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Zen Sounds 056: Holy Tongue
Deep dub workouts from London's experimental underground
Holy Tongue is a three-piece experimental dub band, consisting of Italo-British drummer Valentina Magaletti, electronic music producer Al Wootton and Susumu Mukai – also known as Zongamin – on bass and percussion. Their debut album »Deliverance and Spiritual Warfare« makes me feel as if I’m stumbling through dark caves beneath the misty city, torch in hand, following the call of the drum to some secret ancient ritual.
Wootton, who is more of a disciple of house music, connected with avant-garde drummer Magaletti over their mutual love for a specific strain of experimentalism – dub music, more specifically that period in the early to mid 1980’s when producer Adrian Sherwood widened dub’s scope to incorporate elements of post-punk. Holy Tongue preserve that skeletal, abstract, industrial feel of the records released on Sherwood’s label On-U Sound. »Deliverance and Spiritual Warfare« recalls some of their weirder discography entries by bands like African Head Charge or The Missing Brazilians.
Holy Tongue have obviously studied the Jamaican roots of the sound as well as UK dub and post-punk (think A Certain Ratio or 23 Skidoo), but I can also hear the »Downtown 82«-era’s hypnotic no wave rhythms (think ESG or Liquid Liquid). While Kingston and New York are ever-present through references, the album still captures a very specific London vibe. After all, it’s the city where artists like Digital Mystikz, Kode9 or Kevin »The Bug« Martin pushed the dub legacy forward into the avant-garde. Holy Tongue are building on this fundament.
In a recent interview with Tone Glow, Valentina Magaletti spoke about moving to London from Southern Italy in her 20’s, mainly to be closer to the music she loved – jazz, dub, post-punk and experimental music, basically anything The Wire wrote about. Over the years, the shape-shifting drummer built a reputation in the city’s DIY underground of being an excellent performer and collaborator. Apart from playing in six bands, one of them being Holy Tongue, she’s recorded albums with many different musicians from the experimental world, while also becoming a staple at East London free jazz/improv hangout Café Oto.
Originally conceived as a duo of Magaletti and Wootton, Holy Tongue produced three EPs between 2020 and 2022, released through Amidah, an offshoot of Wootton’s well-respected Trule label. Having explored the core of their musical identity, they are now moving further into the outer realms of their universe. They’ve also added Mukai to the lineup, who had been playing with Magaletti in the avant-pop group Vanishing Twin. On their debut album, there’s Catholic marches (»Saeta«), electric jazz (»Joachim«) and percussive dub techno (»Our Tongue Is Furred By The Slime Of Creatures«). There’s also trumpets and vibraphones and even prepared piano – played by veteran UK experimentalist Steve Beresford (who appeared on a New Age Steppers album in 1981, which closes the loop to On-U Sounds).
This record has everything that enthralls me about experimental music – the adventurousness, the improvisational nature, and the urge to create new and uncommon sounds. Like their sound ancestor Adrian Sherwood, Holy Tongue use the dub framework not so much as a formula, but more as a vessel for the most out-there ideas. Still, their music is extremely enjoyable and – this is more than just a sidenote – the album sounds just fantastic. The crisp, thundering drums and its overall analog warmth make for an exciting listen, especially on a good soundsystem.
Bonus Beats: More Magaletti
Holy Tongue’s drummer Valentina Magaletti might be one of the most versatile musicians of our time – here’s some entry points into her vast discography. Cheers to the Squama team for providing some of these.
»Valentina Plays The Batterie Fragile« (2017), a live improvisation on a porcelain drum-kit (a sculpture by French artist Yves Chaudouët)
»Due Matte« (2020), a wild collage of field recordings and non-instrument sounds with Portuguese avant-garde musician Marlene Ribeiro
»Queer Anthology of Drums« (2021), an outstanding solo pandemic album, piecing together studio and field recordings from her phone
»Intimate Immensity« (2021), the final album of her electronic jazz project Tomaga with musician Tom Relleen, who passed away from cancer in 2020
»CUPO« (2023), a collaboration album with the enigmatic Laila Sakini, »an ode to the free jazz and DIY cultures the two artists rose from«
One more thing
Earlier this year, I recommended the outstanding composition »Repetitions« by Samuel Reinhard. Now I stumbled across a great piece of writing by the Swiss musician: In »How the Desert Taught Me to Rest and Listen«, he talks about how silence, stillness, slowness and repetition enabled him to find new ways of composing and connecting with people over music. Seriously, it’s one of the best reads of the year so far.
»I came to realize that this accumulated and sustained lack of silence in my life had rendered me somewhat incapable of actually listening. Listening is paying attention. When listening, a person hears what others are saying or doing and tries to understand it. The act of just listening is receiving information without mentally composing a response. It seems that somewhere along the way I had stopped listening without instantly reacting. I had also stopped listening to my immediate environment, to my intuition, and to my own incipient ideas.«
© 2023 Stephan Kunze