small fish, big sound: vagabon straddles between worlds and carves her own path
We dive deep into the immersive sound of Lætitia Tamko, the self-professed small fish, via her full-length debut, Infinite Worlds. Soldering through the New York indie rock scene as one of the very few black, immigrant artists, her rallying cry of personal woes feels both personal and universal as she continues to voice the fears and frustrations of the institutionally marginalised.
words by: Fajar Zakhri
Off the top of your head, how many black girls in rock music can you name? Probably lesser than the count of your fingers. This is probably why Lætitia Tamko - better known by her stage name, Vagabon - likens herself to a small fish in "The Embers", the opening track to her critically-acclaimed debut, Infinite Worlds. Is she being modest? Or just self-deprecating? It might, in fact, be both. Female musicians, let alone black female musicians, are harder to come by in the still white male-dominated indie rock scene, especially one who plays nearly all of the instruments in her album. Tamko recognizes this and hopes for more black females in the scene, be it as performers or audience members, but does not wish to be a role model. "I’m just doing me, and if it heals and helps someone else, that’s even more incredible, and I’m even more grateful for that," she inferred to Spin.
This keening sense of individuality is definitive of Tamko's modus operandi. After all, it has also been the key to her survival. Born and raised in the Cameroon capital of Yaoundé, she moved with her family to Harlem at the age of 13 before picking up the guitar four years later. However, she put down the instrument in the ensuing years as she focused on her engineering studies. Shortly before graduation, however, a friend persuaded her to record a batch of songs that would eventually become the Persian Garden EP. Tamko's cuttingly angsty lyrics, set to an abrasive mélange of fuzzy guitars and syncopated drums, in the 2014 release quickly gained her a following in the New York indie rock scene and paved way for last year's release of Infinite Worlds. A number of tracks from the EP were eventually reworked (and retitled) for the full-length, including the lilting and pleading "Fear & Force" (previously titled "Vermont II").
The presence of these reworked titles and the new ones proves to be a compelling juxtaposition between the two releases: the aggressiveness is still very much present, but it is now counterpoised with moments of languor and grandeur, sometimes even in a single song. Take "Mal à L'aise", for instance, which finds Tamko's breathlessly murmuring in French, shrouded in an ambient, jazz-like bed of sound. The 5-minute free-form excursion may be meant to bridge the album's first half and second half, but it also suggests where its maker's sonic exploration might be headed for in the future.
Then again, chances are Tamko might just stick to her genre-melding way, a reflection of her origins and her current whereabouts. Straddling between the rhythmic, polyphonic inflection of the African sound and the harsh, jarring propensity of Western indie rock, Tamko might just be the missing link between the two seemingly disparate worlds. And as we know it, the results are not only infinite, but also inimitable.
Infinite Worlds is out now via Father/Daughter Records. Photos c/o Laetitia Tamko.