J. Mamana :: Nothing New in the West

Shortly after I moved to Providence, an ex-girlfriend was telling me about a kid named Jay. Together, we went to catch one of his shows in a dingy little room above an arts centre. A metal band opened for him. When he finally came on, he looked like the younger brother of Louis Theroux. I remember being impressed that beneath the somewhat obvious Dirty Projectorisms and Vampire Weekendy hooks there were hints of wiser, grubbier touchstones: Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Dory Previn. I can even recall, after the gig, chatting with him about a song of his that reminded me vaguely of Stackridge (it was called 'Cyndi Lauper'). I made a mental note. Later, I would learn that this same kid had hosted Smiley Smile listening parties during his freshman year, giving mini-lectures on each track, presenting them as little tragedies to his fellow students. Regarding the Beach Boys, he now says, ‘Maybe Anton Bruckner is a good comparison...Brian Wilson's work ought to be considered sacred music for a cruel, secular world.’

Nothing New in the West by J. Mamana

The first single off of J. Mamana’s forthcoming debut, Nothing New in the West, is nevertheless a surprise, all mumbly rhythms and fluttery fragments of classical guitar. The indie overlay has been stripped right back, making room for something more airy and peculiar. The song is punctuated throughout by cascades of pining harmonies that keep asking a very Wilson-y question (what it’s gonna take to fit in, how to stop playing the third wheel), all of it building to a crescendo of strings and a plea to tell the truth. It’s a song that manages to sound both minimalist and baroque at the same time. The drums, when they arrive, are orchestra-pit deep. But the most startling thing here is how all of the above gets arranged around a solo piano composition — Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s ‘A Young Girl’s Complaint’ — that makes the song’s hesitations throb with ghostly history.

When I ask him how he came to twin his lyrical dejection with the music of an Ethopian nun, he begins by telling me that growing up near the Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Music Foundation in Washington DC was part of the equation (he is now ‘semi-employed’ in the foundation’s archives). But it was really about her relationship to Americana.

‘What fascinated me at first about her music was that it sounded like the Chopin nocturnes or something. Then I found out that she in fact saw herself as part of this Western classical tradition of Brahms, Schumann, Beethoven, etc. The pentatonic scale used in “A Young Girl’s Complaint” is the same one used by Dvořák and Barber and Copland in their “American” compositions. It’s also an Ethiopian makam. I'd already determined that the record would deal substantially with American music and American imperial history. That history is a global history.’

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou :: A Young Girl’s Complaint

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