“There is meant to be a division between The Congos and Sun Araw. They are separate and have completely different worlds. The film is all about that collision,” – Director, Tony Lowe.
‘Icon Eye,’ is the ninth instalment in RVNG Intl.‘s sub-imprint FRKWYS collaborative music series, in which a younger artist is paired with a sonic forbearer of a certain influence. Past collaborations have included an ethereal installation by Julianna Barwick and no wave pioneer Ikue Mori, a full-length improvised record from the coming together of influential minimalist composer David Boren with the likes of Daniel Lopatin, James Ferraro, Laurel Halo and Samuel Godin, and a reinterpretation of the work of Brooklyn’s Psychic Ills by an array of artists hailing from diverse and detached genres.
For the most recent chapter of FRKWYS, sundrenched soundscaper Cameron Stallones (Sun Araw), fellow Los Angeles based musician and studio engineer M. Geddes Gengras and filmmaker Tony Lowe travelled to Jamaica where they were let inside the sacred headquarters (“DI CONGOS H.Q.”) of legendary dub reggae group, The Congos, resulting in a magically cosmic connection. For ten days in 2011, the Americans immersed themselves in the vibrancy of the Portmore neighbourhood of St. Catherine, Jamaica (45 minutes from Kingston), home to The Congos, who reassembled to their original formation especially for the project.
“For all of us, and for so many people around the world The Congos are more than legends. Their first album (‘Heart of The Congos’) is probably one of the most glorious records that has ever been made. It’s one of those rare records that just gives and gives and gives,” Lowe explained. “As soon as I heard about the project I was flipping out, I thought to myself, ’we have to go film that…there’s no way that can’t be documented. It’s too magical of an occurrence to escape’.”
At approximately one-hour in length, the diaristic film accompanies record ‘Icon Give Thank’, which is a combined effort between the Los Angeles based musicians rooted in a fusion of influences from the past thrust into a warped modernity, and The Congos, whose illustrious career has exceeded over three decades. With such vastly different approaches, the result of the LP is an album of “melodically experimental meditations ornamented with The Congos’ soulful vocal leads and four-part harmonies.”
“No one knew what to expect at all, we had no idea what we were going to make when we got down there. We just opened, and it flowed, and at first I think they [The Congos] were a little confused by what we were making. We were as well, but I’m pretty used to that. At one point Ashanti Roy looked at me and said, ‘they’re like chants.’ That’s the moment that I think we wheeled onto the runway, it was a pretty straight shot from there,” divulged Cameron Stallones, the creative force behind Sun Araw.
Brooklyn-based filmmaker Lowe wanted ‘Icon Eye’ to occupy a seemingly untouched place in the music documentary realm, one of mysticism, personalisation and deep respect. The film itself is a magical adventure, following the life lessons each of the subjects learned from their experience, highlighting elements of Rastafarian spirituality from a unique and rarely explored perspective.
“There’s spirituality in everything that happens with Rasta. From the minute you wake up, to the very last words that you say at the end of the day. Everything has that focus and that’s what we were steeped in,” Lowe explains. “There was no way that it ['Icon Eye'] couldn’t have that feeling [of spirituality]. From the American camp, it was fortuitous too because we’re all seekers. I guess that’s partially why The Congos were sought out to begin with.”
This resonated strongly with Stallones who explained his personal connection with the experience:
We learned methods of navigation that are heart-centred and extremely powerful. Though, side effects included total subjugation of ego. I’m not sure I can speak for them [The Congos], but I know there is an undeniable mutual energy that they found equally exciting.
The humble stylistic beauty of ‘Icon Eye’ is that, unlike other music documentaries where the the viewer is effectively an outsider looking in, they are given the opportunity to be fully immersed in the developing relationships between not only the musicians but also intimately with the director’s mind-space. Being a musician himself, Lowe explained the synergy between the two mediums.
On a universal level, things are always sort of synesthetic for me, so there’s almost a subconscious emotional level. Music feels visual to me and vice versa, and especially where rhythm is concerned. In the particular case of the films I’ve been making recently, I want them to create a new place for musicians as people or icons or symbols. Being a musician myself, I feel a really intimate kinship with other musicians and it’s almost as if we all speak a secret language. When I watch music documentaries it’s rare that you feel that language is being spoken. With Icon Eye, it reaches a really interesting conception because knowing that the film would accompany the music [Icon Give Thank], I always had this idea that it could be a dub-version in essence to the music. In Jamaican music the classic format is the 45-single, and on one side you have the song and on the flipside you have the instrumental dub-version, and so I just always imagined that space for the film. Therefore, I didn’t feel a pressure to document the music itself because I knew the music would exist on the ‘flip-side.’ So it’s almost as if the film could speak that secret language really explicitly in its implicitness. It can be like all the space in-between the songs themselves.
This ability to see both sides of the creative process has undoubtedly added another dimension to a film already carefully layered in subtle complexities. Furthermore, Lowe’s interest in films with a social and cultural awareness comes from a very personal space.
