Path To a New Favorite Record

Ammar 808's expansive "Global Control/Invisible Invasion"

Here’s the road I took to my new favorite record, Ammar 808’s Global Control/Invisible Invasion, which was released in the fall of 2020 on Glitterbeat.

This path began with an advance stream of some music Esperanza Spalding will share here this weekend.

The accompanying material notes that in her search for healing tones and textures, Spalding drew inspiration from carnatic music of Southern India. [A story published in the New York Times discusses Spalding’s Triangle project.] Intriuging! I went to find a representative recording, something rooted in the tradition, and landed on Ramnad Krishnan’s 2006 Vidwan: Music of South India – Songs of the Carnatic Tradition.

Its open, improvisational spirit reminded me about the vibrant and inventive programming Talvin Singh and others did in the late 1990s – the heyday of what became known as the Asian Underground. From there, I surfed a few different titles before encountering the Tunisian multi-instrumentalist and DJ Sofyann Ben Youssef, who records as Ammar 808.

The 808 was the tell, and an automatic click. For decades, it’s been appended to monikers used by DJs and rappers to signal affinity for the innovative TR-808 and 909 drum machines made by Roland in the early 1980s (See 808 State, et. al.). It’s almost too much of a SEO ploy anymore, and I’m fairly cynical about marketing tricks like that. I dove in anyway.

Global Control/Invisible Invasion was recorded over 24 days and involved Youssef collaborating with vocalists and local musicians from the city of Chennai in the Tamil Nadu region of Southern India.

At first, it resembles any number of  DJ reconciliations of the ancient and the futuristic. The vocal passages of some tracks draw from the Mahabharata, a 2000-year-old Sanskrit text; “Ey Paavi” punctuates the call and response vocals with heavily processed 808 handclaps that accentuate the upbeats in tabla-like fashion. Some pieces – like the opening devotional “Marivere Gati” which features deftly multi-tracked work from carnatic vocalist Susha – place the emphasis on fervent, endlessly spiraling vocal performance. Others are more aggressively polyrhythmic. On the frenetic “Duryodhana,” 808 snare drums are processed to exaggerate their rattle, while kick drums mimic the crisp crack of small hand-held drums.

All of it is transportive. It’s clear that Ammar 808 approaches his sources for their own resonances, not simply as fodder for yet another muddy meta-mashup.  Like many DJs, he’s got the tools for making glitchy-loop musical mayhem. But he’s also got exquisite taste and an excellent sense of timing, and on Global Control/Invisible Invasion, he uses those devices as portals into a vivid, unforeseen, richly dimensional realm of sound.

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