Rarely does an album-title incorporate the name of the band that made it, whilst describing so literally its inspiration. After releasing the adventurous EP compilation Locked By Land in 2011, Sydney five-piece Jinja Safari’s lead-singer, Marcus Azon, travelled to the hometown of his grandmother – Jinja, Uganda. The journey proved to be one of discovery for Avon, who, in an interview with SMH, reflected;
it was very shocking. And it was a whole big mecca, going to Jinja, the source of the Nile, and to see my grandma. The band has totally changed my life, and she’s a big inspiration musically and lyrically for the group – SMH
It comes as no surprise then, that much of their self-titled, debut LP feels like an extension of, or a reflection upon these experiences. Traditional instrument samples from his journey also feature heavily in the album, although they are not always granted prominence within an already expansive musical and thematic vocabulary.
Jinja Safari’s alternate afropop aesthetic is apparent from get-go, with a dynamic African drum section driving the structure of opener ‘Apple’ in an interestingly melodic fashion. The vocal work in the opening verse recalls early Vampire Weekend, however, the intricacy of the percussive patterns make the sound altogether too ‘junglefied’ to be wholly derivative. The opening tracks are not always jubilant in atmosphere, despite their overt danceability, which is comparable to the amicable, but ironically negative, situation Avon finds himself in during ‘Dozer’; “I could buy you a drink, if you’ll lend me some money.” In ‘Toothless Grin’ the triumphant melody and percussion are again contrasted with Avon’s listlessness, “Is this me? Am I stuck? Am I running out of faith?” One suspects following the uplifting jam that concludes ‘Oh Benzo!’ that he’s reclaimed a fair slab of hope.
A distinctly spiritual ethos is evoked in the wonderful ‘Harrison’, with the incorporation of Indian instrumentation inevitably igniting some kind of holistic interpretation in the listener. The appeal of the song lies in the way that these foreign sounds contribute to what would be a deeply emotive sonic wash regardless of their inclusion. The acapella refrain halfway through the song is a profoundly bittersweet frame through which one’s most blissful, indestructible memories with sunlit friends can be re-seen; the mythical connotations evoked by the sitar award them the idolisation they deserve. The album’s first half concludes with ‘Just One Thing’; the slowest, most tender song of the collection. Avon acknowledges having “charcoal in my throat” (ouch!) at its commencement, but (rather thankfully) is able to “on any day of the week breath in”, by the time the Bon-Iver-esque crescendo has reached its climax.
The second half of Jinja Safari is introduced by a return to their idiosyncratic afro-pop-rock sound, with the uber-catchy ‘Mombassa On the Line’ incorporating African flute in conjunction with euphoric, guitar-lead “Oheeyea!”s. In ‘West Coast Rock’ the impressionistic themes of the album’s latter half are introduced; a Fleet Foxes-like vocal air carries Avon’s comparison of a failed-love’s skin to rocks into a dreamy swathe of phasing synths, soft, ascending bass and children’s laughter. The album’s first single, ‘Plagiarist’, follows, and it seems out of place. Firstly, because it would fit more comfortably among the lighter-hearted opening songs, but mainly due to it being void of some of the imaginative qualities which define the album. It retains some of the afro-beat elements present in other songs, but holds none uniquely, and none in an ambitious way. In saying that; the daintiness of radio audiences’ ears probably justifies its inclusion.
A delectable, narrative atmosphere is created by ‘Source of the Nile’, which is rather ‘Lion King’ in its passion. Avon proclaims that he’ll leave the source only “when I’m ready”, which, in light of the song’s enriching tone, leads one to assume that he left extremely satisfied. The final two songs are equally as powerful; ‘Walls’ dealing with existential issues over some fairly foreboding orchestration. ‘Bay of Fires’ exemplifies the mixture of African percussion and modern rock qualities that typifies Jinja Safari, as Avon concludes that “it’s out of your hands” as a form of encouragement, as opposed to dismissal.
Ultimately, it’s the interplay between, and combination of, traditional and modern sonic forms that make Jinja Safari so enjoyable. It allows the music to personify a kind of middle-ground sought by Avon in its opening track; “no-one respects you when you’re young. No-one believes you when you’re old”. Despite their at-times-derivative tendencies, Jinja Safari create something that is both refreshing and reminiscent, via their inclusion of elements atypical of music that is either as danceable, or as meaningful, as theirs is.
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