Album cover

Antena — Samba on Ice

Choose any balmy evening as it passed over suburban Paris, sometime in the late 1960s. A young Isabelle Powaga drifts slowly toward sleep, her mother’s voice intoning phrases of lulling melody borrowed from Antonio Carlos Jobim and 1964’s Getz/Gilberto LP. Perhaps no boys (or girls) from Ipanema had as yet gone walking across the movie screen behind Isabelle’s closed eyelids. And it’s unlikely that Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter, then students in experimental electronic music at Dusseldorf Conservatory in Germany, had even met, let alone performed together as members of Kraftwerk’s forerunning groups. Still, certain signals were already coursing through Europe’s night air, hinting at the possibility that languid, pulsing electrons might someday ride an alien bossa nova beat. For one budding Antena, still a solid decade away from tuning herself to their reception, those crossing and combining messages would achieve stunning, prophetic results in a tiny pocket of the European underground heard by just a lucky few.

Fast-forward through the 1970s. Isabelle Powaga has found herself in London, working as au pair in the home of Yes keyboardist/caped wizard Rick Wakeman, a job that’s enhancing her English fluency as well as convincing her that, despite her doubting parents, music could make you a living. By 1981, Powaga had emerged from her French youth as a practiced songwriting and performing talent, restless at 20 and ready to return to the bright lights, livelier pace, and haute couture sounds of Paris. A adolescence spent learning clarinet, guitar, and electric piano and forming and joining impromptu musical groups—as well as performing solo guitar to no mentionable attention--had prepared Powaga to join guitarist Sylvain Fasy, her then-boyfriend, and singer Pascale Moiroud, her closest female friend in the City of Lights, in forming a new performing project. It was Pascale’s gregarious nature that helped Isabelle overcome her initial shyness. After booking time playing to Paris’s Metro station commuters, with Pascale busily collecting donations from the interested, the as-yet-unnamed unit would demo eight songs to a rudimentary tape recorder; they’d mail the resulting tape to San Francisco’s Ralph Records, to New York No Wave purveyors ZE Records, and to Les Disques du Crepuscule in Belgium, gleaning contact info from LPs already well worn in the group’s collection. These were labels hard at work promoting established acts such as The Residents, Tuxedomoon, Cabaret Voltaire, James White & the Blacks, and Durutti Column—the diverse No Wave and post-punk music close to the hearts of Powaga and company.

Les Disques du Crepuscule would be first to respond to the new Parisian act. The young, Brussels-based imprint--created in tandem with Factory Benelux to release its own material, as well as otherwise-shelved product from Tony Wilson’s UK powerhouse Factory Records--took its name from the French term for “twilight.” From Brussels With Love, Crepuscule’s 1981 compilation of forward-thinking electronic compositions had featured a few tracks by John Foxx, the former Ultravox front man. Metamatic, Foxx’s 1980 debut solo LP featuring minimal synthetic pop, had already been spun thin by Powaga’s group. Courted by Crepuscule, Foxx signed on to take Isabelle, Sylvain, and Pascale under his wing. They departed for London and Foxx’s studio, The Garden, where, with assistance from pioneering British producer Gareth Jones, they gave full treatment to a pair of songs for their debut 7”.

It was their hollowed-out and spidery reading of “The Boy from Ipanema” that brought them as close to San Francisco’s version of No Wave as the group would ever get, setting the chilly precedent for a style Isabelle Powaga now claims as her own take on Cold Wave. The Jobim/Getz/Gilberto classic’s heart of samba is boldly announced, but the beat is straight 808 electro, with frosty vocals subverting the blissed-out lyric with synthetic double-tracking. The cover--issued as a 7” under the name Antena and as Crepuscule’s TWI 073 in 1982--was backed by “Spiral Staircase,” though that track’s bracing, concussive synth drum stabs, ringing keys, and paranoid lyrics recall nothing of the flipside’s Tropicalia pedigree.

