Babel Med 2014, March 20-22, Docks des Suds, Marseille

Posted on March 26th, 2014 in Recent posts by .


Photography by Jean de Peña

Simon Broughton and Jo Frost recount some of their highlights from last weekend’s Babel Med in Marseille, France.

‘Ecoute le Monde’ it says on the posters for Babel Med in Marseille. And you certainly do get to listen to the world with 30 concerts over three days, although it’s a certain vision of the world. There seems to be a sort of default position that means the vast majority of acts are fusions of some sort. It’s partly that the French definition of musique du monde (world music) tends to emphasise cross-fertilisation, but also it’s the sort of thing that fuels festivals. Babel Med is a professional showcase for artists and bands, but it’s also a cheap (€15 a night) and hugely popular three nights of music for the people of Marseille. This year, the tenth edition, over 12,000 people attended over the three nights.


Here are some of our highs and lows:

Thursday March 20

Fargana Qasimova (pictured above) is the daughter of Azeri mugham star Alim Qasimov and she’s been singing together with him for years. I last saw them give an incredibly powerful performance together in Baku, his voice often higher than hers in an amazing mugham polyphony. But now she’s started doing shows on her own with a brilliant band of traditional instrumentalists – tar, kamancha, clarinet and percussion. Of course she’s totally grown up with the tradition and it shows. Her voice and style are glowing and intense, although there’s a serious piety rather than the hint of mischief her father has. This was one of the few traditional performances at Babel Med, which also made it very welcome. SB

The Finnish harmonica quartet Sväng are Songlines favourites and we had them at our Encounters Festival in 2010. The music is original but always drawing on Finnish traditions, or sometimes Balkan music. Eero Turkka, one of the quartet, has married a Bulgarian lady and now lives in Sofia. The standout piece in the concert was ‘Karja-La’, like Shangri-La, the title-track of their new album. It’s a musical depiction of Karelia, the heartland of Finnish identity – as a nostalgic past, a place of conflict, emigration and Russification. The recent events in Crimea illustrate the topicality of the music. What I like about Sväng is the depth of the music alongside the sense of fun. SB

Hotel Univers was one of my albums of 2013, yet it’s been a while since I’ve seen Jupiter and Okwess International (pictured below) play live. Despite being a slightly reduced-size touring outfit, the Congolese group still put on a storming live show. Lead singer Jupiter Bokondji, with his deep, gravelly voice and long scarecrow-like flailing arms, makes a very charismatic frontman, but he’s got strong support from some fabulous guitarists who double up as pretty impressive dancers too. This was the first showcase that got me dancing. JF


Friday March 21

The fiddle player from Brittany, Jacky Molard, is highly regarded in Breton music. Being only familiar with his collaborative album together with the Malian Foune Diarra trio (N’Diale) this was the first time I’d seen him perform live. Molard was joined by a trio of double bass (the first of two female double bass players on Friday night), accordion and saxophone and their music is complex, compelling and with driving rhythms – they reminded me a little of a Breton Lau. High praise indeed. JF

The party band of Friday evening, the Amsterdam Klezmer Band, always know how to get a crowd moving and the Marseillais audience seemed to really enjoy this raucous klezmer big band. They’ve got a new album out which we’ll be reviewing soon. JF

One of the most interesting fusions that makes real artistic (and dare one say political) sense, is the mixture of Kurdish musicians in a band called Nishtiman. With Sohrab Pournazeri, a charismatic kamancheh and tanbur player at its centre, the group features Kurdish musicians from Iran, Iraq and Turkey, plus a French percussionist and bass player. The set was in party mode in a very crowded tent, but the musicianship shone through, despite the sound being a bit of a mess. Alongside Pournazeri, there was brilliant daf (frame drum) playing from Hussein Rezaeenia, standing in for Iraqi Kurdish percussionist Hussein Zahawy. The newly-released CD from Accords Croisés also has some beautiful slow and intense pieces. SB

A more unlikely fusion embodied in one person is the Iranian-born Israeli singer Rita. Singing in Hebrew and Persian, she laid great stress on bringing these two fiercely opposed countries together with a good band, including another great kamancheh maestro, Mark Eliyahu. But the noble ambition can’t save a bland Eurovision-style vibrato fest. SB

Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni ba looked resplendent in their turquoise green robes but sadly the sound wasn’t so impressive, which momentarily seemed to be reflected in the group’s usually confident performance. But Bassekou wasn’t to be deterred and carried off his solo ngoni spots with aplomb and a winning smile. JF



Pasi Leino (Sväng)

Saturday March 22

I was looking forward to the Kenyan/Somali vocal harmonies of Gargar, but they reminded me of the Russian babushkas in Eurovision – dancing as if they were at a disco they didn’t want to be at and backed by the most mundane drums and keyboards. It was a warning of how tradition can be so easily debased. SB

Shutka Roma Rap, despite my aversion of baseball caps and cliché arm-waving stylings, gave a strong show, thanks, if you didn’t understand the Romani language, to a backing band with violin, sax and trumpet. SB

Saturday night’s line-up was the one I was least familiar with, so I had fewer expectations than the previous two nights. And yet this was the evening of my favourite discoveries – Duo Sabil, Palestinian oud and percussion duo, accompanied by a French string quartet, Quatuor Béla. Fabulous music if not a little bit studious in style (we call it the curse of the music stand). The listening experience was marred by the venue being rammed packed – it felt like trying to watch a chamber music concert on a London tube platform during rush hour. Definitely one to revisit under less frenetic circumstances and preferably in the comfort of a chair. Duo Sabil also performed at Songlines Encounters last year with guitarist John Williams. JF

Veteran roots reggae star Clinton Fearon, who had a Top of the World review in #92, attracted a huge crowd, gave ‘lots of love’ and brought out a pungent scent of weed like no one else. The songs and scent are well worth catching. SB

Next was Ve Zou Via (pictured below) – another cross-cultural project, this one a polyphonic one exploring the connections between Marseille and Naples. I’ve been a big fan of the five guys from Lo Còr de la Plana ever since witnessing them lead a ridiculously large conga line through the throng in the arboretum at WOMAD. This time they’re joined by Absurd, four women from Naples, plus Enza Pagliara, a singer from Salento. No idea whether they were singing in Occitan or Neopolitan, but they sounded fantastic. There were moments of intimate close-harmony singing but when they all joined in on frame drums, they whipped up the crowd into a state of wild enthusiasm. All the more impressive considering that the venue, akin to a circus Big Top, was several inches under water after a day’s worth of rain. Certainly didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the local crowd. JF

Another new name was Maya Kamaty who has won singing awards on her home island of La Réunion, and after this showcase I’m sure she’ll be gaining more international acclaim. Accompanied by a trio of musicians on percussion and guitars, she performed call-and-response Réunionnais creole singing, all while dancing and shaking the kayamb – a traditional percussion instrument of the island which looks like a large cane tray. Kamaty brought a real freshness and some much needed Indian Ocean warmth to the Docks. JF

Finally Che Sudaka – described in the programme as ‘mestizo Latino’ –  sounded like Manu Chao on speed. Of course, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, in which case Chao should be feeling truly honoured by this group of Colombian and Argentinians, now resident in Barcelona. Simple, fun, festival party music. JF


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