Judgitzu: Sator Arepo

Producer and ethnomusicologist Julien Hairon has spent the past decade wandering the Eastern Hemisphere, collecting field recordings from indigenous groups. In Cambodia, he witnessed the Kreung community play a polyrhythmic gong piece during a harvest ritual that involves feasting on a sacrificial cow. In Tanzania, he lived among the Maasai, who invited him to record the traditional music of a circumcision ceremony. Hairon releases these recordings via his Les Cartes Postales Sonores label, and reissues other CDs and tapes found during his travels—to Indonesia, Australia, China, Bangladesh—on the PetPets’ Tapes imprint.

But for Sator Arepo, Hairon’s debut as Judgitzu, he found inspiration closer to home. He became intrigued by the Sator Square, a five-word Latin palindrome. Versions of the puzzle, which dates back to ancient Rome, have been found in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Its exact meaning is unknown, but from the middle ages into the 19th century, such squares were believed to have magical properties. The acrostic—which includes some formation of the Latin words Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera, and Rotas—was chiseled into stone to ward off illness, evil, and even raging flames. On Sator Arepo, Hairon reinterprets the circularity of palindromes, crafting digitized, rapid-fire dance beats that circle and distort.

With a modest arsenal—an Elektron Digitakt sampler and sequencer, a Yamaha PSS-50 keyboard, a Critter & Guitari Organelle, and a Microkorg—Hairon recycles song structures and hints back at his own beats and synth sequences. He reconfigures frenetic digital drum patterns and stretches out drones summoned from the Organelle. The basslines cooked up on his Microkorg throb like a jugular vein pumping blood. This self-referential closed loop mimics the limited set of letters contained in a palindrome, seeding each new song with a trace of the previous one. Hairon mutates the sounds slightly with each rotation, but the whole of Sator Arepo plays like a cohesive barrage of rhythms meant to induce trance-like state.

Tactile details make the tracks more distinct, even when they appear to have been erected from similar blueprints. On “Sylphe” and the title track, Hairon seems to coat the drums in lacquer, giving them a plasticky clack. The percussion on “L’Or des Fous” (“Fool’s Gold”) feels both plastic and metallic—like a ping-pong ball ricocheting off pots and pans. Hairon manipulates non-rhythmic elements with the same precision; “L’Or des Fous” is threaded with foghorn-like synth pusles and a gnawing buzz that evokes a giant fluorescent tube. The dark, mechanical “Vitalimetre” is powered by shrill synths that sound like a souped-up dental instrument.

Hairon’s debut is clearly inspired by singeli, the jet-propelled dance music that has been pumping out of Dar es Salaam for over a decade. The producer was, as he put it, “contaminated” by the genre when he lived in the coastal Tanzanian city, and he became transfixed with its breakneck speed, which can reach 300 BPM. Watching Hairon’s footage of the Cambodian Kreung community reveals another structural influence for Sator Arepo: The ceremonial performers play three separate songs simultaneously on five staggered gongs, allowing the tones to overlap and intertwine. Hairon’s take on these influences is icy and harsh, more mechanical than the warm acoustic pieces he heard during his travels. On Sator Arepo, the specter of what’s come before echoes through every song with a chilly sheen that feels inherently foreboding.

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Judgitzu: Sator Arepo