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Masma Dream World – Play At Night

During the time of COVID-19, when our existence has become refined and more claustrophobic than ever before, the sound of Masma Dream World arrives like a sonic blessing. The person behind the moniker, Devi Mambouka, is a literal child of the world, after all: born in Gabon to a father from the Bahoumbou tribe, her mother was Singaporean with Chinese, British and Indian Brahmin origins. Aged 12, she moved to New York’s Bronx with her mother and two brothers. The African music section of Tower Records soon acted as a place of solace and connection for Mambouka. Singing and musical exploration naturally became a refuge for the teenager as she navigated such a huge move at such a young age; her musical knowledge and worldview is thus expansive and outward.

It’s why her new album, Play At Night feels like such a curious concoction. Mambouka boasts of its encompassing elements of butoh (a Japanese spirit-led performance art), the theta frequency, and the need to hold sacred space. Nor is it surprising to discover that Mambouka is a student of sound therapy and consciousness, for the record is so defined by these. In Masma Dream World’s Instagram bio, it states that she makes “music for the shadow world,” and the record truly feels like an invitation to be subsumed – in a positive manner – by darkness. Play At Night – this is where the journey to self-discovery and self-actualisation begin, in the shadows.

There is a sense of a journey even from the song titles. “Sundown Forest” gives way to “Back Home”, before we find ourselves at the ghostly time of “3:33 AM”, with the record ending “Before Sunlight”; it’s a night out to the soul. But first and foremost we must, according to the opening track, “Unwind”.

Mambouka’s sonorous voice is immediately all-consuming and ominous, repeating an inviting incantation. The mystifying and twisting delivery of Mambouka’s proclamations are something to behold. On “Becoming The Magician”, she sounds like a Mongolian throat singer, holding one note for a mesmerising length of time. Klaxons fire in “Knight Wolf” but a beat never drops, instead they announce Mambouka’s wild and chaotic chant of passion and fury; its drone is overwhelming and overpowering. She is somehow both angelic and devilish throughout, perhaps as is correct for a spiritual journey such as this.

“Sundown Forest” and “Back Home” are joyful percussive pieces before “Theta” stays true to its title. Theta brain frequencies occur during the barely conscious states just before sleeping and just after awakening; put another way, it’s the line between our conscious and subconscious worlds. As the hypnotic chants of Mambouka weave with the trip-hop rhythm akin to a controlled heartbeat, it’s clear to see her intentions.

There are some snippets of public life that were recorded during trips to Mambouka’s home country and they protrude into the darkness of Play At Night: there is the sound of church bells ringing in a busy village square in “The Eternal Library”; so too in “3:33 AM”, whose tension fades into the sound of people mulling around, involved in their own private lives. There is also a surprising piece of dark and downtempo jazz on “Bear Lounge”, a lounge one imagines as an unknown New York club of late night mystery (Mambouka actually DJ’d in the city’s Meatpacking District from the age of 16).

The trance is transient though. As her wild shriek pierces “Rest In Peace”, the spell of the album has started to wear off, if only slightly, before it’s “Before Sunlight”. The end. One last spell to welcome a new dawn. Soothing yet ominous harmonies arrive and descend. The journey is complete.

Here is the thing: Mambouka’s music is very interpretative. Perhaps this is more a problem for the crude ear of a Western reviewer, a speaker of mere English, meaning that the spellbinding nature of Play At Night is largely restricted to atmospherics only. Not that this is a huge limitation, such is the enveloping evocative mysteriousness that emanates from every fibre of the record. Rather it’s to say that Play At Night would work tremendously well on stage, as performance art, where Mambouka’s whisperings and incantations could float elusively around a performer bringing it into physical existence.

She has previous experience of this, it must be noted: in 2014, she invited Swedish costume designer Tove Berglund to collaborate on a performance project based around her fascination with weave culture. Mambouka loved how hair extensions carved out an intricate network of trade from donors to wearers. Berglund decided to weave the hair directly onto Mambouka’s body over the course of five hours using a pair of stockings to hold the shape. They then filmed her Butoh-inspired dance performance, using light and darkness as a backdrop.

Perhaps this is indeed the plan for Masma Dream World, but Mambouka’s record remains an intimidating and intoxicating work in any case.

Play At Night is released Friday 25th September via Northern Spy Records.