Photography by Jean de Pena
Babel Med in Marseille included 32 acts over three days at the Dock-des-Suds. Jo Frost and Simon Broughton report on some of the highlights and new discoveries.
‘Ecoute le Monde’ (Listen to the World) they write on the Babel Med posters and while it’s certainly not the whole world, there’s a good range of artists from as far afield as Norway, Korea, Canada and Colombia. Two of the bands that impressed on the big stage are bands we’ve already covered in Songlines: Songhoy Blues, four young guys from Bamako with their Malian rock’n’roll (#106), and Family Atlantica (featured in #95 and 100), our Newcomer award winners last year. The irrepressible Luzmira Zerpa led an energy-packed show. What’s impressive about Family Atlantica is the sure-handed way they slip in an instant from a catchy anthemic song to Afro-Venezuelan ritual with a rhythm section that really animates the crowd.
Françoise Atlan is a French-born Jewish Sephardic singer of North African heritage. She’s been performing for 25 years and I’ve seen her several times in special projects at the Fes Festival of Sacred Music, but her show at Babel Med was the first time I’ve seen a solo concert. She was performing with Thessaloniki-based group En Chordais with oud, violin, qanun and percussion. The repertoire, from her recent CD Aman! Sefard… (reviewed in #107), was that of the Sephardic communities who settled in the Ottoman Empire after expulsion from Spain in 1492. The music is in Turkish maqam scales, particularly noticeable in a song about someone who murdered a love rival and ended up in prison in Istanbul. It’s dark and pulls on the heart-strings. She ended with a much brighter number – ‘Seven Ways to Cook Aubergines’ – in which the recipes are outlined in mouthwatering detail, eliciting whoops of appreciation from the audience. You can hear the Spanish-based Ladino words, like ‘komida’ (dish) and the Turkish ones like ‘dolma’ (stuffed), illustrating how the music has drawn from its migrations. She ends by saying however you cook the aubergines, the important thing is to have some wine. I’ll drink to that (SB).
According to the Babel Med guide, only 29% of the 32 bands showcased were women – that is quite frankly a paltry-sounding ratio. But it was the women, including the aforementioned Luzmira from Family Atlantica and Portugal’s Gisela João (who was compared to “Amy Winehouse doing fado” by a Babel Med director) who really stood out for me. First to make an impression was Azam Ali, an Iranian singer who now lives in Canada, and her group Niyaz. They showcased tracks from their new album, The Fourth Light (reviewed in the next issue) – songs that Ali tells the crowd are a tribute to the eighth-century female Iraqi Sufi poet Rabia Al Basri. Ali is a striking figure onstage and fronts a band that includes qanun (zither) and a large type of kamancheh (spike fiddle), percussion, plus a guy on an Apple laptop who creates electronic effects that work surprisingly well with Ali’s vocals in Arabic, Kurdish and Farsi.
Trio Teriba are three female singers from Benin who entertained with some wonderful a capella singing and energetic calabash percussion and dancing. They didn’t provide much chat in between songs, but they did say they were singing out about violence against women. The top-notch harmonies and the engaging simplicity of their show would, I’m sure, be a sure-fire hit with UK festival-goers. Then onto another all-female group, this time Simangavole from La Réunion in the Indian Ocean. There’s a palpable edgy energy emitted from this five-piece, all dressed in white playing an impressive array of percussion. The music Simangavole perform is maloya, the rhythmic style of music that has its roots in La Réunion’s slave past. The fast, frenetic percussion and call-and-response vocals have a hypnotic effect and they offer a refreshing alternative to what tends to be a very male-dominated musical style. (JF)
After their excellent Top of the World album in #107, I was really delighted to be able to see the skilled duo of Egyptian oud player Tarek Abdallah and percussionist Adel Shams el Din. I’d have liked them to talk a little more than they did, but Abdallah’s lute playing is exquisitely refined – and the instrument looks beautiful too. It’s impressive how the melodic lines are punctuated and propelled by the incredibly precise playing of Shams el Din on the little riqq tambourine. Exquisite.
I was also delighted to talk to fado singer Gisela João who is coming to the UK for the first time for Songlines Encounters Festival in June. I’ll write up that interview in a blog nearer the time, but João is animated, a bit mischievous and throws out a lot of the fado conventions. You can see why she’s become the young fado star in Portugal. But most important, she’s got a gorgeous voice and held a packed hall from beginning to end. The big band that impressed were Herencia de Timbiqui, an 11-strong outfit from the Pacific coast of Colombia – basically guitars, percussion and the distinctive bounce of marimba. Like several Colombian bands, they’ve worked with producer Will Holland (aka Quantic) and deliver a well-honed punch. With two charismatic vocalists, William Angulo and Begner Vasquez, they’re one of the reasons Colombian music is really starting to make an impact. (SB)
The mistral wind was in full force during the three days of Babel Med, so it seemed fitting that Le Vent du Nord arrived like a breath of fresh air from Québec and quickly created a warm and cosy atmosphere in the normally draughty Chapiteau tent. The quartet are superb exponents of the richness of the Québécois musical tradition, but at the same time put their own, vibrant stamp on it. Fuelled by the rasping whirr of the hurdy-gurdy, the twang of the Jew’s harp, and underpinned by some fiery fiddle playing and foot-tapping, this is a band who really know how to entertain.
It made a refreshing change to see a musician from East Africa on the programme – Joel Sebunjo, a 28-year-old from Uganda. Sebunjo plays an electric kora – not an instrument native to Uganda, but one he learned while studying in Guinea Conakry. More representative of his homeland is the endongo, a type of lyre. The group might have lacked the professionalism and slickness of more seasoned performers but you certainly couldn’t fault their energy, enthusiasm and entertainment value, especially when the guitarist launched into a solo using his teeth.
Among the half-dozen local acts being showcased, it was Moussu T e lei Jovents that were the highlight for me. All donning stripey T-shirts and flat caps, this five-piece never fail to put a smile on your face and were clearly popular with the home crowd. Many of the local references in the lyrics, sung in a heavily accented Marseillais French are probably lost on most non-Francophones, but even a novice French speaker would surely recognize a handful of them: les Calanques, le Pastis, la Bouillabaisse… Moussu T perfectly encapsulate Babel Med’s southern French vibe. (JF)