Review and Interview: Ibrahim Alfa – Hidden by the Leaves – Workshop

Review and Interview: Ibrahim Alfa – Hidden by the Leaves – Workshop
A while ago Ibrahim Alfas Hidden By The Leaves saw its release on Workshop, an album that got considerable attention, not least because of the interesting story behind it (you might have heard before that it is a collection of lost tracks produced for Move Ds long-gone Source Records imprint around the year 2000 and Ibrahim Alfas first release for a very long time). With some two months available and frequently consumption the perception of the record changed from at first focusing primarily on the music’s age and time of creation, trying to recognize the late nineties in it, checking if the sounds are dated or timeless or whatever (sometimes suspecting the whole story might actually be a fake) to then just listening to the music itself quite unprejudiced. And this listening experience made quite clear that Hidden By The Leaves does not only stand the test of time from making to release but also (in the end maybe even more important) from first to fiftieth listen. It is indeed an amazing and unique record, untypical in some ways (starting with the tracks length as they are untypically short), strangely enough even untypical for Ibrahim Alfa himself as his (numerous) other releases at that time were quite different. Black Mask, the flickering first track (not counting the thirty seconds of Find Your Way Home), with different sounds from harsh to soft appearing and disappearing and a slick but somehow unsteady groove illustrates a certain odd quality of Hidden By The Leaves, the absence of what is generally known as "flow", a coherent vibe or groove that makes an album pass smoothly and relaxed; there’s on the contrary lots of twisting, shaking and sometimes stuttering, rough cuts next to sublime harmonies that altogether creates a spectacularly intense and thrilling thing that might challenge but never tire you. There’s Full Black, No Stars, an ambientesque piece that would fit Kompakts Pop Ambient series, no beats, but a melancholically beautiful falling melody with a remarkably abrupt ending and there’s Clip My Wings, a dark whirlwind of hectic technoid rhythms and floating synths, there’s the warm buzz and reduced funkiness of Drifting, with additional clattering beats appearing for the last 20 seconds, just so, as an extra spice. And it makes you think "you wouldn’t normally do it this way" so often and that’s just marvelous. Alfa drops Electro, Techno, House and Breakbeats just the way he wants and if you’re a classification-enthusiast you might not get happy with this album. If you’re a fan of courageous curating: here you go, as Workshops Jens Kuhn (aka Lowtec) did a great job in selecting the tracks (read the highly interesting interview with Ibrahim Alfa below). So Hidden By The Leaves indeed turns out to be a fantastic collection of tracks with a lavish use of ideas you can listen to 20 times without noticing every detail. And there’s a strong feeling that all the attention the album and Ibrahim Alfa got in the last months is well deserved. So "Hidden By The Leaves" is obviously one of the albums of the year. 2000 or 2016? Never mind. Praise the generally praiseworthy label Workshop for bringing this out (on the other hand Workshop might praise their lucky star for getting this stuff into their hands). Written by João Geck Interview with Ibrahim Alfa talking about the past, the present and the future. Questions by João Geck. IbrahimAlfa_500x500 Q: The story behind the release of "Hidden By The Leaves" is an unusual one as is kind of a lost (and obviously rediscovered) album from the late 1990s. When did you make the record and why didn’t it see its release back then? And did Workshop bring it out as it was or was there some post-production? A: Yeah it is a fairly different story I guess... I started making that bunch of tracks back at the end of the 90s when I was around 19/20 and continued between doing other releases and running my labels etc until about the end of 2001. There was a batch of 22 altogether from those sessions that sort of fit together as a complete piece, however for this record eight of them was the choice that Jens made. I left it too his judgement to pick what fitted best for him and what Workshop is about and I think he did a good job. For me personally it would have been really difficult to be objective as it was more than half my life ago and it would have been difficult to pick what would have best expressed what i wanted to relate then and not have the selection clouded by my personality now and how I have changed over the years, which would have defeated the point of the music. There was no post production bar the regular mastering process that was to make the tracks all sound at a linear volume across the release rather than anything else..... Initially there wasn’t even that which totally amazed me. I had imagined