When Sudan Archives was digging through the record bins of Amoeba Music in Hollywood, one cover caught her eye. Emblazoned with a topless African woman with a large collection of jugs on her head, the album was striking enough for the artist to snap a photo and later look up the collection on YouTube. The LP was African Electronic Music 1975-1982 by Francis Bebey. Its discovery would change Sudan Archives’ life.
Since her childhood in Ohio, the artist—born Brittney Parks—has followed an unconventional musical path. Taking up the violin in the fourth grade after seeing a group of fiddlers play folk music in her classroom, she moved frequently between schools, never taking lessons, instead learning to improvise along with her church band. Some years later, she came across an online video of a tribe in northern Ghana playing makeshift violins constructed out of snakeskin, lizard skin, and horsehair. Seeing parallels between their DIY spirit and her own drive to teach herself the instrument, she fell in love with African music.
“The scales they play just sounded totally different to classical music,” Parks tells the Straight on the line from a tour stop in Phoenix. “I found out those instruments were called Hausa violins, which are one-string fiddles. The way they played it stuck with me, and it inspired me to keep doing what I was doing, even though I never had any formal training. I loved how good at multitasking they are, and that the violinists play at the same time as singing. Then, when I heard Francis Bebey, who was incorporating electronic drums with the thumb piano and different rhythms, I starting thinking, ‘Oh man, maybe I should start making some beats and fuse violin with it.’ ”
Armed with a loop pedal and a passion for experimental composition, Parks moved to Los Angeles. There, at an alternative hip-hop night, she ran into Stones Throw records A&R executive Matthewdavid McQueen, who took an interest in her synthesis of electronic samples and coarse percussion. He encouraged her to send through some of her tracks. After steeling herself for nearly a year, she passed him “Come Meh Way”.
“I made the track on this really old laptop that would, like, fart every five minutes,” Parks says with a laugh. “I was working two jobs at the time, making coffee in downtown L.A. and waitressing in Highland Park. Whenever I would wake up and have an hour to get ready, I would work on it a little bit. When he signed me, I only had that one song. But I kept making more music, and we released a collection.”
That EP was the self-titled Sudan Archives, a selection of six tracks that has been featured in publications including Pitchfork and the New York Times. Hypnotic, repetitive violin loops rub up against layered vocals across the record, with handclaps and R&B hooks fashioning textures that are at points thickly claustrophobic, and at others poignantly sparse.
Parks pushes the limit of the violin, mixing pizzicato plucks with long bow sweeps, teaming her acoustic playing with buzzy, low-end electronic samples. It’s both experimental and highly listenable.
“Having this record out feels awesome,” she says. “It’s like, finally everybody has a taste of where I’m going—where I’m headed. I didn’t expect it to be this well-received. I just thought it was going to be a first release, and then I could start building up some momentum. It’s amazing it’s got so much attention.”
Sudan Archives plays the Commodore Ballroom on Tuesday (February 27).
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays