If you were to map out the musical explorations of American-Australian band Dirtmusic featuring Chris Eckman (The Walkabouts) and Hugo Race (Fatalists, The Bad Seeds) it wouldn’t be a straight line. From their 2007 eponymous debut which drew from their American and Australian frontier roots, they drifted to Timbuktu following a growing urge to perform raw, psych-folk-rock. There they performed at the world famous Malian Festival-au-Desert which has been in a hiatus since the last festival in 2012 due to the Northern Mali Conflict. It was here they met the mighty Tuareg band Tamikrest who they went on to tour with and who were heavily influential on their second album, BKO (2010). They also released a joint limited edition album with Tamikrest in 2010 – The Tent Sessions.
They later released Troubles in 2013, the guest vocalists singing in Songhai, Bambara, Tamasheq and English, a testament to the musical network they were building up and also being influenced by. This was followed by Lion City in 2014.
For their fifth album, Bu Bir Ruya (Glitterbeat January 26th 2018) they have teamed up with Turkish-psych visionary Murat Ertel from Baba Zula. Recorded in Istanbul, the album navigates hypnotic rhythms, cinematic atmospheres and dark political realities. The lead track Bi De Sen Söyle (our Song of the Day) is an infectious first offering that is sure to pitch this one above their last release.
On: Bu Bir Ruya
‘We need music like this to stay sane’ – Murat Ertel
The striking figure of Murat Ertel is standing at the door of his home studio, a converted mechanic’s garage in a suburb of Istanbul. The Turkish capital is a tense and conflicted place these days, but Baba Zula’s leader and saz man is on fine form. Before him stand those current and former musical nomads, Chris Eckman and Hugo Race, guitars in hand. Dirtmusic are about to take on their latest, and perhaps most thrilling, form.
But let’s rewind a little, for Dirtmusic’s story is worth your time (although it perhaps makes more sense to talk about Dirtmusics plural).
Originally a straight-talking, mainly acoustic trio mining blues and country for 21st-century gold, the band’s first happy accident was to stumble upon Tamikrest at the fabled Festival au Désert in Timbuktu in 2008. A musical love story began, running through that joyous first collaboration with Tamikrest in BKO (2010), followed by Troubles (2013) and Lion City (2014), which expanded the roster to include Ben Zabo, Samba Touré and a host of other superb Malian musicians. In the meantime, however, the Islamist takeover of Northern Mali in 2012 had darkened the sound and the songwriting, giving them a tone that continues to resonate through the new record.
Back to that garage. True to form, Eckman and Race look to improvise, for that line to the Bamako years is still strong. They’ve come with a couple of beats and loops – and they’re not even sure whether they will attach any words to this year’s Dirtmusic. But Ertel knows they need to tell a story. The time and the place demand it. This is being recorded in Istanbul after all, and Eckman has flown there from Slovenia, a country that has secured its southern border with razor wire – and Race from Australia, where sea-borne refugees are detained indefinitely on remote islands. And so it goes, a tale of borders and walls, of cold fronts and cold hearts.
‘We need a story,’ said Murat. This year’s Dirtmusic summit has given us another one to think about and, as importantly, to dance to. The desert tent has been swapped for the garage in Northern Istanbul, for now, but the concerns remain the same: to tear down borders, real and imagined, as quickly as they can be thrown up. Ten years in, this singular band with a plural soul have made their finest record yet.
‘Recording like this is truly in the moment, there are no preconceptions to satisfy and the music and words are improvised. We drew inspiration from the atmosphere of Istanbul, the general disaffection with the state media and the uncertainty of the immediate future’ – Hugo Race
‘[Murat’s] studio is really a warm and relaxed place to work. I think if we had tried the same thing at a slick studio, with the clock running, it wouldn’t have come together so easily. By the end of the first day the friendships were already forming and we were having a hell of a good time’ – Chris Eckman