- Globally minded experimental pop and R&B that resists easy categorisation.
- The last time I saw Lafawndah perform, she stepped to the side in the middle of her set to make way for a single, tremendous drum. A woman stepped out from backstage bearing two sticks, or bachi, and, with her back turned to the audience, beat her way through an awesome taiko performance. In the following months she did a project with the fashion designer Kenzo, Le Renard Bleu, alongside the Japanese percussionist Midori Takada. Lafawndah's most recent release, Ancestor Boy, expands on this reverence for percussion and its relationship to the body. "The drums always come first," she once explained. "The rhythms connect with the most physical part of our brain, being in activation." A driving force behind this sound is the close working relationship between the artist and her longtime production partners, Aaron David Ross (AKA ADR) and Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy, along with L-Vis 1990, who share production credits on this album. They share a penchant for looming drones, bellowing basslines and, most of all, complex and dramatic drum kits that set off Lafawndah's expressive vocal range.
The music press often introduces Lafawndah by her many geographic affiliations. Her parents are Iranian and Egyptian. She grew up between Tehran and Paris. She put some roots down in Mexico before tearing them out again to travel and tour, and sometimes live in New York. Then there's the music, which is inflected with rhythms as varied as zouk and moombahton, underpinning R&B-adjacent vocals in English, French, Farsi and Swahili. Having followed her projects for the past five years, I'm excited by Lafawndah's development of a diaspora-pop sound that exists in a complex world of its own. She refuses simplified and marketable narratives of identity and personal history, instead turning to storytelling and mythmaking with a contemporary edge. "I'm really interested in world-building," she's said in reference to her increasingly multimodal approach to music. "Images, costumes, objects, smells. I think about all of it when I make the music."
Ancestor Boy's world is one of filial love, of kinship through blood or spirit, of otherness and self-reliance. "I took your lips so I could kiss you / Upside down, upside down / I got your eyes / The same shadows / They go like low echoes of yours," go the opening lines to the album's lead single, "Daddy." The secrets held by "momma" and "daddy" are left unsaid, swaddling this archetypal family with mystery. The chorus, with its simple and swooping melody, recalls the leftfield catchiness of Imogen Heap. The title track uses folktale phrasing to again question the significance of origins: "Did he come from the water? Did he come from the sky? / Did he come from the mountains? / We wonder why?" Bass drums clamor along with a deep synth line, while the heaviness of so many potential histories tumbles from Lafawndah's mouth like so many boulders down a mountain.
One of the album's many highlights is "Substancia," a song that builds up subtly, relaying with satisfying alliteration: "Sesame seed stuck in my teeth, the news is bitter." She sings of birds in flight, then all of the sudden the sky comes down like a cleaver with the threatening lines: "Can't you tell I've got you encircled? Can't you tell that I'm your rival?" Vocal distortion echoes and multiplies this chorus so it seems like it's coming from many mouths, as if the listener is truly surrounded. Voices accumulate again in "Vous Et Nous," a cover of the 1977 song performed by French avant-garde duo Brigitte Fontaine and Areski Belkacem. It makes use of a stark melody to haunting ends. The original version, however, has a ghostly loveliness that is difficult to enhance, especially when the cover is placed alongside so many powerful original compositions.
Songwriting is used to take on multiple perspectives and personas. "Joseph" is a solemn lullaby that exudes timelessness, a song I could see myself one day repeating to my child. "And you're the future now," sings Lafawndah, sealing a promise across generations. "Tourist" takes a more ironic tone. "I want a sprinkle of your seasoning… I want hair like yours so glistening," she sings, appropriating phrases with which any of us with non-white and non-Western heritage are all too familiar. This razor-sharp humor critiques culture vultures with their love letters to authentic living in far-away destinations, who declare, "Your home is / My home now." It also asks an interesting question for those of us who travel for a mix of leisure and necessity: How do we make home responsibly? The lines between "us" and "them" and "you" and even "I" blur in a gorgeous and disturbing flurry.
04. Ancestor Boy
05. Storm Chaser
06. Vous Et Nous feat. Bonnie Banane
12. I'm An Island