I wasn’t sure that I was going to like this CD. I’d heard Think of One twice before on Charlie Gillett’s 2004 and 2005 world music compilations — the songs he included were “Grito Grande”, from Chuva Em Po, and “Moana”, from Marrakesh Emballages Ensemble 2 — and they hadn’t felt like anything special. I liked Dona Cila do Côco’s singing on “Grito Grande”, and that was it.
Descriptions of the band made them sound like something a marketer had invented with one eye on everyone who had ever turned up at WOMAD wearing a tie-dyed bandana. The description goes like this: Think of One is a collective of Belgian squatters and gypsies who travel to different places and make wild collaborative music with the people it finds there. For Chuva Em Po and Tráfico the group visited Brazil. Marrakesh Emballages Ensemble 2 came out after they had spent time in Morocco. Fame and brand recognition aren’t important to the collective: they sometimes release albums under aliases. The group travels the world, singing and blowing horns and making a joyful noise. They win awards and everyone loves them.
I was suspicious. The idea of a freewheeling, friendly collective sounded too perfect to be true and I think I was resentful, to tell you the truth — hell, I’d like to be a carefree musical Belgian too. (Just to cap it off, I think they’re Walloons. Who wouldn’t want the pleasure of walking up to strangers and introducing yourself as a Walloon? It’s a wonderful word.) I didn’t want to give them the time of day.
That stubbornness lasted some way into Tráfico. I was stubborn through track one, and scornful of track two, and indifferent to track three, and at track four I shrugged, but track five — oh, they got me on track five. It’s called “Tahina”, and it is, in the words of band member David Bovée, “a family story about a beautiful girl dancing around.” “Tahina” starts with a snifty drum and a bwooming noise. Brazilian women arrive, singing quickly in chorus, coming down heavily when they reach the last syllable of the title. “Tahina, tahina, tahina-a-a. Tahiinaa-aa-aa.” Then their cavalho marinho rhythm gets taken over by what I’m going to describe inadequately as a punk band crossed with a mob of Roma horns. Everything crashes. The imaginary beautiful girl spins out of control and begins to thrash her arms. Her hair is sticking to her eyes. She’s no longer a folk music girl in a dress. Her black shirt is ripped all to hell and the crowd is getting out of her way.
The next song is smooth as butter, and in French, and features whistling. They won me with the crashing horns and convinced me with the whistling. The press says that Bovée hasn’t lived in a house for nine years… well, whether that’s true or not, whether they really are free spirits or not, it doesn’t matter. Musical collectives are often hit and miss, but Think of One hits far more often than it misses. They’re talented collaborators. They were right to pick Dona Cila do Côco. She sounds firm and old. She’s a carnival. She grounds them. Her voice has got dirt on its feet. You can get away with anything with her on your side.
Their weakest tracks are the ones that seem anonymous. “Samba Belga” is the kind of Brazilian dance mix that you’ve heard a dozen times before. It’s not that Think of One’s version is shabby, but the song could have come from anyone else and we wouldn’t have noticed the difference. They’re at their best when they’re bringing an unexpected sound into a tune that seemed to be getting along well without it. Not only does the new sound fit, it makes the song better. The buttery French number would have been nice even if they hadn’t added the whistling, but the whistle elevates it beyond niceness. After it’s over, the whistle is the part you remember. It becomes, “The Whistle Song”. (Its real name is “Aai”.)
So there, I’ve learnt something, namely that it is not always clever or right to judge a band from two songs on Charlie Gillett compilations. Am I inspired to go out and buy Chuva Em Po and Marrakesh Emballages Ensemble 2? No, not quite. Tráfico is enough for now. It was nice to discover that I liked them, though. It’s good to have surprises like this.