The Tonga Boys | Vindodo
Hailing from the Republic of Malawi, the Tonga Boys wield a sort of frenetic, often humorous take on the sort of ‘African’ drum music to which western ears might typically be accustomed. ‘World’ music so often takes one of two forms – either it has been almost clinically westernised to make it suitable for a culturally-distanced audience, or it is presented as a naive, traditional presentation of a static and primitive culture. It is a rarity to come across artists that are both distinctly foreign and in any way contemporary, with modern world music framed as a bastardisation of western genre – Vietnamese rock, Japanese funk, African psyche. To read the description of the Tonga boys ‘Vindodo’, you may assume it follows this pattern. Traditional Malawian Tonga music traditions are captured by a modern, western, electronic producer – a recipe for a potential mess of clumsy appropriation. Thankfully, the production in question is handled with such a gentle touch, and is so respectful of its source material, that what results is a beguiling album that acutely captures the nuanced intentions of its performers.
As a recorded work, the album is notably unpretentious – its instruments are recorded in a functional, simple manner, with an aesthetic that, whether deliberate or not, is rife with a certain urban authenticity. Whilst its instrument are generally clear, if thin, there is a sense of depth brought about by the dynamic range, with certain voices and percussive strikes far louder than their neighbours, an approach that highlights this as a ‘live’ work, and which supplies a certain dramatic intensity. The presence of an electronic producer is not often audible – a couple of the track have some subdued synthesis, and one or two of the drums may or may not be subject to additional processing, though it is hard to tell. Most interestingly, the production harbours the ‘mixing desk as an instrument’ mentality popularised by dub music, though in an entirely unassuming manner. Small changes in panning, or in eq, are used to shape the tracks, and provide a certain compositional merit, though without ever overplaying their hand. These touches, and the sometimes extreme repetition, contrast with a wide range of performative nuance to allow for an evolutionary experience, with simple melodic refrains supporting the several simple rhythms played upon the percussion.
Whilst not overly familiar with Malawian music, I would not be surprised to find that the Tonga Boys stand out from similar works for their humour. The voices constantly overlap, and oscillate between lyrical passages, chorus hooks, and silly, playful noises that jump wildly in frequency and volume. Whether It stands as an intentionally western influence, the group are at their most energetic when channeling an approach to vocal interplay that seems indebted to early hip-hop, with the primary vocalists offering repeated rhyming phrases that are completed or responded to by several additional voices throughout each track. This approach is offset by a rhythmic focus that often prioritises the second offbeat and the third on beat, resulting in a compositional world that is at once traditionally African, and rife with a sense of youthful, modern immediacy. Often these rhythm’s develop substantially over the course of a track, with one or two percussive elements providing the basic framework, before being joined by one of several accompanying rhythms and vocal chants. Counter-rhythm’s come and go, and additional voice provide timbral density to specific beats and words throughout in a manner that accents the essential life of the album, its inherent organicism.
‘Vindodo’ is an impressive, if repetitive album, and one that, as a western audience, I often struggle to fully understand. This is no doubt its strength – neither sufficiently westernised nor recognisably traditional, The Tonga Boys operate in a fertile ground so often overlooked by imported ‘world’ music, where the more unusual aspects of its production are not reduced to some fetishised or naive exoticism, but offer compositional and sonic interest in their own right.