Stonebwoy: Le Gba Gbe (Alive) Video and Anloga Junction Album Review – Steve Topple For Pauzeradio.com.
Stonebwoy has just released the latest video to accompany a track from his Anloga Junction album. Not only is it musically and visually stunning, but it makes some searing political and social points as well. Which, when put into the context of the album itself, is perhaps the best way to encapsulate that, too.
Le Gba Gbe (Alive), released via Burniton Music Group (under exclusive licence to KV Online LTD) is a masterclass in how a music video can, if in the right hands, essentially be a short film in terms of its visual depth and thematic breadth. Directed by award-winning Ghanaian film maker Rex, La Gba Gbe Alive’s video has three components: the scene of a massacre; a visual, enslaved representation of where Stonebwoy metaphorically used to be in life (a place many of us are still at), and sequences of where he is now (a place where many of us should be). As a whole, these represent the overall message of the song: that we can break free from the mental (and sociological) slavery the system keeps us trapped in.
There are distinct cinematic contrasts between the three parts of the video. The massacre scenes are shot in shadow with orange hue; Stonebwoy’s enslaved segments have been edited ‘as night’, filled with shadow and dark but with fire being the central colour focus, and the emancipated sequences are during the day with high colour saturation. Rex appears to have shot these purposefully, to represent the process of both social and spiritual emancipation: the shadows in which we hide when we’re under the control of the system; the slavery we experience when we dare to try and break free, and the eventual light we walk into once we are truly liberated.
Symbolism representing staying true to one’s roots, in this case Stonebwoy’s ancestral home of Anloga, is littered throughout the video: a woman braiding his hair; cattle farming, village scenes and overall, its location, too. The theme of emancipation is also symbolised, for example with the statue of Ghanaian boxer Azumah Nelson. La Gba Gbe’s video also makes points about the merging of traditional and modern worlds (a theme of the whole of Anloga Junction) – not least Stonebwoy and his ‘hairdresser’ wearing bright, modern suits juxtaposed with traditional African jewellery.
But the film has distinct political overtones as well. The statue of Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka coupled with Stonebwoy’s wearing of a tactical double military vest nods to the almost war-like struggle for emancipation. The weapons used by the massacre victims are old and outdated – nodding to Africa’s colonial past but also symbolising the corporate and system-led colonialism the continent (and society more broadly) is still forced to live under. A victim’s rings are repeatedly focused on, symbolising not only the corporate and colonial pillaging of Africa’s minerals and precious metals, but with the red one – courage.
It’s a stunning piece of art, laden with symbolism – and a perfect encapsulation of La Gba Gbe’s message:
But moreover, it also acts in conjunction with the song as a strong opening for Anloga Junction as an entire project.
Le Gba Gbe (Alive) kicks off the album – and immediately sets the tone for what follows. It’s a clever and intricate fusion of Jamaican-influenced Afrobeats meets more traditional African music, from producer Mix Master Garzy. The bass takes a traditional Dancehall clave (‘oneeeeee-twooo-and’) repeated x 2) but only uses it once in a bar, being imitated by the kick. Regals horns fill a more traditional Afrobeats role. The percussive lines are in part Afrobeats, with the snare hitting the two and four, plus the off prior. But there’s also a nod to the more traditional, with the use of a delicate balafon line. The mix of lilting acoustic guitars is heavily juxtaposed with their electric counterparts, which have been run through a wah-wah pedal and had their envelope messed with – to make a growling, almost clavinet-like sound. And Stonebwoy’s impassioned and searing performance is a joy to behold. He effortlessly glides across his range, using intonation to hammer the song’s emotive message home. As he cries about the system as an enslaver:
“The vehicles in the lead carry no goods for market…”
But moreover, his flipping into a husky, delicate falsetto is pure grace. Powerful and stirring stuff.
Next, and African Party moves the album into less-heavy subject matter; this mixture being a mark of Anloga Junction as a whole. The composition is an interesting, Afropop creation. While being bass-heavy, it doesn’t get bogged-down – due to the arrangement of the percussion, which is back on a broken Dancehall clave but focused just on the snare and hi-hats. Those electric guitars have been ‘wah’d’ again (especially the bass) but less so; a clavichord tinkers and a bending synth flute just adds to the club vibe. The whole arrangement is unfussy and smooth, matching the title:
African Idol takes us back to more traditional African music, with its rasping horn arrangement, use of fluttering djembe, hang drums and a cow bell. The multi-layered, harmonic backing vocal arrangement adds to this. But again, Stonebwoy has smashed it with some Afrobeats/Dancehall sensibilities: specifically, the slightly distorted bass and kick, which are both rounded and booming. But what’s of note is that again, the production is such that nothing feels overbearing. The cleverly arranged bass line is a key driver in this, as it’s stripped back to almost a background role, generally only hitting on the first and last beats of a whole two-bar phrase; highly unusual but put to very good effect, here. This spacious, air-filled feeling is a constant across many of Anloga Junction’s tracks – and means not only is Stonebwoy’s music fully accessible, but his often-inspired lyrics are allowed to thoroughly shine.
