Mainly a modern jazz soul singer, Sarah Jane Morris is perhaps most known for her 1980s pop cover of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ with The Communards. Chrissy D has a listen to her latest album, a politically charged project produced in collaboration with musicians including Keziah Jones and Tony Rémy
When Dizzy Gillespie famously observed that “Mama Rhythm is Africa”, he was talking about the common heartbeat he heard in the music and dance of the New World, South America and the Caribbean, cultures that had been transformed forever in the 18th and 19th centuries by the African Diaspora…
– John Fordham (extract from liner notes for Bloody Rain)
The title track of Bloody Rain has an ambling rhythm and warm instrumental intro, while the ambiguous lyrics make this a song that unsettles as much as it comforts. It sounds like a sad but matter-of-fact goodbye, peppered with hope. This seems to be in keeping with the overall statement in the forthcoming liner notes that Sarah Jane Morris hopes the songs “will lift your spirits”, while anticipating that “some will make you weep”.
With the continent of Africa as the central theme, this 15-track album features a number of African musicians in collaboration. Included are Nigerian singer/songwriter Keziah Jones (‘I Shall Be Released’), the London-based, Zimbabwe-born vocalist Eska (‘Here Comes The Rain’) and Senegal’s Seckou Keita (playing the Kora on ‘Wild Flowers’). Morris bridges different settings through her music and there are also collaborators on Bloody Rain from Europe and South America; many of the tracks showcase input from UK-based guitarist Tony Rémy, while Brazillian Adriano Adewale features on percussion for ‘Wild Flowers’.
Lyrically, Bloody Rain embraces Africa’s splintered history of colonisation in a matter-of-fact manner and attempts to draw on the common human experiences that have grown out of its brutal past. As a charity project teamed up with Annie Lennox‘s SING venture, raising money for their Voice for HIV/Aids Women and Children campaign, the theme of rarely-heard voices runs through every track, with the subjects covered managing to be universal, local and individual all at once.
My favourite piece from the album is ‘Feel the Love’, perhaps more of a reflection of my current state of mind than musical taste. This love song could be sung by anyone who has ever known an affinity with who is perhaps then never to be seen again.
Crucially, Bloody Rain showcases the talent of the collaborating artists, also drawing attention to political issues through the music. Rather than the othering I feared from an album said to be “devoted to the people of Africa”, I have a sense of the music inviting me, as a listener, into the personal experiences of people I haven’t met, who are perhaps, in turn, sometimes relaying the experiences of people they know only a little. Along with this, jazz critic, John Fordham‘s forward to the album contains an elaboration from Morris stating that the songs should “reflect the humanity of those involved, both of the oppressed and also of the oppressors”. Many voices are given volume in the music — voices speaking of tragedy, loss and spilled blood — and, yet, the rhythms convey an optimism that prevails. The shimmying beat of ‘David Kato’, for example, contrasts with the brutality of the story told.
The universal messages in the songs contrast subtly with the flowing melodies. The music itself feels rambling and gentle, while the subject matter is at times horrifying and dealing with conflict, oppression, religion and brutality.
‘Wild Flowers’ is an upbeat song devoted to an imaginary place that no longer exists, or at least lives in Morris’ heart. In fact, a lot of the album has this feel to it. It sounds like a collective history, to quote the 2004 Zack Braff movie Garden State, “a group of people who miss the same imaginary place”. And the listener is led to feel that such a place could be anywhere and could be theirs too.
The lyrics “wild flowers in a vase” convey a sense of beauty and entrapment, or perhaps childhood and a sense that one’s place of home is the whole world, along with the innocence that comes with that. The metaphor of flowers in a jar – beauty dead and trapped and, by extension, perhaps evoking violence against women – is cross-cultural. Here, it seems the music represents not just the experience of the individual but the struggle for women’s rights everywhere.
‘David Kato’, a song about the Ugandan gay rights activist of that name, relays the themes of death, brutality and the beauty of love that is strong enough to fight for the right of others to love freely. Its rhythm is gentle and rambling and its subject matter leaves an impression of sad mystery. It features a heavy instrumental presence which allows the listener pause to think about the subject, Kato’s life and the death of a spark of hope for gay rights in Uganda.
To give some background: Kato’s death in 2011 made world news, not only because it highlighted the struggle for gay equality in Africa, but also came around the same time as the issue of gay marriage was becoming pressing in the UK. This invited the world’s media to the discourse of gay rights in other countries and shone light on the struggle for LGBT rights worldwide.
