As with any remodelled unit or new project in the aftermath of a break-up, The Gumbo Ya-Ya’s were bound…
As with any remodelled unit or new project in the aftermath of a break-up, The Gumbo Ya-Ya’s were bound to exhibit their craft amidst looming scepticism – irrational or otherwise – intrinsic to fans of bands that call it quits. That the Future Primitives were a veritable force is a fairly uncontested notion. Cue their abrupt disbanding and the prompt reassurance that the lacuna would be filled by two-thirds of the former troupe plus a mystery guitarist, and I wasn’t quite sure what to think. But Superstitious Kisses projects confidently, right from the diaphragm, and leaves the legacy of the previous band behind it. Wildly tuneful, artfully messy and contrastingly tidy when needs be, the Gumbo Ya-Ya’s’ sharp debut is bursting with personality.
When the Primitives broke up, the irritatingly vague public reason was that they had done everything they wanted to do with that particular incarnation – which included a recent European tour. For anyone moderately acquainted with the Cape Town garage-band scene, this casual attitude wouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise given the multiple iterations that the relevant familiar-faces have assumed over the years. Mahala cheekily documented this metamorphosis in a way that will make things a little clearer:
For relative newcomers, on the other hand (myself included), it was baffling that, after establishing something so good, so promising, the band members would so carelessly jump ship. Alas, I’m sure they had their reasons for splitting. And, like any wise thirteen year-old girl’s Twitter-bio will tell you, sometimes things fall apart for better things to come together.
Heino Retief (vocals/bass), Warren Fisher (drums) and Giovanni Votano (guitars/adding-a-new-face) have delivered a charged assortment of eleven similar songs with few fucks given. What’s more is that the listener is recklessly provoked to adopt the same mantra. Like their live set – which is superb – the record builds sublimely. Infinitely danceable, helter-skelter jams with intermittent freckles of neat instrumental-work populate the album’s 26 minutes. ‘Hurt Me’ tees off brightly and ‘Love Like Mine’ immediately raises the bar with a warmth befitting of the title. By the time ‘Farewell’ paves way to ‘On My Mind’ – home to the tastiest riff on the album – it’s almost impossible not to surrender to this record’s melodic splendour. The brief, psychotic melt-down approaching the two-minute mark of the latter track after a quick bout of nifty guitar work from Votano is wickedly laughable and makes for a great moment at the gigs – if just for peoples’ reactions. The title-track fires up a momentum of its own which is vigorously perpetuated from instrumental groove ‘Juju Dust’ through to energetic closer ‘Coming On Strong’.
Despite quips about this lot’s band-trajectory, with this debut and the accompanying shows The Gumbo Ya-Ya’s prove to be an altogether different animal. A lot more has changed than just Johnny Tex’s leaving: the songwriting comes from a different place; the energy that fuels the performances seems to be new-found and the recorded work jumps at you like never before. Most remarkably, with his vagabondish, throaty howl, Retief has managed to find a singing-voice that might just edge Tex’s in the ‘cool’ department. It’s hard to imagine vocals that would do more for this band’s overall presentation – a praiseworthily convincing cover of The Sonics’ classic ‘The Witch’ at a recent Pit gig aptly illustrated this. At the back, Fisher has shown himself to be a consistently good drummer and is as much of an asset as his iconic ginger mane. Votano moulds to his role just right, live, and on this LP. Like with its best bands, the amateurish clumsiness that clothes this genre intersects at the sweet-spot with the Ya-Ya’s’ musicianship.
With a name like ‘The Gumbo Ya-Ya’s’ and their party-band demeanour, one wonders if and how the notion of depth will fit into this scope of this act’s development. Whether they intend for it to last at all remains to be seen. If they continue to write, play and record with adaptive inspiration and exuberance, it will be a compelling growth to behold. Superstitious Kisses is very clearly not trying to accomplish what The Future Primitives didn’t manage to; rather, it’s a fresh start with the added benefit of gained experience and enhanced artistic clarity. Retief and Fisher have shown themselves to be connoisseurs of their genre. They also know their capabilities, their limits and have visibly learnt how authentically to tailor their product to meet their own nuanced expectations as well as to please the mixed-bag crowds for whom they perform. That being said, they have every right to be proud of Superstitious Kisses.