The track Ever Lasting is perhaps the first proper, full-on modern Afrobeats cut of Anloga Junction. And it’s a masterful piece of work, but still in keeping with the less abrasive sound of its predecessors. All the keys elements are there: that stuttering percussion, rasping synth horns, a smooth string arrangement and some pointed synths. What impresses most is the vocal arrangement, though: highly harmonised, tightly performed and exceptionally well-delivered.
Nkuto, featuring Kojo Antwi, is a smoother, richer toned track still – bordering more on the ‘Afroballad’ than ‘beats’. The gorgeous staccato then drawn-out string arrangement is central to this, as is the returning balafon. These pull back the momentum of a track which actually has a fairly rapid BPM – and percussive lines, using the usual offbeat phrasing, to match. Stonebwoy’s singjay is particularly impressive on Nkuto, reaching eight syllables a second at one point. And Antwi has got a delicious voice: rich, full of expressive intonation and a gliding resonance which juxtaposes brilliantly with Stonebwoy’s more frantic moments. Gorgeous.
Nasty C joins Stonebwoy on Bow Down. It heads into Trap-influenced Afrobeats with the prominence of the hi-hat buzz rolls and a grimy, angry bass – making an intentionally prominent growl on the first beat of the fourth bar of each phrase. It’s the first track to properly drive hard on the beat, with the bass on a drop beat rhythm and the kick following suit, emphasising the first two beats of the bar, with a double hit on the first. It’s a real South Africa-meets-Ghana affair, as the pair bounce off each other’s vocal performance. Moreover, the main melody is utterly infectious, and the whole thing is an impressive hybrid cut.
Only Love carries Anloga Junction into Afrobeats-RnB territory with a glossy, pared back arrangement. The bass is still the driving force, but it’s been delicately arrangement so as not to overwhelm the track. It drops beats at certain points, but it’s also been engineered to give a rich, rounded and low-passed tone with the dB down just enough so it doesn’t dominate over the rest of the instrumentation and Stonebwoy’s vocal. The percussion is Afrobeats, again – but it’s counterbalanced by a synth organ. This prominent line treads distinctly RnB chord sequences, bringing some blissed-out vibes along with it, and giving a smooth feel to the whole track. And Stonebwoy shows another side to his voice, again – restrained, soulful and sensual, not forcing any part of the track in keeping with the sentiment. And a touch of a Blackstreet-like vocoder finishes this Afrobeats-RnB perfection off well.
Grammy nominee Keri Hilson comes on board with the hit Nominate. It’s clear to see why it’s already got nearly 1.5m views on YouTube alone. The track is a driving, incessant yet airy affair; and the first non-Afrobeats cut of Anloga Junction. It’s driving percussive force is the snare on constant rim clicks, hitting a combination of off and on beats. The heavily syncopated, drop beat bass has been arranged to be the lightest so far, running around delicately beneath the rest of the arrangement. But it’s a synth organ which hints at the genre that’s inspired the arrangement. Because it often breaks into a bubble rhythm, pointing to the Reggae vibes which have met some almost Soca ones to create Nominate.
Hilson has lost none of her power over the years – and the collab with Stonebwoy was an inspired move, as the pair have a natural synergy both musically and in the accompanying video. And there’s a political hit in the latter, as Stonebwoy give the award for Miss Worldwide to “Miss Africa”. Slick:
Journey sees Stonebwoy move into straighter RnB territory, with some nods to Africa included, not least the balafon which is a persistent feature throughout, running on dotted rhythms. Those snare rim clicks are back, once again taking the track away from Afrobeats (where the skin would be the snare’s usual sound of choice). The bass is again on a broken Dancehall clave, and electric guitars are included on a mix of chords and chromatic riffs. Horns then come in later on, doing responses to Stonebwoy’s calls. This African-RnB track is tightly done, and the message – that whatever life may throw at you, it’s a path you’re treading for a reason – is nicely delivered, with Stonebwoy once again showing his versatility with well-executed vocal runs.
