Roger Roger Ensemble
Afro, Spooky






Afro, Spooky is a record full of funky vignettes released in 1972 on the specialized Southern Library Of Recorded Music label. Envisioned by the Roger Roger Ensemble comprising of Roger Roger (1911–1995) plus his longtime collaborator and friend since early childhood days Nino Nardini (1912–1994) as well as John Matthews and Peter Dennis, the latter of whom is somewhat famous for his Peter Dennis Big Band, each of these four gentlemen comes up with short to medium-length outlines that try to live up to the album title, namely merging Afro-Cuban Funk with some traces of voodoo spookiness, here in the shapes of synthesizer swirls, harpsichord tones or timpani rhythms.


Despite the title, the 13 offerings are much more afro-centric than ghostly: sun-soaked Dub melodies meet a carnivalesque jolliness, funky guitar melodies twirl around clave-interspersed drum patterns. Indeed, if there is one genre that is predominant on here, it has to be Funk, a sign of the times that manifested itself in the success of Geoff Love's session musician project Mandingo as well as in Roger Moore's first outing as James Bond in Harlem of the year 1973. Notwithstanding the impetus of Funk, those who dive a bit deeper and search in-between the alcoves of the screeching and bubbling acid guitars will make a crucial discovery, for all of a sudden the labels Exotica and Space-Age appear on Afro, Spooky, even strongly so with all their paradisal harmonies or galactic implications respectively.


My particular interest in this album was initially caused by Nino Nardini's and Roger Roger's truthful Exotica masterpiece Jungle Obsession (1971) which was released a few months before Afro, Spooky. Does the duo in tandem with John Matthews and Peter Dennis build on this colorful success with its huge sample library, conga concoctions and – yet again – the use of funky guitar melodies? No, it does not, and they explicitly do not want Afro, Spooky to be linked to the grandeur of Jungle Obsession. The generic album cover with the actual title on its backside already gives a strong hint: this is library music which is meant to be used in films, short visual blurbs or other documentaries. The front artwork is particularly austere and jejune, making it clear that this work belongs to a sequence of library music LP's. It cannot stand overly well on its own feet, the surroundings are too belittling and formulaic for anyone to perceive the record as a dedicated corker.


That said, it does two things remarkably well, and that is creating, maintaining and nurturing atmospheres on the one hand and coming up with a large amount of surfaces, timbres, drums and ingredients on the other hand which easily outshine the Hapa Haole LP's of most Hawaiian trios by a wide margin. And yet, one question is looming on the horizon, an essential one that would, if affirmatively answered, prevent the listener from enjoying this work: Is this muzak? Is it the kind of infamous lift music created in roundabout five minutes in order to fight off the blandness of public places? I won't answer these questions right now, but you can already sense that if this was indeed a picayune muzak album, it would be a rather great one.


The album lifts off with a quadriga of songs by Nino Nardini, and it is those tracks that probably leave the best impression. Afro-Beat launches in medias res with gorgeously punchy djembe shards and bongo thickets whose driving rhythm then serves as a sleazy-savage accompaniment for Funk guitar spirals and polyphonous electric bass guitar serpentines. The melodies are altogether non-catchy and clearly improvised, their texture is much more important than the actual tone sequences. Afro-Beat grafts additional military march-evoking classic drums onto the downwards-cascading djembe scintillae, thus boosting both the vividness and coolness once more. Malleable timpani as well as warped Space-Age licks round off the surprisingly polylayered structure of the opener. F


ans of the Afro-Funk movement ought to be pleased and should remain in that state, for the addendum Afro-Syn is an even spacier mix which is based on the same beat, but replaces most appearances of the guitar with quirkily pulsating sine tones and synth flecks whose reverb-coated apparitions foreshadow Nino Nardini's and Roger Roger's Moog opus Informatic 2000 (1982). To be honest, Afro-Syn is even better than Afro-Beat, for the beat is much more in the foreground, and once guitars appear, they are translucent and crunchy.


Up next is Bossa-Rhythm, a seemingly self-explanatory and highly melodious arrangement with wondrously mellow and sunset-colored melodies of carefreeness, churning maracas, radiating tambourines and bass guitar blebs. It is decidedly repetitive, but its luring catchiness prevents this tune from being received as formulaic or dull. It is warm, analogue and amicably funky. Nardini's final contribution is called House Of Echoes, a particularly atmospheric piece full of elastic wah-wah guitars, the titular addition of echoey rainsticks, xylophones, drumsticks and clanging gongs as well as mysterious bass bubbles. The mood is dusky and the slightest bit enigmatic, but otherwise succeeds with its laid-back ambience. A great piece, definitely exotic. The next three tracks complete side A and are envisioned by Roger Roger.


