Ricardo Villalobos: Thé Au Harem D'archimède

One might have expected Ricardo Villalobos to capitalize on the enthusiastic acclaim lathered on last year's Alcachofa by releasing a somewhat similar follow-up. How surprising, then, to find him thwarting expectations so audaciously with Thé Au Harem D'archimède (“Tea in the Harem of Archimedes”). Oh, it's not as perverse a move as Phoenicia's Brownout, say, but certainly there's no 2004 equivalent to “Easy Lee” or “Waiworinao” (perhaps the label change—Playhouse to Perlon—has something to do with it). With the tracks largely bereft of melody or theme, Villalobos dives ever more deeply into percussive gumbo and leaves accessible hooks behind.

With the album's nine tracks ranging between six and fourteen minutes, there's no surprise the material unfolds in its own sweet time, with the pieces typically founded on mutating drum rhythms of South American, Chilean, or African origin. Villalobos comes across as the patron saint of conundrums here as, strangely, the material sounds both primitive in its rootsy origins and sophisticated in the pristine sheen the tracks exude; these are mystical, free-flowing organisms that emanate from distant galaxies as much as they burrow to the surface from below. In addition, there's a meandering quality to them yet at the same time their trajectories evidence a surreptitious yet organic logic; a prime example is the aptly named “Serpentin” which extends across ten minutes with minimal bass throbs nudging the percolating house rhythms ever forward.

The radical change from Alcachofa is evident immediately upon the advent of the low-key opener “Hireklon.” A brooding low end of clapping rhythms and clattering patterns unfurls for three minutes until languid plucks and strums appear, alternately sounding like they're generated by harp or Spanish guitar. Raising the mood slightly, the spirited techno march “ForAllSeasons” finds Villalobos's brigade traipsing through the jungle and unexpectedly encountering a tribal gathering of chants and drum duels. Even more unusual is “Théorème D'archimède” with its almost exclusive emphasis on rhythmic hand-drum patterns; replete with birdsong, the piece eventually segues into a faux-fusion episode of muted trumpet accents and drum hammerings. While deeply humming bass lines and percolating house beats in “Miami” suggest a return to the spirit of Alcachofa, the closer “True To Myself” appears to challenge the move. In this protracted meditation, an entranced voice muses “I want to be true to myself” throughout the song's fourteen minutes to the accompaniment of jazz-tinged piano abstractions and burbling rhythms. Should we interpret it not only as a defiant manifesto of personal integrity but a related justification for the perplexities of Thé Au Harem D'archimède?

Oh, yes, that title (whose translation reads “Tea with the Harem of Archimedes”). The “Archimedes' Principle,” devised by the Greek mathematician and physicist (287-212 BC, native of Syracuse, Sicily), refers to 'buoyant lift': When a body is immersed in fluid, it experiences a buoyant force equal to the weight of fluid it displaces. Analogically, then, the pressure inhering within music is matched by a corresponding expansion 'outside' the music that gives it an enormous volume or multi-dimensionality—or at least that's one interpretation. Given that Archimedes contributed to the development of integral calculus, perhaps there's some mathematical connection too. An entirely different reading connects the title to a similarly-named book by Mehdi Charef that charts tensions experienced by second-generation Arabs living in 1980s France. No matter. What does matter is the seventy-five minutes of music and, in that regard, maybe the Brownout analogy isn't so far off the mark after all, as Villalobos, like Phoenicia, fosters a mystifying and enigmatic conception that's carried through uncompromisingly from beginning to end. 

December 2004