Psych/folk singer-songwriter Shane Palko has officially released his new LP, Swahili Surreal. Leading up to the release, Palko was featured at Glide Magazine, Groundsounds, B-Sides & Badlands and more, with Glide praising his music and calling it, “Psychedelic and meditative.” Swahili Surreal is out now.
Videos by American Songwriter
Shane Palko brushed thick, red dust off of a cloth guitar bag and unzipped a side pocket to see how many Ugandan Shillings were left. They exchanged so weakly into Tanzanian Shillings that he’d be surprised if there would be enough to get to his concert at the Slow Leopard in Dar Es Salaam. Having performed live on Voice of America (US), NTV (Uganda), and VTC10 (Vietnam) as well as at official concerts and festivals in 28 countries and counting, he knows what it’s like to be stuck at the end of a rugged road. “If I’m going to be five hours from home, I want to be five days from home,” he said after returning from his Seaside tour in 2015, which spanned four continents.
The morning after his concert at The Slow Leopard, he hitched a ride back downtown on a truck, piled full of pineapples. While waiting on some paperwork to come through before continuing his tour in South Africa, Palko accepted an invitation from a stranger in the street and found himself standing on top of a beautiful skyscraper, overlooking the bustling Dar seaport. There were a few men there, in finely-pressed suits. Palko wondered if his cutoff shorts and explicitly feminist t-shirt, still soaked with sweat from the previous night’s show, might disqualify him from such an establishment.
“You’re the music man, aren’t you?” said a kind and confident voice. Palko was surprised at the recognition. “I am Mendrad Kigola, Member of the Tanzanian Parliament. I dream of helping my people make their music.”
A year and a half later, Palko and Zuli Tums, a renowned Ugandan Producer, jumped on a jet to Tanzania. Zuli carved out two and a half weeks to sneak away from Volume Up Studio in Kempala, and Shane worked the time into the middle of a tour schedule. Zuli carried a backpack full of mobile recording equipment, and Palko a La Patrie hybrid classical guitar.
They hatched an ambitious plan with MP Kigola. In a sort of musical sharrett, they would cross much of Tanzania together, recording music for people that don’t have access to professional recording studios. While traversing the country and helping people record their own material, Palko found himself writing and recording an entire album of his own, the forthcoming, transcendent Swahili Surreal.
Swahili Surreal does not claim to be representative of traditional Tanzanian music, but rather chronicles Palko’s personal experience – a hauntingly intricate finger-dance across a classical guitar to accompany both the physical and spiritual journey Palko and his companions had embarked upon. Collaboration being a part of the process, some of the songs on Swahili Surreal feature other voices, like Wazzy, a staple in the Tanzanian scene. The album’s lead single, “Metamorphosis of a Dream,” cradles the vocals of the thirty-strong Saint Monica Singers, who previously had never set foot in a recording studio.
“‘Metamorphosis of a Dream’ is a concept that the dream turns into a plan and then turns into a memory, much like how a caterpillar turns into a chrysalis and then a butterfly,” says Palko. “And there’s a tremendous amount of work between each stage. For me, it’s easy to dream about playing a big show on the other side of the world, but if I don’t make a plan, I won’t ever get to do the thing, and if I don’t do the thing, I won’t have a memory. And life is just a string of memories, happening at the same time.”
When word got out that MP Kigola was bringing an American musician and a Ugandan producer to town, a man unlocked a recording studio that had been closed for many years. Over a few intensive days, Zuli and Palko were able to help over 30 people record their own music that they could keep, and invited them to sing on Swahili Surreal as well.
Kigola, Tums and Palko crossed much of Tanzania, creating memories as well as the tracks that make up Swahili Surreal. Zuli tirelessly recorded while Palko persistently wrote and helped engineer. They set up their mobile equipment in borrowed studios, small hotel rooms, a gym, an ornate catholic church, outside – anywhere that there was enough time and space to capture a song.
This recording foray was the beginning of a dream. In addition to providing people with quality recordings of their own music, Swahili Surreal will be internationally distributed, with all profits from the album going towards the construction of a recording studio in Mafinga, Tanzania. “I’m so thankful for the opportunities that the member of parliament has given me in East Africa,” says Palko. “There are a lot of great studios in the area, but in that particular region, it’s more rural. There are a lot of people that make wonderful music, but just don’t have a home for it. They pass their songs on, orally and they’re remembered, but none of them get recorded. So, we want to make a community space and music venue, but it will primarily be a recording studio.”
Palko, who currently resides in Spain, will be traveling to the United States in late 2019 to perform and celebrate the release of Swahili Surreal, before returning to East Africa to continue working on the studio project and the follow-up album that he’s already begun writing. Looking forward, there’s no telling where Palko will end up, but that’s just the way he wants it. “The way I see it, you’ve gotta be alive somewhere, so you may as well be alive all over, trying something new,” he says. “Sharing music, getting to hear other musicians and inviting people back to your place to come and play another time makes it all worth it for me.”