Penya’s second album is a vibrant fiesta of Cuban-influenced magnificence. It’s wild and untamed and will lift your spirits in a heartbeat. Gordon Rutherford gets all Latin for Louder Than War.
Consider Havana in all its glory. That chaotic, neglected, vibrant Cuban pearl, imperiously facing into the Gulf of Mexico. Brightly coloured buildings and nineteen-fifties automobiles of chrome and two-tone lacquer. The images now affixed in your mind’s eye will be accompanied by a soundtrack. It’s one built upon rhythms that fuse Latin and African, a dance music that firmly resides in Havana’s basement clubs. Music to sip rum to; to sashay and sway to as the beats burrow deep inside.
Such thoughts invariably prompt discussion over the term ‘world music’. Of course, the conventional wisdom is that world music basically encompasses everything that isn’t ‘from round these parts’. Marginally more broad-minded folk predominantly think of it as local to a particular part of the world, like South Africa or South America. It may be Hindustani or Sami folk music. Now here come Penya, a London-based trio, who arrive bearing a bubbling cauldron of global influences. Their eponymous second album is world music from all over the world. Simultaneously. And it comes out sounding, at first fascinating, then utterly delightful, as they fuse these influences from five continents together. Is that even permitted?
Penya first came to my attention when I reviewed Scrimshire’s excellent album from last year, Believers Vol. 1. They guested on one track, Tante Tiempo, and I described them as genre-defying. Now, having heard an entire album of their work, I am even more certain of that description. This is music that evokes different auras with each and every track. Penya’s music travels far and wide, but it is primarily influenced by the sounds of Cuba. Indeed, the band’s name arrived as a nod to the Spanish word ‘peña’, which describes an organised social group who come together in celebration of their local culture, often assigned to collectives of musicians and artists. How fitting, because this album has something of the fiesta about it. It’s heady, upbeat and totally danceable. It’s an album that is guaranteed to lift your mood instantly. It’s also very authentic.
To understand how a London-based collective could so successfully blend the sounds of the world, we must study its members. Firstly, there’s singer and multi-instrumentalist Lilli Elina, who is Finnish. Percussionist Jim le Messurier was born and bred in Guernsey, although studied in the US. And producer/multi-instrumentalist Magnus Mehta is from Watford, the son of an Indian father and Scottish mother. Furthermore, they work with a host of collaborators, most notably the South African/Chilean/North London trombonist, Viva Msimang. Children of the world. Okay, I’m not exactly rivalling Line of Duty here, but I’m picking up some clues as to why their sound might be so diverse. The Cuban thing was initially triggered more than a decade ago, when Mehta relocated to Havana to absorb the music and culture. Upon returning to London, he sought out like-minded souls and, quite serendipitously, encountered Elina, who had also spent time in Cuba studying the music. Around the same time, he met another kindred spirit in le Messurier and Penya was born.
Throughout the album, Penya, augmented and amplified by those aforementioned collaborators, deliver a big sound. There’s a lot going on in here. The album opens with the first single from the collection, Elevation. Beautifully percussive loops draw you in from the get-go. Suddenly there’s a sharp deviation, something unexpected. One wouldn’t ordinarily associate the harp with Latin music, but Penya don’t baulk at bringing the unexpected. The harp of Maria Zofia Osuchowska (Levitation Orchestra) is like a crystal-clear waterfall as it picks its way between the hypnotic rhythms. And then we are introduced, for the first time, to Elina’s distinctive voice. She is singing to the Yoruba deity, Elegua, who is the ‘owner’ of roads in the Santeria religion practiced by le Messurier. By singing to Elegua, you are effectively seeking permission to proceed along the road or pathway. In terms of album sequencing, it’s as compelling a reason for putting a track first as I’ve ever heard.
That strong opening is followed by the inspirational message of False Prophets. This track, about meeting your demons head-on, quotes the famous Cuban proverb, “perro que ladra no muerde” (a barking dog doesn’t bite). What does bite, with some force, is Msimang’s electrifying trombone. False Prophets is a cracking tune and if anyone ever decides to make a movie about nights out in Havana, this stand-out track is the soundtrack. The standard is maintained with Trail Of Awó, the story of two lovers separating. It is hypnotic, with bursts of horns bringing all the drama. Suddenly, it breaks into something quasi-shamanic, a veritable frenzy that narrates this tragic tale perfectly.
One of the best examples of the fusion of global influences on Penya is Baba Meyi. It opens with Indian tabla and, as such, feels distinctly Asian, but then the voices enter. Le Messurier chants invocations in Yoruba and his native French-Guernsey patois. We are globe-trotting here, folks. It slips into something else in the shape of a repeating electronic hook. It’s a little bit chaotic and a little bit industrial and it serves to illustrate a different side of Penya. However, whilst it undeniably demonstrates their ambition and willingness to fuse many different global influences, it consequently felt less warm and intimate as the rest of the album. Form quickly returns in the shape of The Dazzling One. We are firmly back in Cuba for the first half of this track, but then it transforms. Whilst the Latin percussion remains, it becomes more rock-oriented. There’s a scuzzy, hard-bitten vibe that feels like an intruder, albeit a welcome one. It is reminiscent of the way that James Dean Bradfield’s guitar took Massive Attack’s Inertia Creeps in a completely unexpected direction.
We are off on our travels again as side two opens with the intriguing Therapist (Abukenke’s Dance). In part, this more experimental tune feels like it’s emerged from the industrial Ruhr Valley in the heart of Europe. It is Kraftwerk-like in its methodical approach, a feeling augmented by Mehti’s spoken word vocal. “Disarm/Break down/Fall apart/Dismiss”, he repeats as though in a trance. Elina responds in her native Finnish. Very European. Yet, despite that, it retains strands of Havana running through it and when virtuoso Tamar Osborn turns up and delivers a blistering, kick-ass bass clarinet solo, the temperature rises considerably. It’s followed by the album’s longest track, The Lovers. This is a tale of two lovers, deciding to go their own ways. It’s dramatic and tragic and Elina’s voice never sounds better. Viva Msimang adds to the sense of drama with a magnificently mournful trombone contribution. At this point, you realise that every track on this album is like a little vignette. It’s a series of wonderful little short stories, like the prose of Mario Vargas Llosa or Roberto Bolaño, with the music telling the story just as much as the words.
As we enter the home straight, the mesmerising Poco Pelo is awash with le Messurier’s sumptuous Latin rhythms. Msimang’s trombone is once again dazzlingly to the fore on La Mér. Album closer, The World Is Full Of Gentle Souls, is a fragile and shimmering jewel. Maria Zofia Osuchowska returns with that gorgeous harp. Elina sings harmonically, in English, over those glistening notes. Another dimension is introduced. Complementing Osuchowska’s harp is Msafiri Zawose’s enchanting and distinctive zeze. After the fiesta, this is the comedown. It’s a sublime and elegant way to bring proceedings to a close.
As the final bars of this excellent record gently fade, we say our goodbyes to Havana. It’s been quite a trip. With their second album, Penya have crafted a rich and multi-faceted collection, one that surprises and delights all along the way. Of course, it’s not perfect, but it’s bold and vibrant and choc-full of outstanding musicianship.
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.