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by Righard Kapp / 06.08.2010

Carlo Mombelli is a bit of the-odd-one-out in the context of the South African music scene. I can imagine three quarters of my friends going “sorry, who?” if I mention his name, the other quarter will extol his virtues far and wide. The portly man with the distinctive bass tone, equal parts gloop and grunt, will never really run the risk of being considered trendy, so his music remains for those who still have the capacity for childlike awe. I’ve only ever seen him with all the Prisoners of Strange live once (then featuring the magnificent Lloyd Martin on drums), and that gig still remains one of the most memorable I’ve experienced: a masterclass in how music can be both cerebral and sensuous, both intricate and fun at the same time. Justin Badenhorst has since filled in the drummer’s spot, to complete the group with Marcus Wyatt (trumpet) and Siyavuya Makuzeni (vocals, trombone).

Mombelli’s latest album on his own Instinct Africaine imprint, Theory, can more or less be summed up as a textural wonderland – the whole thing is recorded and mixed by Joe Arthur with gorgeous attention to detail, and Carlo really distinguishes himself as something of a timbral alchemist here. While his last album, I Stared Into My Head, was an ambitious chamber-jazz project recorded with a string quartet, Theory limits itself to the core group and does an excellent job of highlighting the individual Prisoners’ remarkable musicianship and talent for oblique improvisation.

The opening track “Theory” coasts along on a bass riff that I acatually know off by heart by now, having heard it live a few times; an arpeggiated diminished chord that rolls along languidly and digresses into droning interludes, eventually resolving into furious stabs of bass, trumpet and voice – a combination of tones that makes Korn sound like Belle&Sebastian, so visceral is the impact of that climax. The only thing about the track that I don’t like is purely subjective: I just can’t stand movie dialogue samples in music, and this one is liberally peppered with snippets from the 1980 sci-fi film Saturn 3.

The sparser second track, “I Close My Eyes”, foregrounds Makuzeni’s gorgeous vocals; close-miked and heart-rendingly intimate, it’s like listening to a lover confide in you. As the track progresses, Makuzeni’s glottal tics and a ring-modulator-y effect create a very palpable sense of unease over the funereally paced drums and trumpet.

“Jo-burg-downpipe-gutter-bows” introduces Mombelli’s other quirk; his propensity for percussion instruments, homemade out of springs, pipes and and sundry bits and bobs. There’s a lovely jerrybuilt quality to the way track trundles along on the percussive-yet-tonal sound of the “gutter-bows”, quite reminiscent of Madosini’s umrhubhe-playing.

“The Hurricane of Silence” is some sort of avant-garde cop-show-funk over a loop of bass harmonics. For me, there’s always been something about the way two brass instruments played in unison turn harmony into pure vibration that fondles my little ear-clitoris just the right way. The Prisoners’ take this to next level here, with Wyatt’s trumpet and Makuzeni’s trombone playing otherwordly harmonies with an astonishing sense of tension and release.

At this point I’ve only described the album as an acoustic entity, and hardly even touched on the extent to which sounds are toyed with using effects, or the more abstract sound collages on the album. Theory, and Mombelli’s music in general, displays a remarkable capacity for reconciling seemingly binary opposites; the sublime and the ridiculous, the intellectual and the visceral, the premeditated and the spontaneous. Most importantly, when it’s poignant, it’s heartbreaking, and when it lightens up, it’s as fun as all hell.

If you have time, I’ll leave you with two clips of Mombelli and Marcus Wyatt performing with Turkish vocalist Saadet Turkoz at the “On the Edge of Wrong” festival of improvised music in Cape Town in Feb 2009, filmed by Jaco Minnaar.

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