that the recordings wouldn’t sound good at all now but when the original cut came back, Jens decided that it would be a good idea to do. Which actually really impressed me as it showed what I in fact already knew, he is absolutely about the music and making sure that each release is as good as it can be regardless of extra expense or timescale. A lot of other labels wouldn’t have bothered with another cut and pushing the release back a few more months. For me after all these years a few more months made no difference at all and it would have been a real shame to have "cut corners" at the end of the road. Q: "Hidden By The Leaves" offers a lot of different sounds and a quite independent-minded view on Techno and House Music. What were your inspirations and influences back then when you created it? A: My inspirations back then were just to be being ME and not to be contriving to fit into any specific niche. I was pretty young when I started recording the tracks and had been running my labels Automatic and Semi Automatic for a while and by the time I had finished I had released probably 20-25 EPs for other people as well and had been doing my live set pretty much continuously around Europe. I very rarely DJed, maybe one out 50 gigs was a dj set, so i guess with hindsight my understanding of the dancefloor-homelistening issue with techno was pretty different to some of my peers that DJed every weekend and perhaps only went to the studio to record here and there. I was naively obsessive with Techno being what Jeff Mills is often quoted as saying "something you haven’t heard before" and though I didn’t ever want to disrespect people that came to my gigs or bought my records by willfully making music that wasn’t accessible I did definitely aspire to make music that at least wasn’t pastiche or aimed specifically for clubs or home. And at the time the Techno scene was drifting towards a lot of producers making DJ tools for their DJ sets, which is great if you need that but I think that the idea behind those tracks was lost on some artists coming thru and combined with the advent of software packages that enabled people to bypass the process of shaping fresh waveforms or programming drums and just string together a load of preset samples, dump them into sequencers tricked out specifically for that purpose and done...That kind of defeated the entire point of every I loved about techno in the first place, the infinite nature of synthesis. In fact paradoxically techno seemed to be becoming everything that I found banal about a lot of culture…predicable. So I found myself only really listening to techno at gigs rather than every spare moment like I had done for the decade prior and though my live sets were for the dance floor, my studio recordings began to evolve on a different path I guess. Q: The (enormously) late release of "Hidden By The Leaves" even more proves the records amazing timeless quality. How do you feel about the album today and how does the album stand the test of time for you personally? A: Thank you, that’s really kind of you… To be honest the fact that that seems to be the view of so many people is wonderful. It’s hard to actually articulate for me personally, I was always under the belief that during the time that I had put in my 10000 hours and was as comfortable with my ability as I was going to be. Being part of the No Future Brighton thing back then was always amazing but also having peers as talented as the rest of them meant that personally I never had much self belief in my ability, at least in comparison to them. It wasn’t as if I was really competitive or whatever, I was always about doing my own thing as I think we all were - it was more that Cristian Vogel for example is, be it techno or any type of music, a total genius for all times. And Jamie Lidell, look what he has gone on to achieve! I was like the youngster of the whole crew and constantly worried that my productions lacked the same quality, perhaps not always in terms of melody but in terms of mix down, innovation, vision etc... When I wrote these tracks I finally thought "well yeah you know what that stands up okay", I was like 75 percent happy :). However after all the time had passed I was expecting them to sound really dated and the mix to be weak... David (Moufang aka Move D) always, always said it was a great LP but, I have to admit, sometimes I even thought he was just being kind. So when folk send me messages to say they love it and can’t believe that it was written so long ago, I feel happy. It was really not the type of sound that people were focusing on at the time either, techno in my opinion had lost that special thing that I fell in love with, the ability to delve into the infinite and make something totally unique. Sometimes I’d sit with my synths on my lap and just shape waveforms for weeks before even making a track and in the end i used some studio techniques that were perhaps kind of new. I don’t