Boomkat Product Review:
Albums like this don't come around very often. Recorded between 1995 and 2005, "Walatta" drapes Brenda Ray's vocal stylings over a set of percolated, digital riddims, assisted by Tamoki Wambesi founder Roy Cousins, Scientist and Prince Far I, with overdubbed pixiphone, chimes, clavinet, vibraslab, Flexatone, whistle and synths creating a magical, mystical space. A modern classic in our book - bit like hearing Broadcast in session with Augustus Pablo or King Tubby.
Brenda Ray cut her teeth playing as part of DIY pop outfit Naffi Sandwich (as Brenda Kenny, with Paul Catchpole and Sir Freddie Viadukt), combining post-punk and dub and subtly influencing a wave of experimental music in the process. It was this interest in reggae that drew her to The Royals' Roy Anthony Cousins, and during the 1990s she helped him remaster and reissue material from his influential label. During this period, Cousins suggested that she use the master tapes of these roots classics as the basis for a solo album, so she set about dubbing airy multi-tracked vocals and instrumentation (melodica, keyboards, whistle, koto and percussion) over some of the Tamoki Wambesi catalogue's best productions.
It's hard to explain just how well this unusual blend of styles works. It helps that Ray, who handled the production herself, was so familiar with the source material and so reggae literate, so the end result isn't musical tourism, it's pure fusion. Ray's vocals hark back to a magical era in pop history, and she doesn't ever attempt to emulate reggae vocalists, augmenting the bass-heavy productions with something completely different. The tracks feel like 1960s exotica or lounge music shipped off to Jamaica for a summer vacation and dipped in the island's reverb-drenched production nuance before looping back thru the UK. And it's not just her vocals that lift this material into the clouds, it's the library-esque percussion and completely leftfield instrumentation.
On its own, these elements might sound awkward, but there's an unexpected harmonization with the blunted Caribbean backdrop that sounds too perfect for words. Ray's impoossibly clear and sultry vocals rub against triangle chimes on 'Star Light', but fizz into a different universe when rolling xylophone hits at the mid-way point. 'Sweet Romance' is a soft, earworm lovesong that evolves into pure psychedelia when Ray adds koto plucks and synth wobbles over the echoing rhythm. In the wrong hands there's no way this would work, but there's passion and understanding behind this decade-long project - the end result is an album that sticks to its guns so resolutely that there are no duff moments. It links the history of reggae into the gauzy world of Brum lounge experimental darlings Broadcast (seriously we can hear traces of "Haha Sound" right here) and even Andrew Weatherall-era Saint Etienne.