Co-produced with the legendary studio team of Brian Eno & Daniel Lanois.
“[Hassell’s] command of microtonal shadings enabled him to blend into the West Africans' distinctive sonic colorations, which would not have been possible for a player whose intonation conformed strictly to Western music's equal temperament.” – Robert Palmer, New York Times
Composer and trumpeter Jon Hassell has been an elusive, iconic musical figure for more than half a century. He’s best known as the pioneer and propagandist of “Fourth World” music, mixing technology with the tradition and spirituality of non-western cultures to create what he termed the “coffee-colored classical music of the future.” In 1987 he joined with Farafina, the acclaimed percussion, voice, and dance troupe from Burkina Faso, to record Flash of the Spirit. While the album is a natural extension of those “Fourth World” ideas, and a new strand of Possible Musics, it also a distinctive outlier in the careers of both artists; an unrepeated merging of sounds whose influence still reverberates today.
Hassell arrived as the outsider, having to slide in and around Farafina, an established group that started in 1978 where the leader, as he told Music Technology, was “somewhat inflexible in terms of new things. They were suspicious at first…about what could happen and why this whole thing was going on.”
But once settled in the studio, the musicians sparked off each other. The eight members of the band - who had also collaborated with the Rolling Stones and Ryuichi Sakamoto - brought their long apprenticed, virtuosic drumming and melodic textures (balafon, flute, voices) to the sessions. They built up layers and patterns of rhythm, while producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois (fresh off the phenomenal success of U2’s Joshua Tree) created a sonic atmosphere in which they could creatively intertwine with Hassell’s digitally processed trumpet and keyboards. Just the physical feel of the drums in the room was enough to inspire Hassell.
“There’s something about the volume of air that drums pump, there is a wonder quality about it that’s impossible to find any place else,” he recalled. “Even if you sampled all that and tried to duplicate it, I don’t think it would have the same feel.”
The experiment took root. Despite their initial skepticism, the musicians from Farafina ended up relishing their interaction with the studio team and the trumpeter/conceptualist Hassell. Souleymane “Mani” Sanou, Farafina’s band leader from the early 90’s on, remarked: “traditional instruments, they can meet with electronic and modern music; so collaborations are so important to us…yes, with Jon Hassell, the experience was amazing.”
The music that emerged was rich and groundbreaking, a move to transcend the boundaries between jazz, avant-garde classical, ambient and the deep rhythmic tradition embodied by Farafina. But of course, Hassell had been slowly blurring and ignoring such boundaries for years.
He’d served an apprenticeship with Stockhausen, worked with minimalists Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, studied Indian music under Pandit Pran Nath, and collaborated with artists like Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and David Sylvian, as well as forging a path into ambient music, through an especially fruitful partnership with Brian Eno on the albums Fourth World, Vol.1: Possible Musics and Dream Theory in Malaya.
Hassell’s ideas of melody and rhythm had moved beyond the confines of Western music, out into borderless, imagined spaces, and in Farafina he found the ideal companions in exploration. It’s an album of subtle, telling details, where the layers and textures build and change to highlight each other. On “Out Pours,” for instance, the groove simmers softly, led by shifting patterns on the balafon, while Hassell’s heavily treated trumpet creates breathy swirls of sound that play and dance around them. Percussion leads on “A Vampire Dances,” pushing and probing and seeming to force electronic shrieks as a response from Hassell’s trumpet, while the keyboard creates a bed of sound that refuses to hold still. “(Like) Warriors Everywhere” takes that idea even further. Over Farafina’s surging rhythms, Hassell’s electric piano and trumpet dig deep into abstract, melodic ideas hinted at by the Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis band.
What’s apparent is how carefully the musicians listen to each other and the ways in which they respond; the spaces become as important as the notes. Every piece of music is alive. It breathes, it changes and grows. Farafina create the rhythms and counter-rhythms that spring and move, making room for Hassell’s explorations. They affect him, and in turn what he plays alters what they do. It’s symbiotic; each inspires the other. The trumpet techniques that Hassell developed to play the microtones of Indian music – electronic and acoustic – let him easily slide through the music. He becomes part of the whole, his trumpet another voice in the band, rather than an imposed, outside Western instrument – achieving one of the aims of the “Fourth World” credo, to create a new, natural trans-cultural harmony.
And nowhere is that harmony more apparent than on the epic final track, “Masque,” where percussion and treated trumpet draw the listener along on a journey through shifting landscapes that transform into unexpected colors with every turn. It becomes a series of discoveries that startle and delight and sometimes confound.
On its release 32 years ago, Flash of the Spirit was a revelation, a record that had no clear parallel for its
encompassing sound. Even today, now that the musical world has caught up with much of Jon Hassell’s vision, it still feels especially vibrant. The album remains a testament to both the influence Hassell has quietly exerted on contemporary music, and the forward-looking traditionalism of Farafina, one of West Africa’s great rhythmic ensembles.
As walls and barriers are erected around the globe, it is hard not to think of the music found on Flash of the Spirit as ever more relevant. An echo from the past. Still transmitting future possibilities.