Published Jan 01, 2006Recipe for down-tempo: take one hip-hop informed producer, pair it with breathy vocals, stir gently, and serve lukewarm. But LAL's recipe is a multi-flavoured biryani when so much other down-tempo is mere Minute Rice.
LAL's South Asian down-tempo sound reflects their musical and personal evolution. "We worked at a major record retailer and hung out together for a few years," says singer and songwriter Rosina Kazi about her partnership with producer Nic Murray. (Aka Murr, producer with Toronto hip-hop collective Da Grassroots.) "He'd been doing hip-hop for a long time. I tagged along and got really into the hip-hop scene. I bugged him for years but he just ignored me. I put out my own stuff on Public Transit Recordings and we finally started to connect I just bugged the fuck out of him and he finally went OK, fine."
The partnership was barely in place when their first album, Corners, was released in 2002. "The first record wasn't even finished," Kazi continues. "We had demoed a bunch of stuff but Moonstarr [head of PTR] really liked it, so we had to come up with a name it just kind of happened." Even at this stage, it was obvious that Murr's beats were breaking new ground, and Kazi's vocals and lyrics were not the stuff of breathy trip-hop ingénues.
Their new disc, Warm Belly High Power is a sublime, genre-confounding statement, featuring inventive beats, deft live instrumentation and topical lyrics. South Asian sonics are offered up with harmonium, tablas, and Bengali passages that weave in and out of the grooves, often heavily processed and cut up. Murr's boom bap base has broadened into open source riddims both slow and fast, adding a dash of his West Indian roots to the mix. The songs are further coloured in by the musicians who form LAL's live band. "We did a lot of the initial ideas then we brought in Nilan [Perera, guitar] or Ian [DeSouza, bass] or Rakesh [Tewari, drums] and they'd hear it and either take it home or play something on the spot," says Kazi. "Nic then usually takes what they've done and he either cuts it up or puts it back in. Ian produced a couple of tracks where we worked laptop to laptop we'd give him the piece and Ian added this beautiful orchestration and instrumentation. It happened naturally; it wasn't forced and it was done in an intimate setting."
This laptop-based process of songwriting was a new experience for all concerned, and might have ended up as a hodgepodge of disconnected ideas were it not for the common sensibilities of all involved. "I think it's really important to express our culture in our music," Kazi offers. "I grew up being so insecure about who I was, not being proud of my South Asian culture. I'm at an age now where I embrace it completely so it's really important to me that there are certain elements in my music that represent my culture whether it's speaking Bengali or having band-mates who have some link to South Asia, or Nic's West Indian side. Growing up Canadian I felt I wasn't allowed to be that person. Now I feel comfortable with who I am."
While race and culture are important to her lyrics, so are social issues: the environment and homelessness. "Social activism is never a stated goal, it's just where we come from. Music is great, but let's not forget what's going on, let's educate ourselves around those issues." Her lyrics tackle these subjects in a direct but poetic style, but live shows are where she really lets loose and tells the audience where she's coming from.
With a potent mix of laptop alchemy, live musicians, pointed commentary and engaging visuals, LAL in concert is an ambitious and modular undertaking. There are two versions of the live band one featuring the musicians, and the other a duo of Murr and Kazi. "We can, if we want to, drop a completely electronic set in a club, or we can take it to a bigger venue. That's what I really like about this band, we have the ability to do both. Financially, if it's not feasible to pay six people, well, here are two we can do both."
LAL are preparing to put together a tour for Canada, and hopefully Europe, but will avoid the United States. "We're not even going to try, because half the band got pulled off the plane last time trying to go to Minneapolis. A band of colour, you know even if we had visas it would be difficult. I'm terrified of going to the States."