8 August 2019
It’s entirely possible that, in spite of the outrageous originality and stellar musicality abundant on Moken Nunga’s 2016 debut album Chapters of My Life, you may not have heard of him. If you had, you would almost certainly know it. His distinctive warble on tracks like “Wild Wild Ways” is as recognizable as his storytelling panache on songs like “A Bone to Grind with Einstein”.
Chapters of My Life, though, hardly tells the whole story. With each track ground down to three or four minutes, how could it possibly give the artist mononymously known as Moken the space his richly bizarre imagination deserves?
Enter Missing Chapters. Made up of reworkings of previous tracks alongside new songs, it clocks in at a whopping hour and a quarter, where Chapters of My Life was a mere 36 minutes. Songs are anywhere from four and a half to eight minutes long. Moken’s increased creative control is evident not only in terms of quantity but also in quality. Gone is the sense that each song has been smoothed into stylistic submission in order to reach out to fans of café soundtracks. Here instead is a series of unpredictable jam sessions bolstered by Moken’s newfound sense of freedom.
Now, more than ever, Moken is the definition of idiosyncratic. On the slow-paced opening track “Your Sun Is Rising”, his voice dramatically flutters between falsetto and baritone against a background of sweet, easy acoustic guitar, stripped-down percussion, and long, vaguely dissonant trumpet lines. In its dance with classical guitar, the flute that leads “Sometimes” recalls the Afro-Portuguese-Caribbean palm-wine music originally found in West Africa. Moken comes from Cameroon, though many of his songs draw inspiration from his time living in Detroit and his current home base of Atlanta. “Yen Nin” has a spacious guitar opening reminiscent of Malian bluesmen like Ali Farka Touré, but a body of synth-laced dance beats that makes it an endearingly quirky highlight.
“Machine Man” and “Walking Man” both appeared in short and poppy renditions on Chapters of My Life, but here have a more satisfying sincerity. “Walking Man” is lyrically brilliant in its simplicity and calls for the dignified treatment of the economically disadvantaged: “Never look down / On a walking man… / He’s homeless / He’s shoeless / He’s sleepless / He’s careless.” Over-the-top romance sweeps through the violins of “Mi Amor” but is quickly tempered by jazzy basslines (on Malian ngoni, no less) for something of an iconoclastic ballroom waltz.
Later, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (not a cover) has achingly long electric guitar lines tied in with the usual mix of acoustics, synths, percussion, and vocals. Funky “Retro Africa” sees Moken namedropping Fela Kuti and Manu Dibango, along with their respective movements, and adds complexity to the intentionally puzzling trumpet lines. The album’s final track, “Sing the Song”, is as delicate as the ever-irrepressible Moken gets, a call to worldwide harmony that features sax, flute and voice all traveling along similar melodic paths in a joyful, jazzy romp alongside strings and drums.
In the end, of course, writing about music can’t capture the visceral experience of listening even in the simplest cases – and Moken is about as far from that as it gets. No genre can contain him, be it Afropop, jazz, or indie folk rock. He is all of those things. He is none of those things. He is a troubadour who stands alone, and on Missing Chapters, he finally tells his stories entirely his way. That way may not be to everyone’s delight; it’s certainly the musical road less traveled. But to hear Moken singing his truths is undeniably delightful.
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