Nyokabi Kariuki – FEELING BODY
3.10.23 by Matty McPherson
I had to call out sick to work last Saturday. I genuinely don’t like doing that, but for about the past year I’ve been having repeated bouts of Sciatica in the lower left side of my body; I was limping out in socks at 5pm and straight up unable to bend down and pick up a King of the Hill DVD I dropped later that night. When you are 24 years old, this shit wrecks you. Trying to pinpoint the triggers that start the cycles, the recovery routines that work, and the mobility patterns that uphold stability have become mental focuses crucial to my ability to navigate the world; the feeling of what’s going on and what could happen in the span of a few hours can mean the world to me. One thing that I know works is the hot water and jets of a jacuzzi. Water revealed a talismanic quality in that it seems to loosen and shift my joints in the worst bouts.
About this time last year, I found myself suddenly tuned towards a rather unique EP release from Nyokabi Kariuki. There were numerous reasons why I found something to latch onto with Peace Places: Kenyan Memories. Firstly, Kariuki was born the same year I was and has lived a completely different, spatially omnibus life; one cut between family in Kenya and the US east coast. The title alone was enough to reinforce this, the sense of a different space from my own. Secondly, the EP had a strong sense of personhood that was less reliant on synthesizers than traditional instrumentation and field recordings. Kariuki was legitimately moving beyond just merely recording utilitarian spatial music and seemed to be breaking the fourth wall to deliver a personal truth, a situated knowledge that this style of ambient often waves and hints at but often fails to deliver. Kariuki had an incredible mastery of analog elements that sought to inform a listener “you can escape your Leibnizian monadic lifestyle if you take stock of the surroundings around you.” And it really liked water!
Kariuki’s sudden turnaround–this time for a “debut album” on cmntx records, FEELING BODY, solely released on tape right now–struck me hard when I heard it last month. As far as C32s run, this is a brutally efficient, deeply precocious open book listen (and yes, there is a book edition shipping with the tape). Returning to Peace Places after listening to FEELING BODY, what strikes me is the space, the open zone quality to these field recordings, often tied together by water. She is building off of the immense space and vagueness of that enticing release, but Kariuki has turned deeply inward.
There is a small, but burgeoning reaction to long COVID showing up in a handful of releases on Bandcamp. When I talked to Paul Dickow (Strategy) last fall, Dickow revealed that he had been working through long COVID and the fatigue the onset produces. Dickow’s latest Strategy releases have not quite responded to this temporal fatigue if only because they were developed over the last decade before this disease existed. FEELING BODY makes it rather clear in its Bandcamp notes that this is a long COVID album–and Kariuki has recovered from it to a manageable level. This shift inward is a purposeful reaction to trying to pinpoint the resonance, the feelings of a body in a moment of catatonic chronic illness. Documenting that is a radically vulnerable task, as much as an incredible display of finding healing in novel capacities; cycling for the right sounds, the necessary mantras, and the otherworldly spaces that a mind can imagine outside the pain it finds itself in.
FEELING BODY is not much different than its predecessor. 6 tracks running slightly longer, albeit this time the title track is a whopping 12 minutes; instrumentation is less regionally diverse, but still focuses on a chamber set (from bass to violin and now trumpet) amongst delicate vocal harmony that radiates its own unique ambience. It’s a greater focus in classical composition that allows Kariuki to tell her story in manner while experimenting Opener “Subira” is built off of those vocal harmonies and glacial pauses akin to a breathing exercise. One that welcomes you while coming to terms with a deft truth “your recovery may take longer than you think.” Yet, herein lies a promise of recovery and a shift to a new understanding of the body.
The 12-minute title track that follows is amongst the most adventurous compositions so far this year. There’s a return to the motif of water that shifts in pace and tension throughout the piece; yet the quality is that of a drippier, more hypnotic texture. There’s a subconscious dive across the track. Her vocal production leans towards that of ASMR-defusion and immediate focus. If it can drift peacefully, it’s amongst faint clouds of vocals that sound akin to harmonic engine whistles. Yet, there’s a stress and tension to the opening fourth; tightrope strings that want to collapse on themselves. It culminates in one moment Kariuki considers the dissociation of how her body may feel for a while. It’s enough to create a beckoning, fleet feeling in its back third; radiant horns and bird sounds amongst the harmonic chorus, a euphoric spring.
Side B’s “fire head’ recalls recent text-to-speech works of Lucy Liyou. Kariuki fucks with the voice as if to prime the listener to a buzzing, not-quite temporally tuned mind. The repetition becomes a storm in itself, lashing and gaining a BPM as Michael Denis Ó Callaghan’s horn races to an unsettling, sublime climax. “quiet face” is a duet between the violin and its feedback and Kariuki’s haunted, dissociated voice that seems to wander across in search in the silence. When it finds itself out of that black hole, “folds” creates a sense of stately dread from what seems to be an insect rustle, that Kariuki defuses with an operatic lullaby and clarinet; it feels of a narcotized pop that’s been missing dearly, especially as her voice approaches a vaudevillian dream. Its low drone, functions akin to a detente, disarming all the while.
“Nazama” (“I sink” in Swahili), the only other track capitalized outside the opener, reintroduces the water motif. One that returns faintly but noticeably at the end as Kariuki seems to surrender into the water and its potential for healing. It ends the tape on an empowering note that reveals a pertinent resolution.
Edition of 100 Available at the cmntx Records Bandcamp Page