Instructing us to “File this under: Why was this band not huge? Babes. Just dance”, the press release accompanying Saâda Bonaire is particularly effective at capturing the tension that lies at the heart of this record. A collection of long-forgotten tracks from the 80s synth-pop project of the same name, Saâda Bonaire is characterised by a sense of dualism. First and foremost, this is body music at its most direct: funk-ridden disco that bypasses the head on its direct route to the hips, offering unthinking transcendence through a heady fusion of sound and movement. Yet, Saâda Bonaire’s re-emergence, and attempted integration, into the here and now raises a multitude of questions regarding their music’s status within the contemporary.
So, why was this band not huge? Certainly, the music contained on this 13-track album is nothing if not remarkably efficient in targeting the sweaty viscerality of the dance-floor. Over their short lifespan of around three years, Saâda Bonaire ruthlessly distilled pop music down to its absolute essence: these tracks are lean and rhythmic, constructed from short, repeating motifs – a flash of syncopation, a perfectly proportioned one-word vocal hook, a glimmer of a deliciously reverbed sax. The arrangements are economical and uncluttered, but never sparse. Rather, the music’s minimalism is employed in the service of maximalist ends; the spaciousness of the recording allows each component to retain its full depth and character, the patterns of interlocking rhythmic figures alive with kaleidoscopic clarity.
Faced with music of such potency, and near-exquisite quality, it’s surely intriguing that Saâda Bonaire have languished in relative anonymity for so long. The brevity of the group’s career has widely been attributed to that archetypal villain of popular music lore: major label incompetence. Well, that and/or Tina Turner. Formed in 1982 in Bremen, Germany by DJ Ralph Behrendt and vocalists Stefanie Lange and Claudia Hossfeld, Saâda Bonaire were signed by EMI to record their debut single ‘You Could Be More As You Are’. But the spending-spree of their A&R man, who had recently exceeded his marketing budget for Tina Turner’s ‘Private Dancer’ five times over, was finally curtailed by the label just ahead of the track’s release date. As a result, all promotional funding for the group was pulled, leaving Saâda Bonaire to descend into obscurity.
Enter, thirty years later, American label Captured Tracks who have generously compiled this selection of the group’s surviving recordings. And what’s most striking about the music collected here is just how modern it sounds after all this time; although perhaps the music’s sense of contemporary pertinence is due less to Saâda Bonaire being remarkably ahead of their time than it is to us being woefully behind ours (as any sympathiser with Simon Reynolds’ Retromania would be quick to argue).
In any case, this is music that speaks to a modern aesthetic sense, that feels alive in the present; but there’s also something amiss, a sense of incongruity that’s difficult to shake. For, where any recent music taking cues from 80s synth-/art-pop has tended to employ a knowing irony as its default mode of communication, Saâda Bonaire’s music is characterised by an earnestness that marks it out as distinctly anachronistic. Nowhere is this glimpsed more unequivocally than in the record’s purported “fusion” of the sounds of East and West, with the group employing a host of Kurdish musicians in the recording of these tracks. The unerring sincerity of such a utopian vision of a harmonious marriage between disparate musical cultures can only be viewed as somewhat quaint from a (post)modern standpoint. Or, at worst, it can begin to seem troubling; indeed, the full complexity of the Kurdish musical tradition is represented on these songs by a handful of reductive signifiers indicating an abstracted, faceless idea of the “ethnic” – a modal flourish here, an alien timbre there, all subsumed by the overriding Western musical language.
The lack of self-awareness indicated by such gestures problematises Saâda Bonaire’s position within the present musical landscape, a landscape which – just like the broader cultural context – is marked by the recursion and fragmentation bred by hyper-mediation. And it’s precisely this discrepancy of tone that makes it so difficult to “just dance”, as Captured Tracks’ press release implores, to this record without feeling plagued by additional questions: not only “why was this band not huge?”, but “how exactly am I supposed to interpret this music?”, “is this all really to be taken at face value?”
It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the track which is likely to speak most evocatively to contemporary ears (or maybe it’s just me) is the record’s most obvious outlier. The eight minutes of ‘Joanna’ comprise a beatless, impressionistic soundscape replete with musique concrète-inspired ambience and esoteric vocals cloaked in impenetrable layers of reverb. Yet, what makes this track so striking is that, at its core, it’s built upon the homely swing of a 12-bar blues. Saâda Bonaire make no efforts to downplay the track’s reliance on such an instantly recognisable trope; rather their usage is unabashed, calling on this musical signifier of the past only to disrupt and distort its meaning in the present. Ironically, of course, this is the exact same trick that numerous retro-enamoured artists have more recently been playing so irreverently on the music of Saâda Bonaire and their contemporaries. But it’s by virtue of this additional layer of complexity, of ambiguity and, perhaps, irony, that ‘Joanna’ appears to communicate with such urgency: an urgency that, for all its irresistible physicality, is conspicuously lacking from elsewhere on this beguiling, yet somehow remote, collection.
Originally published by The Quietus