Sonic vistas: Former aid worker Dan Harper has turned his field recordings into the album ‘Ambiences in Mali’

The relentless, regrettable rise of open-plan office space brought a boom in ambient soundtracks used by workers to shut out the surrounding chatter: it’s easier to ignore the incessant phone talking when your ears are full of hours of Blade Runner background noises and sound effects. Endearingly, life in lockdown has spawned the opposite: many of those stuck in their bedrooms are listening to synthetic banter and wishing themselves back in cubicle-land; or alternatively frowning at the recorded deep hush of the Bodleian Library, or Japanese coffee shops, or any number of alternatives.

In this spirit Dan Harper now releases Ambiences in Mali. As Invisible System, he is implacably maximalist: a typical album throws into the mix Ethiopian and Malian veterans, scratchy one-stringed west African fiddle, West Country guitar luminaries, smudged trumpet, chirping crickets and prog-psych noodling. (He also has an even louder post-punk trio.) This is at the opposite end of the spectrum: three-and-a-half hours of field recordings mostly from Mali, recorded during his time as an aid worker around the turn of the millennium. For long periods, nothing happens but the sound of the road passing by under tyres. Harper chats with people he meets. Cows low. Old men sing. Cockerels crow. 

On “Samé Bamako”, his wife’s home suburb, with running children and barking dogs and a distant stream, sounds like any suburb anywhere. Elsewhere periodic eruptions of strangeness keep the listener engaged and unsettled, waiting for the saxophone that edges its way into “Dogon”, sounding as if it was recorded in a bathroom as indeed it was; or the moment when the brooding piano improvisation of “Thair” suddenly gives way to massed, thin drums. “Les Touaregs” starts with a women’s choir, and then turns into 30 minutes of circular fiddle riffs and handclaps. Acres of time stretch out unhurried.

Similar musical travelogues can be found on Wabi Sabi by Sven Wunder (Piano Piano), an album of Japanoiserie awash with musical borrowings from across East and South Asia, including shimmering guzheng glissandi. The electric piano and the warbling bleeps are reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s periodic excursions into African music, the flute a nod to shakuhachi. Traditional Japanese folk melodies — or simulacra thereof — are rocked up into a ripe imaginary soundtrack.


‘Ambiences in Mali’ is released by Harper Diabate Records

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