A review of The Fullness By Omar Musa

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Fullness
by Omar Musa
Moneykat Music
April 2024

Whether reciting poetry, performing music, creating woodcarvings, or doing all three seemingly at once, Omar Musa works in the space of possibility. His art is both political, and timeless:  harking back to poetry’s roots as an oral tradition. Musa has just released his third full-length album, The Fullness, and it’s a hard hitting, complex work of art that incorporates the human voice as instrument, percussion, jazz, pop, rock and rap with themes of love, friendship, grief, ecology, war, peace, climate destruction, addiction and recovery, ethnicity, home and exile.  The album is an invitation and exhortation to the listener to enter into the space opened by Mariel Roberts’ stunning cello combined with Musa’s welcoming lyrics: “I dedicate this art, made in joy and polished with grief – to you. I dedicate this to you, whose light was given shape by shadows. I dedicate this to the fullness of your life.” We find out later in the album that this is a specific dedication to Musa’s best friend B, but it feels as though we are part of that dedication and part of the celebration and mourning of this life, given shape by shadow. Roberts’ cello is back again in Musa’s song about B, “Friendship and Art”, bringing the opening and that song in a conversation that ends in a beautiful slow instrumental eulogy. 

There are many collaborations from all over the world on this album. Chief collaborator, Paperboy, has a wonderful sense of Musa’s linguistic and delivery skills, and the sound takes its cue from poetry/jazz fusion masters like Gil Scott Heron and Amiri Baraka – vocals and instruments working in a synchronicity that feels both polished and improvisational. The first song, “All Together” is tender, with its opening confession: “I can’t sing but I wrote this song for you”. Musa’s perfectly good singing is amplified by the exuberant harmonies from Caiti Baker, Poppy Zanderigo, and Lauren Williams. This song is an ode to universal love, giving the whole album a feeling of positivity, summoning the power of community: “all together, all together”.

This is followed by the high-energy charge of Thom Crawford’s collaboration “Electricity”.  This is a danceable, hit-single piece and it’s impossible not to sing along or move in time. “Fire on the Hills” is one of several pieces that looks at the impact of climate change, including, in this case, flood, fire, reef devastation in the context of war and the deforestation of one of the most beautiful rainforests in the world, Musa’s Borneo. The song leans into the corporate greed leading to overlogging, with a frenzy that never loses its clarity or the irony that underpins the devastation:

Money disappear like magic.
People disappear like magic.
Jungle disappear like magic.
Turn a thousand year tree to a match stick.

“Too Hard to Say” was the first single released, and the simple, lovely piano background is just right for this intimate work about identity and religion, using rhyme, repetition and a humility that gets under the skin: “this is too hard to say, it’s getting too hard to say”. Many of the songs on this album bring in other poets and this one ends with a brief excerpt from Sara Saleh’s moving poem “Possible Worlds”:

I give thanks to each particle of light,
put my forehead to the ground
in submission,
how something so infinite
made room for our shadows.

Musa sings again in “If I”, another moving song which opens with Australian/Vietnamese poet Nam Le reading from his book 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem: “Fire like death. Not a thing, but a process. Its colors, depending on how deep the breath.” These words connect with the words of other poets on this album: Sara Saleh, Jazz Money, and of course Musa as well, the voices working together in a poetic conversation that runs like a spine through the work.

Composer and Thundamentals hip-hop artist Morgan Jones creates a delicate piano and nature inspired soundscape on the meditative “I am a Homeland”, originally published in Musa’s 2021 book Killanova. This piece ia an ode to Borneo, to nature, to the connections between the contradictory human self and the Earth (“I am ambiguity”).  This is followed by the exuberant “North Borneo Soul”, composed by Borneo sound designer Chris Pereira with a choir of vocals and cheers that is another danceable, uplifting work.  The Peruvian violinist and composer Pauchi Sasaki’s work shines on “Flannel Flowers”, combines story, also originally published in Killanova, with an evocative soundscape so haunting it will bring up the hairs on your arms.  “Oh Child of Mine” is a collaboration with performer and poet One Sixth”, a song to the child in the self, and unborn children, connecting grandparent and child, rap with delicate piano and an important message about resilience: “This is possibly the very last thing I’ll ever say. Dear friend we shall not be afraid.”

Other collaborations include singer and songwriter Thom Crawford, who harmonises with Musa on his ode to the Queanbeyan River on “Love So Deep” and Lucy Sugerman, who joins Mariel Roberts’ always stunning cello to sing with Musa on the joyous “Rivergum”. These songs about trees and water, and perhaps at another level, what is permanent against the temporary pain of life, sound like pure rejuvenation after the exquisite grief of “Friendship and Art”.  The album ends with a bonus track “Sun Song” with Stevell Lumbasi singing in the indigenous Dusun language of the Malaysian province of Sabah on Borneo, another connective thread through the work – the notion of the mother tongue – of homeland and of the connective DNA of identity. The resonance of this, once surpressed language is clear even to those who might not understand the meaning or recognise the vernacular.

The Fullness is a stunning album, which will certainly not disappoint Musa fans. I imagine it bringing in many new fans, as it crosses so many style boundaries, and like Musa himself, is multifaceted, poetic, timeless and modern, catchy, funny and tragic while remaining warm and uplifting. The Fullness is a beautiful offering to an already growing body of powerful and important work.