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October 09, 2007
M.I.A. – Kala
I really should have learned by now not to avoid an artist simply on the basis of a couple of tone-deaf televised performances. Unfortunately, that’s what I did with M.I.A’s previous album, Arular, and on hearing the follow-up, could kick myself. Kala is ridiculously good – a bona fide iPod pounder packed with heavy, energetic beats and primal sounds. Previously a visual artist, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam draws on her Sri Lankan heritage and many years spent in London in her effortlessly cross-cultural musical offerings. These are songs that could probably sound strangely at home in both Fabric and her native homeland.
The different sides to M.I.A. meld seamlessly throughout Kala; on the one hand, there are lyrics about shanty towns and border conflict, vocals in unfamiliar tonalities and tribal, militant beats. On the other hand, we have slick production and studio trickery, with mention of Roc-a-Wear models and such. Held taut together, all these elements make perfect sense and whereas on other albums the introduction of Bollywood strings would be the final nail in an overly-wrought coffin, here there is absolutely no cause for raised eyebrows. Next single Jimmy is a cover, apparently, of a soundtrack piece from the 1982 Bollywood film Disco Dancer. My knowledge of Bollywood being extremely limited, I couldn’t even begin to tell how different M.I.A.’s revisioning of the song is from the original. Suffice to say that it provides one of the many golden moments on the album – a track that I could listen to “time and time and time again”.
East meets West in every song on Kala. The album kicks off with Bamboo Banga, a relentless beat onslaught, featuring vaguely-tuned vocals with lyrics that bear more than passing resemblance to Jonathan Richmann’s US-punk classic Roadrunner. Elsewhere, $20, with its chorus of “with your feet on the air and your head on the ground” borrows fairly liberally from the seminal Pixies track Where Is My Mind?, but adds mesmerising vocals and synths that plough deep furrows through the song. An inescapably political album, here M.I.A. asks: “Do you know the cost of A.K.s up in Africa? $20 ain’t shit to you, but that’s how much they are”, where on Hussel, Afrikan Boy repeats “You think it’s tough now-ow-ow-ow, come to Africa” before going into more detail about the hardships of life in the economically developing world. It’s half a world away from the slick and superb, but somewhat less socially conscious, music of the Timberlakes & Furtados. However, producer extraordinaire Timbaland lends his Midas touch for final track Come Around, an insanely catchy slice of daft vocalising, warping flourishes and the obligatory call to “bounce”.
Mango Pickle Down River is probably the most multi-layered song on Kala – the one that takes several listens to penetrate its meaning. With a background of didjeridoo and drums, M.I.A. raps about life by the river, joined by an Aboriginal youth project under the name of The Wilcannia Mob. Distracted by the hypnotic ‘didge’ at first, the kids’ lyrics can take longer to really notice. One boy tells the listener: “I’m with a gang and I’m almost 10” in an accent virtually unheard in England. This song, possibly more than any other on Kala, illustrates the inventiveness of Maya Arulpragasam; searching outside the automatic musical comfort zone for inspiration in different lifestyles, continents and philosophies. I defy you to feel bored while listening to M.I.A.
This review first appeared in Issue 1 of the Warwick Boar