There’s a chemistry at work between these two performers — a team both in art and life — the results of which are evident from the initial instants of Black Lotos. Xu Fengxia and Lucas Niggli share a Chinese origin, the latter’s mother coming from that country. Considering that he — a Swiss — was born in Camerun, the Asian/African scent occasionally elicited by his sensitive use of percussion and drums might be firmly rooted in this man’s DNA. On the other hand, Fengxia may be specialized in traditional stringed instruments — she plays Guzheng and Sanxian on this CD besides singing — yet her influences and experiences have been multifarious, informed by all kinds of accents — rock, classical, jazz, free improvisation — with the late bassist Peter Kowald recognized as a sort of paternal reference.
This premise is not useful, in any case, to give a really accurate picture of the scope of these duets, recorded at Cologne’s Loft in December 2007. The overall impression is one of extreme firmness, with a definite emphasis on the spiritual aspects of the exchange, a pair of souls fused in semi-consciousness for a large part of the album. In “Ride Over Blue Sky” we were reminded of Saadet Turkoz — another Intakt protagonist — as Fengxia intones invocations and, subsequently, extremely effective melodies that sound frail at first, successively shifting to a higher level of shamanistic intensity, and whose popular derivation and immediate action on the memory do not detract from the pureness of their intent. The instrumental accompaniment, here as in the rest of the program, is functional to the spur of the moment, soberly oriented to the preservation of a primary essence rather than constituting an “alternative” extravagance. Virtuosity, in this particular juncture, is a matter of mixing judgment and quasi-irrational explosions, the couple essentially succeeding.
Someone might be tempted to place this record in a “world music” mental shelf, but that would be silly. One only needs to listen to the spectacularly engrossing harmonics generated by the duo at the beginning of the self-explanatory “Bow Blow”, a scraping pre-apocalypse perfumed with David Jackman-like harsh holiness, to realize that — come the right occasion — Fengxia and Niggli are ready to fight against the demons of superficiality. When they speed up the procedures in amusing hybrids sounding like Greek bluegrass played in a Shanghai’s alley (check “Old Tree”), the positive judgement is supplemented by a good dose of fun. Yes, this stuff can also be the pretext for an outburst of mad dancing. Still, it’s the powerful communion of fundamental natures which stands as the most important element to consider when judging this effort a winning bet.