He walked into 12 Tónar wearing a sort of furry-looking black jacket and quickly began setting up a small collection of electronic equipment while the previous band was still tearing down their stuff. Sitting at a very short bench he fussed about with the the wiring and controls and started making some sounds here in there as a sort of half-moon crowd of maybe 40-50 people stood around chatting. None of us ever noticed the moment when the set-up ended and the show started, but eventually the voices quieted down and it was apparent that President Bongo had begun taking us on a journey through Serengeti.
Copyright Life in the Vinyl Lane, 2015
President Bongo, a.k.a. Stephan Stephensen, is best known for his work as part of the Icelandic electronic music powerhouse Gusgus, and also as part of the duo Gluteus Maximus. I was bummed earlier this year when Bongo announced his departure from Gusgus in a very concisely worded release, but quickly got over it when I learned he was releasing a solo album called Serengeti. He was high on our list of performers we wanted to see at Airwaves this year, and we were pleasantly surprised to get a great front-row position to see his set at the 12 Tónar record store. The setting was perfectly intimate, and watching Bongo work was to watch a man in complete focus… except when he would take a moment to look up and smile at a small child wandering by right in front of him, something you’ll inevitably see at so many Airwaves off-venue shows. The Icelanders get their kids of to a quick musical start.
An album like Serengeti defies a song-by-song breakdown; it’s a complete work and deserves to be considered as a whole, an electronic musical story. But a story about what? Well, Bongo gives us a clue with the title – Serengeti, the massive African ecosystem that is home to the largest mammal migration on the planet, a place that is alternately breathtakingly beautiful and unrelentingly tough. And this hint gives us a framework upon which to base our listening experience. What do the rhythms of the Serengeti sound like? I don’t know… what does a sunrise smell like? What’s the taste of a rainbow? Can you touch the sky?
If you’re of a certain age (like right around mine) you grew up in the golden age of nature documentaries, with the pre-cable TV screen filled with shows about Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. These, along with issues of National Geographic, back when it was just a magazine and not a TV network full of doomsday preppers and shows about Nazis, was how we experienced Africa. It might as well have been another planet as I watched it on our technicolor cabinet-style television, laying on the floor and enraptured with the exoticness of it all (and hoping that Jim didn’t get eaten by a crocodile).
Serengeti doesn’t fall into all of those old tropes. There are some classically African sounds in the drumming, but in lieu of birds sounds and the rustling of the wind through the tall grass we have Bongo’s medium, that of electronic music, which he uses to create his own musical landscape, something modern for the current day. This isn’t the Africa of my childhood dreams, but a more modern version, in high definition. The drums keep it familiar, but from there Bongo is free to experiment, setting the mood with his palette of sound.
If I was a betting man, I’d wager that Bongo’s Serengeti follows the flow of the seasons. At least it does to my ears and brain, but that’s the beauty of an album like this – it’s a “whole” performance, but the meaning you ascribe to it is somewhat personal. Bongo only gives you a title and some cover art as the vaguest of treasure maps, and it’s up to you to find the big black X that marks the spot… or don’t, and just enjoy the journey.