Defying Stereotypes

Paul St. Hilaire’s Tikiman Vol. 1

Tikiman Vol.1 is a remarkable achievement. It demands to be played over and over and sounds better each time.

Paul St. Hilaire's Germany. Karl-Marx-Straße, Neukölln.

But Paul St. Hilaire’s new album also reshapes musical history in the process.

For those who are familiar with St. Hilaire from his collaborations with Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald as Rhythm & Sound, the new record performs a dual function.

Tikiman Vol.1 has many moments that call Rhythm & Sound to mind. And some, like “The Weather Man”, sound like they could be from the reunion records that fans of dub techno have been longing for.

But the more one listens, the more Tikiman Vol. 1 differentiates itself from the minimalism Ernestus and Oswald helped to perfect in the 1990s with their label Basic Channel.

Although by no means a maximalist, St. Hilaire is willing to experiment. Almost every track has a detail or two that break with Basic Channel orthodoxy.

Sometimes the impact is subtle, such as the periodic bursts of crackling noise that give songs the feel of Burial’s early work, as if he were hearing the music over a radio that can’t quite fix on a steady signal.

But there are times when St. Hilaire seems eager to demonstrate that his music is more than dub.

The beats on “In Door” are a little too fast and frequent to qualify, the lyrics on “Bedroom in my Bag” a little too topical and intense.

Most startling of all is “Keep Safe”, Tikiman Vol.1’s most accessible track for listeners without a deep understanding of how dub and techno evolved.

Downright buoyant, with a classic reggae tempo and cheerful keyboard arpeggios, the opening bars of this song already repudiate the ascetic streamlining that characterizes the vast majority of St. Hilaire’s collaborations.

Then comes the guitar solo.

For someone devoted to minimal dub, it’s hard to imagine a more shocking example of musical incorrectness.

But it’s a fabulous solo, like one of Jimi Hendrix’s live improvisations played through a post-punk filter.

Like everything else on the record, St. Hilaire played the solo himself.

Even though he originally came to Germany to play guitar and has a vast array of musical talents, people who don’t know the dub techno scene intimately have tended to think of St. Hilaire purely as a vocalist.

That’s why making room for a guitar solo on “Keep Safe” has special significance.

Those fifty seconds of soaring notes are like a searchlight casting its beams over the rest of the album, lighting up all the places where St. Hilaire is making his claim to be more than a complementary element in someone else’s music.

Knowing the history here is crucial.

After emigrating from his native Dominica in the 1990s, St. Hilaire became an integral part of Berlin’s dub techno scene, providing soulful vocals on many of its most notable records under the pseudonym “Tikiman”.

Although he had to abandon that name after a legal challenge, he can still use it to describe his work. Reinforcing the connection between the two names he has used for his music is extremely important in the era of streaming, when search results play a crucial role in determining how artists with long careers are perceived.

But calling this emphatically solo album Tikiman Vol. 1 doesn’t just ensure that his musical legacy becomes easier to trace.

While specifying that this album is the first volume suggests that more solo releases are to come, the title also implies that we should revise our impressions of who St. Hilaire was when he went by the “Tikiman” pseudonym.

Without St. Hilaire’s contributions, the music he made together with Rhythm & Sound and other Germans would have remained another example of how European artists repurpose New World cultural forms developed in the African diaspora. St. Hilaire’s voice bridged the gap, transforming appropriation into collaboration.

None of this is to imply that St. Hilaire feels antipathy towards the artists he has worked with.

In his infrequent interviews, St. Hilaire has made it clear that he found something in Germany that was harder to come by in his native Dominica, whose carnival tradition was at odds with his preference for musical “discretion”.

What Tikiman Vol. 1 suggests, rather, is that we examine the presuppositions that inform our listening and that we ask ourselves whether we are stereotyping. Particularly concerning black immigrants in Germany.

Among the many gifts we owe to dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry is a clear vision of artistic innovation happening, not during the initial recording process, but after parts have been laid down.

The “Upsetter”, as he was often called, blurred the distinction between “producer” and “creator” in ways that have shaped electronic music and hip-hop ever since.

But his legacy also reminds us not to reduce black artists to soulful vocal expression, that there can be every bit as much feeling in the collage-like construction of a track as there was in the original performances that comprise it.

The importance that this aesthetic took on in the 1980s and 1990s became especially significant in diasporic music scenes throughout Europe, where migrants often remixed the music they brought with them with the sounds of their new homes.

Paul St. Hilaire’s Tikiman, Vol. 1 is a worthy elaboration on Perry’s legacy, reminding us not only that the made-on-a-laptop aesthetic popularised in 1990s Berlin is available to everyone, but also that it benefits from the kind of traditional musicianship he demonstrates.

That’s why the album isn’t simply great on its own terms, but crucial for complicating musical history.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.