Alicai Harley, the Jamaican born, UK-based artist who made huge waves in the industry last year, puts her mark on Understand. She’s a huge talent, the track allowing her to showcase her soulful singing voice, running and riffing across her register, as well as her sharp and pointed singjay; at times effortlessly gliding between the two. It’s another Afrobeats RnB-driven cut, with the video being filmed in the UK:
Critical, featuring Zlatan, is Anloga Junction’s winding foray into Soca-based music – and Stonebwoy does it exceptionally well. The percussion is the driving force: snare rim clicks and skin hits roll-out a classic rhythm, with their ‘(one)-and-twooo-and-(three)-and-(four)-and…’ riff, with the former filling in additional breaths with rapid fire rolls. The kick is persistent on every beat, although the production is such that the dB is engineered just right so it’s not overpowering. A bass is similar in this respect, on a double time but broken riff. Tom-toms and cymbals finish this off. Meanwhile, lilting acoustic guitars perform double time arpeggio chords consistently across the track. There’s also the inclusion of a wooden flute on a repeated melodic lick. It’s relentless. It’s grinding. And Critical is the perfect direct nod to Soca on the album.
Diamond Platnumz and Stonebwoy deliver another Afrobeats-RnB cut in Black Madonna, with a flowing and sensual arrangement and production. Although at times this vibe has been nicely juxtaposed with some stabbing horns and pointed musical breaks, giving some edge to the smoothness.
Meanwhile, the on-top-of-his-game Jahmiel is due to drop his new EP in June. But his mixing of Afrobeats/Dancehall with conscious work to this point has set him street’s ahead of other artists. So, Stonebwoy’s decision to team up with him on Motion is an inspired move – and has paid off in droves. The Afrobeats-led cut sees the genre’s percussive tricks mashed up with those Trap buzz rolls, again. The bass is fairly syncopated, which leads the momentum, helped by incessant synths and the snare. And the narrative, about how, despite what life throws at you, humble self-confidence and faith in Jah must prevail – is endemic of both artists’ ability to mix the banger with more thoughtful, message music. Pertinent and potent.
Anloga Junction heads to more Trap-infused vibes coupled with Afrobeats on Good Morning, featuring Chivv and Spanker. The distinctly grimy, distorted bass dominates the track – on a three then five-beat riff. Percussion is offbeat Afrobeats stuttering-led. Keys runs around the treble clef, and these and the vocals are heavily reverbed, with the former being somewhat compressed at times, to make them feel almost outside of the track. But again, the message of the music shines through, as the three artists lament how Jamaica is a microcosm of our society’s, and the system’s, problems:
The album concludes with Strength and Hope. It is, when positioned in terms of Anloga Junction as a whole, a revelation. It shows Stonebwoy’s prowess as an artist, as the track moves direct into modern Roots territory – and he is equally as comfortable here as he is across the Afrobeats-led cuts. All the usual Roots devices are there: keys on a bubble rhythm; a syncopated, bass on a drop-beat riff; the drums pushing a one drop; lilting acoustic guitars and a lush, resonant melodica. But the inclusion of an additional piano line, which melodically tinkers across the track at points, lifts Strength and Hope up and to the side of Roots into something more ballad-like. And the track also shows Stonebwoy’s versatility. He oozes rich, resonant vocal skills, moving effortlessly across his upper range in a passionate praising of Jah. But his singjay is just as impressive: rhythmically intricate, with clever use of repetition and crystal-clear, forthright enunciation. Strength and Hope is a perfect, moving conclusion to this expansive project.
Anloga Junction is perhaps Stonebwoy’s seminal work. Sweeping across genres, it’s a musically intricate and exceptionally well-constructed piece of work with clever use of production to create a wholly unique sound. The selection of artists from across the world, coupled with a matching mix of African and other, worldwide genres, also fits Anloga Junction’s overall message of personal strength and unity well.
But Stonebwoy is the most compelling part of the album. His versatility shines, as does his passion for his craft and the subjects he discusses. This enthralling star is shining all the brighter this year. One of the strongest projects of 2020.
You can download or stream Anloga Junction on your preferred platform here.
Images courtesy of Listen Up Music Promotion, used with permission. Stonebwoy La Gba Gbe (Alive) Video and Anloga Junction album review by Steve Topple (30th May 2020).