Palm Pictures 2001
|What common ground can you name between Michael Stipe, Dennis Hopper, Neneh Cherry, Kurt Vonnegut, Baaba Maal, Brian Eno, The Mahotella Queens, Speech from Arrested Development, Andy Summers, Eddie Readers, Robbie Williams, Maxi Jazz, Michael Franti, Maori singer Ta Moko and Asha Bhosle?
Try 1GiantLeap. That's a multimedia CD/DVD/film/TV-series project between Faithless founding member Jamie Catto and partner Duncan Bridgeman. It combines musicians, storytellers, filmmakers, activists and actors from various cultures around the globe. The idea for it was inspired by a mutual love for the legendary and forward-looking Byrne/Eno album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Peter Gabriel's "The Last Temptation of Christ" soundtrack. Chris Blackwell of Palm Pictures believed in the globe-trotting concept of recording and filming Catto's and Bridgeman's cultural heroes under a pan-global banner of unification. He bankrolled the project with a contract.
The present 12-track album, though standing solidly on its own feet, is also a soundtrack. It accompanies a 12-chapter documentary/Pop video wherein each thematic chapter (such as "Masks & Roles", "Freedom & Innocence", "Death & Change", "Shadow & Inspiration") is related to one track. Rather than overlaying grooves and studio tracks with location samples, 1GiantLeap uses actual guest vocalists to fashion a compelling new chapter in the world music genre. It begins where Deep Forest left off and explores the team's secret manifesto to uncover "the unity in diversity".
Half a year and 300 hours of music, interviews and footage later, Catto and Bridgeman had amassed enough raw material to began assembling their vision. Add cutting-edge production tools and the end result -- judged purely on the basis of the album; I haven't seen the DVD yet -- is quite the breakout creation. Even the few weaker tracks are far better than the norm.
The journey begins with U Shrinivas' electric mandolin erecting a flickering fata morgana above the heated desert sands of synth washes before Baaba Maal' quintessentially African vocals rise against this backdrop like the blazing sun. Then New Zealand native George Nuku talks about the long line of ancestry in his culture before Robbie Williams picks up these threads to rap about the virtues of positive self image and integrity while Maxi Jazz fills in on the hooks.
"The Way You Dream" is the album's first unqualified highlight. It features the melismatic Indian vocals of Asha Bhosle hovering above a gentle tabla/strumming guitar groove. Exotic colors are provided by Pops Mohamed's African kora harp and an indigenous New Zealand flute. Then the burnished modern voice of Michael Stipe enters the exposition before the otherworldly Maori song of Whiri Mako Black injects yet another cultural stream, which stylistically falls somewhere between Hawaii and Japan. All of these tributaries manage to pool together organically by song's end.
The following "Ma'Africa" with The Mahotella Queens & Ulali opens with a warbling African a capella number before the team turns up the heat for a runaway scorcher of a track that mixes tribal solo vocals, poetry recitation, uptempo syncopated chorus work and a pulsating nouveau disco groove.
"Ta Moko" opens with overdubbed plaintive Armenian duduk oboe before we're treated to another lyrical excursion into Aboriginal DreamTime. "Bushes" opens with some bubbling Klaus Schultze synths and Tibetan-like guttural chants that soon launch some Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan inspired serpentine vocalizing. Slowly a beat intrudes, voice coder and guitar distortion fragments drift in and out of view, the beat solidifies and Baaba Maal takes center stage.
On "Passion", we seemingly drift yet deeper into the Dark Continent, compliments of the Baligashma Xylophone Group of Uganda. Yet the voice-over poetry recital by Michael Franti is thoroughly MTV. It makes way for tribal yodeling exploits by a troupe from Layelitsha in South Africa that's buoyed by a trance drummer from Ghana. The bansuri flute intro to "Daphne" is Indian again while the Mahotella Queens' chorus puts a lie to artificial geographical borders. And that's the underlying recipe to 1GiantLeap - erasing the dividing lines between nations to point at mankind's common ground.
The success of this project naturally hinges on the lightness of touch whereby the intended message is delivered. Save for a few short interludes of preachy wordiness and the -- if self-referential -- pompous title, 1GiantLeap does deftly deliver on its inherent promise. The juxtaposition of Nob Hill Brit Pop savvy with authentic African and Indian elements is less farfetched than in reads on the screen. It actually works out to a scintillating and fun production of surprising gravitas. Like their French counterparts of Deep Forest fame, the team of Duncan & Jamie scores big on their debut offering. It makes one look forward to watching the graphic accompaniment to this album.
Yet even without that other half, 1GiantLeap the album is very highly recommended. What in the hands of non-English singers would be dubbed Ethno-Pop here becomes popular ethnic music; heavy emphasis on popular. Never mind Paul Simonesque allusions of aural colonialism. Without ventures such as Graceland and 1GiantLeap, many of the spotlighted artists would never have their voices heard on the global stage. Reports on this project insist that everyone participating was paid the same standard contract rates of London's resident studio musicians. Spreading it around here worked both ways it seems. Kudos to Duncan & Jamie for delivering a highbrow concept with their feet solidly on the ground!