Released almost simultaneously was TWI 074, a 12” “single” that lead again with “Ipanema” on its “studio side.” Self-produced in Belgium, the songs on its “home side”—“Unable” and, in particular, “To Climb the Cliff”—establish the group’s signature sound and make sardonic use of Kraftwerk’s robot-pop innovations. Germany’s seminal electronic pop combo had, in 1975, released their Radio-Activity LP, featuring the track “Antenna” and offering Isabelle her future band’s perfect moniker, though she’d drop the third “n” and use the shortened title as the replacement for her own surname that survives to this day. “To Climb the Cliff” and “Unable” encapsulate Antena’s deceptively inviting sound. Both begin as delicately noisy patio evening parties and end on polite applause. But Isabelle Antena’s French-accented English lyrics subvert the music’s inclusive ambience. One song recounts a solitary cliffhanger’s difficult progress up a rock face; the other describes a teacher’s ineptitude. Set to the icy electro-samba Antena was in the process of perfecting for themselves, these tracks drained the Brazilian song styles of their time-worn tropical bliss. This instead was worldly, strange, seductive, and dusky machine music, a hybrid strain of sound still new under the sun.

Antena would follow up their introductory 7” and 12” with what became their most lasting creation, a 12” 5-track mini-album recorded by Gilles Martin and handled again by Crepuscule, though titled to suggest that its thoughts concerned the path of our closest star. The title’s French translation, “La Route Du Soleil,” appeared on the back cover, above a list of credits. Recording Camino Del Sol (“The Way of the Sun”) would bring Antena out of England, where London’s Young Marble Giants offshoot Weekend had recently been combining Brazilian jazz’s lighter, exotic tones with their own take on electronic pop. Antena scrapped early plans to continue recording with Foxx, opting instead to produce their next project themselves at LBO Studio, near the Crepuscule home base in Brussels, Belgium. They took an apartment next door to Paul Haig and Tuxedomoon, eager to start work on what became Antena’s definitive statement.

Though the band had crossed the channel east to the continent, [I]Camino Del Sol]/I]—TWI 114 and Antena’s 3rd short-form release of 1982—was a musical move toward the western hemisphere’s tropics. “Achilles” invokes myth to remind a mother about her invincible warrior child; the track’s shouting Latin intro and coda border a staunchly electro main text. And if “Silly Things” lounges in Brazil, with hand percussion, brass, and whispered vocal, then the gorgeous title track (a “desperate vacation,” according to Isabelle) departs for a lush American beach resort complete with bird song and an icy synth midsection. Isabelle’s voice whispers a tale-by-listing of jetlagged lovers at the pool, taking drinks and tennis and parking the Jaguar; “Camino Del Sol” marks the band’s first defining moment. Rounding out the disc are “Bye Bye Papaye” and “Sissexa”; the former beats Sade to the sounds that brought her to the pop charts, while “Sissexa” takes a bass-and-guitar jaunt to Carnaval, content without the vocal pairing of Isabelle and Pascale found on the majority of the Antena material.

Still later in 1982, “Noelle A Hawai” would appear on Crepuscule’s second holiday compilation, Ghosts of Christmas Past (Remake), alongside wintry tracks by Paul Haig, Aztec Camera, Durutti Column, the Names, and others. Antena’s contribution sets pizzicato New Wave down in a snowless island paradise for the season, name-checking their own label along the way. The band would round out their busy first year by touring Europe with Cabaret Voltaire, The Pale Fountains, and 23 Skidoo, before travelling overseas to New York for a New Years Eve gig. Despite Crepuscule’s best efforts to market their material to clued-in US, UK, and European buyers of Factory-affiliated product, none of the Antena issuings would ever make a noticeable dent critically or commercially, although Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys, writing for Smash Hits, took care to coin the term “electro-samba” for them. Though mostly overlooked, the band never felt less than included among their broader scene, perfectly willing to play the part of cute, fresh punks—as Isabelle Antena has put it—to the darker, inscrutable presence of seasoned big brothers such as Cabaret Voltaire.

