After last week’s post, I figured I’d make good on my own shortcomings by finding an album by a woman, or at least a woman-fronted band, to review for today. I got all the way into the Ms of my library before Kala leapt out at me, and I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about Maya “M.I.A.” Arulpragasam.
If you’re not familiar with M.I.A….well, then I’m not sure what planet or non-radio zone you’ve been living in; “Sunshowers” took everyone hostage in 2004, and 2008’s “Paper Planes” sold 3.6 million copies in the US alone. Of course, you may be in her native Sri Lanka, where her music is banned from record shops and the airwaves due to its open indictment of the government and its handling of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict; but I doubt even that keeps her music out of the hands of the people there.
There are whole books to be written about M.I.A., her relationship to her adopted culture (she was born in London to Tamil parents, moved to Sri Lanka at the age of six months, and returned to Britain ten years later) and the way she interweaves dozens of genres together in her work. I’d love to write a book like that, but I don’t have the space here, so let’s just say that Kala, as an album, is ace. In twelve songs, it incorporates hip-hop, classic punk, electro, jungle, Afrobeat, gaana, nu world, soca, house music, rave music, and Bollywood into a heady mix of noise; the album enfolds you from the inside out.
From the opening of the second track, “Bird Flu”, which is punctuated by a squawking chicken, to the drumbeats of “Hussel” meant to sound like the tapping of hands inside a hull underwater, to the guns and cash registers that stand in for lyrics in “Paper Planes,” the album builds its own environment and deposits the listener inside it. It recreates the poverty of M.I.A.’s upbringing, as well as the raucous joy of it: the children who sing in chorus on “Mango Pickle Down River” must be about eight years old , about the age young Maya was when her school was blown up as part of the Sinhala crackdown on the Tamil resistance.
The jewel of the album is undeniably “Paper Planes,” which exists on so many levels that it’s difficult to tease them all apart. M.I.A. has said that the title of the song refers to a visa – a piece of paper that lets you fly – although she plays with the phrase throughout the chorus. The backbone of the song is provided by a repeated riff from the Clash song “Straight To Hell,” a melancholy song that discusses the plight of young children born to American G.I.s in Japan and China, whose fathers have left and will never return. It’s a song about the West’s abandonment of non-white countries; M.I.A. brilliantly and deftly turns this imbued meaning on its head by putting the sample front and center in a song which exalts the new power of the “Third World” over the old order.
Elsewhere, there’s the hypnotic circular sound of “Jimmy,” a song based on a Bollywood standard that M.I.A.’s mother used to sing; the relentless drive of the opening track “Bamboo Banga,” which always makes me speed when I play it in the car; and the bouncy closer “Come Around,” which suffers from a terrible, off-message cameo from Timbaland but manages to regain its balance. Guest MC Afrikan Boy, a UK-based grime artist originally from Nigeria, drops a fine set of rhymes on “Hussel,” which echoes with the calls of fishermen and riverbank birds before the electrobeat kicks in.
Kala has been described as less radio-friendly than Arular, but in my opinion the album’s much richer for having shed that constraint. It’s a lush collection of sounds that brings you out the other side better than when you began – musically and culturally. Most importantly, it gives voice to a section of global society whose music we might otherwise never get to hear, and for that alone it deserves a place on everyone’s shelf.