Nga Han: The Living Stream Chapter One Album Review by Mr Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
Nga Han is a gifted singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist. His debut album, David Stone, showcased this well. Now, with his second full release he takes his musical and spiritual journey another step further.
Nga Han The Living Stream Chapter One (referred to here as “Chapter One” throughout), released via Roots Unity Music, sees Han team up with Dutch talent Uta Maruanaya from the label, as the pair co-created the album. The latter also performed much of the instrumentation: drums, piano/Rhodes, guitar, bass, organ, percussion, melodica, synths and trombone. Other notable musicians include the Swedish producer Maxie Freeman on guitar and percussion; Ras P’s organ; King Cooper performing both flute and sax; drummer Bunnington Judah; guitarist Milan van Wingerden, and Han himself providing some of the additional percussion, too. Overall, the small team involved in the project means that the sound is rich and consistent throughout – creating a lush, immersive vibe across 10 cuts featured on the CD and 8 on the vinyl LP.
The album opens with the main title track. It perfectly sets the tone for the entire project, as The Living Stream is a deep-dive into rich, intricately orchestrated Roots with some lush additional touches. The keys are a perfect example of this inventiveness. The left hand focuses on a choppy bubble rhythm, high up the bass clef (or in the lower treble if you prefer), while the right runs a dotted note-led melodic line – taking a staple Roots musical devices and thoroughly embellishing it. Meanwhile, the drums perform a straighter one drop, with the kick and snare focusing on the two and four with hi-hats running consistent quavers. But the bass avoids the usual Roots arrangement: instead of a drop-beat riff it hits every note with syncopation in between. The combination of the rhythm section here is a forward-moving yet steady sense of momentum; a musical mimesis of the track’s title. Then, Han and Maruanaya have brought in a wealth of additional instrumentation to complement this.
There’s a wonderful interplay between Cooper’s flute and Maruanaya’s trumpet, as they share melodic response duties to Han’s vocal calls. Seemingly improvised, the quality of both is high – and again, the use of rapid-fire riffs and glissandos juxtaposed with more drawn-out notes encapsulates the title perfectly. Additional percussion includes a cow bell, shaker and slide whistle. All this rippling additional instrumentation puts a layer of bubbling chaos, like a river’s rapids, on top of the meandering stream-like movement of the rhythm section. But what’s also so smart about The Living Stream is that it works around only the C minor root chord, never shifting from this. In another musical setting, this would be difficult to pull off. Yet because of the interest created by the keys, flute and trumpet you barely notice the static chord. Once more, it’s mimesis of the eternal movement of a river that rarely stops. Then, Han finishes this clever composition off. He contrasts the musical arrangement by working around a limited selection of notes, generally starting from the fifth and then working up and down. Han sticks to mainly dotted notes, creating yet more fluidity. Lyrically, he’s delivered a thought-provoking narrative about the nature of existence and how we interplay with our species, the ecosystem and the planet – all the while under Babylon’s eye. The Living Stream is a highly impressive opener and sets the standard for the rest of the album.
Great Honor sees Chapter One’s sound move further forward. Here, Han and Co. have created something more traditional Roots – but still with a high level of attention to detail and variation on this. Its Funky Soul opening is deceptive, as it quickly settles into its other genre. Keys run a bubble rhythm, but here with less syncopation and melodic variation in the right hand than previously. Guitars complement this by doing an incessant skank. But at times both cut out entirely, creating some musical breathing space. The bass is once more on an ‘every beat’ riff, swerving between arpeggio chords and its own melodic line; notably engineered to be nearer the front, aurally, of the instrumentation than on the title track. But on Great Honor, the drums are more detailed than the title track. There’s almost a mashed-up Steppers four-to-the-floor going on, as the kick sounds like it’s doubling up on consistent quavers; hi-hats runs dotted rhythm while the snare, still focusing on the two and four, adds huge amounts of syncopation and rolls in between. They drive the track forward at a pace, giving an almost Steppers feel to the beat.
