Gerald Toto’s music sways to the rhythms of life.
The songs on his new album don’t shout or seek to batter you over the head. Like all the best music, they insinuate their way quietly into your brain like ear worms with a benevolent and beguiling subtlety.
Gentle and lilting yet lithesome and full of bold nuance, the music Toto makes on Sway takes us on an imaginary journey to a world that has time to stop and stare and where the frenetic din of modernity is hushed to a murmur, his songs seemingly plucked from an infinite bowl of fresh air and sunshine as they wrap the listener in a sweet caress of timeless reverie.
Like all the best music, the songs on Sway refuse simple categorisation, a cultural melting pot of acoustic folk, jazz, soul, pop and blues with cosmopolitan borders that embrace Creole and Caribbean flavours.
The rhythms of life, plucked and strummed and given poetic voice by a master of the understated. For if quiet is the new loud, Toto’s voice is blessed with an elegant eloquence that demands to be heard as his songs whisper and sway in an emotional language that is as universal as it is engaging.
We last heard Gerald Toto on the sublime 2017 trio album Bondeko, recorded with fellow global travellers Lokua Kanza and Richard Bona, the “dreamy backdrop” and “immaculate sweet harmonies” of which earned a plethora of four and five star reviews and led one reviewer to liken the trio to “an African Crosby, Stills and Nash.”
Yet that record was merely the most recent chapter in a storied career of impressive pedigree. Born in France in 1967, Gerald Toto’s West Indian parents hailed from the Antilles and were tax officials rather than musicians. But they were ardent music lovers and the parental collection of vinyl was like manna from heaven to Gerald as the house in which he grew up vibrated to the sounds of American soul, Afro-Caribbean dance music, Congolese soukous and makossa from Cameroon.
The radio provided an education in pop and rock and the first record he bought was a Pink Floyd album. Then came Neil Young, Bob Marley and a burgeoning interest in jazz.
By the age of ten he was playing the guitar, followed by the bass, an instrument which has always fascinated him. A student loan was used to finance the building of a home studio, where –in his own words -he progressed from laboratory assistant to a full-blown “mad scientist of sound”.
By the 1990s he was embedded in the French underground as an audacious world music adventurer. In addition to his own atmospheric and experimental albums, he’s worked with artists as diverse as the Algerian rai singer Faudel, Parisian hipsters Nouvelle Vague and the Middle Eastern electro futurists Smadj.
Most significantly of all, in 2005, he hooked up for the first time with the Congolese singer Lokua Kanza and the Cameroonian Afro-jazz star Richard Bona, a felicitous teaming that led to the collaborative album Toto Bona Lokua. The record caused a sensation, particularly in France, where it became a big seller. A sell-out tour followed, although the thriving solo careers of all three meant that is was a dozen years before they found a window in their hectic schedules to go into the studio to record a follow-up.
Now comes Toto’s latest solo offering, swaying gently in the breeze, cool, elegant and elusive, the songs refusing to remain earthbound or to be tied down. Sway to the sweet, samba-tinged romance of “My Girlfriend.” Groove to the syncopated jazz-blues of “You Got Me”. Float away on the ethereal lightness of being that is “Away Alive”.
Dream to the futuristic doo-wop of “Umbaka”. Bask in the diaphanous, sun-dappled lilt of the title track. Defy gravity with the haunting dream-pop of “Let It Blow”. Roll to the bluesy acoustic guitar picking of “Dutiful Love”. Thrill to the skittering electronic beats of “It's a Love Pain” and wonder at the disturbing beauty of the album’s atmospheric closer “The Night Is Coming.”
Sway to the rhythms of life.