted to combine (loosely) jazz with rock. Bitches Brew was the gateway to a new hybrid genre – fusion. Unfortunately, Flash of the Spirit seemed to mark the end of whatever genre it came from. That’s not to say it’s a bad album; it just didn’t seem to catch the imagination of the public in the way that Bitches Brew did – despite it sharing many of Davis’ pioneering traits.
Hassell is a restless musician and composer with an inquiring mind. He coined the term “fourth world” to describe his forays into ethnic music, combining them with electronically treated sounds. It’s that approach we see demonstrated here. It’s quite rare that the raw timbre of Hassell’s trumpet is evidenced on this record — it’s more often electronically processed to resemble an otherworldly siren sound or a plaintive cry. It’s incredibly effective when combined with the more rhythmic settings of tracks like “Masque (Strength)”. On this tune Farafina keep the rhythm solid, allowing Hassell the freedom to sound like no other trumpeter before, or since.
On “Kaboo (Play)”, Hassell lets Farafina take center stage and weaves a keyboard line around their voices and rhythms. By gently shifting his chordal work, the whole piece moves slowly and gracefully, until it ends, way too soon. The song could have been twice or three times the length and still hold your attention. “Air Afrique (Wind)” is built on an almost Burundi rhythm and is one of the more conventional pieces on the album. Hassell’s treated trumpet echoes the human voices of Farafina until the tempo quickens and intensifies, and Hassell spins out a simple melody to the end of the piece. It’s thrilling.
It’s the second bite of the cherry for
Flash of the Spirit. I’m not sure that it’ll be any more warmly received in 2020 than it was in 1988 – back then, at least there was a context. Eno, Lanois, and “world music” were all high profile at that time, and anything they did, or anything that sounded even vaguely like it might have come off Graceland or Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares was considered worthy by the cognoscenti. In these uncertain times, will this record, that can’t be easily placed in any genre, be snapped up by the audience that ignored it, over 30 years ago?
It deserves reappraisal. Hassell wasn’t prepared to graft some ethnic percussion onto his work to create some cheesy, coffee table crossover muzak. Instead, he went out on a limb and tried to do something which is always unique and always intriguing. Few people would hold this album up as a ground-breaking recording, but in a small way, it is. It’s a sincere attempt to marry the first world with the third world, and it deserves your attention.