Noformat 3/9817845 (Europe)
Sunnyside SSC3030 (US)
From the record company's website:
"What we were trying to do was step outside the reassuring structure of language and let out emotion and share that emotion with others through the music." - Gerald Toto

"The "No Format" project sprang more from a desire to play together, have fun together and learn stuff from each other and be a bit spontaneous about things." - Richard Bona

"I see this album as a dish cooked up by three different chefs, each busy adding a touch of garlic, a pinch of salt and a bit of spice and color. The result is like a nice collective cake, but a plain simple one without any kind of pretension!" - Lokua Kanza

It started in 2004 when producer Laurent Bizot set up his own record label under the name No Format!. He envisioned a refuge where artists could do what they do best, without restrictions or a record company's "false musiscape manufactured by the taste-formatting logic" as Bizot's manifesto puts it.

The third release on this label is an extraordinary cooperation by three musicians, on the one instrument they are all proficient in and share - the voice. Plus, they also share non-Western cultural backgrounds. Gerald Toto has roots in Martinique, Lokua Kanza was born in Congo and Richard Bona saw the first daylight in Cameroon. These men all have careers playing with other musicians as sought-after sidemen or realize projects on their own.

Now for the first time they work together following Laurent Bizot's invitation for his No Format! label. They first met at the Calm Studio in Paris, very convenient as the three all live in the musical melting pot of Paris. Here they discussed what they wanted to do. Without any prior indication of what and how, they discovered like-mindedness and common ground in their vocal expressions.

With their voices as main instruments, words were not always necessary. Pure vocal sounds can often express far more emotion where the cerebral breaks of language would interfere. Along the way then, it seemed best to the singers to work like two-year old children who haven't yet mastered language but express themselves fully regardless. The tracks recorded in each artist's home studio plus group sessions in the Calm studio are captured on this album in twelve numbers. Though the voice remains the main instrument and a cappella the basic form, some very subtle instrumentation appears as well.

"Ghana Blues" is based on vocal percussion and the old human beat box and the trio goes through a soft-voiced sweet song that paints a sunny day at a Ghanaian beach devouring fresh lobster. The following "Kwalelo" is more up-tempo and questions the big Why/Pourquoi. Great doo-wop vocals are found on "L'endormie", a multi-tracked solo effort by Gerald Toto that ends in a Hawaiian-style hoola replete with bird sounds. The climax of Toto-Bona-Lokua is no doubt "Na Yé". Close harmonies of complementary voices aided by subtle percussion from multi-instrumentalist Bona make this the most emotionally charged track on the CD, with mourning drum percussion, sinuous vowels and a happy tempo all fusing in one melodic Kanza composition.

As Gerald Toto enjoys one solo outing on the recording, Richard Bona gets one very short vocal expression. Lokua Kanza adds in his solo a piano to kick off in Satie-inspired fashion and ends with a falsetto doo-wop workout against himself in multi-tracked backing vocals. Then comes Richard Bona in "Seven Beats", an upbeat calypso where he intros with a soft but nearly finger-breaking bass that must frustrate many a bass player. The closing "Lisanga" (Unity in Congolese) sports a background refrain that lifts the spirit and includes a bonus after a 1-minute silence.

Toto Bona Lokua is a heart-warming and refreshing recording. There's just one negative aspect. Most of the tracks have been mastered so loud that clipping becomes the norm. Cooledit shows why "Flutes" is so sharp on the ears with any audio system of sufficient resolution - no less than 4076 clipped samples on the left channel alone. If this is No Format!, what is a proper recording format?