Ou bien le débarquement désastreux
André Wilms voice
Sira Djebate vocals
Boubakar Djebate kora, vocals
Yves Robert trombone
Alexandre Meyer electric guitar, table-guitar, daxophone
Xavier Garcia keyboards, sampling and programming
Heiner Goebbels sampling and programming
Moussa Sissoko djembe
Recorded June 1994 at Studios De La Grande Armee, Paris
If we have entered into familiarity with these particular offices of nature, if they have acquired the chance to be born in the world, it isn’t merely so that we may offer anthropomorphically an account of this sensual pleasure, it is so that there may result from it a more serious co-naissance (being born together/knowing). Let’s go deeper then.
–Francis Ponge, Le Carnet du Bois de Pins (The Notebook of the Pine Wood)
Ou bien le débarquement désastreux (Or the hapless landing) is another intriguing entry in ECM’s growing Heiner Goebbels lexicon. As a piece intended for the stage, one gets only half the experience, if even that, on disc, though minimal scoring ensures that the text (all of it in French) remains absolute. In this regard, Ou bien… requires only one actor (André Wilms) in the narrative role, and represents a direction that Goebbels has now taken further with his recent Stifters Dinge, which has need of neither actors nor musicians, per se, and relies instead on mechanically controlled “performers,” with Goebbels as their brain.
The present composition is based on texts by Joseph Conrad (from his Congo Diary), playwright and frequent Goebbels collaborator Heiner Müller, and essayist/poet Francis Ponge (from the work epigraphed above). All of these texts intersect at the site of the forest, which emerges as the primary visual field in this postcolonial space. Goebbels ruthlessly combines Senegalese and “Western” musical strands. The former emerges as refined and anything but primitive, while the latter by turns titillates and grates on the ears with its aggressive tendencies. The vivid kora of Griot Boubakar Djebate is the album’s alpha and omega and cuts out, in negative image, a porous backdrop for otherwise opaque texts. The ensemble is completed by instruments both familiar (trombone, electric guitar, djembe, keyboard, and sampler) and not (such as the daxophone, an amplified piece of wood brought to life when a bow is drawn across it). Instrumental interludes are rendered with the rougher textures of guitar and croaking brass. Conversely, the kora cuts through with the smoothness of a scalpel, even if closer inspection reveals a handle with decades of violence burnished into its grooves. Conrad’s diaristic structure contributes to the underlying unease, so that Djebate’s glorious rendition of “Il eut du mal” lifts us only partially from its surface like a scab. The range of emotional registers is pure Goebbels. From the drone of “Dangoma” to the upbeat pastiche of “Haches, Couteaux, Tentacules” and the banal charm of “Le Soir,” this album carries us through a journey as didactic as it is self-destructive, so that by its end we are in a grove of shattered intentions and piecemeal recollections.
In reference to this piece, Rodney Milnes observes: “As in all melodrama there is a conflict between word and note: it is more difficult for the human brain to absorb the two when the words are not simply set to music.” This is precisely what one finds enacted through the colonial process, the mindset behind which seems to bleed through Ou bien…, regardless of whether one understands its texts or not. Such is Goebbels’s gift for evocation. Still, a lack of French knowledge or translations at hand, not to mention of a stage upon which to view the comportment of the work as a whole, gives us an album that is but one reflective facet of a larger crystalline whole. Ultimately, I don’t believe Goebbels so reductive as to reenact oppression through the encroachment of his own musical ideas upon the lineages he exploits therein. Rather, he is interested in the ways in which lingering traces of such oppression may be refashioned into a new mode of speech, one both painfully aware of its roots while also hopeful for an amalgamated future.