want to suggest that I pioneered them as I am sure that they had been being used by others before and better but I did stuff such as recording all the separate channels out of the analog into Logic and cutting and editing them before putting them back together, sort of chopping and screwing the tracks after I had written them and sometimes writing the track specifically for that reason. I also had just started using Max/MSP and pluggo a lot, and I find that when I get hold of something new I often get better results from it than when i have read the manuals and studied the "normal" suggested way of use. I used OctaMED as sequencer for some of the tracks and the rest the Akai Mpc 2000, my Korg Prophecy and MS2000 and the Z1, Roland SH-09 and cut up the audio in Logic running on my PowerBook G3.... almost unreal to think of now. But sometimes it’s better to use stuff like that, I think today it’s easy to get into all this readymade software and it really for me anyway defeats the point in everything… buying a load of other peoples sounds is like buying someone elses character. I don’t think this would be acceptable in any other form of music and sadly it will eventually be the thing that renders a lot of techno totally banal, people seem to be able to buy a style for themselves now rather than make their own way and it means that they never get a proper depth of understanding about the music. I am amazed when I meet people that claim to be a producer or blahblah and have a whole array of kit but don’t even know the first thing about what their synths actually do… they just think "oh, I want to make a track like "insert popular track of the month"" and download construction kits to do so. Back then even if you wanted to get a sound similar to something someone else had done because you liked it, it wouldn’t be exactly the same due to the nature of synthesis being infinite and often the mistakes you would make learning became part of what defined your sound. For me listening back to old stuff is funny, I cringe, I smile, I laugh, I reflect, I remember... like if you look at old photos or read an old diary, I guess. I am proud that I didn’t compromise myself and kept on with what I believed in and really grateful to the people that never doubted me. Trust me, I doubted myself A LOT...but, outside of the Brighton lot, DJ Pierre from Stammheim (bless him), Dan and Kenny from Monox (now Dixon Avenue Basement Jams) and of course David never ever flinched. I’m just really happy that after all this time people have got to hear it and seemingly really get some joy out of it. But there were a lot of clubs and labels that were happy to book me if I played a "certain" type of style but wouldn’t back a lot of the music I made around then unless it was out and out club trax... which I understood but also felt was perhaps a little short sighted and also not what I was about. I mean, obviously I would play a track like Past Is Past in my live set and they wouldn’t even let me put out stuff like that on B-Sides of my records... Now flash 20 years forward... my live sets from then sound dated as hell, just boom boom rave music, and I can’t bear to listen to them. It’s been great fun times and the sets always seemed to do the job, but "timeless"? Even the most generous souls would be lying if they described them as that, where as I think Hidden By The Leaves is not my sound today but I’m okay when people say it’s timeless. I hoped that it wouldn’t just be good for a season and the 20 year old that wrote it all those years ago did alright I think... He would definitely be happy to know that even though it took so long finally people got it. Once Carl Cox reviewed one of my records and called it "future music we will never catch up...", hopefully people have now. Q: You have been out of the whole music business for quite a while so it’s particularly interesting how you see the development and changes in House Music and electronic music in general over the years. What do you think about the new sounds and artists especially from England and who is interesting to you? A: Yeah, I hadn’t made a track for maybe seven years, until 2013. (Actually I think I did in fact record some tracks but when I was in jail once someone stole my macbook that they were stored on and that was the end of them. I can’t remember if they were any good so that probably suggest that they weren’t :)) I spent a long time not even listening to electronic music, oddly at the same time that the rise of things such as Youtube were making it easier to discover music in ways that had never been possible before. When I quit I was 26 and I think Youtube was a year away. I willfully paid no interest to the whole scene at all. One of my girlfriends actually had no idea that I had made music until we were on holiday in Berlin for my 30th birthday and she came across an IBRAHIM ALFA section in a store 🙂 Well, that took some explaining :). I think apart from