Effective collaboration and mindful representation
After abruptly renouncing his writing career and traveling to Africa in the late-19th century, French poet Arthur Rimbaud lived in Harar, Ethiopia (what was then Abyssinia) from 1880-1891. In Harar, a holy Islamic city and an epicenter of Sufism, Rimbaud worked in the coffee trade and spent his time out of work exploring the region. Fast forward a little over a century, and one would find Soundwalk Collective, an electronic collective known for creating anthropologically-minded work often using found sounds, roaming the same roads. This material sourced directly from their time in Harar, along with poetry by Rimbaud, serve as the centerpieces of Mummer Love, the second installation as part of the group’s triptych collaboration with renowned punk-rock figure and poet Patti Smith.
The triptych celebrates three french poets: Antonin Artaud, Arthur Rimbaud and Rene Daumal. Their previous album, The Peyote Dance, was centered on Artaud, while Rimbaud is highlighted in Mummer Love. Released on November 8th, two days before the anniversary of Rimbaud’s death, the album stands as a culturally eclectic work that brings a fascinating array of artists, genres and mediums together under one roof. In addition to Smith, Mummer Love also features composer Philip Glass, Ethiopian jazz artist Mulatu Astatke and the Sufi group of Sheikh Ibrahim.
Most of the album’s tracks feature Rimbaud’s writing spoken and sung rhythmically by Smith, who has been previously known to integrate her own spoken word poetry into her musical work. Of all of these, only the title track, “Mummer Love,” incorporates Smith’s own writing—poetry written to Rimbaud. Over the course of these tracks, one would be pleasantly surprised by how well Smith’s spoken word fits into the eclectic texture of elements such as the pitter-patter of rain, piano ostinato, and Sufi chant. However, it wouldn’t be unreasonable that one might yearn for greater variety throughout, as Smith’s recitation tends to lend a similar character to each track it constitutes.
Songs such as “La Maison de Rimbaud” and “Bad Blood” inarguably boast signature musical components of Philip Glass. The former evokes an image of the loneliness Rimbaud may have experienced—represented by sparse and incomplete piano chords decorating a bed of crickets chirping—while “Bad Blood” is founded on a call and response of Sufi chant bound by the metronomic rigidity of Glass’s arpeggiated repetitions. This makes for a wonderfully fascinating juxtaposition: Glass provides distinctly Western tonality, outlining only major or minor chords on this track, while the chant incorporates pitches that are less familiar to Western listeners’ ears, which we know as quarter tones. “Song of the Highest Tower” features Mulatu Astatke as well as the Sufi Group of Sheikh Ibrahim, and again highlights the element of call and response, but this time between chant and Smith’s spoken word.
Call and response is a structural element that heavily pervades the album, and is ubiquitous in religious contexts involving song or chant. Although it may not be striking to one’s ears at first, it undoubtedly proves to be an essential component of the album, reinforcing the religious context from which the Sufi chant was recorded. An unfortunately common pattern that recent musical history has brought forth is the appropriation of non-Western musical elements in Western artists’ output, but it’s refreshing to see Soundwalk Collective incorporating this component mindfully. Though variety across the album’s tracks could stand to be amplified, Mummer Love is certainly a fascinating listen composed of enlightening elements.