Mattafix, British duo, sings about war, gangs, Darfur — but doesn't preach


The songwriting partners behind Britain's Mattafix have taken on gang violence, war in the Middle East, and filmed a music video in a camp for Darfur refugees.

But the word "Iraq" doesn't even appear in their anti-war song "Clear and Present Danger," from their 2005 debut "Signs of a Struggle." The piano-driven "Gangster Blues" is as earnestly melodic as a love ballad. And instead of "Stop the violence!" the single "Living Darfur" from their recently released CD "Rhythm and Hymns" offers: "You don't have to be extraordinary, just forgiving."

These are protest songs for the new millennium &

no hectoring, but plenty of space for listening and questioning in spare, enigmatic lyrics. Marlon Roudette, who along with fellow Londoner Preetesh Hirji writes most of Mattafix's material and sings lead, says he left preachiness behind in his teens. He is under no illusions the world's problems will be solved by catchy slogans or simple prescriptions.

"The more you know, the more you know you know nothing," Roudette, 25, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

In person and in performance, in a style that might best be described as nondescript hip &

jeans and sweaters and sneakers in muddy colors &

they come across as grad students with rhythm.

Hirji, 28, is the quiet one in dark-framed glasses, hanging out, Dave Stewart-like, in the background of their videos. He's the one who gives the homeless man some cash &

and some hope &

in the video for the duo's first European hit, "Big City Life" from "Signs of a Struggle." Roudette, in close-shaved hair and beard, does all the singing and most of the talking.

Their earnestness is leavened with ironic humor. Is Hirji joking when he says that before he got into producing and then formed Mattafix, he'd considered a career as a security consultant? Roudette offers an endorsement, saying Hirji at least has the skills necessary to get them out of tense situations with club bouncers.

Their band is a "mad mix," Roudette said: a Sierra Leonean on bass, an Israeli on keyboards, a backup singer from the Caribbean.

Roudette's tenor, thin and flexible as a palette knife, is perhaps the only constant in their sound, which samples throbbing electronica, dancehall, reggae, hip hop, soul. Thumb pianos and Roudette on steel drum pop up in arrangements. "Got to Lose" from their latest album channels Michael Jackson. "Stranger Forever" adds a Zulu chorus.

Roudette grew up in the Caribbean &

the band's name is a play on "matter fixed," the "no problem" of his native St. Vincent. Hirji is of Indian heritage. They inhabit and personify a youthful, multicultural London of "smells, music, things happening all the time," as Hirji put it.

"They're everyday guys, and I hope they stay that way," said Scott Franklin, an American who directed their "Big City Life" video.

When the London-based aid group Crisis Action decided it needed a "soundtrack" for its campaign to raise awareness about the crisis in Sudan's Darfur, it turned to Mattafix because it wanted newer voices who could appeal to the young, without trivializing, said the organization's spokesman, Brendan Cox.

Cox said when he first brought the idea to Roudette, he found the singer had already been following Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million uprooted from their homes since a rebellion broke out in 2003.

"He knew his stuff &

he knew more than I did," Cox said with a laugh.

The song and video, with endorsements from everyone from South African rights campaigner Desmond Tutu to actor Matt Damon, were released in September as part of a series of demonstrations and other events meant to pressure delegates to a U.N. General Assembly meeting to push for peacekeepers for Darfur. Oxfam and other groups have used it in subsequent campaigns, and the video received thousands of hits on YouTube before the album came out.

"I had no idea what I was getting myself into," Roudette said when he recalls agreeing to go to Darfur's border with Chad to film the video in a refugee camp. What he found, he said, was a dignity summed up in an image from the video: a camp dweller crouching on the ground, ironing a pristine white robe.

"In the midst of all that madness, they managed to hold onto their culture and their values," Roudette said. "I think lesser people would have crumbled under that kind of strain."

Cox said "Living Darfur," which Roudette wrote with veteran South African producer and musician Chico Twala, captures a sense of optimism amid the horror, an idea of "what can happen if people get serious" about finding a solution.

Mattafix's horizons have expanded further since their debut album launched an international concert tour. They're learning from their audiences, they said, about what in their music makes a connection.

"One of the benefits of being a live band is that you can bring that back to the studio," Roudette said. "It's a whole field that, as time goes by, I'm looking forward to learning more about. Music to us is still such a mystery.

"You can even go as far as saying that we play a very small role in the music at all. It's people that make the record. It's people and their perceptions that take it that next step forward. And I quite like that."

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