Piero Umiliani






Africa offers a strange omnium gatherum of 14 Africa-themed tunes, strange even by Exotica standards. Envisioned by film composer and songwriter Piero Umiliani (1926–2001) who cautiously uses the alias of M. Zalla on this artifact, it is the predecessor to his much more melodious Continente Nero (1975). Released on Liuto Records, Africa functions as a triptych, at least in hindsight. And as we all know, a triad of styles or flavors on an album tends to embrace one specific aesthetic and thereby closes out groups of listeners who otherwise love the remaining material on the album.


Here, Piero Umiliani's trifecta shuttles firstly between beatless Ambient or Zen music as created with one or two instruments, secondly embraces drum-heavier intermissions without melodies, and thirdly inherits weird pieces of frequency-bending electronics, calamitous timbres and estranged atmospheres. Consequentially, Africa fails as a stringent album but, depending on the listener’s mood and favorite ingredients, still makes up for it. The instruments are simply wonderful: marimbas, kalimbas, even ouds made it to the arrangements, the drums are both processed and based in reality, and the basslines made of electric guitars altogether create a work that is almost torn apart by its strange parts but can still succeed if the listener is a bit more open-minded than usual.


Launching with wild spirals of alto flutes and darker counterpoints such as bass guitar or organ pedals, Africa To-Day is a long-form piece (by vintage Exotica standards) of way over four minutes, spanning the frizzling breezes of wafting cymbals, clicking rain sticks, an Oriental oud and funky bass helixes. Superbly free-form in its melodies and interdependencies, the production quality and pool of instruments is splendidly introduced right here in this first piece already. The following Savana functions as a gorgeous Ambient counterpoint by only sporting marimbas and vibraphones whose soothing and echoey entanglement create the ardor of the titular, archetypically African landmark, with Green Dawn using the same pattern but exchanging the mallet instruments with imposed alto flutes whose languorous afterglow floats into the distance.


Rhythmical Stress seems to reveal its secret via its title, but is much more tame, only sporting a seven-note melody on the bass guitar, various flat bongo slivers and piercing cymbals; stressful it is not. The same can be said of Drums Choral, even though it sports a muffled and potentially danger-evoking drum aorta. This layer, however, is illumined by an emaciated organ-like ecclesiasticism. It is one of the arrangements that is really too thin to leave a lasting impression. And yet the following Lonely Village accomplishes exactly that by presenting a great synergy between the mallet instruments of Savana and the flutes of Green Dawn; they are consequentially merged in another beatless Ambient piece, with the finale of side A, the ultra-soothing Misterious, only sporting a deep flute and nothing else, therefore spawning a vignette that is strikingly resemblant to fellow Italian Tony Scott’s Music For Zen Meditation (1965).


Side B is tremendously more paroxysmal and downright strange. It opens with Echos, a heavily processed amalgamation of plinking synthesizer blebs, dark drums and fragile yet incisive flute tones. Sometimes resembling the trumpeting of elephants or the growling of dangerous wildcats, Echos is the most abstract piece of Africa without memorable melodies, only relying on its surfaces and patterns. The same instrumental group is also unleashed in Sortilège where brazen-metallic clangs, blows and reeds conflate with morse code-like Moog pulses, making this an equally alienating piece of darkness which would not have been out of place in Piero Umiliani’s Musica Dell’Era Tecnologica (1972).


Whereas African Suspence sports the fairground-evoking twinkling thinness of a synthesizer in adjacency to a hollowly bubbling bass-like accompaniment, the two-part Sadness returns to a Zen-like state with anything else than a soothing flute solo at first; it then leads to a gorgeous and much brighter marimba solo with echoey kalimba coils. The following Rite is the expected percussion interlude with one too many cowbells in there and a rhythmic oud whose enthralling plasticity adds much to the groove. Folk-Tune is the last Ambient-based creation and revisits the formula of one flute before a backdrop of nothingness, with the final Drums Suspence being the best piece of side B, as Umiliani concocts a trippy stew of blurry organ washes and wild proteins in the shapes of murky drums. What a corker!


Piero Umiliani’s or M. Zalla’s (or whatever his name might be tomorrow) Africa is a work that suffers from its odd balance as it tumbles to increasingly obscurer aural lands. What starts in a high quality fashion with the opener Africa To-Day, which seems to have been distilled from an entirely different recording session, moves over to perfectly acceptable instrumental solos that do indeed capture the plastic spirit of the otherwise heterogenous Africa as Exotica fans and composers saw it back then, and finishes with a lot of experimental, electronically aided arrangements that are as off-putting and baneful as they are ebullient and alkaline. Africa proves to be an incredibly dichotomous example. Should I pan it for its issues and frequent oscillation? Shall I severely praise its meditative aura and Umiliani’s poignant use of the oud?


In a schizophrenic way, I am succumbing to both undertakings and more: Africa To-Day goes full throttle in one track, only to present a piece of contemplation in another one, but the bongos, masked organs, alto flutes, synthesizers and aftereffects do work well in tandem, “well” in the sense of being exotic, strange, simply odd and oddly simple. There is no single piece on here that is particularly strong, but on the textural level, the mixture between artificial metallics and panoramic faux-tribalisms works, if only on a per-song basis. Africa is neither as grinding and churning as said Musica Dell’Era Tecnologica nor as melodious as its thematic follow-up Continente Nero, but can indeed add short bursts of mystery, joy or delightful standstill in your Exotica playlist. The album is only available on vinyl and has never been reissued. For the moment, alas, what happens in Africa stays in Africa. (And Ebay.)


Exotica Review 311: Piero Umiliani – Africa (1972). Originally published on Feb. 1, 2014 at AmbientExotica.com.