The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, October 18, 2002

Why were Trans-Global Underground never massive; why are they now largely forgotten? Were they too worthy, too Charlie Gillett/Jools Holland, for the masses or the credible few? Or did they represent, along with Fun’Da’Mental and early Cornershop, a route for British pop music which the white boys quickly came to clear out?

Perhaps it was just bad timing, but their 1993 debut album Dream Of 100 Nations seems to contain within it the seeds of many future developments and has never been properly celebrated. In 1993 it was, along with A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnite Marauders, the most frequent occupant of my Walkman on the daily Oxford Tube commute. It put one in a good mood on a Monday morning, cleared away one’s mental cobwebs, ready for the week’s challenges.

Bad timing? Their debut single and Annie Nightingale-championed anthem, “Temple Head,” which also opens this album, came out in 1992, two years too late to become the supra-baggy hit it would otherwise have surely been. Certainly on a par with anything on Screamadelica (and that’s a compliment, incidentally), it is instantaneously uplifting, the opening of a curtain on the world. Samples of singing Polynesian women are deployed throughout the album to provide the hooks under and over which the multiple rhythms undulate most pleasingly. Note the first of a series of sci-fi film samples, “Watch the skies! Keep looking!” The subtext? Aliens are coming. Oh yes. Remember that this music was contemporaneous with the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Absorb what they were actually saying.

And Big Beat? Do me a favour – here are its seeds in the impossibly propulsive “Shimmer” (with a joyous rasping rap from TUUP) and dense “Sirius B,” both dense, danceable pounders of which the Chemical Brothers should still be envious. Fatboy Slim, incidentally, is invented on the latter. After nine years, both are remarkably undated. “Slowfinger” casts an eye back to ’88 acieed – a house groove with a joyfully descending bassline, answered by an ecstatic chant.

Things slow down for the sensuous “I, Voyager.” Sparse piano echoes over a spacious groove. An unknown colonist (Laurens van der Post? Gerald Durrell?) is sampled: “The wind blows warm from Africa, and we are happy.” And enter, for the first time on the album, Trans-Global Underground’s real star, the great Natacha Atlas, who bestows her ghazal vocals with great grace, answered by the deep, lascivious voice of the mysterious Neil Sparkes (some at the time said Chas Smash).

“La Voix Du Sang” decorates a (Hebrew?) lamenting contralto with a “White Lines” bassline; again the cumulative effect is irresistible. “El Hedudd” is the most conventionally constructed song on the album – indeed it perpetually threatens to break into Seal’s “Crazy” – and its main point seems to be to showcase Atlas’ warmly transfixing vocals to fine effect.

Next comes a measured lament, “This Is The Army Of Forgotten Souls.” The title (spoken by Charles Middleton) is sampled from Laurel and Hardy’s 1931 short Beau Chumps and is undoubtedly the second best L&H sample used in popular music. A desert choral lament is sensitively policed by a cautious rhythm and is periodically broken into by a No Wave orgasmic female voice/distended guitar sample (Karen Finley?).

“Earth Tribe” reintroduces the sci-fi samples to underline the political point of this record (“Another world is watching us at this moment”). Space is momentarily cleared before the massed chorus joyously barge their way in, shadowed by Atlas’ own ecstasy. This sounded especially elevating when passing Park Royal of a morning; a glimpse of greatness to come. “Zombie’ites” is spikier; TUUP, Atlas and Sparkes all vie for dominance on this track, all tonal registers covered.

And if initiating Big Beat weren’t enough, hear the amazing “Tutto Grando Discordia.” Over a pleading Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sample, the tonalities gradually shift out of focus and harmony as narrator Zahrema tells of his cosmic visions, straddling the edge of the cosmos and his living room. Atlas again articulates what words cannot. The woozy distension of this track foreshadows the full-scale exploration of this emotional arena by Earthling on their Radar album two years hence. Still disturbing.

After that, it’s time for the big climax, and what a finish – “Hymn To Us,” which contains the best Laurel and Hardy samplke ever used in popular music. Even now I defy anyone not to be moved and shaken and elated if they play this at full volume while coming over the Westway at six o’clock on a spring morning, the sun rising, seeing London spread out before you as Oliver Hardy proclaims, “Now I see it all,” and the orgasmic massed voices burst into a mantra of pure celebration over an unending 6/8 groove which realigns your heartbeat. In the right circumstances it can still stop your heart.

It’s a magnificent record. Inevitably they never really followed it up. Their next album, 1994’s International Times, featured noticeably less Atlas (by then concentrating on her excellent solo work; see her albums Diaspora and Halim) and rather too much of the wearisome-over-a-long-stretch Sparkes. And of course it wasn’t really pop; wouldn’t have gone down well in the Good Mixer in 1994, even though if Albarn came across it now he’d be down on it like one of Alfred Lambert’s customised squirrel traps.

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