The album is as indispensable as it was influential.
Are any stylistic ideologies more geographically and aesthetically disparate than analog synthesizers in the hands of European mad scientists and traditional Central African vocals straight out of the Congo? Should such an unlikely collaboration take place, would the results be worth hearing by any but the most fervent fans of musical esoterica and so-called “world music”? In 1983, Algerian-born French composer Hector Zazou, Congolese singer Bony Bikaye and primitive analog synthesizer and computer enthusiasts Guillame Loizillon and Claude Micheli (better known together as CY1), came together to create a series of recordings that would affirm yet transcend cultural and musical differences with surprisingly futuristic and universal results. Noir et Blanc is unlike anything before it and a clear influence on scores of artists and albums that came after.
Relying on a series of cyclically repetitive synthesizer phrases carrying a propulsive, hypnotic groove, the duo created a true musical fusion of the old and the (then relatively) new. At its heart, Noir et Blanc doesn’t sound all too dissimilar from other contemporary minimalist and avant-garde synth experiments. Yet the addition of Bikaye’s vocals adds an otherworldly, utterly foreign element that takes a few moments to process. Indeed, were the vocals to be stripped, the album would be nearly indistinguishable from many of its peers. Sure there are unique rhythmic and melodic ideas at work and the contributions of Zazou and CY1 cannot be discounted, but the show really and truly belongs to Bikaye.
At the time, the only real reference point for this type of pan-global fusion was the decidedly non-global world music of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Like a more skeletal, avant garde cousin to that album, Noir et Blanc takes the idea well into uncharted territory, recasting the possibilities afforded by global fusion in its own image. Taking the abstract electronics and sensibilities of early electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk (or even Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley) and fusing them with a traditional Central African approach to singing, the group managed to create something wholly new and different.
On a track like “Mama Lenvo,” Zazou and CY1’s electronics blip and sputter like the early experiments on The In Sound from Way Out only to be gorgeously augmented by Bikaye’s lushly layered vocals and unique harmonic approach. Presented both in the original LP version and an early demo, the addition of multiple Bikayes takes an otherwise pleasantly intriguing bit of out sounding electronics and pushes it into delicately beautiful territory. Conversely, “Mangungu” burbles and burps along with a decidedly primitive, jerky lilt only to be offset by Bikaye’s sing-speak and acoustic percussion from ex-Aksak Maboul member Chris Joris. Where the former track offers an almost organic synthesis of vocals and electronics, the latter manipulates Bikaye’s vocals and allows the electronic elements to take center stage.
“Eh! Yaye (1984 remix)” rides a sputtering, funky post-disco bass groove enshrouded in Tangerine Dream-style atmospherics, while Bikaye’s vocals slide in and out of the mix as if in an unspoken duet with the bass line. The original album version relies more on a series of ping-ponging electronics and avant guitarist Fred Frith’s string sweeps. “Dju Ya Feza” explores similarly rhythmic territory but benefits greatly from Frith’s piercing harmonics and atonal string snarls to create a truly unsettling – though still highly enjoyable – listening experience. Frith’s presence adds yet another intriguing layer to these already out-sounding explorations. While not necessarily as successful (or accessible, for that matter) as “Eh! Yaye” or “Munipe Wa Kati” (featuring Frith on violin), it’s nonetheless a fascinating experiment from an extraordinarily forward-thinking expeditionary musical collective.
Noir et Blanc – Black and White – was and is an enormously successful cross-pollination of disparate musical ideologies that, when combined, create a true global fusion that transcends culture, language and, perhaps most surprisingly, time itself, sounding as fresh and relevant now well over 30 years later. Fans of forward-thinking, creatively-exploratory-yet-accessible (read: open-minded and unpretentious; post-everything) artists will find much to love here. The album is as indispensable as it was influential.