Felix Laband's The Soft White Hand is the masterwork of an artist who expresses himself through musical and artistic collage acting together to reinterpret his sources and to express significant elements of his own personal story. Released by Munich-based Compost Records, the 14-track album is Laband's first full-length offering since the critically acclaimed Deaf Safari in 2015. It is heralded by the single "Derek and Me", and is being pressed on vinyl for distribution globally.
In The Soft White Hand Laband works with source materials that will be familiar to those who know his previous four records – Thin Shoes in June (2001), 4/4 Down the Stairs (2002), Dark Days Exit (2005) and especially Deaf Safari which reached deep into the South Africa scene and its political culture to inspire its vocal and music sampling. However, the disengagement he felt from his homeland during his latest album's creation – an abiding sense of untethered-ness to place and space, exquisitely rendered in tracks like "Death of a Migrant" – is perceptible in Laband's desire to illuminate instead aspects of his own life.
"For this album, my source material became almost autobiographical as opposed to African statements I've worked with previously," says the artist. "I have sampled a lot from documentaries from the 80s crack epidemic in impoverished African American communities and believe my work speaks unapologetically for the lost and marginalised, for those who are the forgotten casualties of the war on drugs. In the past, I have had my issues with substance abuse, and I know first-hand about the nightmares and fears, what it feels like to be isolated and abandoned."
Few artists have managed to air these intimate aspects of their life so luminously as Laband does in tracks like "5 Seconds Ago", "They Call Me Shorty" and in the strange and meditative "Dreams of Loneliness". "I've been building this weird, autobiographical story using other people talking. It's kind of humorous but it is also sad and beautiful," says Laband.
Yet, as in all of Laband's recorded output, the delineations between emotions are never starkly drawn and The Soft White Hand is also shot through with beauty. Nature appears in recordings made in his garden in the intimate early morning hours, whether as in the calls of the Hadada Ibis and other birdsong in "Prelude" or of the vertical-tail-cocking bird in "Derek and Me". The last is a wonderful track with Derek Gripper, the South African experimental classical guitarist of international renown, whose 2020 song "Fanta and Felix" imagines a meeting between Fanta Sacko and Laband.
Laband's eloquence in reinterpreting classical composers such as Beethoven in "We Know Major Tom's a Junkie" is another thrilling aspect of the new record. "I've been properly exploring classical music on this album," explains Laband, "taking melodies from classical compositions and reinterpreting them". A fresh quality comes to his work through this sonic adventuring: the tender manipulation of the mundaneness of the computer's AI voice to reimagine and reinvent iconic lyrics and melodies in strange and unexpected configurations.
The Soft White Hand is Laband's most cohesive body of work to date. Yet it remains, in its sheer artistic scope, impossible to describe fully. Darkness abuts the gossamer light. A song that summons the sunrise and all the hope of a new day could also be about the final dipping down of the sun that portends a troubled night ahead. Interludes are invitations to expand outwards or shift inwards. Mistakes and "weird fuckups" in the sound are cherished as convincing statements against what Laband calls the "grossness" of perfect sound in modern music.
For this world-leading electronic artist, the boundaries are unfixed. He is inspired by the German Dada artist, Hannah Höch, who memorably declared: "I wish to blur the firm boundaries which we self-certain people tend to delineate around all we can achieve." His music consequently reflects a primal artistic impulse that is also visible in Laband's considerable visual art output as seen recently in several solo exhibitions such as that held in the No End Gallery in Johannesburg in 2019 and in the works he produced during his 2018 Nirox Foundation Artists Residency. "My music is always about collage, as is my art,'' he affirms. "Everything I do is collage. It is a medium I find very interesting because you are taking history and distorting it and changing its meaning and turning it upside down and back to front." In her book Recollections of My Non-Existence, Rebecca Solnit calls collage "literally a border art"; it is "an art of what happens when two things confront each other or spill onto each other".
With The Soft White Hand, Laband is confirming his singular ability to achieve this in both art and music, melting the divisions between the two creative disciplines until they become one. He is also affirming his belief that an album of music should be more than a collection of unrelated tracks, but should unfold a fully integrated, cohesive story as in the song cycles of the great classical composers. In doing so, he claims his position as one of the most significant artists working today.
Artist Statement – Felix Laband – August 2022
When the Khmer Rouge took their captives for processing, they identified their class enemies by looking at their hands. If they were sunburned, rough and calloused, they were those of a peasant, a proletarian to be spared. But if they were soft and white, then they were those of a city-dweller, an intellectual or bourgeois, an adversary to be liquidated.
In calling this album The Soft White Hand, I was reflecting on the Cambodian genocide and how it resonates in contemporary South Africa. The apartheid era is over, and gone with it is white political domination. Yet economic and social privilege is still held in soft white hands. But those who grasp it know just how tenuous is their hold, how it singles them out, and my music reflects their subconscious fears, the stress and guilt of clinging on to what others envy and desire.
The soft white hand of the title suggests to me a further image, one that relates to all of postcolonial Africa. In my mind's eye, I see the soft, duplicitous handshake of the smooth representatives of the superpowers making deals and promising gifts that benefit only them, and not their African dupes.
Yet, soaring above the wailing of sirens sampled from the first day of the invasion of Ukraine, my music is also about love gained and passion lost. It is about the tender caress of a soft white hand that conducts you into a place of dreams to be enfolded by nocturnal melodies.
1. Dreaming In Johannesburg
3. Derek And Me
4. We Know Major Tom's A Junkie
5. They Call Me Shorty
6. Go To Sleep Little Baby
7. 5 Seconds Ago
8. 7 Rise 7 House
9. Borc Love
10. Dreams Of Loneliness
11. Requiem For The Lord
12. Snug Retreat
13. Death Of A Migrant