Sudan Archives' violin-charged R&B is detonating classical conventions
Cici Peng speaks to Sudan Archives about the wild playing style of West African violinists, being kicked out by her family for pursuing music, and creating her own home in music
When Brittney Parks, the LA-based, Cincinnati-born artist and producer better known by her stage name Sudan Archives, performed at Electric Brixton in November, she bubbled up, fizzing and ricocheting all across the stage. And when she lifted her violin up against her chin, the whole room went silent and Sudan Archives soared.
When we call some months later, Parks laughs a lot and you feel yourself giggling with her, conspiring together like impish kids on the playground. “I was always really silly and goofy as a child, I smiled a whole lot,” she says. “I was known for smiling really, really big with my gums, until you couldn’t see my upper lip because I was smiling so much.” She laughs, like instruments jingling together. “I was always very energetic, just running around, always curious to explore and never still. I would say in some ways I’m the same.” This sense of childlike wonder that aspires to feast on all the world’s fruits infuses her work, pushing herself beyond any boundaries of genre and convention each time. Her musical journey started in the fourth grade when a touring Irish fiddle music group came to perform at her school. “I saw them stomping and dancing and I knew at 10 years old I wanted to play the violin like that,” she says.
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Still, Parks took her curiosity further. While researching different violinists on YouTube, she came across West African musicians. “It completely blew my mind,” she says. “They looked like me and were playing the violin so wildly. I saw that the violin didn’t have to be all pretty and legato. It can take centre stage and be aggressive. That’s how I imagine Jimi Hendrix playing the violin if that was his thing.” Yet, it’s clear that Parks is a rockstar of her own creation: at one point during her London gig, she stood on the edge of the stage, tipped herself back into the crowd without so much as a glance back. Instantly, the crowd lifted her up, and she kept singing while prostrate like a saint in the arms of her adoring fans. “I was feeding off the energy of the fans, with everyone dancing. But I did lose my voice before so I called in a nurse to put me on a multi-vitamin IV drip before I came on! A boost-me-up.” She bursts into laughter.
Parks detonates the conventions of her classical instrument, accomplishing the rare feat of deconstructing Western modes of tradition to incorporate African interpretations. In her first EP ‘Sink’, traces of North African one-stringed fiddle players weave their way through her tracks, reimagined with synth-heavy rhythms and R&B melodies to create an organic and electronic sound that’s all her own. Citing Francis Bebey and the Sufi multi-instrumentalist and whistler Asim Gorashi as her influences, Parks says: “I want to be able to play my violin in a way that challenges Western genres and how we use our instruments.” With last year’s ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’ album, Parks further explored her relationship to her fiddle, “A lot of people thought, ‘Oh, she hasn’t used her violin that much on this album’, but I was just making my violin sound different, almost like a new instrument,” she says. “Listen to the ‘violin riff’ on ‘Homesick’.”
Rooted in the concept of what home means, Parks’ latest album is reclaiming the power of domesticity, of being able to create a home anywhere she is. “Don’t you feel at home when you’re with me?” she asks her lover in ‘Homemaker’. “The feeling of home is whenever you feel faith,” she says of her own interpretation. “It could be a lot of different places, it could just be a moment between two people.” Listening to ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’, you’re invited into the warmth of Parks’ luminous world, witnessing her nesting process as she makes space for herself and dusts away the ghosts of the past. “The album was like my diary since we couldn’t go anywhere during lockdown and I was just at home writing about what I was going through at that time,” she shares. “I’m glad it resonated with people. But I wouldn’t really care if it didn’t because it was important to me, it was my life.”
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The lucid 18-track autobiographical opus introduces us to the multiple versions of Parks over the years: in ‘NBPQ (Topless)’, she raps, “Let me tell ya’ll about this girl Sudan,” then refers to herself as Britt, another version of herself, the girl who’s glossy and insecure and fun. Throughout the process of the album, there’s a sense of Parks stepping outside of herself to reinvigorate her perspective, as she attempts to piece together the fragments of her memories, igniting a continual call-and-response conversation between her multiple selves, voices, instruments and loops.
Meandering stream-of-consciousness lyrics rise up instinctively, switching between vulnerability and self-confidence in the turn of a line as she sings to the tune of the bouzouki, “Sometimes I think that if I was light-skinned/ Then I would get into all the parties” before finding herself again by locating her roots, “Then I remember I'm Reginald's daughter/ I’m not average/ I’m not average”, she repeats. “I thought it was cringe, but I decided to keep it as I can’t be the only one with these thoughts,” she shares. “Vulnerability is the bridge to creating those meaningful connections and that’s why it’s worth it.” A master of humour too, her track ‘Ciara’ unfurls full of angelic falsettos and gentle strings like a dramatic love song, only to catch you by surprise when she laments how she hates her ex-friend and wants to “smack her in her face”, voice dripping with honey.
The complex layering of her thoughts in her lyrics is matched by the palimpsestic quality of the production itself, that builds from synths and violin samples to bouzouki harmonies, hand-claps and drums. “I’ve been trying new instruments too. I have this thumb piano that Sudanese musicians play, and I actually made some of the melodies from it.” While people have realised her talents as an artist, Parks notes: “People are now finally recognising that I’m a producer too. As someone who’s relied heavily on my loop station throughout the years, it’s influenced me a lot. While creating, I think I’m still that girl with my iPad chopping up different bits.”
When Parks was a teenager in Cincinnati, she started exploring the underground electronic music scene, “It just blew my mind,” she says, “After watching people taking their instruments further with electronic alterations and extensions, I was inspired by the idea of being creative with my own set-up as a one-woman show with my violin and iPad.” Growing up, her step-father, who helped create the renowned label LaFace Records that was behind the legendary artists including OutKast and TLC, encouraged Parks and her sister Cat to form a pop duo and make commercially mainstream pop music. Yet, this didn’t sit right with her, and she rebelled against the idea of having no control over her production. When she was kicked out of her family home at 19 for being rebellious and staying out late, she decided to pack her bags and move to LA. “I’ve kinda always known what music I wanted to make, and I want to be authentic and be my own producer. I was staying out late not to party, but because I was interested in the music. I had to leave home to explore that side of myself.”
And, a decade later, she’s still in LA, forging her own path while paying homage to her roots. Sudan Archives is a Cincinnati-born fiddler player with African strings working away in her astroturfed home studio in sunny LA. Having reached new heights of fame with ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’ ranking high in best album of the year lists and making Barack Obama’s “Favourite Music of 2022” playlist, Sudan is not too bothered, saying, “I feel like people are paying more attention to me now and I’m happy they like what I’m making, but I don’t really care if they don’t because I’m just trying to create things for me.”
Throughout her tracks, she calls back to her roots to stay authentic, weeding through the sycophants and the mirage of fame as she sings in ‘#513’: “I don't really wanna follow/ Tricky trendy little things/ […] I’m too rooted in my ways”. “The way I stay rooted is by making my decisions through love not fear. If you’re making decisions that are fear-based, you’re not being authentic,” she says. Fearlessly stepping forward, Sudan Archives is following her own curiosity and fantasies, guided by all her past selves.
Cici Peng is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter