Joni Mitchell – The Jungle Line

• “The Jungle Line” set to a picture of the housing album cover. Thanks to Pimalves.

8.7 “Excellent Cerebral Pop from Canada”

From her album “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” (Asylum Records 7E-1051) released in November, 1975.

One of the first things you’ll notice with this exceptional track is the distortion on those drums which is quickly pulled back into line by the engineer – little did Michel Vuylsteke know that this little indiscretion on his Burundi field recording of ’67 would be highlighted so publically via Joni’s sampling several years later!

Although I can’t say that I was too enamoured with the overtly complex brand of pop-jazz that was starting to dominate Joni Mitchell’s LPs in the mid-70s, there is always something worthwhile on each of her sets, and “The Jungle Line” certainly comes into that category for me, although there were many fans of the artist who were horrified by the tribal intrusion. Irk the purists, go Joni.

Into the heady mix along with the Burundi drummers is her newly purchased Moog synth, a lightly strummed acoustic guitar and an intriguing set of lyrics which are re-connecting urbanites with animal-isms. The lyrics pay homage to the works of the French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (May 21, 1844 – September 2, 1910); some of his best-known works were Jungle scenes, and featured wild animals ripping into flesh and meat. Joni blends details of his works with imagery of modern city life, the music industry and the underground drug culture.

The African theme of “The Jungle Line” also features on the album sleeve, with an image of natives carrying a large snake (both were embossed on the original vinyl album cover). Both men and snake are superimposed on the Beverly Hills suburbs, with Mitchell’s own house marked in blue on the back cover.

What we have here, is a multi-dimensional artist in full effect.

A keen traveller and culture-vulture, it perhaps comes as no great surprise to learn that Joni got her hands on a copy of the LP “Musique du Burundi” (Ocora OCR-40) released in 1968. It’s likely that she picked up on the French release during her extended European adventures in the early 70s.

• “Tambourinaires de Bukirasazi – Ensemble de Tambours Ingoma” set to a picture of the housing album cover.

The Ocora label – the recording arm of Radio France – was big on ethnographic long-players, and the aforementioned set was one of the first of theirs to put a whole nation’s music under the spotlight. The Burundi-bound technician on “sonic safari” for this one was Michel Vuylsteke – and what fine captures he made (the odd bit of red-lining aside), showcasing chanting and playing of many varieties. But it’s Joni’s drummers we’re concerned with today. Here’s what Michel had to say about this recording:

Ensemble of drums, recorded on 31st May 1967 at Bukirasazi. Music played in honour of the authorities by the group of drummers from Bukirasazi. The Ingoma drum, an instrument symbolizing power, was used in the past solely at the court of the king, or in the big chiefdoms. A group of drummers was attached to the king’s person, following him on his travels to the interior of the country, participating in the traditional festivals at which he was present (chiefly the sowing festival) or intervening at certain moments in the royal day (e.g. the king’s awakening). The privilege of playing these drums was handed down from father to son. Today, the drummers continue to appear at various festivities. They are considered by the Rundi (the inhabitants of Burundi) as one of the most representative elements of the musical tradition of the country.

The drummers of Bukirasazi (31 May 1967)

The drummers of Bukirasazi, 31 May 1967.

25 ingoma drums with one pegged skin, placed vertically on the ground, are arranged in a semi-circle around a central drum of the same kind. They are played by means of two imirisho sticks which beat either the skin or the barrel.

The drummers of Bukirasazi (31 May 1967), central drummer

The drummers of Bukirasazi (31 May 1967), central drummer.

The group of drummers begins to play after their leader has called to them. Then each drummer in turn takes up his position in front of the central drum, which he beats while dancing at the same time, and the other musicians continue playing. The declamations of the musician-dancer are in praise of the person or authority who is present, in the hope of obtaining a present on behalf of the group (a cow for example). Usually the group plays until each drummer has had time to appear as a soloist.

~ Michel Vuylsteke’s liner notes translated from French by Joséphine Bennett.

Forget Bow Wow Wow, Adam and the Ants, Peter Gabriel or Paul Simon – Joni Mitchell was fusing Western-African sonics long before them. Mind you, John Kongos was even earlier than Joni… ha, rock n roll, don’t you just love it… the story that never ends… ::insert your own whistling emoticon::

You can check the reviews for my favoured albums of 1975 here.

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2 thoughts on “Joni Mitchell – The Jungle Line

  1. Thanks for the info, i’ve never heard this one by Joni Mitchell. There’s just one important detail missing in your story. In 1971, Mike Steiphenson aka Burundi Steiphenson Black, already released a single version that sampled the original Burundi drummers with piano and guitar added by Steiphenson. Personally i think it’s more likely that Joni Mitchell heard this version (and not the original album on Ocara) and then recorded her own version in 1975. Here’s the 1971 version by Mike Steiphenson https://youtu.be/iH9rcSDyuCo.

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