Most of the music that I listen to is from outside of the Western world, so its mainly just a personal preference but in terms of the work I make, it’s sort of a political gesture because on one hand I feel like I’m trying to work with cultures where there’s a really high level of creativity but there’s really low-visibility for them. Also with Rasta and Middle Eastern cultures in particular, it’s a gesture towards restoring a kind of magic to those people, their art, symbols and images and re-contextualising it in a certain sense. Both cultures have skewed places in Western society, for example the Middle East after 9/11. People also have a really funny association with what they think Jamaica, and the Rasta’s use of marijuana and the whole spiritual essence of what they’re all about is. At the same time, in this day and age, we’re so inundated with images and media all the time that firstly, it’s easy to really get lost and forget what a real context can be for those things and secondly, that even though we have all of this certain kind of access to things, it hasn’t been demystified.
There is also a political message to be told from a lot of Lowe’s work. Prior to ‘Icon Eye,’ Lowe was one of four directors who collaborated on Below The Brain, a documentary exploring Brooklyn’s West Indian Carnival, the largest Caribbean festival in the U.S., an experience and lifestyle choice that undoubtedly prepared him for his most recent work.
I’ve lived close to the Caribbean communities in Brooklyn for a long time now, and just fell in love with so many amazing aspects of those cultures. Obviously the endless, beautiful music but also lifestyle lessons like Ital (Rastafarian style vegetarian) restaurants and the super high tech way they use Twitter, pirate radio, and social media platforms as an extension of their already strong communities. There’s a lot to learn from them.
Undoubtedly this has influenced Lowe creatively, as his approach clearly doesn’t follow the norm. Simply immersing himself in the ebbs and flows of the journey allowed him to commit himself completely to the project and intricately highlight intimate and unexpected moments of life’s vibrant splendour. Shot on a HD handheld camera with the help of fellow filmmaker Sam Fleischner (Below The Brain, Wah Do Dem), ’Icon Eye,’ is a cinematic travelogue, harmonising fantasy and reality.
There isn’t really a set rule to how I shoot. There are certain things that are conscious that I’m trying to evoke or conjure with certain shots and sometimes it’s meant to contradict something else. I’m always trying to do that. In Jamaica it can best be explained by ‘the thumbs’. Rastas have almost like a secret handshake which is where you touch thumbs with each other. You greet everyone that’s a Rasta this way, within the compound and outside. It’s not just a greeting, perhaps sometimes when you say something, or something is said that needs to be acknowledged and praised then you might link hands and touch thumbs a few times and sometimes if you’re having a really good conversation with someone you might link hands and touch thumbs indefinitely and you just keep doing it, and sometimes it goes for a really long time, and its like a magical act. You feel it creating this energetic cycle between you and it’s a way of praising the moment that you’re creating together. Sometimes the things I filmed were conjured as a similar praise to a moment. In general I just hung out and engaged everyone very normally as, ‘this is me, that’s you, we’re both here,’ but certain moments reached these palpable, mystical heights and while sometimes it would be explicitly stated that I should film, other times you would reach a recognition that something special had been created. It was really instructive. In general that’s how they [The Congos] roll, they were just teaching us how to love everything and how you build that love and appreciation. They are so joyous about everything, and its not a hippied out joy that’s really one-sided, it’s fully aware. They live very close to death, because of the nature of Jamaica.
The linear connection between the film and ‘Icon Give Thank,’ allow them to be explored individually and as a complimentary force, which Stallones expressed;
Sometimes I sort of think people should watch the film before they listen to the record. It certainly gives it a massive and vibrant context, but the film really is its own work, a document of the moves we made and how we made them. Most of them were made for us, and we were just thankful in the meantime, but that goes a long way. The film really accurately portrays all the difficulties, incongruities, and just mind-bending beauty we experienced, and it leaves off in the place of harmony we found, which is alchemical. A melding of disparate elements into something altogether different.
The result of ‘Icon Eye,’ is nothing short of magical, with a rare vibrancy that infiltrates the senses. This secret magic was a lesson Lowe learnt from some of the film’s most unexpected and endearing subjects.
One of the biggest lessons we learnt was from the kids – never stop playing. They were reminders that magic is real and it exists…they reminded me that the camera is a total magical instrument, this magical wand that they were mystified by,” he reminisced.
You can hear in some of the early shots in the film Jam Jam (Jamilla), who was draped over my back with her hands on my hands holding the camera. She’s the one who really helped me break the ice with my camera. You don’t need a sanctimonious nice shot, every shot should have kids jumping into it. They are like the most obvious representations of the joy that was there.
Looking back at the experience, Stallones and Lowe, along with their compatriots are clearly still in awe of the sacred happenings that took place on their journey of enlightenment and self-discovery.
“The result is something that to me personally is much bigger and much more robust than I ever could have imagined,” said Stallones. “It’s a huge receptacle for an enormously strange mixture of energy. It’s powerful.”
The spiritual nature of the exploration comes full circle in ‘Icon Eye’, giving thanks to Jah, with Lowe accurately concluding that the connection of trust was the undeniably guiding force.
“It turned out so much more beautifully than any of us could have ever imagined and a lot of that was because we had trust in one another. We were mystically guided; there was something very magical about the way that it all came together and the way that we all found our way.”
Sun Araw and The Congos will play a one-off show at London’s Village Underground on June 22nd as part of the Barbican’s music season.