Music is a medicine for the people. Great music offers its medicine to all people, breaking down barriers and using beats to bust apart divisions so we can meet in the safety of good sounds. Back It Up, the new EP from Wonderwheel by New York-based producer Thornato, delivers, yet again, the cure, for all of us. The command delivered by Back It Up is simple and direct: Get on the dance floor, release yourself from semantics…and feel good.
Back It Up is the follow-up to the success of the album Bennu (2017). Producer Thor Partridge, AKA Thornato, is an expert in brewing together tropical sounds. His productions curate cultures in a way that awards them for their uniqueness, but places them in relation to others. Luring us in with familiar elements, the EP offers an opportunity to discover something new. The recording connects us to places we have grown to appreciate for sound culture: Jamaica, West Africa, New York, South Africa and more. The tracks have a celebratory vibe with a sense of soundscapes found in Carnival-themed dancehalls.
Thornato’s knack for creating a collage of culture through sound is part of what we have come to admire and respect in his work. A long-time traveler, he has been exposed to a diverse range of sounds that have piqued his imagination. On the tracks here, Thornato’s ear for highlife and soukous guitar contribute to the good vibes.
The original seed for the track “Back It Up” was buried in a folder that Lucas Silva of Palenque Records in Colombia shared with Thornato. Particularly drawn to the nuances in the guitar riffs, Thor began playing with the stems, chopping and pitch shifting. “I wanted to make a champeta-styled instrumental but blend that with '90s dancehall samples. For example, the dog bark from the Casio SK-5 which is used in champeta and the stabs from fever-pitch riddim to give it a nostalgic vibe.”
Fast forward a few years, Thornato revisited the beats he had made and began reaching out to various artists. He began with Accra-based singer Zongo Abongo, who had impressed him the "Busy Twist" remix of his track "El Oro de la Tolita.” In a 2018 style of connecting, Thornato and Zongo Abongo began corresponding online, Thornato in N.Y. and Zongo in Ghana. Working off of a selection that features a champeta "dembow" rhythm, all recording was done in Ghana, as the two maintained a close connection throughout the process. “Zongo and I would text each other all day long in real time, it almost felt as if we were hanging out in person. It was crazy how much a part of my life he was during the making of that song even though he was in Ghana! It's interesting because even though we haven't met in person, I feel like we became friends and got to know each other through this collaboration.” The track also features guitarist OT Woode from Ghana, who played on Ed Sheeran's Grammy-winning Best Pop Album, Divide.
The resulting track, “Back It Up,” delivers easy-to-love sounds with great dance energy. It would be a surprise to see a person of any age hold still with this bubbling beat in their ears! The cut has already exploded into the dancehalls of Lagos and Accra.
"Chaka Chaka" brings us to South Africa. In 1931, Thomas Mofolo wrote a highly revered novel called Chaka. In the story, based on oral Sotho and Zulu traditions, a hero experiences incredible mysteries and marvels that ordinary people cannot fathom. Interestingly, the term chaka chaka has come to be used in urban slang as reference to having sex, such as "we did chaka chaka all night long." On the track "Chaka Chaka," there seems to be a nod to both the old mystical meaning, as well as the cheeky modern one. However, the actual reference is an ode to the beloved "Princess of Africa," South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka. According to Bajah, who laid vocals on the track, “Chaka is an Afrobeat soukous-style riddim which is very familiar to my country Sierra Leone. I am chanting about a lady I met at a party who really knows how to dance and looks very pretty like this old-school South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka." Aside from earning global respect for the ways she has used her fame to advance positive change, "Chaka Chaka" showcases what we love in all of Thornato’s productions, the confluence of traditional and modern appeal.
The track is sexy, but also innocent. The original spark came out of a mbira recording session in Cape Town. The wooden board instrument with its staggered metal tines is played with a sort of intimacy, holding the small instrument typically in both hands and plucking the tines with thumbs. The instrument has been part of musical history for thousands of years, found throughout Africa and the Caribbean in various forms, and has re-entered modern music thanks to global stars like Thomas Mapfumo. During a month-long stay, Thornato had a series of epic recording sessions with dozens of artists with the vision to distribute these stems to an A-team of producers to play with, and then collected their finished products for a compilation project. However, during these sessions, Thornato became mesmerized by the artist Dingsqayo Juma, who played his mbira with a unique variation of tempos. “For me this is the most important thing with making a track--finding that one element that gives you goose bumps and the juice to build upon.” Thornato took this track to New York and worked out an instrumental, later inviting the Brooklyn-based son of Sierra Leone, Bajah, to drop vocals. Bajah, of Dry Eye Crew, and Thornato spent time together in the N.Y. studio, bouncing ideas, always centering on the plucking of that special mbira track. Later, L.A. producer Yukicito remixed the track and brought his own loops, also featured on the EP.
While grounded in claps with a dancehall vibe, “No Problem” also plucks at the heartstrings. Thornato linked up again with Kongo Elektro, a duo from Capetown made up of Dan Eppel and Mapumba Cilombo. “We had previously done a song together called ‘Deux a Deux’ for my album and it was really one of my favorite tunes, so I decided to reach out to them for another collab. Mapumba delivered a great chorus and we wanted to get another singer involved and felt Zongo Abongo would be a great addition. Kongo Elektro definitely brings the kwassa vibes and Zongo does a soca twist, so I think it's a pretty fun, uplifting song for the dance floor.”
The world we live in can always use more avenues for people to connect with one another. Music is the map, drawing lines to link faraway places. As Thornato states, “Music as a means to deepen connections and break down barriers is extremely important to me. As I've grown as a person and producer, I've realized that this is the most important impact music has. I made many lifelong friends through music collaborations. Music has no boundaries and if you find a fellow human being that has the same mission as you it doesn't matter where they are from.”