Simon Broughton, Jo Frost and Alexandra Petropoulos report from the Songlines Encounters Festival 2016 at London’s Kings Place
(Photos by Alex Harvey-Brown, Simon Broughton and Miriam Abdulla)
Thursday, June 2
“I got this bone from my grandmother,” said Karoliina Kantelinen as the audience collapsed into laughter at the thought it might be her grandmother’s thigh bone. Then there was the amusement, for us, as she realised what she said had been misconstrued. The bone for playing the shaman drum was actually from a reindeer, handed on by Kantelinen’s fondly-remembered grandmother.
The story underlined the intensely personal nature of Värttinä’s music, founded over 30 years ago by Mari Kaasinen, still at the centre of the group. There were songs they’d written about their own experiences and songs they’d learnt from old singers they had met over the border in Viena Karelia, Russia, one of the heartlands of Finnish culture.
For Songlines Encounters, they did a superb set as just three vocalists without their regular backing band. It brought a great sense of women power. They accompanied themselves on kantele (the zither that is Finland’s national instrument), flutes and superb accordion playing from Susan Aho. But the highlights were the a capella numbers, which really emphasised the superb focus and versatility of these singers. Melodies, shrieks and percussive vocals create an astonishing range of textures and make this music that is distinctly local in origin work on an international stage. And Värttinä perform it with an infectious joy.
John Williams & Derek Gripper
Friday, June 3
This was one of the most successful concerts we’ve held at Songlines Encounters. Not only because it sold out, but because it revealed two different musical personalities exploring, mainly, West African kora music played on classical guitar. Arranging kora music for guitar has been the passion of Derek Gripper for the past 15 years or so. Kings Place is perfect for a concert like this where you can concentrate on the intricacy of the playing and enjoy the warm, rich sound.
They opened with the two of them playing together, then Gripper doing a solo set, followed by Williams, and then joining together again at the end. The fundamental question is why listen to kora music arranged for guitar when you can easily listen to Toumani Diabaté, Bassekou Kouyaté or Seckou Keita playing the real thing? This concert clearly demonstrated why it’s worth doing. It becomes rich and beautiful concert music on the guitar with a totally different acoustic. Gripper brings a whole variety of textures to his playing, delicate harmonics, snapping the strings, abruptly stopping them and knocking the neck of the instrument. These come from kora techniques, but never just imitate them.
John Williams took an accompanying role in the duo repertoire but showed the smooth and refined style that he’s famous for in the singing legato melody by Paraguayan composer Agostín Barrios in the first of his solo pieces. And followed with some dance-like Venezuelan repertoire.
Together they created a rich and intricate sound that is beautiful and absorbing. I think we all felt it was something very special.
Derek Gripper plays Thursday June 9 at Wyeside Arts Centre, Builth, Wells and Friday June 10 at Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan.
Friday, June 3
After the serene intensity of Friday night’s first billing of Derek Gripper and John Williams’ guitar duets, the concert in Hall 2 proved to be a wonderful foil. Vula Viel are a London-based quintet, led by Bex Burch, a classically-trained percussionist. Burch became interested by the minimalism of Steve Reich and how Ghanaian music influenced him, so she went to Ghana and spent three years studying the Dagaare gyil (xylophone). Gyil music is mainly ceremonial, in particular it’s played at funerals. “Dagaare funerals aren’t about consolation: it’s an opportunity to confront difficult truths and explore your grief. The harshness of mourners’ judgements often sparks a renewal,” Burch told Songlines in June 2015.
Vula Viel means ‘Good is Good’ – and it’s the name Burch was given when she had finished her apprenticeship. The focal point of the band is the gyil, with the two drummers – Dave de Rose and Simon Roth – sat on opposite sides of the stage so that they could eyeball each other as they played with incredible precision. George Crowley swayed back and forth behind Burch on sax and Dan Nicholls looked unassuming yet has an integral part in creating the band’s hypnotic sound on synth and keys. I was initially stood at the back of the hall and was convinced that Burch had smuggled a trampoline onstage as she bounced up and down, left and right Zebedee-style, a completely compelling figure. I found myself drawn to the front to join in with the crowd who were dancing and soaking up the incredible energy emitting from the musicians. They played tracks from their debut album and also some new compositions, with Burch giving brief introductions and fascinating insights into Ghanaian life. One of the tunes translates as ‘You’re Sitting with Your Enemy, You’re Sitting With Your Drink,’ and Burch explained that it’s a common occurrence in Ghana to put poison in drinks, so you never accept a drink from someone without them drinking it first – so there was much amusement when just after this explanation, the stage manager came on with bottles of water for the band.
Vula Viel really embody what Songlines Encounters is all about – music deeply connected to a tradition, yet new, exciting and innovative at the same time. There’s no denying that they really are very good indeed.
Saturday, June 4
On Saturday afternoon, Kings Place was treated to a second performance by the sublime pairing of John Williams & Derek Gripper after a sold-out show the previous night. What followed later that evening was something completely different – flashy music from Hungarian violinist Roby Lakatos.
Lakatos is a descendant of the legendary violinist János Bihari (1764-1827). Bihari’s playing, rooted in traditional dance music, became the sound of 19th-century Hungarian music. He would go on to inspire composers like Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, so it seems perfect that Roby Lakatos straddles the line between classical and traditional performance, though for this show he focused mainly on his Gypsy repertoire.
The flamboyant violinist came out on stage dressed in bright red trousers, a long blue jacket and his signature halo of grey hair, and he was joined on stage by Jenő Lisztes (cimbalom), Kalman Cseki (piano) and Vilmos Csikos (bass). Lakatos paced himself, starting with an elegant opening over a shruti box drone that sounded as if it could have been improvised. But it wasn’t long before he launched into his trademark nimble fingerwork for an uptempo Gypsy swing piece, complete with slap bass from a giggling Csikos.
Throughout his set, Lakatos’ unbelievable playing was definitely on display. His fingers can certainly move faster than you expect is possible, and he showed off the most impressively fast double-fingered pizzicato playing I’ve ever seen. But the virtuosic playing didn’t belong to Lakatos alone: Lisztes’s cimbalom playing was out of this world, especially on his arrangement of ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’; Cseki’s playing on the piano was expertly jazzy or classical whenever the mood called for it, and Csikos put on an excellent show on the bass, and the fact that he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself – even throwing in a joke glissando in the middle of one of Lakatos’ solos – meant he was a joy to watch.
Unlike any other Songlines Encounters Festival performances to date, this was an evening of mind-blowing virtuosic technique from a quartet of musicians who are certainly not only at the top of their own game, but at the top of anyone else’s game too.