CD: Africa To-Day (1971-1975)

June 27, 2012 | By

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Rating: Very Good

Label: Kronos Records (Malta) / Released: December 13, 2011

Tracks & Album Length: 23 tracks / (66:18)


Special Notes: 4-page colour booklet with dual Italian & English liner notes / Limited to 500 copies.


Composer: Piero Umiliani




Kronos Records’ CD is an omnibus of library music composed by Piero Umiliani between 1971-1975 at his SoundWorkShop Studio in Rome, culled from 3 separate albums  – Africa, Polinesia, an Continente Nero – with cues re-ordered to create an hour-long musical trip through jazz-pop fusion using a variety of authentic ethnic instruments the composer collected from his own exotic voyages.

Three things stand out within this collection: the meticulous engineering which brings the instruments extremely close to the listener, miked like a small jazz combo; the stellar performances by unnamed (and unsung) musicians; and Umiliani’s detailed orchestrations and fixations on tiny nuances.

“Oasi” is a prime example: double-bass playing an African rhythm, hollow wooden and metallic percussion, slow & grinding bowing, and flute collectively capturing a far-away continent as filtered through a jazz-influenced mind, and performed by fusion musicians whose own performance styles add little gestures.

Most cues don’t rely on a single, fully-drafted melody; Umiliani’s written little hooks from which the musicians can indulge in some improv, or just follow through with a rhythmic pattern by adding more detail, density, or weaving between a major percussion instrument. Cues also begin with a quiet intro from a solo instrument (like “Nel Villaggio”) before the rest of the combo join in, and the finales often consist of a quick phrase recap before the intro solo returns, ending the cue on a simple fadeout.

“Tamburi nella Giugla” evokes a more traditional Polynesian sound with an all-percussion ensemble, whereas more jazz-funk cues include the punchy “Africa To-Day,” as well as “Rivoluzionari,” with gliding piano solo, fuzzy synths, bongos, and sustained chords of haunting vocals. “Preparativi” is a great rhythmic collage between assorted conga, bongos, and frenzied strings ping-ponging in little waves across the stereo spectrum. “Riscossa” is basically a big band jazz / funky lounge tune with soft background voices and brass, and dueling synths and keyboards fighting for dominance, whereas in “Nuovi Fermenti” there’s more freeform jazz with brass, piano, and cymbals evoking a dawning or revelation.

“Nuovi Realta” features thunderous percussion & dual flutes, whereas “Giorno di Mercato” is a simple, steady stream of wooden & kettle percussion textures evoking a mysterious mood, and in “Sortiege” Umiliani blends electronic pulses with electrified flutes & percussion to create an Afro-Jazz Space Age fusion. Flutes are the only instruments in “Green Dawn” which Umiliani echoplexes in thickening waves like musical butterfly flutters, and the CD’s final cue is a nearly all-electronic “African Suspense,” featuring sharp pulses and muted, bubbling percussion reminiscent of Louis and Beebe Barron’s Forbidden Planet (1956).

Being library music, the emphasis is on maintaining mood & momentum, so there’s little need for actual themes. The cues were largely designed as background / abstract fill or source cuts, if not travelling music as characters migrate between locations, but Kronos’ sequencing and tight editing gives the CD a rapid, kinetic flow. The liner notes don’t go into too much detail about the production of the original LPs, but certainly for fans of the composer and vintage Italian exotica, Africa To-Day is a mandatory acquisition.



© 2012 Mark R. Hasan


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