The Return of the Reluctant Disco Diva

[caption id="attachment_53979" align="alignnone" width="640"] Photo courtesy of Roisin Murphy/Facebook[/caption]

Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.

Once upon a time, when discotheques ruled 1970s America and Europe, dance music was reigned over by its queens. When Donna Summer passed away earlier this year, the obituaries and outpourings spoke to that power the female voice once held over such body-moving music, and that era was unmatched when it came to compelling female performers, from Summer to Loleatta Holloway to Gloria Gaynor to Chaka Khan. Most came to the music through the church and their voices were force-of-natures that could soar over the choir.

But once disco’s bubble popped in the late ‘70s, the orchestral strings gave way to synthesizers, brass sections turned to bleats, drummers to drum machines, and the female voice became less the focal point of the song and just another ingredient in the mix. Decades on, even when big electronica names deployed female voices, they were less as goddesses, more as garlands, be it the Chemical Brothers working with wispy folk singer Beth Orton or Skrillex’s tracks sprinkling the vocals of girlfriend Ellie Goulding atop his drops. Which isn’t to suggest that there haven’t been some alluring new voices in dance music, but fall hard for vocalists as heady and diverse as Roisin Murphy, Kathy Diamond, or Mim Suleiman and they might disappear on you altogether.

Former Moloko singer Roisin Murphy released her confident if eclectic debut album Ruby Blue in early 2005 with producer Matthew Herbert at the helm, and followed it up in 2007 with the slightly more tempered Overpowered before falling out of view. The reason? In addition to major label woes, Murphy became a mother. And rather than release a full-length Murphy would intermittently pop up on productions by the likes of Toddla T as well as David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. Late last month though, Murphy released “Simulation,” her first single under her own name since 2009’s licentious single “Orally Fixated.” Across its eleven rapturous and cymbal-pistoning minutes, Murphy moves from the mechanical (“This is for demonstration” she monotones early on) to the sylphlike. Murphy sighs like Donna Summer feeling love, with producer Crooked Man stretching and sending that lovely exhalation into the stratosphere some nine minutes in.

Another chanteuse who tantalized with her full-length album back in 2007 was Kathy Diamond, whose Miss Diamond to You was a nu-disco deep house gem. The Sheffield-reared singer was indebted to Summer and a fan of soul and disco from a young age. So when she teamed up with the mighty house producer Maurice Fulton -- who had a hand in Crystal Waters’s seismic classic “Gypsy Woman” as well as the leftfield disco of !!! -- magic was made. Fulton’s extraterrestrial productions could absorb all mutant strains of Latin, funk, house, disco, boogie and R&B and Diamond’s voice shone through it all. Since then, her scintillating voice has been scattered on productions from various acts, ranging from Aeroplane to Permanent Vacation to Nick Chacona, but there’s been no real follow-up. Last month saw the release of a new single “Right There” that finds her back at the top of the marquee with a sterling piano house track (produced by Portugal-based producer Mastercris). When her voice elegantly soars on the chorus of “You got me right up there/ feel I’m in love again,” I can’t help but fall for that crystalline voice of hers all over again.

Of all the modern electronic music producers, Maurice Fulton’s uncanny ability to find the ideal vocalist for his productions remains unparalleled. Diamond dovetailed perfectly with his graceful nu-disco productions, while his work with his wife Mutsumi Kanamori as electroclash duo Mu birthed some of the most outlandish, twisted tracks of the past decade. And Fulton went even further afield when he hooked up with diminutive though potent Tanzanian singer Mim Suleiman for 2010’s audacious, Afro-infused, black hole-deep house album, Tungi. “I am happy that the first album got such a great response, especially when I hear that people may not understand Swahili,” Mim Suleiman tells me via email. “It is my native tongue so it’s the language I feel most comfortable to compose with. I am pleasantly happy to know I have reached afar with Tungi in many ways than I can imagine.”

And had I not been rooting about on British dance music shop Juno’s digital download store last month, I wouldn’t have realized that this summer Suleiman and Fulton teamed up once again for her follow-up, Umbeya. Once again, their collaboration is a fusion of African folk and avant-garde dance music into an exhilarating amalgam, from the percussion-heavy “Pato Pato Lembwe Lembwe” to the squelching bass of “Msimamo.” “Originally, Maurice knew nothing about me and I knew nothing about him, however his CV gave it away,” she writes. “I love working with Maurice. We have a song, we just get on with it.” Recently, Suleiman participated in the African Express train tour through the British countryside, where she performed alongside the likes of Amadou & Miriam, Damon Albarn, Baaba Maal, Charli XCX and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner.

I confess I don’t comprehend a lick of Swahili beyond “hakuna matata” and Suleiman explains that “tungi” refers to a clay pot used for either storing food or cooking a stew while “umbeya” translates as “gossip.” She mentions that her lyrics will be translated in the next few weeks, but until then, she explains her lyrics as such: “I sing about life, love, laughter, abuse, awareness, history, relationships of all kind, oppression, unfairness, Good Moan, good joy...everything everywhere!!” I fail to follow-up what “Good Moan” may refer to, but I bet I could hear it coming through on an old Donna Summer song.