Zun Zun Egui formed in Bristol in late 2008 – Mauritian guitarist and singer Kushal Gaya met and started making music with Japanese keyboard player Yoshino Shigihara after they had both moved to the UK. Initially they started playing with a large number of musicians but a core ZZE group formed round the pair along with bassist Luke Mosse and drummer Matt Jones. Yoshino came up with their name after seeing the term Zun Zun Egui on a trip to the Basque Country and realising that it sounded exactly like the Japanese words for “Fast Fast Weird”. (They would later find out it was Basque for a group of trees.) A love for experimentation, free jazz, fusion, DIY culture, throwing parties and playing wild shows was the glue that bonded the outfit together. After an early clutch of raw and experimental EPs, they focussed their song-writing gift and mastery of many styles to create a recognisable Zun Zun Egui sound which included (amongst many other things) tropicalia, punk funk, Afrobeat, Ethio jazz and no wave. All of these varied disciplines were marshalled to produce their debut //Katang// on Bella Union – an album that by rights should have been comparable to a madman’s breakfast but was in fact one of the most exciting debut LPs of 2011. Following the release they took on a new bass player Adam Newton and then about a year and a half ago they recruited a second guitarist Stephen Kerrison and started working on new material. Even for a band as exploratory and talented as ZZE though, the step up in terms of songwriting and inspiration since //Katang// is astounding and it is already clear that new LP //Shackles’ Gift// is one of the most unique and thrilling that will be released in 2015.
Produced by Andrew Hung of Fuck Buttons, engineered by Al Lawson at Kore Studios in West London and mixed in New York by Eli Crews, //Shackles’ Gift// is the album that Zun Zun Egui have always threatened to deliver and we always believed they would. Opening with ‘Rigid Man’, it hits the listener with bone-shaking tropical funk, bolstered with guitar hooks that sound like Congolese finger pianos. Lead single ‘African Tree’ strolls past on a marching band rhythm, complete with an arena sized chorus and Kyuss-heavy stoner rock guitars. Future single ‘Ruby’ is like imperial period Depeche Mode discovering the delights of industrial dancehall reggae, while another future single ‘I Want You To Know’ is an absolute funk/noise rock monster, sounding like Steve Albini recording Queens Of The Stone Age jamming on ‘Kashmir’. ‘Soul Scratch’ is a very British take on a very Mauritian form of music called seggae, which combines the African island folk music known as sega with reggae, but imbuing it with an adrenalised urban uptightness. ‘Tickle The Line’ has frantic, overdriven grooves that suggest Fugazi and Spank Rock battling it out for audio prominence. ‘The Sweetest Part Of Life’ recalls the futuristic man machine funk of Battles and ‘Late Bloomer’ is based on another African folk style called Maloya but with some of the raw energy of PiL and This Heat, firing its engines. (Maloya originates on Reunion, the neighbouring island to Mauritius, where Kushal’s mother lived and where he spent half of his childhood. The style is known as the blues of the Indian Ocean and literally translates as ‘speak your truth’.) The album concludes with ‘City Thunder’ an elemental, dubbed out and dread take on post rock and disco. It’s such a masterful achievement that people will still be trying to get their heads round it in months, if not years, to come.
Frontman Kushal says that first and foremost //Shackles’ Gift// is a British rock record made by a British group but admits that the first sparks of its creation started flying when ZZE visited Mauritius in March 2013. The African island nation, which lies 700 miles east of Madagascar, deep in the Indian Ocean, invited the band to give a concert as part of their Independence Day celebrations. For a small and proud nation that has suffered colonial rule by both the French and English, the holiday means a lot: “After independence in 1968 people predicted doom for Mauritius because of a lack of natural resources. They said really harsh famine would happen there within a decade but it has ended up being an African country with one of the highest GDPs on the continent. So Independence Day has a big significance to Mauritians.”
The island’s dynamic history has led to a multi-lingual, multi-cultural modern nation which has influenced Zun Zun Egui in more ways than one. Not only has Mauritian music been one of the (many) primary ingredients of their sound and inspired Kushal’s multi-lingual approach to singing (the island has 12 main languages) but the diversity of the country acts as a metaphor for the diversity of the group itself: “One way to look at it is this: if you go out to Mauritius and try the cuisine, you have a really coherent taste in the food that makes complete sense but it’s also composed of so many different influences. If you look at the cuisine of an ex-colony you can often see all the different cultures that have gone into shaping it. In a similar way I feel that now Zun Zun Egui have found a sound and a way of doing things – even though we are still eclectic in our scope. However, for it all to work you also have to have minimal focus and that part of it comes from Europe and is something that I learn more the longer I live in Britain.”
The frontman explains how a chance encounter during the visit helped spark the idea: “This old fisherman was telling us stories about how some types of local folk music came from people working in sugar cane fields. They would hear the noisy, mechanical sugar cane mill and this rhythm helped create a new kind of work music. To me this was an incredible story because I really love harsh industrial music like Whitehouse and Throbbing Gristle but I thought that this was even more brutal in a way because it was like early industrial music but not conceptually driven. I started thinking of Mauritian folk music as being very modern. Very futurist.” Kushal combined this idea of proto industrial rhythms with his love for dub (“you can hear the reggae one drop beat on some of the tracks on the album”) while coming up with the guiding vision for //Shackles’ Gift//.
Speaking about the band’s drive to really produce something special, Kushal says: “It was a much more focussed song writing process this time. I felt I had so many ideas and I was struggling to cram them all into one song but then I read a quote by Brian Wilson which really helped me. It was something along the lines of the idea that instrumentation in music is like a frame to a picture and the picture is the vocal. Just reading that line really helped me to really focus.”
In a weird way the band’s trip to Mauritius was a crucial moment for their soon to be fifth member as well – even though he wasn’t even present. New guitarist Stephen Kerrison recalls: “I was in the pub when Kush rang me to ask if I’d like to come and play some music with Zun Zun. I said sure, asked him where he was and he said he was sitting on the runway waiting for his flight to Mauritius to take off. So I guess the trip was a turning point for my role in the band too.”
Speaking about another key track on the album, ‘I Want You To Know’, he adds: “This was originally a disco number that we wrote after Kushal and I got pretty into Nile Rodgers’ style of playing and songwriting. It was really fun but it wasn’t quite working, so we tried slowing it right down and that did the trick. That song became so much more about the feel of how we played it, rather than how well we played it, which is really something that you could say about so much of this album. We spent a lot of time learning to feel the songs as well as just play them.”
Prepare to feel Zun Zun Egui’s second album. It’s a gift and a half.