An inspiration to Hall
Last updated: 2003-10-13
Terry Hall's career has always been one of spotting trends and breaking new ground. In the early '80s he helped spearhead the hugely popular ska revival as lead vocalist with The Specials, who went on to become one of the most popular and influential bands of the punk era inspiring the likes of Rancid, Blur, No Doubt and The Basement Jaxx.
Hall followed that up with Fun Boy Three, ushering in a musical eclecticism seldom heard in the pop charts and on mainstream radio.
Throughout these projects as well as his subsequent group, The Colourfield, and several solo albums, Terry Hall's understated, evocative vocals has continued to be one of the most distinctive and recognizable voices in all rock music. Now, together with Mushtaq, a UK-based, Middle Eastern musician with a background in hip-hop, reggae and r'n'b Terry Hall has created an album no less groundbreaking and arresting than anything he has done in his career.
Terry Hall and Mushtaq's album couldn't be more in tune with today's headlines, fusing the Jewish and Arabic musical cultures which draws upon the duo's own lineage -- Terry Hall being a Polish refugee with a Jewish background and Mushtaq being a Middle Eastern Muslim.
In some ways, the album is a return to Terry Hall's musical roots (you may recall The Specials' breakthrough hit "Gangsters" was based around a Middle Eastern-influenced melody).Yet, together with Mushtaq, the album breaks bold new ground by creating a stunning topical tapestry of music.
This melting pot of sounds features Jewish Gypsy music (from the group Romani Rad), a Mongolian throat singer, an Egyptian violinist, an Algerian rapper, a Turkish percussionist, a Syrian oud player, an Arabian pianist, and a Jewish Clarinet player whose resume includes being a sessions musician on the original Pink Panther theme. Even Blur and Gorillaz front man Damon Albarn provides guest vocals and instrumentation.
"Everybody we worked with had a story to tell," says Terry Hall. "And their stories became part of the record. We were blessed with the range of people we found. But it really happened by accident."
The result is a remarkable album of breathtaking genre-bending that fuses Arabic and Jewish musical forms, Asian and East European sounds, hip-hop atmospherics and wild gypsy passions, slamming beats and audacious samples. In short, an album quite unlike anything you've ever heard from Terry Hall before.
That in part is because The Hour Of Two Lights is not a Terry Hall solo album, although it may have started that way.
But The Hour Of Two Lights is not a world music record. Nor is it a DJ album. It's not even a DJ album with world influences. "I don't think it fits with anything, really," Hall says. "I don't really know what it is. Or what it isn't." Which, of course, isn't very helpful in a world that demands instant categorisation and easy pigeon-holing. Yet how on earth do you begin
to describe a record that ignores musical barriers and has nothing but contempt for the narrow confines of formats and genres?
"It's nomadic," Mushtaq offers.
"And contemporary," Hall notes.
"But with beats and bass lines."
Yet eclectic as The Hour Of Two Lights is, there is a unifying thread that comes from a shared humanity within its disparate elements. "We wanted to take influences from everywhere," Hall says. "But it's not a bish-bosh of other people's cultures. Everybody had a sense of something in common in their minority and oppression and struggle. In the end, it felt more like we were editing a film than making a record."
Certainly, The Hour Of Two Lights has followed a long and winding journey since Damon Albarn first suggested it was time for Hall to make another solo album and that his own new label, Honest Jon's was the ideal outlet for it. The two were old friends, since the Blur singer appeared on Hall's last album, 1997's Laugh and Hall returned the compliment on Albarn's Gorillaz album.
Yet Hall was determined early on that he wanted to make an album quite different from anything he'd done previously with the Specials, Fun Boy Three or in his subsequent solo career. "I'd been listening to a lot of different music, like Bulgarian choirs and traditional Jewish and Arabic music from all regions and wanted to experience what would happen if they were
combined" he says.
The opportunity arose when he met Mushtaq. Born and raised in London to a Bangladeshi father and an Iranian mother, Mushtaq spent a couple of years in Fun-Da-Mental in the mid-90s, just as the "Asian Underground" scene was taking off. He then signed a solo deal with Mercury. "I've always had very schizophrenic musical tastes," he says. "I was into blues, Sufi musical forms, qaawali, reggae... but I was also producing hip-hop and urban r&b." If he was prepared to play the mainstream game, a lucrative major label career appeared to await. But pressured by the marketing men into a more commercial direction, he grew disillusioned and walked away. "Then I met Terry," Mushtaq recalls. "We got together very casually and initially the idea was I'd produce for him. But we discovered we had so much in common that we became a unit."
"Once I met Mushtaq, I decided to break out of the idea of a solo album," Hall explains. "It developed into something completely different as the two of us played around with different ideas."
Songs remain central to The Hour Of Two Lights's vision. But they're hardly conventional songs. "I wanted to avoid choruses and middle eights," Hall says. "And that was quite difficult when that's what you've been doing for 25 years." As the songs took shape in all their unconventionality, more and more voices were added. Lyrics were translated into different languages, including Arabic, Hebrew and Romany, with music as the esperanto that united
different cultures, traditions and temperaments.
A year in development, the album is also a powerful reflection of the time in which it was made and the storm that was gathering.
"What was going on as we were making the record seemed to make it more and more political," Hall says.
"World events have made the album what it is," Mushtaq adds.
If there is a message behind The Hour Of Two Lights it is a simple but profound one - how do we reassert the values of tolerance, understanding and compassion in the face of a new world order built on greed, aggression and mistrust? "We had something to say, but we wanted to avoid being worthy or preaching and keep the words to a minimum," says Hall. "A line like 'they
gotta quit kicking my dog around' says more than any speech ever could. The message is in the music rather than being literal."
From the haunting opener "Grow", featuring the voice of the 12 year old Lebanese girl Natasha, it is clear that The Hour Of Two Lights is a record with a mission. The journey continues through "A Gathering Storm," a melange of cross-cultural beats on which Hall's voice combines with the Hebrew singer Eva Katzler.
On "Ten Eleven", Hall's voice is joined by Romany Rad, a group of Polish gypsy refugees living in the East End, the blind Algerian rapper Mohammed and Albarn. "Well we couldn't really keep Damon and his melodica off, could we?" jokes Hall. "It's his label." "The Silent Wail" showcases the voice of the Tunisian singer, Abdul Latif Asili, in a performance of pure and unmediated emotion that is beyond mere words. "A Tale Of Woe" features the thrilling female voices of Romany Rad and the mesmerising clarinet of 72 year old veteran Eddie Morden.
There are more gypsy vibes on "They Gotta Quit Kicking My Dog Around," while "Stand Together" has the kind of sinister trip-hop menace once associated with the likes of Tricky and Massive Attack. Finally, the journey ends with the mysterious beauty of "Epilogue," and Hall singing : "In the name of freedom we speak and spell, from a place of reason to the gates of
The Hour Of Two Lights (Honest Jons) is out now.