Oshun / The Fleece, Bristol | 15th of May

Oshun / The Fleece, Bristol | 15th of May

Oshun discussed the origin of their title in a recent interview: ‘a West African traditional deity…a goddess who governs over sweet waters’. This benevolent figure in Yoruba religion marks the duo’s project as one of grandiose intention. Thandiwe and Niambi Sala, who met when studying at NYU a number of years back, display a fittingly enlightened edge, a certain spiritual positivity. This is at times reinforced, at times confused and offset by certain elements of their music – music largely reliant on crisp hip-hop compositions and educated themes of identity and strength. Their ‘pilot’ (DJ and hypeman Proda) warmed us with American twanged exclamations and mainstream hiphop hits: Oshun entered The Fleece stage to claims of a ‘oshuniverse’ and celestial visuals on screens around the place. Their new record bittersweet vol.1 has remnants of ATLiens in its ambient, surrealist style, albeit in a less refined and less revolutionary form. That’s one of the greatest rap records of all time, it’s no discredit to these two.

They performed a number of tracks from that aforementioned collection – including Solar Plexus, which starts with traditional sounding vocals and slips nicely into their riffing hooks off eachother, then to a spoken word passage with spacey synth. Burn is a homage to marijuana that samples Beyonce’s Check On It. Nice, drowsy rhythms see the song out. Blessings on Blessings is a celebration of their own heritage, artistry and progress; it contains some of their slickest rap work (and a period of crowd participation, which is rife).

Both Thandiwe and Niambi have silky and versatile voices; they seemed at first a little raw and tentative, taking a track or two to find their highest form. Thandiwe (her dreads tied stylishly up) hit a sweet singing solo which set the tone for R&B passages and reggaeroots-inspired-flows. Niambi Sala (wearing her beaded locks down to just above the shoulder) stood in silence before the equally hushed crowd, breathing deeply, waiting, and releasing a moving acapella intro to the track Sango. Released in ‘15, it is one such mellow, bluesy turn. They long to ‘rise to love’, and its subtle production highlights the steps they’ve taken in experimenting with different sounds since they started co-composing. Oshun know how to own a venue. The most compelling and pleasant ever-present of their style is the way they cut across, overlay and harmonise with one another. A forte. Catlike contact lenses and all red tracksuits accentuated the idiosyncratic style also evident in their music.

Oshun are self proclaimed artists of Afrofuturism – a cultural movement with precedence on intriguing crossovers between African identity and modern technologies. One source suggests its works ‘reimagine how society could be if contemporary race relations had played out very differently, offering a direct commentary on modern life through fantasy’. Oshun encapsulate this goal, providing plenty of energy and entertainment in the process. (Their political presence is at its most lucid in last year’s track Not My President, which begins with angry verse and pushes on to loose jazz). The sound setup at the venue may have been a little off; initially the vocals were outweighed by the thick and effect-heavy beats, but this improved as the show progressed. On a number of occasions the two (plus Proda) riff and converse and call-out to spur the audience on and stress their own stories in spoken form. There’s even a trivia giveaway involving sunflowers and merch and the likes. We’ll call it a trivaway.

‘I shine my light so I can reap what I sow’ is a lyric dripping with resilient passion, and one that typifies afrofuturist work. It was apt that during Glow Up the lights were cut and individual beams from the crowds’ devices or lighters shimmered across the room. In that one, luminous vocals and light synth provide a backdrop to the forceful tone. One of their final songs (arriving shortly after a passage from a track they’re yet to complete) was My World, which they recorded with Jorja Smith. Their voices are not so dissimilar to Smith’s, and it’s a beautifully smooth number which utilises simple key chords, tight hi-hat and clicks. I’d be intrigued to see them with a live band actually. For sure.

They philosophise often around the ‘ability to think and write things into existence’, which is a noble observation, and one that informs their cool, complex, thoughtful music. At times, the multitude of styles and techniques on display cloud the clarity of the event, preventing full musical creation of a Oshuniverse. At others it is precisely this multitude which enhances the fantasy and impresses most. The audacity to grapple with histories, to consider their rewriting, to deliberately alienate and distort forms – this is what marks their new space as a work-in-progress, one we can both already sense and eagerly anticipate.

 

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