Uganda and its neighbouring countries in Africa are often seen by the west as culturally similar to and yet distantly idyllic, compared to Europe, also being framed in imperialist narratives as ‘exotic’, ‘wild’ and, perhaps by inference, free. Free from British rule since 1962, conflict and brutality has intermittently plagued Uganda, the most well-known of these organisations to us perhaps being the LRA, the struggle against which was highlighted by Invisible Children, targeting Joseph Kony and his ruthless leadership over and recruitment of child soldiers. This is a theme covered here on Bloody Rain in the track ‘Comfort They Have None’:
Well I was caught
Dragged back there to camp
They scarred my face
On my head they left their stamp
Gave me a stick
Shaped just like a gun
To help me practice for the killing runs
The treatment of these subjects on the album helps highlight how independence from old colonisers doesn’t neatly wrap up a country’s rights to democracy and freedom and hand it back in a tidy package. It seems that, all too often, colonised countries are left to play catch-up and there exists a duality, whereby the landscape and heritage encourages one cultural mindset, while the abrupt colonisation and independence leaves traces of a conflicting ideology – one which says, “Have your freedom now we’re done brutalising you and live peacefully. Be independent but be like us.”
Alongside the commentary on human rights, Bloody Rain also has the tongue-in-cheek ‘Men Just Want To Have Fun’. This mixes humour with comment on the wider culture of sexual control, doctrine and contraception. According to John Fordham’s forward for the album, Morris intended this song to be a gift to the Pledge charity.
‘Men Just Want To Have Fun’ isn’t just a jokey song with serious undertones; it speaks about a changing world where women’s movements are becoming a growing voice on social media and in which we must all acknowledge women’s sexual rights. It conveys the hypocrisy and imbalance of power between men and women’s sexual authority. Portraying men as calling the shots potentially makes the audience uncomfortable; we know this is problematic and that we must no longer accept it as ‘the way things are’.
This track also brings home the message that issues such as contraception and sexual freedom transcend borders. It reminds us of the dominance of imported Christianity and a ‘civilised’ order and its legacy on people who didn’t invite the ruthless tearing-up of their lives.
What this album doesn’t do is simply present a view of a ‘developing’ continent, or of cultures in turmoil. It also attempts to represent progress and change, along with the transient absurdity of ideological violence and outdated gender politics.
Listening to Bloody Rain is like being taken through situations and personal histories that can seem distant and yet hauntingly familiar to the listener. During a time when FGM is finally being given the attention it needs in the West, Bloody Rain shows how music can bring stories into collective consciousness and showcase voices that are sometimes difficult for the privileged west to hear.
The Pledge charity, of which the album is a part, encourages people to pledge for different items related to the artist and music; in return for pledges on this album, pledgers got to see Morris and her co-artists in a one-off performance in London in June. The money made from pledges was used to pay collaborators on the record. This, of course, should be a given but is sadly not always so in the music industry.
With a collaborator such as country voice Emmylou Harris in ‘Deeper Well’, it’s easy to hear that the album aims for a multitude of voices from different musical niches. Indeed, ‘Deeper Well’ begins with an acoustic country feel that is full of foreboding. American saxophonist, Michael Rosen, and Italian cellist, Enrico Melozzi, also establish themselves by way of an unsettling, atmospheric instrumental arrangement on ‘No Beyonce’, adisturbing song about a father murdering his daughter.
Meanwhile, ‘Coal Train’ is a reinterpretation of Hugh Masekela‘s successful and memorable take on ‘Stimela‘. With its oncoming intro and disembodied vocals, this takes the listener on a journey through central and Southern Africa, on a train with the men conscripted to mine for gold in Johannesburg. The narrative of this trip is led by the Soweto Gospel Choir to the chug and clack of a brutal bass. As with so many of the tracks on the album, it seems to acts as a translation of harrowing universal issues into accessible rhythms and melodies. It’s easy-listening with the feeling that you’re being taken deeper than you’re expecting, into issues of human rights. Of all the songs on the album, ‘Coal Train’ is the epitome of this.
Bloody Rain offers a translation of harrowing universal issues into accessible rhythms and melodies, interspersed with personal stories. It’s easy-listening that takes the listener deeper than expected and into issues of human rights. I implore anyone to give it a listen.
Bloody Rain will be released on Monday 15 September, 2014. You can see Sarah Jane Morris live at Union Chapel, London on 18 September 2014. Tickets available here.
Image descriptions and credits:
1. Forthcoming cover of Bloody Rain. This shows a painted blue and green background, speckled with large flecks of red and black. The title is in white and in the bottom right-hand corner. Shared under fair dealing.
2. Henry Thomas (left), Sarah Jane Morris (centre) and Tony Rémy (right) sit on a curvy gold throne-like sofa on a black stone floor. Behind them is a sky blue gold-patterned wall with a mantelpiece (holding two candles) and three mirrors. Henry is not smiling and leans his right elbow on his right knee with his right hand under his chin, while Sarah is slightly smiling and looking straight ahead. Tony is also slightly smiling and holds a similar position to Henry, but on his left. By Nicholas Gionotti and shared by Total Creative Freedom, with permission.