Then, once more Cooper’s flute and Maruanaya’s trumpet perform an interplay with each other – but here the sound is more melodic with elements of something Funkier thrown in. That slide whistle is back in the percussion along with bongos and the appearance of a vibraslap. And on top of all this, a melodica features, running an attractive countermelody to the main one – filled with vibrato and tight runs and riffs, working around its higher register. Han then complements this fast-moving and intricate arrangement perfectly. He slows his melodic line down somewhat, allowing dotted notation to flow across the pacey instrumental lines. Once more, he doesn’t over-embellish the melody, having created a memorable chorus and some intuitive verses. His bridge two-thirds of the way through moves this forward somewhat, going up his vocal register. Lyrically, he’s created a compelling anthem extoling the virtues and ‘honour’ of being of the Rastafari faith, but also the responsibility that comes with it. Overall, Great Honor is an interesting and attractive piece of work.
Next, and Jah Alone shifts Chapter One’s musical focus somewhat – but still with this now recognisable musical intricacy. The sound here is more stripped back, but with the detail being in the arrangement. Drums again seem to lean towards Steppers – but with the kick reining itself back to striking every beat. Hi-hats perform a rudimentary, double-time rhythm. But the snare is heavily syncopated – going into beat two with a buzz roll, then filling in the space before beat three, pausing, and then coming back on the third offbeat and filling across the four. It’s a clever move, creating a frantic feel which juxtaposes well with the other instrumentation. The bass is on a fairly static, dotted note riff that works predominantly around arpeggio chords. An electric guitar skanks, while a secondary guitar lines whines riffs towards the end of certain bars which then lead into the next ones. The keys operate on a bubble rhythm at times – but this, like the snare, strays from a traditional arrangement. Instead, as well as the usual four offbeat chords, they add in additional dotted quavers and semiquavers.
This focus on the rhythm sections marks a shift on the previous tracks. But still, across Jah Alone there is nice additional instrumentation. The slide whistle seems to be intent on featuring across every track; there’s some good use of what sound like synth horns, which run flowing semibreves across bar at certain points – and the inclusion of a running water sample is a lovely touch. The overall arrangement is good, too – with the peaking and troughing on the instrumentation creating stark breaks which then gradually dissipate seeing all the lines return. Han is more pronounced across Jah Alone – using notation that’s more staccato in length. Again, he pares-back the melodic embellishment (moving a similar pattern up in three tone steps); instead opting for rhythmic intricacy: taking a basic motif and then embellishing it as the track progresses. But he also shows some nice inflections of Soul with some decent vocal riffing. Lyrically, Jah Alone is fascinating and thought-provoking. He’s cleverly contrasted man’s musings on the universe and our existence (note the repeated references to theoretical physics) with the idea that actually, everything in our existence is from ‘Jah alone’. It’s a compelling narrative backed up by a very well-executed musical plain – and is one of those tracks that needs to be played repeatedly to appreciate the depth of it.
Chapter One’s next track, Hear The Call, marks a definite shift in the album – moving into more soulful, smoother territory – utilising the first and only major key of the album, with a vocal from Han to match. After its blissed-out, meandering opening it is still ostensibly Roots in some respects: keys run an intermittent bubble rhythm with end-of-the-bar riffing in the right hand, and the drums are more stripped-back, finally settling into something nearer a proper one drop. There’s a clever use of the bass here – once more, hitting every beat but this time mimicking the main melody’s rhythmic motif but across its own, fairly picked melody. Meanwhile, one guitar line mimics it at points while skanking and additional riffing also features. Overall, the rhythm section is choppy and precise – creating a feeling on movement against the fairly slow BPM.