The Boy From Ipanema

During Crepuscule’s brief dealings with Island Records, Antena’s 7” “Be Pop” 2-tracker was waxed in 1983. Putting bigger funds from Island to good use (to pay session musicians and producer Martin Hyles), the song turned few heads in the marketplace, catalyzing Pascale Moiroud’s decision to leave Antena in pursuit of fashion design prospects. Her musical inclination had never been particularly strong, according to Isabelle; when her role as provocateur had run its course, she felt ready to depart. Included here are Antena’s four demo recordings for Island, two of which were resurrected from the band’s earliest demo tape and each of them informed, if only at a distance, by Camino Del Sol’s Brazilian roots. “Frantz” and “Ingenuous” mirror facets of Kraftwerk’s late 70s tenor, along with their sardonic concerns about authenticity and personal appearance; the ladies’ entwined vocals deliver a chorus—“Frantz, I’m going for a walk”—in German as if to hammer this point home. How a marriage-wary couple in “Joppo + Eno” ends up in Arkansas we may never know, but “On The Boat” sets sail straight through its New Orderisms, steering for the club setting as directly as anything covered here. It’s where the band was headed anyway, though they might not have known or intended it. Dance DJs worldwide would eventually take to fetishizing Antena’s material in far-flung mixes, dubs, and edits.

Meanwhile, the label scheduled the release of Moving Soundtracks for 1984; planned as a compilation of songs from films reinterpreted by Crepuscule artists, the project languished until finally surfacing in 1991 (on CD as TWI 112-2). Antena’s contribution captures them in befitting French pop territory. “Chanson des Jumelles” originated as Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac’s cheeky, energetic scene from the 1967 Jacques Demy musical trifle Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, with songs composed by Michel Legrand. Down to its pair of parting “au revoirs,” Antena’s reading is echo-laden but otherwise reverentially straight, leaving all hints of their core New Wave bossa nova mode far outside the frame.

For Antena, a deal with Phonogram, as well as two versions of the club single “Life is Too Short,” would come and go before they made their return to Crepuscule. Released in early 1986, the “Seaside Week End” 12”, despite some chart success, marked the final appearance of the stand-alone Antena name, with Isabelle and Sylvain Fasy comprising the duo. Fasy himself wouldn’t wait long to end his increasingly marginal guitar support of Antena and move on to photography, his other creative love. Though it was shelved by Mercury Records, En Cavale—an LP of upbeat Brazilian-flavored and jazzy dance-pop featuring a Sister Sledge cover as well as two songs credited to the original Antena trio—saw its Crepuscule release in the spring of ’86 under Isabelle Antena’s solo imprimatur.

Antena’s fracturing only put Isabelle Antena’s steady movement toward sustained popularity on a high-speed Autobahn, though her music veered quickly toward the center lane of danceable exotica jazz and pop. She has spent the past 25 years recording a baker’s dozen solo albums; performing live on global tours; besting the likes of Whitney Houston and Basia for hotly contested Tokyo music prizes; and even covering Frank Zappa on 1988's Tous Mes Caprices album. Still, Isabelle’s most singular echoes reverberate out of her formative years, fusing continental android techno-pop with beguiling Brazilian rhythms.

We’ve grouped the extant Antena recordings from that exceptional period by session, reviving artwork from the band’s debut 12". Side C brings together all four songs from the “Ipanema” singles, while side D couples “Seaside Week End” with the four Island demos. Both sides end on Antena’s additions to Crepuscule special products. Our replica pressing of Camino Del Sol's A and B sides preserves the original mini-album in close detail, including the intriguing cover art by brilliant in-house Crepuscule designer Benoit Hennebert. Its still-life of sunlit domestic emptiness fully captures the Antena aesthetic, hinting at a mysterious trio who sat together only long enough to sip at fruited cocktails before hearing Europe’s mechanized pop signals on the air, following them for a spell, and disappearing.

  • Camino Del Sol
  • Camino Del Sol (Mini LP)
  • S/T
    Elisa Waut