The Genesis of "Abiro": Ben Willis and Dr. Pete Larson discuss the new animated video for the Cytotoxic Nyatiti Band
This post contains mature content.
In Genesis 3:5, the snake convinced Eve to eat forbidden fruit: "your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil."
Then God punished the snake for telling the truth and sharing the knowledge.
But according to Larson 10:27:2020, a different story is told: And the man said of the serpent, "Snakes are just really cool."
And rather than kill the serpent, Dr. Pete Larson celebrated it.
He asked Detroit bassist and illustrator Ben Willis to animate a video featuring the slinky reptiles for "Abiro," a song off last summer's radiant, joyful, self-titled album by Dr. Pete Larson and His Cytotoxic Nyatiti Band, which mixes hypnotic Kenyan folk music with psychedelic rock.
"There's not a culture on the planet—at least in temperate zones—that doesn't include snakes in its legends and folklore," said Larson, an epidemiologist with the University of Michigan who also runs the Dagoretti Records label. "Snakes are just this odd, mythical, and fantastic animal that's associated with evil and malevolence, but actually plays an incredibly important role in maintaining the balance of ecologies around the world."
Larson is a longtime member of Washtenaw County's experimental music scene ever since the early '90s when he fronted the noise band Couch and ran the left-field label Bulb Records. He later lived in Kenya as part of his Ph.D. studies and while there he learned to play the nyatiti, a plucked, bowl-shaped lute.
"I don't have any designs on doing 'authentic' nyatiti music because that would just be weird, particularly since I am a white guy from the U.S; I didn't grow up in that part of the world and I wasn't there in the time period when the nyatiti music of my teacher was being made," Larson said. "Moreover, I have never really understood why you'd want to do one kind of music when there are all kinds of other amazing musics out there, too. Calling yourself one thing or sticking to a genre just strikes me as unnecessarily exclusionary. With this band, I have tried to pull in all kinds of sounds, or at least the sounds that feel right to whoever is playing in the band at the time."
Larson's group highlights the connection between Western rock and East African jams, just as snakes can represent a link between this life and the afterworld in some cultures.
"In Africa, snakes are universally feared, particularly in East Africa where some of the most dangerous snakes exist due to the unique ecology there," Larson said, "but despite the aversion people have toward snakes, they are still respected as connecting the worlds of the living and the spirits in some kind of liminal existence. It might be corny to say, but I always considered music to be this sort of beautiful, dangerous, and awesome bridge between worlds that defies normal explanation."
Willis is best known for his work as a bassist in experimental groups saajtak and Lovely Socialite, as well as his theatrical solo project subatlantic songs and for sitting in with numerous avant-jazz bands. But since 2018, he's been teaching himself to be an animator, and the first work Willis showed to the public was the 2019 video he created for Throwaway's "I Work," which was selected for last year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival.
"I learned to animate by reading books and teaching myself on an iPad," Willis said. "I'm about two years in, and I am maybe starting to develop more sophisticated techniques, but it has been really enlightening to me how animation creates a real nexus of disciplines. As a musician, there were a lot of applications for how I already conceived of rhythm and timing, and working with dancers for many years has given me a concept of motion that animation has given me a new context for."
Willis created the video mostly in the digital realm, starting with "frame-by-frame looping animations of varying lengths, because I was interested in finding gestural rhythms that fit into undulating patterns along with the track," he said. "Once I started editing those to the music, the structure of the video came from the form of the song. For the background textures, I used a digital camera microscope to film my scalp."
The album cover for Dr. Pete Larson and His Cytotoxic Nyatiti Band features two intertwined snakes with angry-red eyes, so it's apropos the video features serpents morphing between male and female human forms and then back to their original shapes.
"Initially, Pete asked me to make a simple animation of something snake-y for the song, not necessarily a full video. It kind of naturally grew from there," Willis said. "It made sense for me to have the snakes morph into humans, to make them more relatable to human viewers. It was interesting to me how the imagery of snakes and nude human forms evoke a lot of deep associations with various symbols and lore, but that also suggests that different people are going to take different things from this."
People may even take "Abiro" not as a meditation on primeval symbols that reside deep in our collective subconscious, but rather as an invitation to party—because that's what the lyrics are saying.
"'Abiro' is kind of an amalgam of several Kenyan folk songs that the old man Oduor Nyagweno taught me in Kenya," Larson said. "The lyrics translate roughly into 'We're coming to your town, we're gonna party down,' which isn't particularly profound, but that's rock music for you."
Willis said that "even though there's this kind of sinister, maybe biblical feeling" to the video, "these snakes and people are really just having a good time and they descend into a ghostly city—could it be yours?"
Since 2020 has had an extreme paucity of good times, albums like that of Dr. Pete Larson and His Cytotoxic Nyatiti Band and videos like Willis' "Abiro" are small reminders that not everything in the universe sucks ass and that art matters.
"This year for me has been a reckoning with the value and place for art-making in this country," Willis said, "and a theme that comes back for me is that sometimes the most powerful work someone can do is still have fun, in the face of how sinister and terrifying everything is. I hope that different people will feel different associations and maybe find their own story in this video."
Partake in "Abiro" and your eyes shall be opened.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
Dr. Pete Larson and His Cytotoxic Nyatiti Band's albums are available from his Bandcamp as well as through the label he runs, Dagoretti Records. Locally, copies of Dagoretti Records releases on LP, CD, and cassette can be found at Encore Records and Underground Sounds. For Ben Willis' music and videos, visit benwillis.us.
➥ "Straight Outta Nairobi: Dr. Pete Larson's Dagoretti Records brings the sounds of Kenya to Ann Arbor" [Pulp, January 17, 2020]