Barney Wilen – Moshi (1972 / 2017)
In the instance that overlap is noticed, this is a revised and expanded version of a write up I recently did for SoundOhm, announcing Souffle Continu’s long awaited reissue of Barney Wilen’s Moshi.
There are objects which prompt reflection. This is one. Nearly twenty years ago, a wide eyed version of myself stepped off an overnight train from Rome – out into the winding streets of Paris for the first time. A lot has changed in that time. Other things haven’t. I still smoke too much and drink dangerous amounts of coffee. I’m still the romantic dreamer, but similarities grow increasingly fleeting. The sky has darkened. I’ve changed and grown older, as has the city which I grew to know well over the years – each return marked by the hunt for this record. Like Paris, the place where it was made, it has laid an evolving imprint on my passing decades.
I came to Barney Wilen’s Moshi the way I have come to most of my favorite records, through association. My first deep love affair in Free Jazz was the Art Ensemble of Chicago. While working my way through their catalog, I encountered their effort with Brigitte Fontaine and her husband Areski Belkacem – Comme à la Radio, which rapidly became (and remains) one of my favorite records of all time. From there I developed of passion for Fontaine and Areski’s collaborations, most of which where issued by Saravah – the next logical stop on my explorations, and the label which released Moshi.
I’ve spent a lot of time hunting for rare records in France. It’s only place where inquiries after albums like Moshi, have prompted shop proprietors to laugh in my face. The original is extremely rare, coveted, and expensive. In all my years, I have yet to find a copy – thus my excitement. It is heightened by the deep respect and affection for the Souffle Continu – the label which is returning it to the world, and who do nothing short of an astounding job with everything they touch.
Originally issued by Saravah in 1972, and among the most uncategorizable artifacts of the French avant-garde, Barney Wilen’s Moshi is nothing short of a masterpiece. A wild unkept cultural collage. A series of sonic experiments. A funky, psychedelic pilgrimage into the unknown – darting from one continent to the next, each of its tangents building toward a more optimist world view through ordered sound. Its scope remains as difficult to understand today as it was when it was released.
Barney Wilen first came to prominence during the late 1950’s and early 60’s, working with Miles Davis, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, and Thelonious Monk, during the beginnings of post war American jazz’s slow migration toward Europe. Always ambitious, his restless spirit pushed him forward. Wilen was among the first French players to embrace Free-Jazz, and equally among the earliest to attempt a fusion with rock music and the dawning psychedelic underground. At the outset of 1970, he began to look further afield, ultimately bringing together a team of filmmakers, technicians, and musicians, who traveled to Africa to document and record the continent’s indigenous music. Released two years later following his return, Moshi is the conceptual result of that journey. Across its four sides, it’s sometimes difficult to know where Africa stops and Wilen begins.
Moshi is a collage, but not as we often understand them. Though it incorporates field recordings made during Wilen’s travels, placed in connection and association with the efforts of the saxophonist and his ensemble (many of whom where from Africa themselves), the album is best understood as a cluster of diverse sound – a weaving of ideas, where the music of Africa, sometimes literally and sometimes conceptually, enters the music of Europe and America, and equally the music of Europe and America enters that of Africa. A complex hybrid. A soup of humanity. A patchwork quilt where the thread is Africa, but the material is woven from endlessly diverse sources and ideas.
The enduring brilliance of Wilen’s grand effort is the inability to say what it is. It is restless, each of its fourteen pieces becoming autonomous adventure, veering with single-mindedness toward its most logical end, while never entirely losing sight of the album’s cohesive whole. The moment you think you understand it, it becomes something else. At times the unmediated voices of Africa reach the ear – easily mistaken for artefacts from the Ocora catalog. At others they are intervened with, laying the groundwork for an extended jam. In passages, we hear the imprint of popular music – the distinct sounds of African Jazz against funky excursions similar to the territories Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Soft Machine were exploring during this period. In other moments we are dropped into loose, free improvisations, and still others, psychedelic meanderings which stretch toward the realms of the Grateful Dead. Each moment, like its totality, is singular, strange, exciting, and challenging – rebelling and refusing categorization.
Moshi is an unquestionable artistic triumph. It is a high water mark from the 1970’s French avant-garde, which remains as rewarding today as the day it was made. As a reissue, the album offers an added dimension as a reminder of another, possibly more open, era – of an alternate way of being and hearing that can be carried to the future. It displays a strange democracy – a reassessment of the character of collaboration, and a distinct respect for audience and source. Wilen seems to have been proposing a different way of seeing the world and understanding relationships between its diverse elements – one where the artist may play only a minor part. Where the rising tide is culture itself, and where borders and time dissolve.
As part the reissue, Souffle Continu has also included a bonus DVD of Caroline de Bendern’s film A l’intention de Mlle Issoufou a Bilma (1971), which documents the incredible journey through Africa which gave way to Moshi – made that much more vivid by its brilliant soundtrack, also composed by Wilen. This the first time it has been released in a physical form, making this edition of the LP the most definitive and complete to date. You can check it out below, pick it up directly from Souffle Continu, from SoundOhm, or a record store near you.