Cooper’s flute is once again central, here feeling like a riffing Blues electric guitar in terms of the complex syncopation and melodic use of blue notes – but also incorporating woodwind techniques like flutter tonguing, too. Hear The Call is once more percussion-heavy. The vibraslap is used particularly well at a rapid pace; a triangle joins in and the slide whistle fast becomes a consistent, signature feature of the album. For the first time we hear Maruanaya’s Rhodes, as well. It runs smooth, semibreve chords in the most part – but in doing so adds an additional layer of almost ethereal harmony across the track before Maruanaya adds some riffing high up in the treble clef. Once more, the overall arrangement is well-constructed, having natural ebb and flow. Then, Han has adapted his vocal style accordingly with some soulful tinges coming in. Of note is his tight use of crescendo and decrescendo across one syllable and one note – bringing pleasing peaking and troughing, along with a breathier delivery overall. He works around a basic melodic and rhythmic motif, which he then embellishes as the track progresses. Lyrically, it’s a stirring track about the resolute faith and certainty we all need to acknowledge in life, trusting that despite what Babylon may throw at us we need to stay fixed on the righteous path we tread: “let your heart not be troubled, even though the tensions rage”. Classy works.
But Hear The Call’s more upbeat vibe quickly dissipates with the next track, Zion Place. From the off, it’s clear it’s musically the most brooding and unsettling cut of Chapter One so far, working around its A minor root and the seventh below it. Musically, it’s also a distinct hybrid of numerous genres. The track has its basis in Roots, with keys on a bubble rhythm and drums settling into a one drop, with some additional syncopation – notably the hi-hats performing triplets at several points. The bass finally moves to a drop-beat rhythm, skipping the three here. Rhythmically, it once more matches the main melodic line – but melodically its more stripped back and ominous, working around one note for the first group of semiquavers, before doing a downward run at the end of the bar. An electric guitar does brief riffs, too while utilising a skank as well. This persistent rhythm section is to the fore of the track. Then, the additional instrumentation has been engineered to fall dynamically behind it – but with a very distinct style, too.
There’s almost something of the Synthwave going on – as the other lines across Zion Place feel very dystopian. Rasping synth horns (or are they strings?) are prominent, running a countermelody to the main one and taking you back to the 80s. The melodica does a lovely interplay with the sax, as the two instruments weave in and out of each other with intricate runs and riffs. What sounds like a clavichord is also involved; the now-signature additional percussion plays its part and more synths cement Zion Place’s eerie, unnerving vibe perfectly. It should be noted that the engineering is central to this, using peaking and troughing decay across the lines as well as compression to create this dystopian sound. Then, Han’s vocal is in keeping with the rhythm section: tight, unfussy yet pointedly delivered. He works low down his vocal register, keeping the melodic arrangement sparse but rhythmically adding in variation to the basic semiquaver arrangement. His delivery is clipped, punctuating each syllable and with limited use of runs and riffs. The background vocals are clever, layered one octave higher without harmonisation – compounding the unsettling feel. It finishes off the otherworldly aura perfectly – and allows Han’s lyrical content to shine. There’s a curious narrative, here – because it in some respects stands in contrast to the brooding musical backdrop. Han provides a commentary on elevating one’s self and one’s spirit above this world’s constraints to a point where you’re ready to reach “your happy place is Zion place; in a time and space beyond the boundaries of race”. But it also serves as a cautious warning to the non-believers, that the end times are fast approaching, as “prophecy consummate, history gon’ tell the tale, to not be there so late”. Overall, Zion Place is something quite inspired that lingers with you long after the track has stopped.
Frantic Mess sees more work in a minor key, but here with an overly pacey Roots vibe. The drums represent the title well, here, as the hi-hats are performed slightly open therefore the sound is elongated, creating a chaotic feel as they strike the offbeats. The snare is running a semiquaver-led, offbeat focused rhythm while the kick hits the two and four. This ‘frantic’ arrangement is a brilliant representation of the title and drives the track forward. Then, the bass is on a double time drop-beat rhythm, skipping the three the majority of the time. The keys’ bubble rhythm is fairly persistent, but at times cuts away to create a sharp intake of musical breath amid the rapid arrangement. The usual suspects of the additional percussion are present, with the slide whistle being particularly effective. But for the first time proper, the horn section is the secondary focus.
