By blending African and Polynesian sounds with Western New Age melodies, the French duo crafted an album that defied genre expectations
In the era before Nirvana broke, World Music started to increase its presence outside the niche market it had previously resided in.
This newfound interest arose in large part thanks to the global success of Paul Simon’s Graceland, Peter Gabriel’s Real World label (as well as his WOMAD festival), David Byrne (via his solo albums and label Luaka Bop), and Brian Eno. Furthermore, Rykodisc’s purchase of the innovative and genre-defining World Music label Hannibal Records resulted in the much wider distribution in North America of World Music titles both new and catalog, which helped to widen the audience for such esoteric sounds.
But 1990 brought something truly foreign to the pop charts, courtesy of the enigmatic Enigma, the project of German musician Michael Cretu. Enigma’s debut single, “Sadeness (Part 1),” became an unexpected international hit. Mixing Gregorian chants with electronic beats and rhythms, offered up something completely foreign to the charts—the sound of the ancient past mixed with a new and burgeoning musical style, that of “electronica,” or techno, or rave, or whatever you want to label it.
Naturally, a unique new thing in pop culture will ultimately beget those trying to imitate it. Enter Deep Forest, the creation of two French musicians, Michel Sanchez and Eric Mouquet. Inspired by field recordings of Pygmies, Pacific islanders, and African tribesmen (courtesy of a series of UNESCO releases from the early 1970s), the duo blended these sounds with western New Age melodies and atmospheres, delivering to the world Deep Forest, an album that seemingly appeared in early 1992 and at the time sounded like nothing else before it. But as much as it owed to New Age and World Music, Deep Forest offered a hybrid that both defied genre expectations while breaking seriously new sonic ground. If they sought to tread the ground broken by Enigma and Cretu, they did a very good job of it.
Deep Forest’s lead single turned out to be Deep Forest’s most well-known song. While the name “Sweet Lullaby” might not instantly ring a bell for those readers who were around at the time, listening to the first five seconds of it will instantly remind you. “Oh,” you say, “that song.” “Sweet Lullaby” is the sort of song that is known for its melody and nothing more. While “Sweet Lullaby” might not have had the widespread chart success of “Sadness Pt. 1,” it did have a rather successful run on the U.S. Modern Rock charts. And as 1992 went into 1993, the song found its way onto radio around the world and would become an international hit, charting as high as 14 on the US Modern Rock charts, even briefly appearing on the Billboard Hot 100.
But “Sweet Lullaby” had an interesting half-life due to the interests of Main Street. In 1992 and for the 90s, the song became ubiquitous in terms of its appearance in the overhead playlists and background music cycles for commercial businesses, corporate and independents alike. Deep Forest resonated with those who wanted to exude a vibe of “consciousness” and “mindfulness” in their stores, ranging from your local coffee house, suburban malls, national chains, and your local bookseller alike. “Sweet Lullaby” became a symbol of awareness, a subtle and pleasing way to demonstrate that wherever you heard it, you could rest assured that the establishment playing it cared. It became the soundtrack to the American retail experience, an accidental pop phenomenon. Even still, “Sweet Lullaby” holds up as a lovely little oddity that came out of nowhere and made itself a home in the subtle consciousness of the American consumer.
Nearly a decade later, “Sweet Lullaby” would once again receive attention. The song’s sample was based on a traditional Solomon Islands lullaby known as “Rorogwela,” performed by a woman known only as Afunakwa. In 2008, Internet personality Matt Harding (who had used the song as background music in his “Where The Hell Is Matt” viral videos) ventured out to find the mysterious vocalist and introduce her to her hit song and to introduce the world to the singer. You can watch the film here:
VIDEO: Where The Hell Is Afunkawa?
How does the rest of Deep Forest fare, three decades on? Well…it’s a mixed bag. Deep Forest is an overall enjoyable listening experience, but with the time that’s passed, it might be hard to recognize just how unique this sounded in 1992. Songs such as “Deep Forest,” “Night Bird,” and “Desert Walk” offer pleasant, thoughtful explorations of sound that are enhanced by the samples chosen. Deep Forest falters when they attempt to manipulate the vocal tracks they chose into making a beat; unfortunately, “White Whisper” and “Savana Dance” sound terribly dated, thanks in part to thirty years of imitators. The only truly terrible song on the album is “Hunting,” which uses manipulated recordings to make what they must have thought would be an original rhythm and vocal track, but it sounds like a bizarre recreation of the yodeling music utilized on the The Price Is Right’s “Cliff Hangers” game.
Even still, Deep Forest performed quite well. In America, it would go gold and worldwide would sell nearly four million copies. It would also be nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Global Music in 1994 but would lose to Ry Cooder. (The duo would win a Grammy two years later, for their sophomore effort Boheme.) The duo would continue to work together for the next decade, splitting in 2005 over creative differences. Mouquet would keep the name alive and he continues to release music under the Deep Forest moniker.
Deep Forest may be an album that time has forgotten, and in a way, that’s understandable. Any enterprising bedroom artist with a computer and a rather inexpensive recording software could make an album that sounds like Deep Forest with relative ease. Lord knows you can find generic “atmospheric” records like this at Target for five bucks, nestled in next to the candles and mood-enhancing oils.
There’s a sad truth that comes with invention—over time, it’s easy to take newfound innovation for granted. But one should never lose sight of the fact that Deep Forest did it first, they did it well, and that what they had to offer was truly unique for the time.
VIDEO: Deep Forest “Sweet Lullaby”