If ever there is proof positive that we indeed live in a quantum world, surely it is Assembly, the new collaboration from Hukwe Ubi Zawose, a Tanzanian singer and composer, and Michael Brook, a Canadian guitarist and producer. A veritable celestial traveler hovering between parallel and opposite universes, the record is a collaboration of ancient and modern sensibilities defying rational expectation of their coexistence.
Since when has the same space been occupied by ancient chants from the African high desert, Cuban-inspired horn charts, “infinite” guitars and pygmy vocals? That they can (and so well) is in no small part due to Brook’s production alchemy. Well-known for his creative integrity with artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Armenian duduk virtuoso Djivan Gasparian, and, most recently, Lebanese violin maestro Claude Chalhoub, Brook was extravagant with his typically remarkable studio acumen. He even graciously tolerated the artists’ penchant for removing their trousers mid-session in order to tune their thumb pianos against the skin of their thighs.
Assembly started with a hurried phone call from England to Los Angeles. Peter Gabriel, Real World’s founder, who had already released Zawose’s solo album, was a big fan and wanted wider public recognition for the vocalist. “I got a call from the label asking me if I wanted to do a record with Hukwe, a next Tuesday kind of thing,” says Brook, grinning wryly. “So I went over with a bunch of sketches and we started recording. I spent about a week with Hukwe recording tracks with him singing and playing over the top. Then Richard Evans—who engineered, co-produced, played bass and arranged the brass; he was a very significant contributor to the record—and I brought it back to Los Angeles and kind of did a montage of it all.”
Sounds fairly straightforward, but the reality was far from it. Now graced with the title of Professor, Hukwe Zawose is a living legend in Tanzania thanks to his indefatigable efforts disseminating the culture of his people, the Wagogo, both at home and abroad. The Wagogo have lived for thousands of years atop a high plateau in Central Tanzania where they have pursued an agro-pastoral lifestyle largely untouched by the rest of the world. Nomadic wanderers, they follow herds and grow crops, making temporary thatched villages as they go, all the better to withstand frequent droughts. The last people who tried (and failed) to displace them were the Masai from the North, in the nineteenth century. As a result, their traditions are ancient and relatively pure, and like many nomadic people they have built up a very oral culture in which music plays an important role. And what a shimmering, trance-inducing music it is, with a lyrical content that mixes poetry, protest and politics akin to the news broadcast of your dreams.
Brook picks up the narrative about the unforgettable recording session: “They had about 20 instruments with them, mostly the chilimba and irimba—the plural is marimba—which is what we call a thumb piano. They use a whole range of them, from tiny ones to some of the biggest in Africa, what we would call dual manual ones with their deep bass sound. Then there is the zeze, which is a little fiddle-like instrument.
“It was a bit of a nightmare,” Brook recalls, “because the instruments have no concert pitch. They build them all themselves and each one is in a unique pitch; they all use the same scale but none of them coincide with any note on the piano. They are in pairs that work together, but again, no two instruments can play with any other pair. So we had to re-pitch my music sketches on the computer to whatever instruments they were going to use over the top and then later retune the whole thing back to concert pitch. Otherwise we would have had to retune every ins