everything else that was going on in my life at the time I had become totally disilliusioned by the whole industry and felt that I was faking it by playing these clubland live shows at weekend but my personal vision was totally disjointed from that. I sometimes felt like making a track that was danceable but sometimes I felt like making a track that you could listen to in your car or kitchen even… the idea that you had to make just one style seemed to be the total opposite of what I loved about techno. Anyway, now I think there is so much amazing new music it is wonderful, truly wonderful. Genres mashing together and merging into something new, totally new genres appearing and disappearing in the continuum almost over night… its amazing. And the fact that you can just post your ideas out there without a care in the world on forums like soundcloud and link up with likeminded people from all corners of the globe - this wasn’t even a dream when I was first putting out records as a teenager in the 90s. There is of course a downside in that, with good there must be also bad, and there is a lot of crap out there too... and I fear that the cult of celebrity has infected House and Techno as much as any other art form, perhaps even worse in some cases. The idea of DJs "playing" pre-recorded playlists whilst throwing cakes at their audience just defies belief to me. I still can’t take that end of the whole thing as being real...when I see pictures of EDM raves I just feel confused, like the fable of the Emperors new clothes come to life. Being social media savvy, pushy, easy on the eye, connected and having a budget to invest in tech seems to be the requirements to make a well paid career out of music these days which is a shame for the next generation as they don’t have enough time to develop their sound and style because they can’t devote their lives solely to music without funding from elsewhere (usually wealthy parents), which in turn narrows the demograph of people getting heard above the noise of the stream. However saying that, with the chance of making a career out of it being less viable now for people, it means that newcomer that aren’t trying to be next EDM superstar and a bit of the track have nothing to lose by or gain by not being totally true to themselves and they have a forum to get their music listened to. I would like to see some of the bigger labels that actually still remain taking some chances and signing fresher acts rather than this fad of getting an established producer to remix a pastiche of some thing from yesteryear and I think its a little worrying that the same 50 or so DJs seem to be non-moving from the headlines of events where artists in some cases young enough to be their grandkids get overlooked. It doesn’t bode well for keeping the next generation interested. Also, when I go out, I see some scenes that were kind of forward-thinking 15 years ago have just not progressed anyway and kind of become a bit banal. However on the whole I have much more positive than negative thoughts about everything right now. I’d like to see some new takes on everything but I’ve always been a bit contrary like that 🙂 Who interests me personally of the top of my head: Chicago guys RP Boo, Traxman and all… they are really nice guys too, Kavain is a real gent. Happa, the wunderkind that he is, Hyperdub always seems to put out stuff that’s interesting and Mike at Planet Mu, I don’t know how he does it.. what great taste.. Also the rebirth of R&S over the last while has been great, watching James Blake for example from his EPs for them thru to working with Beyoncé now... imagine that 20 year ago. Personally I think that is what it is all about…no pigeon holes or boundaries and for all the cake throwing stadium tedium on one side the opportunity to do what ever you believe in a share it with like minded people is amazing. Q: And, of course: what are your plans for the future? Will there be new music from you? And what about your label Oyabun Audio? A: Well, I am always churning out music right now, more than I ever have in fact, doing my live act and DJing again, though I have been spending the last few years kind of working out what I want to say and how to express it I feel that I am as ready as I ever gonna be now. The label is about just giving the voiceless a voice, about releasing unique artists no matter what. I am really happy with the back catalogue already and have some good stuff coming up. A new LP from my infinite black project called SPARK is coming out in July and a ton of new EPs that I have been working on... literally a ton. Also I am about to start on a project with a singer named Gloria and I’m excited to see how that works out. But basically... yeah, I am back now and enjoying music again more than I ever have. Thank you. You can BUY Ibrahim Alfa - Hidden by the Leaves, released on Workshop HERE from whatpeopleplay.com.

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