Timbre, texture, instrumentation – these are oft-overlooked aspects of music, especially in the West with our longtime focus on melody and harmony. They’re critical though – often what causes a listener to prick up their ears can be a single sound, the crunch in a particular chord and drum-hit, rather than a flurry of tone poetry. And similarly, challenging listeners with instrumentation and timbre can be immensely rewarding. This is the way in which Duma succeed with aplomb on their self-titled record. The duo’s unique blend of industrial, noise, grindcore, hip-hop and afrobeat is at once indebted to their hometown of Nairobi, Kenya, whilst equally drawing on an international tradition of making nasty, unrepentant noise. The passages of blastbeats don’t pummel here, however. Instead they explode from a mélange of hissing samples and howling screams, attempt to rain down blows whilst fighting the other instruments in the mix, and then slink off, leaving us scrabbling, grasping for more.
Having an album that’s mesmerising and punishing in equal measure comes rare enough, but the level of invention and talent on this record makes it nothing short of exceptional. ‘Omni’ is a spectacular blend of trap and metal that goes hard AF, no matter from which musical world you read it – nu-metal this is not. ‘Lionsblood’ as a follow-up is perfect, as the brooding hi-hat clicks are exchanged for pounding toms, which simultaneously evokes the drum circle and the incessant, unerring pace of work, the commute, life at large. The hissing, cicada-like electronics throughout this album similarly recall both the stifling atmosphere of Kenyan nights (a fitting adaptation of the tremolo riff for a hot environment), and the modem-gone-wrong buzzing that now haunts the technoworld’s collective psyche.
When we take our focus away from the drilling electronics which are this album’s fundament, Martin Khanja’s vocals really shine. From guttural lows to piercing highs, he brings an eerie, unnatural sound to the music which takes this record to the next level. Right from the off there appears to be a desperation to Khanja’s voice; on the track “Corners in Nihil” his first utterance is a throat-ripping scream, laced with venom and driven by immense power. Throughout the record there is an unrelenting physicality and plenty of pitfalls for the on-the-fence listener, with the pair at points creating a monotonous loop of sound, designed for discomfort and perseverance, but with the addition of a single texture this (dis)harmony is broken, and we’re once again thrust into the slithering fray.
What makes Duma such an intriguing album, and something to keep revisiting, is that it gets more complex; each listen reveals more layers. On the surface it may just feel like noise having these screeching vocals placed over the top, and ultimately you’d be right in your boring, deflationary assessment. Upon digging deeper, it becomes obvious how meticulous this production is, with every beat, bar and sound rigged together beautifully. This is the frontier of music, the very bleeding edge. It’s music for nomadic technodesert wanderers, struggling along in cobbled-together war machines (in fact, it is a war machine in itself). Duma have pushed the dial here, and you would be remiss to ignore them.
Duma is out now via Nyege Nyege Tapes and can be purchased here.
Words: Tim Birkbeck, David Burke