-July 27th 2010 -
Whitefield Brothers - 'Earthology'
[Now Again Records]
Written by Lynda Cowell
If there’s one musical genre which could do with a makeover, it’s world music: the much-maligned global soundtrack which gets folks thinking about Later…With Jools Holland sessions, Damon Albarn “side projects” and fields full of worthy do-gooders getting high on hemp and good vibes.
To be fair, it’s the name I blame. As names for musical genres go, it is epic in its inability to convey anything about what you might hear: It might well be a gourd-bashing troubadour from Namibia, or a Fez-wearing flautist from Morocco. It might even be two brothers from Munich with an unquenchable thirst for new music and serious passion for 1970s funk.
'Earthology' – which has loosely been slipped under the “world music” banner - is the latest offering from Jan and Max Whitefield: a pair who won’t be rushed and don’t do anything by halves. Their debut album, ‘In the Raw’ came out to much acclaim in 2001, but it has been nine years since we’ve had the pleasure of their company.
Starting out as a long-ranging project (going back even further than their debut album), ‘Earthology’ appears to be a labour of love that has introduced The Brothers to the kinds of people, places, authenticities and instruments you just can’t get in Munich: gongs and flutes from Asia, xylophones and string instruments from Africa, not to mention pentatonic scales and oriental modes (no, me neither). Max Whitefield even went as far as Burma to study traditional Saing Waing music, before joining a south-east Asian music group on his return to Germany.
The relief of all this is that the Brothers’ efforts have more than paid off. They wouldn’t have been the first to spend the best part of ten years making an album, only to return with an aural mess even your mother would struggle to love. But at the heart of what they do (a thing so simple, quite a few artists seem to forget it), is a passion that drives through the core of everything they do.
Back in 2001, The Whitefield Brothers (formerly known as Poets of Rhythm), made their debut with ‘In The Raw’: a dirty chunk of funk and soul that sounded like a lost '70s classic. In those days, their music only seemed to hint at their more global yearnings with tracks like 'Weiya – Serengeti Beat' and 'Yakuba - choice, melodic vibes from far-flung places carried on the back of raw funk. It elevated ‘In the Raw’ to a whole new level.
'Earthology' is similar to 'In the Raw', only more so. Still knee-deep in ‘70s grooves, it opens with 'Safari Strut': a cacophony of plucky jazz basslines, blaxploitation beats and mellow xylophones which pump it full of danceable intensity. Already drained, you're left wondering how they can follow such a start, but when the meaty, retro funk and delicate eastern fusions of 'Joyful Exaltation', waft out of the speakers, it's pretty clear that the Whitefield Brothers have no intention of easing up.
Occasionally, the Brothers forget that it’s not the 1970s long enough to inject the odd shot of rap into tracks like 'The Gift' featuring Edan and Mr Lif, but normality quickly resumes when the sleazy strains of a muted trumpet take it right back the land of 1970s spy thrillers.
Like its predecessor, 'Earthology' could well have been an album made by some obscure, but magnificent, band from the 1970s who sunk without a trace and took their music with them. But it wasn’t, it was made by two brothers from Germany who seem to sleep, eat and breathe the decade and don't mind indulging their obsession, which is just as well for their fans.
Hopefully, the term ‘world music’ will be banned one day, or at least receive a pauper’s burial. But in the meantime, I’m urging everyone to listen to this as a great example of music, not “world music”, just music.
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