“Crossing over from my homeland/With an African magic wand,” moans KG Omulo on “Ayah Ye!”–and in one line, expresses the tension between earnest nationalism and galumphing turns of phrase in his new album. Omulo’s debut Ayah Ye! Moving Train, which dropped on Tuesday, is world music if anything is, though not world music in the arbitrary record-store genre-colony classification system; on track after track, it’s got Diaspora on the brain. It’s not just Omulo’s lyrics about travel–which may refer to his own trans-national sojourn from a barbershop-doo wop past in Nairobi to Rhode Island to the sunny sand banks and whimsy of Orlando, Florida, where he’s now based. The quivering basslines and horn-spattered backdrops of several songs feature lyrics sung in English and Swahili. And when Omulo drops subtleties like this one on “Moving Train”: “Can’t stand in the way of progress/or in the way of a moving train,” it’s not easy to tell if he’s being optimistic about Africa’s future or offering a sly condemnation of geopolitics, or both. “It’s a Relief,” with its Fela-esque keyboard solo, and the percolating wah-wah of “Quality Women” attempt to imbue the LP with political weight as heavy as the horns Omulo likes so much. There’s unmistakably a message on the Train.
Elsewhere, the message delivered from Moving Train’s cuts to listening ears can fire a synapse that just might make one dance anywhere. All the songs are danceable to the point of being combustive–the album’s best quality is, in fact, it’s hardline funk and jam circulation. But while the hearty musicianship and political import of many of the songs is evident, the songwriter’s charm is not, and many of the songs burn out quick, spiraling into perfect, goofy dribble (“Quality women, quality women/from the continent” is the aforementioned song’s only lyric). Ayah Ye! Moving Train is a spotty start laden with surreptitious moments of delight. If Omulo can harness the abundant joy and the simplicity caught in some of the album’s better moments he might find his career steadily moving forward, finding a comfortable space between strident musicality and lively, pleasant storytelling.
-Niela A. Orr