The ultrashort Ectoplasm lasts a mere 35 seconds and places an eleven-note bass melody next to a gelid-reverberated 8-bit iciness, whereas the perniciously titled Poltergeist sees the same bassline sped up and ennobled with Lounge-accentuated vibraphone glints complete with a convoluted aura, a surprisingly modern Drum and Bass-resembling percussion structure as well as screeching electric guitars. The tonal range seems blue and aqueously green, Poltergeist is keener on the Funk side than on horror and gore. The same can be said about Spook Train, a frantic uptempo critter full of energetic vibraphone undulations, train-invoking hi-hats and maracas as well as wobbling electric guitars. The tempo may be its main selling point, but it is the soothing mystique of the vibes that might win Exotica fans over in the end.


Side B starts with the next trio of Roger Roger's collection which turns out to be based on incarnations of the same track called Roger-Rhythm, with Roman numerals added to their ends. Roger-Rhythm I lets a cheeky Saturday Night kind of groove clash harmoniously with catchy magenta-tinted and reverb-draped electronic organ bursts, admixes a tribal bongo beat and completes the tune with golden-twinkling wah-wah guitars. Its uplifting tempo and the pre-Rave organ droplets make this one a top pick. While Roger-Rhythm II slows down the tempo and focuses on the percussion side with additional bongos and claves and injects a wonky-brutish harpsichord aorta whose resemblance of Mike Simpson's Jungle Odyssey (1966) is surely more than an mere accident, Roger-Rhythm III unleashes hammering Honky Tonk piano eruptions with hollow-liquedous bongo vesicles, a hatched guitar melody with airflows of psychedelia as well as tipsy xylophone molecules. The infinitesimal dissonance works well in tandem with the funk, but makes it the weakest version of them all.


Power Source is coming up next, the one and only offering of John Matthews, but fully congruent with Nardini's and Roger's material that has been presented heretofore. It wins the prize for the most labyrinthine, shape-shifting and upbeat gestalt. Ranging from electrifying, constantly bouncing faux-didgeridoos over alienating Third-Stream harpsichord motifs glued together with creepy organ sequences to Psycho-esque pizzicato strings, Power Source curiously enough loses its baleful bile over its course and becomes increasingly euphonious and bright. Its otherwise incompatible textures make it the spookiest track on the album. Even the final two tunes by Peter Dennis cannot outshine the eeriness: Timp Easy already hints at its trademark sound, namely the fantastic, thunderous bangs and puffs of the timpani in adjacency to clicking claves, jazzy hi-hat grooves… and nothing else. No melodies are injected, neither strings nor reeds find their way into the scenery which only elevates the impetus of Timp Easy further. This is a potentially easygoing but bone-crushing beast of a percussive track!


The outro Drum City then takes the listener to an epic but rather dull journey that lasts more than six minutes and is supercharged with a bunch of vignettes that are tied together, but do not have anything particular in common otherwise: Chinese gongs, xylophone waterfalls, guitar twangs, sine tones, wind chimes, various gongs and bongos are presented, but neither interact nor become entangled with each other. Drum City is the clearest nod to Afro, Spooky being a library record about surfaces and grooves rather than fully fleshed out compositions.


The Roger Roger Ensemble's Afro, Spooky could be seen as one of the most non-essential Exotica-permeating LP's to ever see the light of day. This is no dedicated and cleverly thought out composition-based record by Nino Nardini and Roger Roger rather than a collaborative work which is all about the feeling or right ambience for unwritten films. However, considering the overarching artistic vision and the self-imposed prospect of the ensemble, Afro, Spooky is tremendously luring, at times even audaciously so. To answer the question posed in this review's opening paragraphs: if this is indeed muzak, then it is the best muzak you can probably encounter, for even if the vignettes were created in a short amount of time, you won't notice this fact all too often, since both the variety of textures as well as their intertwinement is skillfully conducted. There is nothing particularly spooky about this record, at least not in the grim sense of the word, but the African beat concoctions, the mystery-laden vibraphone washes as well as the constantly funky guitarscapes work flawlessly well; that is, if you subtract Peter Dennis' closing track Drum City which is anything more than an unimaginative sequence of textures waiting to be used in remixes. Even as lift music it would utterly fail. The rest of the album, however, shines.


Dennis' Timp Easy is a grandiloquent percussion piece of the cinematic kind, Nardini's Bossa-Rhythm is strangely distant yet benignly wadded in a guitar-driven kindness, and Roger's Roger-Rhythm suite unites the Funk of its percussion schemes with harpsichord galores and a luminescent organ chemistry. Since most tracks are short enough and end before they become repetitive and annoying, Afro, Spooky is a great addition to any Exotica playlist. It is only available on vinyl, but appears on eBay surprisingly often, given its status as a mere library record. My formerly white copy has already turned beige, but I am quite a bit fond of it. Nardini and Roger fans (need to) own this anyway, but fans of Mandingo and Chaino should definitely watch this one as well. 


Exotica Review 224: Roger Roger Ensemble – Afro, Spooky (1972). Originally published on Jun. 8, 2013 at