wed 13/12/2017

Zun Zun Egui: New Indie Band of the Year? | reviews, news & interviews

Zun Zun Egui: New Indie Band of the Year?

Zun Zun Egui: New Indie Band of the Year?

Full metal energy meets African polyrhythms

The wild art that drives the bandCD cover art by Yoshino Shigahara

In the generation of twentysomething rock musicians bottle-fed on world music, the Bristol band Zun Zun Egui really stand out. They make some of the most exciting music to have emerged in the last 12 months.

The Afro-tinged sophistication of Vampire Weekend and Foals borrowed a sound in which distinctions between lead and rhythm guitar were blurred, in the style of classic soukous from Zaire and the East and Southern African dance music it inspired, but Zun Zun Egui take it one step further, ploughing African beats back into a rich and breathtaking mix which draws from heavy metal, avant-garde jazz and the zany broken metres of Captain Beefheart and other deviants of rock’n’roll.

On stage and at their best, Zun Zun Egui combine the fury and speedy neurosis of a metal band with a sense of contagious fun. Although they’re after working the audience into a state of something approaching trance, their method and madness are light rather than dark, elevating the spirits rather than plunging them into iron-clad doom.

It is perhaps not by accident that the band constellated in Bristol – a city whose small scale and collaborative ethos nurtures a great deal of talent from experimental electro and cutting-edge dance music to indie rock and a host of hybrid genres that defy categorisation. In Zun Zun Egui’s case, the launching pad has not just been Bristol, but the city’s self-styled “cultural quarter”, Stokes Croft, which made national news when the more political locals trashed the new Tesco that threatened a lively string of well-established neighbourhood businesses.

Zun Zun Egui’s manager, Chiz Williams - one of the prime movers behind QuJunktions, a guerilla promotion and agency outfit that programmes the best of marginal sounds, from Omar Souleyman to A Hawk and a Hacksaw - has an office close by. He’s just around the corner from The Croft, one of the liveliest small venues in Bristol, and it’s in the Croft’s small and sweaty performance area that the band played their first gigs.

We don’t want to give people something overly cerebral. We want something which is very heart-based and visceral

Bristol has always had very strong links with world music and WOMAD was born here. It is no surprise that bands like Zun Zun Egui should emerge from the city a generation later. Both bassist Luke Mosse and drummer Matt Jones, who drives the band with a paradoxical but exciting combination of abandon and precision, remember hearing the Bhundu Boys when they were kids. The Zimbabweans’ joyful dance music was distinguished by the complex polyrhythms and dramatic discontinuities that make African dance music so engaging. As they sit talking about their sources in one of those damp and cramped rehearsal rooms that bands are consigned to before they start getting decent advances or proper financial rewards, the four members of the band are keen to avoid being pigeon-holed as just another band that grafts elements of world music onto a rock frame.

Kushal Gaya, the charismatic lead singer and guitarist, hails from the island of Mauritius, a cultural crossroads between Africa, Asia and the Middle East: “To be honest, Matt and Luke have a deeper understanding of African rhythms than I do. I’ve only scratched the surface.” Kushal grew up speaking French and two kinds of Creole. He sings in all of them, as well as in English. He is keen, though, not to be seen as the ethnically authentic figure-head of a group that is clearly a collective rather than fuelled by an alpha ego: “I don’t want to be the ‘monkey in a cage’,” he states forcefully, and yet, when he goes ape on stage, shrieking his way towards a series of thrilling climaxes, it is difficult not to see him as some kind of demon-raising shamanic freak, however much it is done with a sense of theatre and play. 

While Kushal emphasises that he learned more from Led Zeppelin and Beefheart than from the music of Mauritius, the rest of the band own their African influences unconditionally: Matt has played with musicians from Cameroon and the Congo and picked up on their intricate rhythms. For keyboard player Yoshino Shigahara, hearing African bands at Glastonbury strengthened the interest in world music that she had first developed in her native Japan. Yoshino was not a professional musician when she joined Zun Zun Egui, but an artist and animator. She had played the piano as a child, and she has learned on the go, producing psychedelic washes of synthesised sound that she claims express the same aesthetic as her polychromatic visual art. The rest of the band acknowledge Yoshino’s wild and colourful art as a major source of inspiration, and her role as the group’s visual artist is integral to the band’s sense of who they are. Yoshino talks about collage: an intuitive creative process reflected in Zun Zun Egui’s writing style, with songs that often change direction and pace unpredictably, plunging from one mood to another in a way that produces energy and excitement as well as variety. 

As potential recruits to the art-rock scene, Zun Zun Egui have often been booked by galleries, but those gigs don’t work so well for them: “We’ve played in places that were more like art installations, whereas we just want to rock and party! We do work hard,” Kushal adds, “but ideally we don’t want to give people something overly cerebral. We want something which is very heart-based and visceral.”

For their first album, Katang, released this week, the band had to find a happy medium between the contagious excitement of their live performances - when songs may last well over 10 minutes - and the needs of a recording which will be played on MP3 players or stereos. Bass player Luke, who produced the album, felt that the songs would need “more foreground”. “You have to balance”, he adds, "the kind of trancy element with having tunes.” The result doesn’t disappoint, and Katang captures Zun Zun Egui in full flight, less raw than on stage but still furiously energetic, fun and endlessly surprising. 

A couple of weeks ago, Luke Fosse left the band: there is as yet no official explanation, but it is not difficult to imagine that there may have been difficulties around the extent to which the band’s wildness had been tamed by studio production: the more cool-headed producer at loggerheads perhaps with the quasi-shamanic lead singer.

Having given the album the thumbs up, I would still strongly recommend a live gig, even if the newly recruited bass player hasn’t yet imbibed the band’s musical philosophy and lifestyle. There have been nights in the past when I have seen them not quite deliver: Zun Zun Egui always go for broke - with style - and it takes a number of factors to make their performance work on every front. Matt is very clear about the challenge: “If the crowd is in the right mood, you can play the dance tunes, they start to dance and they get into that trance-like state. But you can play the same song to a bunch of people who aren’t in the right mood and it feels just wrong.” When the moment is right, however, and the band connects with the audience, the contagious celebration of energy makes for an experience that is hard to beat and restores one’s faith in rock, a genre that has always threatened to become stale rather than re-invent itself.

Watch a video of Zun Zun Egui

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