Alchemy Festival 2012 Review

Posted on April 20th, 2012 in Recent posts, Reviews by .

In its third year the South Bank’s Alchemy Festival has really come into its own. 

Susheela Raman (Mon April 16) delivered what was probably the highlight of the whole festival, weaving together Tamil, Bengali and Rajasthani ingredients and combining them with the qawwali singers of Mian Mir form Lahore, Pakistan. Alchemy is about collaborations and creating something new – gold perhaps – out of different ingredients.

Susheela always looks slightly scary onstage, delivering her intense vocals and raising her arms like she’s climbing wallbars, but the emotional trajectory of the concert was direct. Hundreds of people were clustered round the stage dancing at the end. This has the makings of a fantastic album and bigger things. 

Raghu Dixit from Bangalore (Wed April 18) – a Songlines favourite – was slightly disappointing, but through no fault of his own. He was suffering from a throat problem and cut short his set. While his vocals were incandescent in what he managed to do, we never got to hear much of his new material. Although he did get a shy Queen Elizabeth Hall audience singing four lines in Kannada – a pretty impressive achievement.

Most intriguing was the Sachal Jazz Ensemble (Tues April 17, pictured). It didn’t all work, but had great moments and revealed tempting possibilities. The orchestra has been put together in Lahore by Izzat Majeed from musicians no longer employed in the ‘Lollywood’ film industry. There was a nine-piece band from Pakistan, driven by a percussion section of tabla, dholak and other instruments, plus sitar, bansuri flute and sarangi and guest sarod player Soumik Datta. They were backed by a London string section and jazzers on piano, trumpet, bass and guitars.

Sachal Jazz’s version of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ has been a huge internet success – and it was the finale everyone was waiting for. It’s one of the pieces that work best in this hybrid format. Some of the tunes work well – ‘Take Five’, ‘The Pink Panther’ and, of course, the Pakistani tunes – I loved ‘Barkha Bahar’, which was the highlight of the evening.

But there were horrendous tuning problems with pieces that had more complex harmonies – particularly the bossa nova ones. At first I thought ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ was ‘Desafinado’ because it was all so out of tune – the Indian instruments and the Western instruments were just not getting along. And I wondered who was leading it all, because the conductor Nijat Ali seemed to be just waving his arms to the music. And many of the arrangements were too formulaic with a sequence of solos from sitar, flute (the excellent Baqir Ali), sarangi and sarod.

It’s worth writing about this because I think there’s real potential here. The Queen Elizabeth Hall was full, there are great musicians and there’s a good story. What it needs is a professional arranger and then Sachal Jazz can become more than just a quirky story, but a sophisticated musical product within Pakistan and outside.



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