By Cara Search, Special to The Sybaritic Singer
On September 7, 2018, Underground System’s first full-length album, What Are You, hit the ground dancing with its own after party in tow. Underground System, the self-described “female-fronted group of neo-Afrobeat deconstructionists” named after Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti’s final 1992 album, released a 40 minute collection of songs that is as Brooklyn as it is Fela. This album ambitiously balances the effusive high-energy dance tunes for which the band is known with precise, cooled down EDM-influenced tracks.
What Are You, the title track positioned at the album’s halfway point, functions as the musical and theoretical fulcrum for this collection of songs. In an interview on PRI’s The World, frontwoman Domenica Fossati describes the text as a personal reaction to that crass and frequently asked question (“What are you?”) about her African and Italian heritage. “You ask me ‘bout my shade then tell me your perception/So you think you know me better ‘cause you study race and gender”…”I know who I am but you’re the one who disagrees.”
Like Fossati herself (proficient in English, Spanish, Italian, Yoruba, Ewe, voice, flute, dance, new music, Afrobeat, indie rock, and who can guess what else), Underground System refuses to contain its cultural and stylistic virtuosity for the intellectual digest of its listeners. This album invites inquiry and discovery; prying open (and leaving wide open) previously unexplored intersections of style, sound, and culture is the party with Underground System.
The millennial Brooklynite’s nostalgic sense of humor also makes sonic appearances throughout. The band calls on 80s new wave sounds to highlight absurdities and instability in selected tracks. Just a Place takes a tempo a beat below feverish and layers processed vocals in a refreshingly unromantic offering to the litany of New York hustle-and-bustle songs. Nostalgic listeners are rewarded by theremin wobbles and did-they-really-do-that big fat synth drum rolls: the absurd sci-fi of the quotidian.
Likewise, the tight drumbeat (plus more theremin?) of Rent Party could just as easily announce Joe Jackson or Hall & Oates. Among the differentiators is Fossati’s self-referential silliness. Playing the urgency of a rent party for laughs, she makes her own sound effects (“Brrrrng, brrrrrng! Hello?”) and transitions from Spanish to English at the end of the second verse with, “Something something something, English English English English English”. And is that a kazoo solo before the breakdown?
Besides pulling potentially disparate tracks together into one seamless ebb and flow (and ebb again), the track What Are You also marks the moment where the album starts to reward the digital listener with gorgeously thoughtful, organically paced dance club sounds. Underground System was founded by guitarist and New York-based DJ Peter Matson. He and Fossati discussed with Afropop Worldwide the intersection of New York dance club music and Afrobeat in their work; a project that Matson describes in the interview as “[Underground System’s] role,” and something that “hasn’t been done before by our generation.”
The most formally ambitious and continuously surprising track on the album, State of Mind, opens with a refreshing chillwave soundscape, a cool ecosystem of wobbling, reverb-y guitar, a windswept flute melody, and Yoshio Kobayashi’s crisp drums. Then it heats up — we feel the sweat through our speakers and imagine an audience enraptured with Olatunji Tunji’s relentless energy on congas.
In this track, Underground System lends us their musical stream of consciousness. State of Mind travels from point A to a totally unexpected point Z. Also notable is the horn section’s reappearance, expanding its palette from the punchier, grinning tones of Rent Party with impressively cohesive warmth.
What’s It Gonna Take follows, Matson digitizing the instruments and voices in an effortlessly managed build to a stylish, polished drop.
Midnight-hued, brief, and sensual, Sebben (La Lega) comes and goes like waves lapping up on a Mediterranean beach. This track departs notably from the rest of the album in its stripped down texture, the shekere’s gentle architecture undergirding Fossati’s masterfully rhythmic use of the Italian language in dialogue with bass guitar.
Finally, the much-remixed closing track, Nmani (“world” in Yoruba) lands crisp and clean on the ears like a glass of ice water after a night of dancing. Glittering shekere talks to a popping synth melody, and the textless voice is processed into the texture over zig-zagging keyboard chords.
The offerings of What Are You indicate an unstoppable and fearless approach to musical identity. The inquiry is palpable; one gets the sense that, instead of collecting derivations of style to smash together and see what comes out (which makes for fine music, too), Underground System reflects deeply on their personal, musical, and cultural histories to locate and nurture connective tissue, finding a wholly original sound along the way.
It’s their project, and not their products that promise a wellspring of multidimensional musical gems. Lucky for us, the products are also irresistibly danceable bangers.
Mezzo-soprano Cara Search sings, improvises, composes game music, and creates interdisciplinary theater in New York City. This past season (2017-18), Cara sang with Fresh Squeezed Opera Company, Anonymous Ensemble, Utopia Opera, and members of Bang on a Can All-Stars, International Contemporary Ensemble, and Sō Percussion. Her favorite painter is Janet Werner, favorite podcast is Still Processing, and her favorite lie is that she doesn’t care about astrology. Cara holds a B.Mus from McGill University in Montreal. www.carasearch.com