My strings propagate
Through space and time
Here and there
At the same time
Sudan Archives – Nont for Sale

In October 2016, nearly a year prior to her first commercial release, Sudan Archives posted Queen Kunta on YouTube, a cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta”. The video clip sees the singer sitting in front of a loop station, playing a violin, using it as a percussive instrument and quoting Luigi Boccherini’s “Minuet” – a very confident statement of intent from a young musician still in her early twenties.

Signed to the Los Angeles-based Stones Throw Records, Sudan Archives has since released two EPs – the self-titled Sudan Archives in July 2017 and Sink in May 2018 – both introducing a stunning fusion of traditional African fiddle music, R&B, soul, Hip Hop and electronic music.

Sudan Archives EP (2017)
Sudan Archives EP (2017)

Sudan Archives is the stage name of Brittney Parks, a singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who grew up outside Cincinnati, Ohio and who is now based in L.A. Like many of her peers, Sudan Archives learned her music at church ceremonies. From the age of 10, she started to teach herself to play the violin by ear to accompany the choir.

As the name suggests, Northeast African fiddlers were a major source of inspiration for the musician. “The way they play is unique” says Parks, “I like the scales that they play in – there’s a lot of pentatonic scales and I also use those scales in my music too”. “Come Meh Way”, the first single to be released from her first self-titled EP is built around a simple traditional-sounding loop on the violin which is then further expanded later in the song.

Discovering the violin-playing style of musicians like Asim Gorashi from Sudan or Juldeh Camara for instance was a real eye opener for Sudan Archives. An African one-string fiddle player from Gambia, Juldeh Camara hails from a griot family and has recorded extensively with Justin Adams or Robert Plant as part of his band The Sensational Space Shifters. The music of Ali Farka Touré made an impact too. Renowned for his desert blues-inflected guitar playing, the Malian musician was also a njarka player, a small one-string gourd fiddle which can be heard in many of his recordings.

Sudan Archives also quotes the early forays into African electronic music from the mid-1970s onwards by Cameroonian artist, writer and musician Francis Bebey. African Electronic Music 1976-1982 (2011) and Psychedelic Sanza 1982-1984 (2014), both on French label Born Bad Records, are two recent compilations that celebrate the pioneering and experimental music of Francis Bebey. Blending traditional African instruments like flutes and the Sanza (or Mbira, from the thumb piano family) with modern lyrics, bass, keyboards, drum machines and electronics, the visionary musician sowed the seeds of a modern “worldbeat” strongly rooted in Africa.

Sudan Archives - Sink EP (2018)
Sudan Archives – Sink EP (2018)

Visiting Ghana allowed me to experience first-hand the music and culture that inspired this EP. Sink is my contribution to the great African fiddlers of past and I hope their tradition will live through this piece of music.

As a result, most of Sudan Archives’ music exhibits a quasi-spiritual connection with African music. “Come Meh Way” and the standalone single “Water” (both directed by Eric Coleman) were filmed in Ghana where the musician spent time as a volunteer teaching music production to local schoolchildren. “Time” (filmed by Theo Jemison) “is based on the story of Oshun, the West African Yorùbá Goddess of love, sweet water, and compassion.” The short piece features samples from a thumb piano and from a one-stringed gourd violin.

Witnessing “DIY” instruments like the gourd violin somewhat became the catalyst for the artist to compile her own set of tools to achieve a unique and idiosyncratic musical vision.

In northern Ghana they play this one-stringed violin that goes back to stone-age time. The fact that they just picked up a gourd, snake skin, covered it, nailed it, attached horse hair and then made a bow of horse hair all by themselves really inspired me to complete an album by myself. They just used the tools they had to make instruments and play them. I can do the same thing with what I have. Sometimes we don’t feel like we have enough. But you can use whatever is around you. Sudan Archives interview

As a solo artist and a one-woman band, Sudan Archives’ music is based on loops and samples. “Oatmeal” from her début EP is based on looped pizzicato or bowed violin samples and a magnificent slowed-down cello-sounding motif on which the musician further improvises in live sessions. Four tracks on Sink including “Nont for Sale” are all developed around pizzicato loops too.

By first recording samples on GarageBand and then processing them on stage with Sampling Workstations, the musician experiments by delving into the boundless possibilities offered by technology. If the violin remains the central focus, her music also incorporates hand claps, break and drum beats, bass lines, distortion, textures and voice filters. All the parts are then arranged into a modern, highly original and superbly genre-bending collage influenced both by traditional African music and the American West Coast hip hop scene.