In the midst of the leading lights of the London scene, Alfa Mist acts as a free spirit, a self-taught musician who has not frequented the strongholds of the musical establishment. Far from the fuss and bustle, his is a music that offers introspection.
Growing up and growing away from East London
At the heart of Alfa’s music is the notion of communication. His first album, Antiphon, was named after one of the great ancient orators and was based on conversations between Alfa and his brothers. With Structuralism, the British pianist aligns himself to a greater continuity by adding a societal dimension to his music: “I have been affected by my environment. My upbringing has shaped me in a way where I do not know how to communicate. Structuralism is about, ‘I am who I am’ because of the structure of society I grew up into. Now I need to learn how to communicate.” This time, it is his sister’s lyrics that punctuate the tracks on the album.
These elements betray a desire to emancipate himself from a stifling family environment. Born into a Ugandan immigrant family in East London, Alfa lives with a grandmother who does not speak English. From the beginning, he was logically oriented towards football. Those who have seen him live will agree on one thing: the musician is not extrovert. Slightly arched behind his keyboard, a cap screwed onto his skull, Alfa feels more like a geek than a stage phenomenon. In fact, the Brit is a veteran of behind-the-scenes spaces. His encounter with music was initiated through beatmaking, when he started producing for grime. It was at the age of seventeen that he decided to teach himself the piano, and then only to better understand the music he sampled.
For a musical structuralism
Between football and music, the East London native certainly had no time to focus on the humanities. However, to speak of structures is to expose the social determinism from which he seeks to free himself. In such a current, it is not so much the system that matters as the relationships between the elements that make up that system. Alfa has not studied structuralism, he lives it.
For the British, music is the language that allows them to express their emotions most clearly. As one who is self-taught, we can understand that music seems fluid to Alfa. But some elements in his compositions demonstrate a well-articulated understanding of musical theory that cannot have come into being ex nihilo.
The fact that he could not communicate with his grandmother, for example, is transcribed in two different ways, musically. “Mulago” refers to her dialect, delivered with a rhythmic complexity that reflects their linguistic difficulties. On “Jjajja’s screen,” it is the throbbing chords of the string quartet that give the piece a dramatic aspect, fraught with the resignation of not being able to address “jjajja,” the grandmother. These two approaches – rhythmic complexity and the instrumental enrichment of the themes – are more a result of what has been achieved than of what is innate. For the second, we can guess at the influence of orchestral music on Alfa … indeed, Hans Zimmer occupies the same place as Miles Davis in the list of composers the pianist is passionate about.
Let emotions speak for themselves
Alfa’s music is not easily circumscribed. It certainly stems from pioneers such as Robert Glasper, since the elements of hip hop and jazz are so intertwined. Rimshots and backbeats naturally fit alongside long dialogues between trumpet, guitar and keyboards. On “Glad I Lived,” probably the most emotionally charged song, Alfa directly reconnects with his urban loves and honors us with rapped verses. But his musical approach, more harmonic than melodic, creates above all an atmosphere conducive to the expression of other musicians. We feel a humility sweeping through the choices that are made. He never pours into excess. When the music threatens to teeter out of control, he simply lays down dreamy chords, forming a platform for the musician in question to shine more brightly.
He also gives the floor to Kaya Thomas-Dyke, a bass player who contributes her voice to “Falling.” A painter in her spare time, she also deserves thanks for the covers that adorn Alfa’s albums – they also contribute to the expression. Not surprisingly, Jordan Rakei is part of the adventure – he shares a studio with Alfa in London. He closes the album with “Door,” a track whose final note resonates in unison with the album’s opening sounds on “.44.” There is no coincidence to be found here. Rather, it speaks of an invitation to listen to Structuralism over and over again. Alfa Mist is generous, in both music and in friendship.