Quite how Tanzanian vocalist and percussion player Mim Suleiman came to reside in Sheffield is a mystery, but since moving to the Steel City she’s certainly made her mark. Alongside producer Maurice Fulton, she impressed with Tungi, a delicious 2010 debut album released on Gerd Janson’s Running Back – a regular outlet for Fulton-produced projects.
That album famously fused her more traditional approach to African music with Fulton’s eclectic approach to electronic music, resulting in a set that flitted between Afro-tinged deep house and disco and more straightforward African songs. Fulton’s own Bubbletease imprint has now released Umbeya, Suleiman’s follow-up, which arrives some two years on and is noticeable for pushing the musical boundaries further than Tungi, offering a take on African music that bears all the eccentric and bewitching hallmarks of Maurice Fulton’s often-brilliant production.
Yet Umbeya doesn’t sound like a Maurice Fulton album, certainly not in the way that other Fulton-produced debuts sometimes do (see Kathy Diamond’s Miss Diamond To You, an album that sounded like Fulton in full dub disco mode, with the addition of a vocalist) That’s not to say that you can’t detect his hand in the sound – Umbeya couldn’t have been produced by anyone else – but rather, Suleiman herself is the undoubted star of the album.This is entirely down to the central role of her Swahili vocals and the way that they playfully complement the traditional Tanzanian percussion playing that features throughout.
Opener “Pato Pato Lembwe Lembwe” sets the tone, contrasting densely layered percussion and striking vocals with fuzzy analogue bass, heavy organs and eccentric electronic touches. The slower “Chuki” develops this strand, offering a mixture of live drums, skittering electro beats, twisted noises, chant-like vocals and sub-bothering bottom end that’s simultaneously sparse and almost overbearingly dense. Despite being blessed by glistening deep house synths and some crunchy clavinet riffs, “Heshima” takes a similar approach.
Elsewhere, there are some tracks that offer an offbeat take on Fulton’s usual dance floor sound. Check, for example, the jaunty, deep disco-pop of “Msimano”, or the jackin’ house/dub disco fusion of the album’s title track. Built around a heavyweight analogue bass line and snappy 808 snares, “Umbeya” quickly flourishes into a hustlin’ hoedown full of addictive clavs, life-affirming vocals and skippy organs. Fulton has also included a Dub of his own as a bonus track. This is, if anything, even better, boasting rush-inducing elements left, right and centre.
The house influence continues on “Ya Leo”, which sounds like the sort of record Osunlade should be making – it’s a triumph of Afro-house fusion, all relentless deep house rhythms and bespoke Tanzanian percussion. Best of all, though, is “Shauri”, a more downtempo closer that delivers a near perfect balance between Suleiman’s folksy African leanings, glistening Balearic beauty and dubbed-out electronica. It’s as great an example as you’ll find of Suleiman and Fulton’s distinctive Afro-electronic sound.
1. Pato Pato Lembwe Lembwe
5. Wakati Dawa
7. Sitochoka Kukupenda Weweee
8. Ya Leo
10. Umbeya (Maurice Fulton Dub)