There’s something of the Ska about its swaying, swaggering arrangement – running between straight crotchets, their dotted brothers and rapid semiquaver cousins. Good use of crescendo and decrescendo is used and the cautious-sounding melodies embed the thematic content well. Then, Cooper is back but this time on the sax; no mean feat being able to perform both woodwind and brass instruments – but he pulls it off with aplomb, especially across the solo bridge. His use of the instrument is akin to a vocalist, with excellent phrasing, use of dynamic light and shade and a pleasing vibrato – topped off by a well-executed, rapid fire countermelody to Han’s around two-thirds of the way through. Meanwhile, his vocal expands on Hear The Call’s more Soul-led interpretation – with plenty of cleverly-applied crescendo and decrescendo, but as with Zion Place working lower down his register. Lyrically, Frantic Mess is a damning indictment of the human cost of Babylon’s system and how those of us who are conscious must navigate this. It’s an affecting track with some smart musical mimesis of the subject matter weaved throughout it.
The next track, Holy, is almost Augustus Pablo in its Roots construction because of the secondary focus being on Maruanaya’s melodica along with the unfussy arrangement of the rhythm section. The Roots vibes are more focused here: the keys’ bubble rhythm, the bass on a drop-beat, missing-the-third riff, the drums running a straighter one drop than previously seen, with some end-of-bar embellishment on the tom-toms and the electric guitar’s skank. The Rhodes comes back in again, too – at times running an attractive countermelody high up its register along with an embellished skank across chords. But the main focal point is Maruanaya’s melodica.
What stands out is that first off, the engineering has made the instrument have an almost ‘other room’ feel to it: it’s nearly out of earshot, sounding like a lamenting voice calling out in the distance. But the engineering is such that you can still fully appreciate Maruanaya’s performance. He essentially gives a full vocal line in accompaniment to Hans. On the verses, he focuses on the space towards the end of each bar, filling in responses to Han’s calls. Then, on the chorus’s he plays a second melodic line which juxtaposes against the main vocal one perfectly. But this construction is merely the basis of Maruanaya’s work – as his skill with the instrument is strong. He has full control of the dynamics, with peaking and troughing crescendo and decrescendo and a lovely vibrato. There’s some extremely well-executed flutter tonguing-like sequences which would, if on manuscript, be demisemiquavers running between semitones. He also makes good use of the instrument’s range, and two thirds of the way through there’s a clever rhythmic interplay between it, the keys and the Rhodes. It’s a wonderful performance from Maruanaya – complemented by Han’s sympathetic and reserved delivery, allowing both of the artists to share the musical space equally – while lyrically dealing with the importance of humble faith and spirituality in the face of Babylon, organised religion et al. Overall, Holy is one of chapter One’s strongest tracks, and would be perfect for a Dub version focusing solely on Maruanaya’s melodica. Genius.
Then, Live Life Love moves Chapter One into a richer sounding area, thanks in part to the intricate chord progressions based around a D minor root key but utilising various tones in between, including an attractive major fourth-major third sequence. This is coupled with some intuitive overall arrangement, seeing the instruments stripped back to basics at points before they’re weaved in again. Also, the focus overall is on the rhythm section’s lower register – which creates a rich, deep sound. This overly Soul arrangement works well against a backdrop of Roots musical devices and a fairly pacey BPM. Here, the bass reverts back to hitting every beat across a syncopated, melodically winding rhythm – which is one of the main driving forces of the track. Keys run a bubble rhythm, but this time it’s lower down their register creating a sense of depth. An electric guitar wah-wah’s the bass’s motif, adding some grit. The drums are back to a more involved arrangement but now avoiding a one drop – the main focus being the snare’s military-style buzz rolls beginning on the third offbeat and running into the fourth, with the kick hitting the downbeats, giving a harder edge to the rhythm (note a sequence two-thirds of the way through where the keys drop out, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d dropped in on a Funky Hip Hop cut). There’s a nice secondary guitar line which does some Bluesy riffs across the track. But on Live Life Love, the secondary main focus is the Rhodes.
