Cross-cultural fusion albums are sometimes criticised for their falseness, but there’s no sense of falseness here, no condescension, simply a set of songs that couldn’t be made in any other way.
"[African music is] like a shared culture that has some technique, a scientific technique almost, that can enter your body,” says Justin Adams, explaining the title. Soul with a scientific technique: therefore, Soul Science. I understand his reasoning, but I don't think this is the right name for the album. "Soul" is too vague and "science" is too calm. An album with soul in the title might be jazz, it might be R&B, it might be a collection of Aretha Franklin remixes, who knows? And "science" doesn't help. It introduces a chilly edge, calmness, contemplation, cerebral music, something worked out under observation.
Soul Science isn't like that. It has the rough, flourishing energy of 1950s rock 'n' roll: pent energy finally unpent, everything bursting into the foreground. The beginning of the second track had me thinking of a riff that I realised later belonged to Bo Diddley and had come to me originally through the Strangeloves and "I Want Candy". The songs leap out at you in spikes and chunks. There's technique involved, in that both Adams and his collaborator Juldeh Camara are skilled musicians, but the music they've made together sounds spontaneous rather than studied.
Adams, a British guitarist, has worked with Tinariwen. He helped to establish the Malian Festival in the Desert. His first solo release, 2002's Desert Road, was avowedly inspired by a trip to Bamako, during which he bought a n'goni. There's something of the dry n'goni sound in Soul Science, too, something that seems to hark back to Segu Blue, last year's multi-n'goni release from Bassekou Kouyate. Adams' version of African music comes from the north-west of the continent, a blues sound, Ali Farka Touré territory.
Camara was born in Gambia and plays the ritti, which is sometimes spelt riti or known as a nyanyeru in Fula. It's a banjo-shaped instrument with a single horsehair string. Held tucked in the crook of an elbow, it's sawed like a fiddle. Camara's ritti makes a tangy and flexible creak, as if a violin had been crossed with an unoiled hinge. A ritti has a wonderful amount of texture. You can try to play it smoothly but the fiddle won't lie down.
This peppery noise plays off against the compact thump of Adams' guitar. We're told that the two musicians were strangers who came together only last year -- "Within half an hour of meeting each other for the first time at Adams’ garage studio, Adams and Camara already had their first track on the album recorded" -- and if this is true then the closeness of the partnership is remarkable. The amity between the two instruments comes across as the sort of ideal friendship that any artist would want to have with another. They're united but they challenge one another, they're competitive but in a fruitful way. Neither one slacks off because the other is giving them too much to live up to. In "Ngamen" you can hear the guitar urging the ritti on, pushing it to do one thing and then another, and the ritti takes on each challenge and nails it. Adams slides up the strings, Camara counters him with a wriggle of singing. In "Subuhanalaii" Adams hits a regular strum, Camara matches him with a ritti twist. The fiddle makes a textured squeal, the guitar slaps and chugs. In "Ya Ta Kaaya" Camara shouts and the guitar answers with a bang and a zoom while Salah Dawson Miller backs them with a steady percussive shuffle.
Cross-cultural fusion albums are sometimes criticised for their falseness, but there's no sense of falseness here, no condescension, simply a set of songs that couldn't be made in any other way. Soul Science is an album of high points. By track two I was excited, by track eleven I thought it was one of the best things I'd heard all year. Call it what you like, it's excellent.