Take it as an auspicious omen when you have to google the instruments used on a recording. Many listeners may find that the case with Máscaras, the fourth album by Canadian-Nicaraguan musician Brandon Valdivia, aka Toronto-based Mas Aya. A deft multi-instrumentalist who’s worked with Laraaji, Tanya Tagaq, U.S. Girls, and John Oswald, among others, Valdivia uses the bansuri (a side-blown bamboo flute originating in India), quena (a seven-hole flute from the Andes), and llamador (a Colombian hand-percussion instrument) in addition to tin whistle, thumb piano, and drums. Over the years, he has optimized this unusual tonal palette, filtering traditional sounds through modern technology. On Máscaras, what could have been a glib amalgam of ancient and futuristic tropes in less skilled hands becomes a compelling admixture of unlikely elements, the rare quasi-ambient work to which you can nod your head in tricky time signatures.
The album’s title means “masks” in Spanish, and Valdivia uses it to signify their use in both indigenous rituals and Nicaraguan resistance movements. Opening cut “Momento Presente” fades in with a festive flute aria and then deep, mesmerizing llamador hits; soon the avian-like woodwinds layer and overlap chaotically, creating ghostly shimmers and overtones. When hard claps enter the mix, a wonderful sense of temporal disorientation ensues. On “Key,” a gorgeous drone built around a peaceful four-note progression shows that Valdivia’s time spent with Laraaji did not go to waste. Eventually, drums and oddly tuned percussion—seemingly made out of logs and Tupperware—come in, and we’re transported to a new-age house-music club on a Caribbean beach.
Valdivia is fond of beginning his pieces with intriguing atmospheric drift, as he does in “Villanueva,” and then dropping in beats after a few minutes of oneiric mood-setting, as if to shift your reverie into revelation. When sluggish kicks enter around the halfway point, they launch “Villaneuva” into the ominous trip-hop zones of Scorn’s Gyral. The blissful wind instruments rubbing up against the rugged low end generate an odd friction.
If Máscaras has a single, it’s “Tiempo Ahora,” on which Canadian-Colombian diva Lido Pimienta sings a beautiful ballad over methodical trap beats and dewy synth wisps. But the album’s true peak comes on “18 de Abril,” a Latin American take on Jon Hassell’s sonic dislocations, with hints of Jorge Reyes’ mystical ambient forays and Master Musicians of Joujouka’s 4 a.m. trance formations. The bulbous beats aren’t exactly danceable, but they’re impossible not to twitch to; marvel at some of the fattest snare hits you’ll likely hear this year. Valdivia ingeniously gets his woodwinds to swirl into hypnotic ribbons that resemble the rhaita, a North African double-reed instrument. He also drops in agitated voices amid frantic percussion runs, suggesting intense socio-political unrest. The whole song is druggier than a William Burroughs/Brion Gysin/Brian Jones summit meeting in Morocco. On the closing “Quiescence,” rapid, weirdly tuned percussion bubbles and crackles beneath feathery flute. There’s a wondrous chillout opus struggling to be heard above the rhythmic bustle, and it’s this tension that exemplifies Máscaras’ piquant musical spells.
Valdivia’s alias is a double pun referring both to his grandmother’s Nicaraguan hometown, Masaya, and the Spanish-language phrase “el más allá,” or “the beyond.” On Máscaras, with a masterly blend of earthly and unearthly sounds, he draws a link between his roots and otherworldly points unknown.
Buy: Rough Trade
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