Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble
Here Be Dragons






Here Be Dragons is the sophomore album by the international septet Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble, released in 2009 on the Berlin-based Ad Noiseam label. Even though neither the press text nor the band members themselves thematize one specific question, it is, I think, a fitting question in terms of their whole works and one that is close to the hearts of Exotica fans: what happens in Exotica realms after dark? Sure thing, the birdcalls wane and make room for vibraphone-heavy and wind chime-accompanied tunes. The Exotica genre is a paradise even when it is moonlit, from omnipresent classics such as The Moon Of Manakoora over Les Baxter's and Warren Barker's technicolor renditions of Deep Night to Arthur Lyman's forsaken cover of the traditional Japanese song Moon Over A Ruined Castle. If there is a certain chilly feeling present in vintage Exotica, it regularly vanishes in no time or is covered with lush strings. However, there is the possibility of tropical resorts and distant deserts in the Orient turning into arcane locations of ghoulish proportions.


Imagine the already alienating timbre of Middle Eastern scenes at daylight and see their pentatonic dissonance increased twofold at night. It is here where The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble and their nine unique tracks on Here Be Dragons come into play. The septet presents Exotica in hatched brown and rustic colors. The band includes Charlotte Cegarra as the vocalist and pianist, Hilary Jeffery on the trombone, Eelco Bosman on the guitar, Gideo Kiers as the beat arranger and creator of atmospheric sound effects, Jason Köhnen on the double bass and piano, Nina Hitz on the cello and last but not least Sarah Anderson on the violin. This string-heavy approach is omnipresent. The band shuttles between the titular Dark Jazz, the Drone genre and freeform vignettes. Some people would not even dare to call it Exotica due to the crepuscular, crestfallen alcoves; these adjectives do not belong to the Exotica genre, right? However, Here Be Dragons offers a fantastic, weirdly frightening yet exotic journey through the Middle East that lightens up over the course of the album: the second half is by no means jolly, let alone gleeful, but illumines the timbre to include layers of wondrousness, hope and contentment.


Lead Squid is the guard to the perniciously dark world of Here Be Dragons, and indeed, if a vintage Exotica fan encounters the opening phase with its bucolic acidity of overdriven guitar blebs and synthetic accents, he or she might immediately shy away. The melody only comprises of two tones which are occasionally ennobled by oscillating half tones. A neon-lit concrete jungle percussion aorta meanders through the serpentines, Charlotte Cegarra's indecipherable vocals sound opaque, cylonic and hidden. Alpha wave airflows waft through the air, Hilary Jeffery's trombone sequences in minor distantly refer to the film noir genre. Lead Squid is undoubtedly dark, but it features a second section, and it is here where things do not necessarily lighten up, but become a tad brighter by friendlier sources of light. The effulgence of Eelco Bosman's steel guitar licks reminds of snugly island sceneries, Cegarra's ethereal vocals are ennobled further by a spectral backing choir, an aural astral projection unfolds. The impetus is soon revved up again: pumping Trip Hop beats are dropped in close proximity to asbestus bubbles, the long composition comes to a halt rather abruptly and stops for good. Lead Squid is intimidating, haunting, an Exotica Noir work, if such a term will ever be astute.


The following Caravan! is much more successful in its links to the genre. While it is no rendition of Juan Tizol's and Duke Ellington's classic, its roots are clearly Oriental. Desert wastelands, storms and brazen wind gusts altogether form the panorama in whose foreground Sarah Anderson's threnodic cello melodies conflate with Nina Hitz's sanguine cello aortas. The reverberations are figuratively thrown into the distance which is otherwise filled with clanging cymbals and hi-hats. Echoes of murky piano stabs unfold, crestfallen beatless vignettes are exchanged with pumping double bass-underpinned drum solos. Caravan! is eminently alienating and paints a nocturnal mirage of impenetrable mystique and desperate doom. A creepy critter!


In contrast, Embers feels almost lachrymose. Sitar-like guitar twangs inject another dose of Orientalism in adjacency to more upbeat trombone spirals and Charlotte Cegarra's glowing vocals. The pizzicato tone sequences on the cello and the purposeful dissonance as well as the threatening crescendo of a frightening saturation may again circumvent the enigmatically silkened aura, but as soon as the darkness becomes unbearable, Hilary Jeffery's forlorn-contemplative trombone cascades as well as glockenspiel-like guitar scintillae lessen the bile decidedly. Afterwards, Sirocco blows a daedal storm into the ambience of the insectoid, crawling strings. Bitcrushed and overdriven, but surprisingly sun-soaked guitars mesh with Oriental molecules of yearning. A portentous frame of shuttling beats and lacunar Ambient phases with warped electric guitars (or are they humanoid screams?) make this another dark topaz whose malevolence is hard to digest.


