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Imperfect soundtracks from 2016 for people who wish for a different world

Detail from Jenny Hval’s album Blood Bitch. Supplied

Review 2016: This has been a year most of humanity would like to forget with war, disasters, racism, sexism and, especially in arts and culture, the deaths of revered icons. But it is also in the arts and culture where people look for and find hope.

The Conversation Africa has asked a number of our contributors to give us five books, records, buildings, works of art and so on in their field that made a difference to them in 2016. Here is popular music lecturer, record label boss and musician John Harries’ year in review.

A year all in music from me, since it’s where I live most of the time.

Much of my 2016 has been given over to releases on my tiny London record label The Lumen Lake. It doesn’t appear here because its importance to me is self-evident and I guess I wouldn’t want my enthusiasm for the work of my friends to seem like self-interest or promotion.

Elsewhere in my musical world, the following have been important in the last 12 months – important for saying something about the world as it changes around us, and for offering solace …

1. Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch (album, Sacred Bones Records)

In 2015, Hval’s album Apocalypse, Girl dropped into my life without much warning, and instantly became essential to me.

This year, Blood Bitch added vivid reds to that album’s greys and pinks, deftly wove pungent images of vampirism and menstruation amongst the warp threads of Hval’s world-weary but resolutely defiant personal narrative in song to date.

As Hval struggles with the idea of romance in an increasingly sad and frightening world (Conceptual Romance), her repeated exhortation, “I’m working on it”, strikes a peculiar chord. I don’t quite know why it’s so affecting, except that for all of us who would wish for a different world, to keep trying is what we’ve got …

Female Vampire, a track from Jenny Hval’s latest album Blood Bitch.

2. Gaika – Security (mixtape, Mixpak Records)

The cover of Gaika’s mixtape Security.

The last six years of Conservative government in the UK have produced a visible increase in the number of rough sleepers on the streets of London. There are more difficult housing conditions, fewer welfare safeguards and a lower standard of living for many thousands. This city, which is my home, is getting tougher and colder.

The best music coming out of London in recent years has taken a long, hard look at the cruelty and ugliness of the city, and held it close, mingled with the excitement and the beauty –- anger and sadness and love all together, inextricable.

It’s all there in the first three lines of dancehall-inspired electronic musician Gaika’s magnificent Security mixtape:

I stand here but it’s not the frontline / I can see Mayfair and smell Chinatown and cats want brown and white / Kit-kat walks up and down Shaftesbury and takes pennies from tourists to show them a good time / but they will never see a good time like us …

3. Fatima Al Qadiri – Brute (album, Hyperdub Records)

A record about protest. Josh Kline’s brilliant cover (derived from his installation work Freedom, 2015) for Brute sets the tone.

Eclectic grime producer Qadiri’s music is often bleak and strangely directionless considering its pointed political framing.

The cover of Fatima Al Qadiri’s Brute, designed by Josh Kline.

Beats come on with intent, but then cycle away to nothingness. Bass and synth sounds are tough in themselves, but somehow they don’t quite fit together, the whole remains resolutely the sum of its disjointed parts. But if this record feels messy and imperfect, that’s because its subject is conflict …

I wrote the above in the afternoon on Tuesday, November 8, then ground to a halt. Now I’m continuing on the morning of Wednesday the 9th, the US presidential election having fallen inbetween. A sense of disconnect, of unresolvable conflict is everywhere today.

When they build the wall on the Mexican border, perhaps it will be policed by those sad-eyed Teletubbies in riot gear gracing Qadiri’s album cover.

4. Rie Nakajima – performance at Silver Road, Lewisham, UK

There’s hope in a refocusing of our perspective from the global to the local, to the immediacy of real human interaction, to spaces where we understand one another intuitively.

Fittingly, then, some of the most extraordinary musical experiences of my year have been in the form of live performances, and particularly those performances that seemed to speak to a sense of intimacy, of domesticity.

In the summer of 2015 I saw Rie Nakajima perform for the first time, at Supernormal Festival in Oxfordshire. She is a Japanese artist working with sounding objects in installation and performance. At Supernormal she played with singer Keiko Yamamoto in the centre of a big, old barn – her mechanical soundmakers rattling, chirping and chiming, and Yamamoto’s unamplified voice; small sounds in a large space, the singing of birds and insects in the wide open spaces of summer.

In November 2016, I had the opportunity to see Nakajima again, this time close to home in the extraordinary space at Silver Road, Lewisham in London. This venue is a disused and drained steel water tank, a great resonating, reverberating cylinder.

Here, Nakajima collaborated with Belgian musician and sound artist Pierre Berthet. The two set about sounding the space itself, objects clattering against the walls, voices of humans and mechanisms exploiting the natural resonances of this big drum.

The sense was of being completely enveloped and consumed by the music, being inside of it and listening to the firing of its neurons and nerve endings, the coursing of its blood and the flutter of its pulse. An unforgettable and heartening experience.

A sound installation by Pierre Berthet and Rie Nakajima.

5. Turtle Yama – Performances at Supernormal Festival, Oxfordshire, UK

Turtle Yama is a duo of performance artist and guitarist Yuku Kureyama, and keyboard player and electronic musician Nahoko Kamei, based in Osaka, Japan.

This past Northern Hemisphere summer they visited the UK for the first time, and at Supernormal Festival, amid a good deal of music that was darker, louder but also more familiar, played two sets that were so fresh, thoughtful, fun and exciting as to rather rewire my head.

The Japanese performers Turtle Yama.

They achieved that most difficult feat of playing real pop music while questioning its frameworks, creating a deconstructed, genuinely improvisatory version of something familiar and comforting. And in their approach they combined inclusivity and humility with an uncompromising exploratory zeal and a clear and total intellectual authority.

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