Two Turntables and a Violin: On Sudan Archives

Mike Dupar breaks down Sudan Archives' excellent self-titled EP.
By    August 4, 2017

sudan

Mike Dupar once sang back-up for the Old Crow Medicine Show. 

Last year Cory Lomberg sat with Sudan Archives for an interview for POW. The then 22-year-old Sudan spoke of her recent signing to the venerable Stones Throw and her untraditional relationship with the violin, which she was introduced to at a 4th grade assembly. As she passed from school to school, the common denominator being the absence of an orchestra department, Sudan was left to her own devices. She taught herself by ear, taking solace in times of insecurity in the tradition of West African fiddle music, a tradition also lacking in classical Western training, albeit for reasons far greater than a lack of funding.

On her debut Sudan employs her strange alchemy of influences to provide unique and eclectic backdrops. In a stretch of five minutes on the back end of the EP, Sudan raps in a metronomic flow as her violin howls like a bagpipe (“Goldencity”). Moments later on “Wake Up,” Sudan is picking a pleasant folk melody while singing about mistletoe and having too much swag, which admittedly sounds more like the gag-inducing plot of an Everybody Hates Chris Christmas special, but ultimately works due to Sudan’s charismatic honesty.

Throughout, Sudan remains uninterested in convention and sheds her sound from song to song, the only common thread being that Sudan isn’t “trying to force you into something not true” as she fittingly sings on the woozy and watery “Oatmeal.” For Sudan, even the morning after isn’t worth filing into the cubby of cliché. Sudan’s not going to cook pancakes or contrive an air of sexuality; she’s offering the practical and healthy alternatives of oatmeal and a confidence that comes from a lack of expectations. Oatmeal can be sexy too.

At other points that same practical honesty shrugs off pain and the passing of time with apparent ease, leaving the true feelings that underlie those sung assertions to be parsed from each individual pluck, snap, and punch of her fiddle. Unfortunately, those moments leave before they can sink in and while it is neither trivial or of grand significance that each song on Sudan’s debut EP seems to operate in it’s own singular world, the most compelling tracks are also the two that operate the most closely in tenor and sound.

On “Paid,” Sudan employs a polyrhythm that sounds as if it were encrusted in the ashes of Francis Bebey’s mbira and fried in Actavis, the combination of which is guaranteed to make your grandfather do some long forgotten ancestral jig, regardless of whether his affiliations are with the Druids, the Hassidim, or somewhere in-between. All the while Sudan lingers in the background singing in riddles, dancing circles around something unknown as she eases you into a trance and sets the table for the disorienting nausea and unexpected vivacity that waits ahead on “Come Meh Way.”

The best example of Sudan’s designs, “Come Meh Way” sounds as if were steeped in the spiritual residue of Alice Coltrane’s time at the ashram. Sudan’s chants, claps, and the track’s twitchy bass line all adhere to the instruction of her fiddle, which sways with a deceptive control reminiscent of the Drunken Master. As her fiddle hobbles with an almost violent purpose, Sudan’s sensibilities converge into a fantastic orgy of pan-regional sound. Here her feelings are simpler and more easily displayed, resulting in Sudan at her most playful and ultimately her most effective.

Simpler isn’t always better, but when it is, it probably didn’t come easy. Ask Sudan.