Originally named Africa Corps, Los Angeles’ Savage Republic got its start at UCLA, where Jeff Long, Bruce Licher, Mark Erskine and Jackson Del Rey (Philip Drucker) were attending school. The twin-bass lineup (plus some outside assistance) yielded an arty, industrial ensemble which serenaded cement walls with lightly droning grates of monotone guitar, exotic percussion and noisy, ranted vocals. The band changed their name to avoid confusion with the East Coast Afrika Korps (and the implied affiliation with the Nazi-punk fad of the time) a week before releasing their debut album, Tragic Figures. (Their records’ unique graphic look was the result of a school project that gave Licher access to an antique letterpress.)
A combination of industrial drone with deep machine-like swaths of dragging bass, Halloween horror-movie screams and some of the most delightfully tribal and tropical percussion found on disc, Tragic Figures also introduced a touch of Arabic cat slink that would show up more prominently in later work. When keyboardist Robert Loveless joined, the quintet’s sound turned from frantically abrasive to almost meditatively cool.
Drucker and Loveless launched a side band, 17 Pygmies, to delve into lighter, more melodic music than Savage Republic. Retaining the group’s tribal percussion and Arabic feel, they added electronic keyboards for Hatikva, an EP which crosses Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “The Sheriff,” a spaghetti western soundtrack and a Caribbean rhythm fest. Only a thousand copies were originally pressed, but it was reissued by an Italian label.
In the midst of recording a second album at the end of 1983, Savage Republic split up; Drucker and Loveless, under the 17 Pygmies name, completed the record, which was released as Jedda by the Sea. The Pygmies went on to record Captured in Ice, an even more pop-oriented album which features lilting electronic keyboards, clearly sung female vocals, new wave “oooohh-oooohh”s, sometimes crisp, dance-club drumming and synthesizers.
Licher and Erskine reformed Savage Republic. The ambient, almost meditative Trudge EP came out in Europe only. A crawling, building excursion into the avant Arabic surf textures the band had been exploring live, it lopes through a kind of Western movie soundtrack with some limited vocalizations but no lyrics. The abrasive edge that was engraved in the music from their industrial days is gone, leaving only the racing adrenaline that accompanied it, the clank and clatter of clay-pot percussion accents. At times, there’s a processional majesty that hints at what Savage Republic’s completion of the Jedda tracks might have sounded like.
Almost the same week as Trudge was released, the Republic issued Ceremonial in the US. With Loveless back in the band (here a sextet), the album showcases a pop and melodic side with gentle male and Pygmies-like female vocals and only a hint of the Savage’s banana Republic feel. There are even keyboards, mandolin, wind chimes and a dulcimer hidden in the (almost) lush and relaxed grooves. (Trudge and an instrumental version of Ceremonial were later issued on one CD.)
Live Trek (1985 — 1986) is most like Trudge in texture, reworking the material from their earliest industrial days to excise the abrasion. It would make a good introduction for anyone who has not heard the band.
Jamahiriya continues to fuse their past into their future with a sound that reflects and melds all of their evolutions onto one disc. Jackson Del Rey is back in the lineup, but Loveless is gone. The CD version of the disc includes three instrumental remixes of vocal album tracks.
Meanwhile, 17 Pygmies — now a Drucker/Loveless trio with singing poet Louise Bialik — signed to a major label and released Welcome, a ambitiously complex mixture of music and theater (by guest speaker Charles Schneider), assembled into a diverting program loaded to the teeth with provocative ideas and sounds.
Recorded as a quintet, Savage Republic’s latest studio LP undertakes another fascinating cultural expedition, with mixed results. In an audio analogue to visiting six countries in three days, Customs juxtaposes polite Arabic and Greek influences — mostly expressed through the use of ethnic instruments, although “Song for Adonis” really sounds the Mediterranean part — with merciless noise (“Rapeman’s First EP” matches the funny title with an appropriately violent sonic physic) and found-sound ambience. Overall, Customs (I think we’re talking border checkpoints, not habits here) is a dizzying blur, but not an unpleasant trip.