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Mochila reveals extraordinary talent in debut album

By Danielle Gewurz

Section: Arts

April 24, 2009

<i>PHOTO BY Max Shay /The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Max Shay /The Hoot

Named after the Spanish word for backpack, featuring instruments from a wide variety of musical traditions, and combining influences from traditional Arabic music as well as jazz, Mochila is a student music ensemble that truly boasts diversity. The group, founded in 2008 and having swelled to twelve members, is perfoming at Springfest, which starts at 12:00pm this Sunday, and again at Slosberg Music Hall this Sunday at 7:00pm to celebrate the release of their first CD, “Green Bullets.”

Mochila’s music features spoken word tracks backed by instrumentation as well as instrumental-only tracks, both featured on their debut album. Mohammed Kundos ’10 founded the group when he needed music for a student film, but the group has certainly expanded its ambitions. Their CD, a cohesive set of thirteen tracks, displays unbelievable promise and a great deal of chops as well as intricate composition.

A strength of Mochila’s ensemble is without a doubt the percussion, the backbone of most tracks. The work is varied throughout the CD, but interesting, exploring rhythms beyond the basics of either jazz or Arabic music.

Album opener “Before Sunrise” is a lengthy track that serves to artfully explicate Mochila’s thesis in seven minutes. Alternating between rhythmic lulls and fluid string melodies backed by full bass. Building to a climax over several minutes, the track dissolves into almost a dirge-like melody before a crescendo of percussion, and a few notes trail off, revealing more of the group’s jazz influences. The piece is a stylistic mix that flows seamlessly into the Arabic style opening of the second track, “Salwa.”

“Whale Call” is the first track with vocals on the album and opens quietly to a compelling voice asking, “Do you want to see me? / Or do you want to be me?” in even tones, quickly speeding up to reference Nietzsche, and reject the idea of the song as hip hop or spoken word, instead calling it “my pain.”

The track is backed by light instrumentation, providing the perfect counterpoint to the vocals. It’s a catchy track in a subtle way; Mochila eschews an obvious hook for music that feels both new and organic, and the effect is compelling when the track ends with, “Do you really want to see me? / Just come in.”

Instrumental “Green Bullets” touches back on some of the themes of “Before Sunrise” while adding much more of a jazz flavor, and is followed by “Arabic Coffee” and its beautifully subtle string opening. “Ghaz’l (Intro)” is a suspenseful, subtle work of tension between notes and silence, leading into “Ghaz’l.”

“Food for Thought” brings back the vocals, opening with percussion and a command to “Listen!” and move into “its innermost parts.” The track’s tension between music and words is turbulent and well used. The track moves into a climax of drums and vocals, shifting into a call and response of “We ain’t going nowhere” that, backed by a chorus of voices, is a powerful expression of diverse voices unifying; in essence, it’s a microcosm of the idea behind Mochila as a whole.

The entirety of “Green Bullets” flows exceptionally well, and the album presents solidly as a well-sequenced work, displaying consistency from track to track, while still progressing and varying in different directions. The remarkable aspect of their debut is that none of the tracks ever feel crowded, despite the large number of participating musicians. Each track has quite a bit of breathing space, room left for minimal moments in between swells of music. There’s never any dissonance between the participants.

From classical to jazz to reggae, the influences Mochila marshals are wide-ranging and fit together into songs without being tamed or watered down. Be sure to give Mochila’s debut a listen (or several) and see them perform live this Sunday. Mochila is a group founded on Brandeis ideals of diversity, peace, and coexistence, and Kundos and company make those ideals sound better than ever before.

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