Mo’Ju: Oro, Plata, Mata

It’s often forgotten that the Greek tragedy of Midas, the man with the golden touch, is actually a cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for. Mojo Ruiz de Luzuriaga – the Filipino-Wiradjuri artist better known as Mo’Ju, formerly Mojo Juju – has not forgotten the lesson. On their fourth album Oro, Plata, Mata, Mo’Ju dedicates a song to the mythical king of Phrygia: “I won’t worship at your phoney idols,” they sing.

Some background to this high-concept album is necessary: Oro, Plata, Mata was a 1982 film made by Mo’Ju’s late uncle, the celebrated Filipino director Peque Gallaga. The title literally translates as Gold, Silver, Death – drawn from the Spanish Filipino architectural superstition that the design components of a house (especially staircases) should not be in multiples of three. The film’s three acts follow this theme: from luxury to retreat to ill fortune.

In its title and structure, Mo’Ju’s album is an homage to Gallaga. The three tracks representing the title are short, eerie and near-identical snippets, after which follow three songs each: (Oro): Gold, Money, Midas; (Plata): Something To Believe In, Bran Nue Wurld, Change Has To Come; (Mata): The Future, World Would End and Swan Song. This approach binds an ambitious but tightly written record.

The Oro songs are the most obvious, and also the most urgent. Mo’Ju’s voice flips from yearning to demanding on Gold: first in a husky croon over a piano progression, then a tough rap over jerky beats. It’s the sound of a person (and a song) being pulled apart by the competing demands of modern life. It’s hard to protest the excesses of capitalism when your art is enmeshed within it: “Look at me chained to the wheel of a big machine,” Mo’Ju sings.

It’s during the Plata section that this album peaks, as a disillusioned Mo’Ju rejects the material world in search of spiritual enlightenment. Change Has To Come especially is a riveting piece of neo-soul, anchored by a squelching bass hook. “I believe in love rising above hatred,” may sound banal in lesser hands, but Mo’Ju gives the words extra weight at a time – and in a week – where the trans community, particularly in Australia, is under attack as never before.

The Mata section is more downbeat, as Mo’Ju confronts the spectre of ecological catastrophe and the fate of their child. Swan Song sounds a final note of resistance: “Swans sing the loveliest songs / But I don’t want to sing along.” It’s a musical irony that the sound of this album is otherwise golden – more akin to a new dawn than a final sunset, for an artist entering the prime of their career.

First published in the Guardian, 24 March 2023

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