South Kensington was the place to be last weekend, with two very different musical events, coincidentally at two of London’s biggest museums – the V&A and the Natural History Museum.
The penultimate event in this year’s Refugee Week took place in the glorious environs of the Victoria & Albert Museum – with the themes of flight, refuge and identity resonating loud and clear in the programme, which included screenings of the classic black & white film, Casablanca, plus music.
Gnawa dub by Moroccan musician Simo Lagnawi echoed around the Grand Entrance, where the piano took a central role during the evening, with British Latin-jazz pianist Alex Wilson performing the first of several sets. The wonderful Jewish Algerian pianist Maurice El Médioni (pictured above) performed in a secluded corner of the Sculpture Gallery, alongside oud player Khyam Allami and percussionist Vasilis Sarikis. Despite having never played together before – and having very different approaches and musical styles – the trio drew a large, enthusiastic crowd crammed in alongside the statues, who evidently delighted in hearing octogenarian Medioni’s unique Arab-Andalusian, boogie-woogie tinged music.
Then time for some refreshment in what is surely one of London’s most ornate and beautiful cafés – for this particular night recreated as Rick’s Café, with a grand piano taking centre-stage. This is where Palestinian singer Reem Kelani sang a rousing set of songs with her trio of musicians on piano, double bass and percussion. Kelani is a dynamic performer and got the audience’s full attention with her engaging and passionate introductions to the songs, many by the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish, from her forthcoming album. She dedicated one to the revolution in Tunisia, ‘Babour Zammar,’ by Hédi Guella. A prominent political singer in Tunisia, Guella died shortly after the revolution last year. The song – more commonly known as the ‘Anthem for Emigration’ by Tunisians – speaks of the emigration of young Tunisians to work in Europe.
Saturday night and another museum – this time the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum – for an altogether different musical affair. The event Live and Roar: An Axolotl Odyssey was commissioned by Pestival, as part of London 2012 Festival and featured novelist DBC Pierre paying homage to the axolotl, accompanied by half a dozen musicians including Bellowhead’s Andy Mellon and Seth Lakeman’s double bass player, Ben Nicholls.
Having previously had no idea what an axolotl was, I can now say that I’ve been fully enlightened. This endangered species from Mexico is a type of salamander possessing the amazing ability to regenerate their body parts. DBC Pierre grew up in Mexico City and had his very own pet axolotl, therefore making him the perfect man to pay tribute to this curious little amphibian. His quirky, amusing eulogy was enhanced by film footage of the creature and scenes of life on the lakes around Mexico City, accompanied by an evocative music score, written by Mellon and Nicholls. Mellon’s mariachi-esque trumpet sounds lent a distinctly Mexican flavour to the whole event – one of the more bizarre yet entertaining events I’ve been to in quite some time.