Album Review: Vanessa Bongo - Earth To Bongo
by Steve Topple
It is no mean feat, releasing an album which is musically diverse yet has synergy across it so it feels as one. Fortunately, Vanessa Bongo has done it effortlessly with her latest release.
Earth To Bongo, released via Maxx 749 Music Productions, sees the album’s namesake display her entire range of artistic powers. The production across the album from Stephuan “Maxx” Samuels is high-powered and sympathetic, and his and Bongo’s construction of the project is fascinating and effective in equal measure.
After the album’s brief but atmospheric Blast Off spoken word-meets singjay intro, it heads directly into AfroDancehall territory with Great Things. Punctuated by effective breaks, the percussion is the driving force with its offbeat snare line and rapid, buzz roll-led hi-hats. The bassline is rounded, smooth and resonant and Samuels has written a gorgeous piano line into the track, acting as a countermelody to Bongo’s. His production is targeted, too – focusing on the lower kHz to create a deep, rich sound. AfroDancehall perfection.
Jah Send Me sees Bongo dive straight into Roots, but with flavours of Reggaeton interspersed throughout. Keys run a bubble rhythm, guitars skank and the bass is syncopated across a melodic arrangement. But it’s the drum line which is fascinating. Because unlike much Roots, a one drop is entirely absent. The kick runs a near-constant double time rhythm, driving the track forward and making it feel twice the BPM (all a bit Steppers/four-on-the-floor actually). Hi-hats and snare rim clicks are frantic and heavily syncopated (but not heavily dotted) – and the inclusion of a rasping, synth horn just finishes off the Reggaeton vibe; albeit more Jamaican, less South America.
The unapologetic Walk In The Park is also unapologetically Dub: stripped back, reverb-heavy and across just two root chords for much of the track. The bass is a core focus, running a heavy drop-beat rhythm. But again, Bongo and Samuels have taken the feel of Dub but embellished it further. For example, the drum line is a step away from the genre, running a one drop rhythm but focusing on the two and then the offbeats for the rest of the bar. It’s an upfront and in-your-face creation.
Next, and Ganja Farmer takes Earth To Bongo in another direction completely, moving towards what feels like old skool Dancehall – but when you break it down isn’t exclusively that. For example, the usual Dancehall bass clave (‘oneeeeee-twooo-and’ x2) is absent, replaced by a five-beat rhythm that stretches across the bar. What gives it the vibe is the snare, running a ‘one-two-(three)-and-four’ riff. Plus, Bongo’s scintillating singjay drives his straighter, less winding (really more Hip Hop) Dancehall feel. And her skat at the end is glorious.
The freshly-titled DMs moves the album into a different emotional area, signalling a shift in tone as well. It’s a fresh, summery Sound System-RnB cut – driven by a ‘oneee-and-two’ motif that’s used by the horns and percussion throughout. There’s a delicious nod to a bubble rhythm on the keys, but only fleetingly at points during the track. The frantic bass line is picked, creating an edgy feel, as it runs across a triple-time rhythm. And the RnB bridge shows off this clever fusion – but with the horns doing harmonised riffs in an almost Afrobeats manner. Smart and sensual.
Caribbean Dreams takes Earth To Bongo back to AfroDancehall again – but with the focus being firmly rooted in Jamaica (or possibly Barbados, of course). It’s smoother than the intentionally abrasive Great Things – largely because of the focus on higher kHz (and less electronic) instrumentation. The drums focus more on tom-toms and less on the snare and buzz-rolling hi-hats. The running piano line assists with this and the whole package is airy and fresh; a clever musical paradox when put next to Caribbean Dreams lyrical content.
Lutan Fyah joins Bongo on Damage Again. It’s a purposefully-designed Roots cut – honing in on the veteran (Fyah) mixed the up-and-coming (Bongo); this being reflected in the arrangement. Yes, keys run a bubble rhythm – but it’s reserved for the chorus. Drums do a light one drop – but additional cow bells and synth beats enhance this. Guitars avoid a skank, instead running stark, mid-to-treble amp-heavy response to the vocalists’ calls. And this approach sums the track up: old meeting new. All a bit Revival, but thoroughly excellent.
Earth To Bongo concludes with No Tresspassers. A straighter RnB cut that fuses more African percussive instrumentation and arrangement, its driven by acoustic guitars strumming dotted chord progressions. The bass, which catches beat three just before it kicks in, cements the vibe. And the heavily layered, harmonising vocals are pure Soul. It’s a fitting close to the album – merging musical roots from the Motherland with Western composition and arrangement. It’s beautiful; much like Bongo’s performances throughout.
She’s a highly accomplished vocalist, being equally at ease across straight singing and singjay. Her vocal range is good, sitting from an upper alto to middle-high soprano, and she displays powerful breath control throughout, also flitting between a chest and head voice. Her singjay is crisp, with intuitive use of rhythmic pattern and embellishment of repetition which fits with the syllable progression of the lyrics well. This is enhanced by her extremely sharp enunciation. But it’s Bongo’s interpretation of her lyrics which impresses – cleverly using dynamics and varying vibrato to hammer-home the emotive points. And the lyrical and thematic content of Earth To Bongo is also top-class.
Bongo has crafted a varied and thought-provoking body of work – dealing with issues of personal overcoming of life’s set-backs; spirituality; humble self-confidence; love and damaging relationships. But there has to be a stand-out cut, and it’s Caribbean Dreams. Bongo and Samuels’ exceptionally clever juxtaposing of a fresh, summery and lilting musical arrangement with some devastating lyrics about how Jamaica seems like a tourist’s paradise, when actually it’s riddled with poverty, is inspired, effective and moving.
Earth To Bongo is a superb release from Bongo. Musically fascinating, with a huge amount of variation in styles and genres, it still manages to be seamless – thanks to her and Samuels. She performs at the peak of her powers across the album, and the end result is a compelling experience which is infinitely repeatable. Superb.
Vanessa Bongo - Earth To Bongo
DIGITAL RELEASE [Maxx749 Music]
Release date: 07/24/2020
01. Blast Off (Intro)
02. Great Things
03. Jah Send Me
04. Walk In The Park
05. Ganja Farmer
07. Caribbean Dreams
08. Damage Again feat. Lutan Fyah
09. No Tresspassers