Mists Of Krakatoa, however, is an utter delight in the given endemic ferocity, strongly exotic, partially dreamy, but of course built on the same jinxed soil as all the other tunes. The slow fade-in of the guitar drones slowly rises, the dusky piano gentleness enchants, the aqueous-susurrant space guitar clouds play clear cut tones in major, and the whirling opera impressions by Cegarra augment the proportions. What launches as an earthen and muddy Exotica hymn changes over the course of almost five minutes, what was once accidentally harmonious becomes a shady location filled with dark clouds and labyrinthine paths.


Sharbat Gula continues the almost coruscating tendency of the album's second half. The brightest piano glints which almost glitter down like stardust particles coalesce with Jason Köhnen's  soothing double bass fundament and crafty kettle drums. Charlotte Cegarra's wordless vocals float past the listener, the whole arrangement is in a mesmerizing fluxion, for it is coherent, its beat straight forward. In the instances it is stopped, celestial Ambient phases appear. Hilary Jeffery's trombone melody is much more translucent than before, shining and shimmering in a less wailing way. Sharbat Gula is a masked Blues artifact and almost awash with light. The following Samhain Labs turns out to be based on a similar dichotomy as Mists Of Krakatoa, gyrating between various twilight phases. The prelude offers the greatest mélange of blurred seven-note melodies on strings, a more earthbound guitar scheme conflates with the tremolo of the muted trombone, Gideon Kiers' somewhat ocean wave-like sound effects frizzle through the dualistic arena all the while laid-back Free Jazz percussion segments allow the listener to focus on the interplay of the melodies. Even though the legato washes become more cavernous and ferocious, Samhain Labs never desiccates its mellifluous ambiance.


Up next is Seneca. Its blazing color range is grafted upon the majesty of Samhain Labs, resulting in a boldly euphonious trombone/Rhodes piano entanglement whose glacial-benign melody range interpolates the feeling of solemnity in tandem with Sarah Anderson's performance on the violin. Charlotte Cegarra's elven-like vocals then encounter a rather vivid and energetic cymbalorama, but the jejune, mellifluous balance is maintained; Seneca remains a power ballad that is less exotic than its predecessors. The finale The MacGuffin strays farther away from Exotica territories and tends to be fond of Dark Ambient spheres. A largely beatless piece, it launches with cacophonous violin gusts and warms the respective hearts of both the listener and the track with splinters of euphoria and rapture in the presented timbres. Only its middle section features a Rock-heavy eruption of overdriven guitar chords and fiery drums, but even this vignette is tastefully and stringently embedded in the gleaming pompousness. The MacGuffin ends on a cinematic feeling of happiness and gravity, i.e. the very pairing which constitutes the essential characteristic ambiguity of Here Be Dragons.


An album title like Here Be Dragons implicates pentatonic structures akin to traditional Chinese music, but the sophomore work of The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble is much more fond of a Middle Eastern scheme, and even this column alone does only explain half of the album's appeal, for it is the reigning darkness that is so ubiquitous and essential for the band's compositions. Be it the electro-acoustic metropolis of Lead Squid with its twofold nature of seraphic phantasmagorias and eclectic beat patterns, the exotic Caravan! with its hopeless pastiche of moonlit post-apocalyptic panoramas and sizzling-hot turbulences, or the Trip Hop-infused bass guitar-kindled winds of Sirocco, the album takes Exotica to the darkest of all levels… that is if you allow the genre to have an adamantly dark edge without any transfigurations or upbeat conga beats. Here Be Dragons becomes loftier and lighter in the second half. However, this assertion must not cause false hopes or the impression of an unevenly concipated work. Even the more euphonious and infinitesimally blithesome droplets that make it into the arrangements feel heavy and profound, not carefree and jumpy.


Exotica listeners who do not mind the partially electronic nature of the compositions and remain fond of ever-shifting rhythms or cleverly delivered Ambient dioramas as well as a constant murmuring, as if lost souls fly around and try to permeate the perceived barriers, should check out this cinematic piece of Dark Exotica. Again, our beloved genre is nowhere mentioned in the press blurb or the album itself. The track titles do give the right hints though. Still, I hope that the band is not appalled about my forced connection to an otherwise vivaciously flamboyant genre. I really spot a great synergy or convergence between their dark Free Jazz and some of the (faux-)Middle Eastern material from the days of yore. Here Be Dragons is available on CD and a download version on Amazon MP3 or iTunes.


Exotica Review 225: The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble – Here Be Dragons (2009). Originally published on Jun. 8, 2013 at