OOIOO are good at having it both ways. The combo was originally a ruse, something that Boredoms drummer Yoshimi Yokota made up in order to have an excuse to bring some friends along to a photo shoot that she didn’t want to attend by herself. She went on to give its name to an outfit that showcased her nascent guitar talents in the company of three other female musicians, two of whom had never played their instruments before. At this point the quartet have come a long way from such amateurish origins – but they haven’t let go of that early naivety.
The title Armonico Hewa combines Spanish and Swahili words that would add up to the phrase “air in a harmonious state” if they were spoken by people who mix words from those two tongues in a sentence. This is typical of Yoshimi’s tendency to mix words from diverse languages and nonsense syllables together with more concern for their phonetic effect than any linguistic meaning. That’s so much the practice here that it’s rather jarring when she warbles several successive lines in English on “Ulda.” Most of the time, she and her confederates chant phrases that seem equally steeped in pygmy jungle chants, jump-rope rhymes, and the joys of shower-stall singing. But however primitive the singing seems, the construction and execution of their call-and-response patterns – which lock snugly into several layers of polyrhythms executed by guitars, synths, and drums – is amazingly tight.
Stylistically, Armonico Hewa’s music veers from squelchy disco to tribal reggae to proggy cartoon-Eastern drone. Their realizations of a particular approach single approach can be pretty wiggy; “Konjo,” with its unfashionable-vintage synth frosting, sounds like an out-take from Genesis’ Trick Of The Tail performed by people trying to sound like funky crickets at the same time that they protest having their butts pinched. The bemusement factor increases exponentially when they run genres together. “Polacca,” for example, feels like the Slits jumbling together McCartneyesque pop and Konono No.1-style clatter. The fact that most of the songs run together so that the album feels like one long suite only amplifies the confusion. But what would be the fun of playing all this stuff straight? By repurposing this music with a child’s lack of regard for history, they make it fresh.