Tuesday, May 19, 2009

K.O.F.Y. : Belgrade via Lagos

Winston Kofy Ahman, aka K.O.F.Y, is a very difficult man to pin down. He is an African musician based in Belgrade, or so says his press release.

But even if we stipulate that his tale of international intrigues and travel (Lagos crack dealer and political activist who shared a cell with Fela Kuti in the late 1970s; unspecified activities in Jamaica and a stint as a doorman at a gay Latino bar in the go-go 80s) might not withstand the careful attentions of an investigative reporter, what are we to make of K.O.F.Y's strange and wondrous new record, Return of the Secretary General EP? (BTW: It's not an EP. But that's part of the title.)

The very existence of the record -- produced in Belgrade and available as a free download in its entirety at the website of San Francisco record company 3amdevices -- is clear evidence that there is indeed a K.O.F.Y in the world. And The Return of the Secretary General EP's spoken word recited over a blend of downtempo, house, ambient and Afrobeat is very much of this moment, even as some fondly anxious influences (The performance artist known as Copernicus and the Lee "Scratch" Perry of The End of an American Dream) look on in approval.

K.O.F.Y was discovered in Belgrade by Vukša Veličković -- a young Serbian writer and cultural gadfly who serves as the executive producer of the Return of the Secretary General EP. Veličković has made a splash in Serbia and elsewhere in the Balkans with his first novel, Gužva (which featured a CD soundtrack inserted in the book), and his cultural writing in various magazines there.

It's no accident that Veličković and K.O.F.Y ended up sharing a recording studio. They share a scathing vision of curdled world disorder and the cozy corruption of international jetsetting diplomacy. Aside from K.O.F.Y's blatant over-identification with former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, other African leaders -- including Robert Mugabe ("Mugabe's Lunch" is the record's first single and video) and Hosni Mubarak -- also get shoutouts on the record. (On "They Call Me K.O.F.Y," the artist instructs Mubarak: "We ask you not to use the washing machine and the dryer in the laundry room during the following times: Monday through Friday, 12 until 2 p.m.... we thank you for your understanding.")

But one could make the argument that for all the talk of Mugabe and Mubarak, Return of the Secretary General is actually a record about Serbia -- past, present and maybe future.

Its attitudes toward power and venality could just as well apply to Tito and Slobodan Milosevic as it does to Mugabe and Mubarak. And, oddly enough, K.O.F.Y's concerns are the same concerns as any creative young person in Serbia today: slow Internet connections ("Slow"), the hell of making a play at emigration ("Boat Trip"), and the collision of art and popular culture (a deranged riff on Britney Spears called "Piece of Me").

On "Slow," K.O.F.Y complains bitterly that "I cannot download movies from torrent websites. I cannot easily access file sharing programs." On "Boat Trip," K.O.F.Y dreams of emigration to America. "At first I wanted to go by boat.... from the coast of Africa to the U.S.A," he says. When his friends ask K.O.F.Y why he doesn't take a bus, he fumes bitterly: "You cannot go any fucking where by bus! You understand?" and "You cannot take a bus to the fucking United States of America! You take a plane! Or a boat like me!"

Return of the Secretary General EP
is full of great beats, dazzling wordplay ("Piece of Me" is particularly noteworthy in this regard) and a palpable sense of alienation and dislocation that has colored the experience of young people in Belgrade for the past 20 years. It also treads some complicated racial territory as it accomplishes this.

Under its very slippery surfaces, what K.O.F.Y and his executive producer have made is compelling listening. Check it out.

(If the 3amdevices site is wonky, as it was as I posted this, you can also download the record at LastFM.)

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