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Dusted Down: UMAN – Chaleur Humaine

Pan-pipes, windchimes, echoic djembe and vocal snippets in French, Italian, and Russian. You have been warned.

UMAN – Chaleur Humaine (Freedom To Spemd)

Danielle and Didier Jean, united not just by a compatible creative union but by blood, originally released this album under the name UMAN in 1992. At that time, ‘new age’, as both a musical genre and a way of life, was at its peak, especially in France. And what with being affiliated closely with easy listening cornerstones Windham Hill Records, the pair were particularly near to the core of this new age zeitgeist.

Sharing a sense of disillusionment at the music landscape at the time – they had failed to capture the public imagination with two lukewarm pop albums – Uman was born from a complete overhaul. The brothers, disgruntled, had relocated to the humble suburb of Orsay, south of Paris, where they built their own studio and later carved out a new sense of musical freedom, rekindling their creative kinship. Thereafter, their aliases touched on a theme of unity. The short-lived sleeve credit ‘D&ꓷ Jean’ had an undeniable symmetry to it, and of course, ‘Uman’ alluded to an ideal sense of humanity, being the word for ‘human’ in most of the Latin romance languages. 

It’s quite clear the brothers were obsessed with the human condition – and importantly, its many varieties. ‘Chaleur Humaine’ translates to ‘human warmth’, and aptly to this, when listening to this album, we glean a sense of very real emotion certainly achievable (though perhaps not easily) from the experience of being human. Opening with a shocking chord hit and dubious flautism, we’re quickly plunged into a thick-bodied ethereal sound endemic to the late 80s and early 90s. This sound was described quite appropriately by 4AD signee Deerhunter as “hyper-ethereal, borderline-goth”, and was no doubt picked up and reappropriated by many of Uman’s French pop contemporaries at the time, like Air and Lucie Vacarme. 

From the opening, mermaid-esque voices on ‘The White Spirit’, to the malleted chimes of ‘Entrelacs’, there’s such a wide variety of instrumental timbres on this LP that it’s easy to imagine it might have originated from a gargantuan musical apparatus in an underwater studio. Perhaps this aquatic feel was intentional, given that water is the connecting liquid that unifies us all. And, as if piling on the evidence to prove this, every title on the original CD is written in a different language, cementing its cosmopolitan, trans-Atlantic feel. A repeated mantra occurs across the LP, in many different languages from Arabic to Slavics to Vietnamese, evoking a universal truth – in spite of weak barriers like language, race or identity: “It’s this force, almost animal, warm, like a kiss, fresh like the morning dew, that we call human warmth.” 

The brothers don’t shy away from the musically sinister either; in as much as human beings house a conscious minds, we also hide a dark unconscious. ‘Human Heat’ is a haunting interlude track opting for darkjazz, seguing into ‘Atmosphère’, a more downtrodden piece of FM bass and muted trumpet, vocally adorned by an unknown guest singer. Closing track ‘Déambulation’, all the more, revels in this sense of devil’s advocacy – MIDI string plucks meld with an instrumental beat of gated reverb and fishbone percussion. It’s as if a new wave fashion show was being held in a zeppelin, floating high above a beast-dwelling cavern.

Ironically for Uman – as is the experience of many legitimate musicians – the relinquishing of the desire for fame led to just that. After giving up on pop and shutting themselves away – focusing on playing and collaborating mainly with local musicians and remaining content with their secluded studio life – the Jean brothers soon found recognition on various international chillout comps, including albums by Windham Hill, Diamond Sound, Six Degrees and even Universal. Such a story is testament to an album of this calibre. In as much as music like this should sound this pure and beautiful, so should its intentions. 

On behalf of UMAN, a portion of the proceeds from the re-issued release will be donated Greenpeace France.