You’d be hard pushed to find an instrument Maruanaya hasn’t mastered. Because here, he once again gives a rousing performance across the instrument – using it to perform an almost vocal line. Its main riff is a cleverly constructed, semiquaver-led affair which flips between a tone-jumping melody and vibrato’d chords. This is utilised on the track as almost a part-chorus, where Han strips his vocal back to just vowel work. It works extremely well – and brings more life to Han’s vocal. Here, he’s kept some of those previously seen Soul sensibilities but upped the ante in terms of rhythmic delivery – focusing on dotted quaver/semiquaver-led sequences and some melodic runs starting on the fifth from the root. He’s also delivered a lyrically empowering narrative about maintaining righteous focus on what’s important in life, avoiding the pitfalls and distractions Babylon would have you fall into. Overall, Live Life Love is perhaps another stand-out track.
Covering is a stuttering, choppy affair with a bold, Funky Soul opener containing the kick hitting every quaver beat, which stands out from the rest of Chapter One. It soon settles into Roots territory – with a sharp, punctuated bubble rhythm on the keys including some nice additional riffing in the right hand, and a double-time skanking electric guitar line which forces the track to constantly surge forward. For the first time on the album, the bass does a partial one drop: missing beats one, three and four on the first bar of its phrase but hitting all of them on the second. It serves as a one drop should: creating anticipation and breathing space at the beginning of a musical phrase. The bass is also very picked, building on the keys’ staccato performance. Drums are slightly more one-droppy again, but very stripped back in terms of arrangement. The beat is actually driven more by the double time hi-hats and the bongos that rattle in the background. An attractive secondary guitar line performs some nice responses to Han’s main vocal calls. Additional percussion returns with the vibraslap doing its thing along with a washboard. Han himself is affecting – creating a pared back yet pointed vocal arrangement which hones in on the start of each first bar (to utilise the one drop) then focusing on the latter half of the second bar. There’s a lot of rhythmic variation, here, while he works around unfussy melodies. His performance marries with the instruments perfectly: clipped with crisp enunciation. Lyrically, it’s insightful and thought-provoking and overall, Covering is an interesting piece of work.
Chapter One closes with Nazarene: an affecting and haunting ending to the album. It’s perhaps the most overly Soul track of the album: if you removed the keys’ bubble rhythm and the electric guitar’s skank it would barely be Roots at all. The track’s chord progressions are particularly pleasing, working between major and minor variations. Also, the length (over seven minutes) works well – because it allows all the musicians to shine in their individual way, with some excellent, seemingly improv sections. The bass is fluid, removing the picking and becoming far more legato with a riff that extends across every beat. Drums are swaying, with the hi-hats running syncopated dotted then straight rhythms and the snare hitting the two and four. The kick meanwhile avoids a one drop, hitting the previous offbeat in the preceding bar then the one direct, and repeating this on the three. But it’s the additional instrumentation which gives Nazarene its soulful feel.
Ras P’s electric organ runs extended chords that shift with there relevant progressions, immediately creating flow as well as some riffing along the way. A secondary electric guitar lines performs delicate riffs, while the Rhodes tinkers in its middle-to-upper register. At times, the keys break away from their bubble rhythm to perform a solo line. Once more, the melodica is central – working around its own arrangement which weaves in and out of Han’s vocal. Maruanaya has given a strong performance once more, particularly in terms of the variations between staccato and legato notes, to create light and shade within the arrangement. Han is at his affecting best (note also his backing vocals which operate an octave lower than his main line), delivering a performance that’s endearing, engaging and delicate, too. There’s something capturing about his use of musical phrasing, here, which makes it feel almost improvised – grabbing your attention. Lyrically, it’s a compelling and thought-provoking narrative around who Christians would know as Jesus and Han’s own views on this person. It’s a strong end to the album and one that shows the skill of all involved.
Overall, Nga Han The Living Stream Chapter One is a strong and highly commendable offering from Han, Maruanaya and the team of musicians involved. It has something of the late Vaughn Benjamin and Zion I Kings about it, in terms of the rich, detailed and classy musical arrangements coupled with Han’s sensitive performances and complex, engaging lyrical content. Given the quality of the album, it will be interesting to see where Han goes next.
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Nga Han The Living Stream Chapter One Review by Mr Topple / Pauzeradio Pr Services (27th July 2021).