Words by Simon Broughton (Editor-in-Chief, Songlines)
Day 3 (Friday, June 7) The idea of Songlines Encounters is to present artists from around the world that we think deserve wider exposure. The sold-out concert on Day 3 featured artists who’d had Top of the World albums in 2012. One of my picks of the year was Aduna by Malick Pathé Sow & Bao Sissoko, from Senegal. Sow sings and plays hoddu (an instrument similar to the ngoni lute) and guitar, while Sissoko is a terrific kora player. The musicians had an elegance, sophistication and warmth on stage and their music, with female vocalist Talike Gellé and Cheik Mbacké Gueye on calabash percussion was full of subtle textures. A class act that returns for the London African Music Festival in September.
Another standout album from last year was that of Palestinian oud and percussion duo Ahmad Al Khatib & Youssef Hbeisch, also known as Duo Sabil. Khatib is one of the best oud players I’ve heard, getting a fantastic range of colours from his instrument, while Hbeisch entices a universe of sounds from his kit, somehow making a big frame drum sound like a wailing wind instrument. Thrillingly, they were joined in this Encounters performance by classical guitarist John Williams, who began with a solo set of Spanish classics by Albéniz and Tárrega, colourfully evoking Moorish Spain. In Tárrega’s ‘Recuerdos de la Alhambra’, Williams’ tremolo guitar sang out in an extraordinary lyrical legato. With this Andalusian atmosphere, the connections between the classical guitar and the oud could not have been made more clearly.
Before they began their collaboration, Hbeisch enthused: “You cannot imagine how thrilled we are to be on stage here with John Williams!” But it was clearly a relationship of mutual respect and Williams told me how equally impressed he was by their music – which he discovered through Songlines. In their final piece there was a gorgeous oud solo, though I do wish John Williams had been given his moment to shine as well.
Day 4 (Saturday, June 8) featured two contrasting bands, but both with Latin piano at their heart. Audience member Sarah, a welcome regular at these events, was dancing enthusiastically from the beginning down the front. First on were Lokkhi Terra, led by Bangladeshi-born Kishon Khan on the ivories sporting a Che Guevara beret, adding to the Cuban vibe. Their exuberant big-band, with Cuban, Bangladeshi, British and Indian musicians, makes the Bengali/Cuban connection sound extremely natural. “We have exactly the same cockroaches” said Khan in his pre-concert chat.
Then pianist Alex Wilson led his Trio Mali Latino onstage. With Edwin Sanz (from Venezuela) on percussion and Ahmed Fofana (from Mali) on a glorious range of instruments including donsongoni and balafon, the trio were aided by special guest Omar Puente, who contributed some stylish Cuban violin. And thankfully, there was time for a grand finale which brought everyone to their feet and featured a welcome stage invasion of West African dancing.
Words by Simon Broughton (editor-in-chief)
Photography by Hayden Wheeler
The exciting realisation from the first two days of Songlines Encounters has been that interesting, adventurous programming attracts top musicians, and with no prior warning we found Nigel Kennedy in the audience on our opening night and Robert Plant the following night. Both were knocked out by what they heard.
Day 1 (Wednesday, June 5) kicked off with Transkaukazja – a great Polish-meets-Georgian project brought to us by the Polish Cultural Institute in London. It sounded great on paper and was a revelation on stage. The Polish ingredient was Vołosi, a string quintet so tight that it was like one instrument played by five people, and the Georgian ingredient was members of 33a, led by the charismatic Niaz Diasamidze who growled his lyrics in Georgian, Russian and French. Both bands were in the UK for the first time. Lyrical, exciting and adventurous music – and I really enjoyed learning more about the work The Other Space Foundation are doing with music in the Caucasus. Something I hope we can explore more in Songlines.
Next it was a great Balkan party with three bands – Paprika, She’Koyokh and Yurodny (over from Dublin) playing different styles of music and getting together for a fabulous grand finale (pictured above). At the heart of Paprika is the superb fiddler Bogdan Vacarescu, vocalist Cigdem Aslan is part of a tremendous female trio fronting She’koyokh and sax player and arranger Nick Roth brings a jazzy sound to Yurodny. The number of notes per second record won’t be beaten anywhere else in the festival.
It turns out Nigel Kennedy is friends with Cora Venus Lunny, the brilliant violinist with Yurodny, and he kindly invited all the musicians home for an aftershow party. The grand finale continued and got more uproarious in his front room – with Nigel joining in on ‘Ajde Jano’ in which the melody was tossed around between four fabulous violinists. Around 2:30am Nigel stopped as he was topping up glasses with vodka and said “Listen, these mother-fuckers just love to play. Not like the classical guys who just go home to bed.” It was one of the greatest jam sessions I’ve been to.
Day 2 (Thurday, June 6) saw the Baladi Blues Ensemble entice Robert Plant with his son and daughter down to Kings Place. Guy Shalom did a fabulous job introducing people to the soulful street sound of Cairo’s baladi music – with Egyptian masters Ahmed Khalifa on sax, Gamal el Kordi on quarter-tone accordion and lovely vocals from Abdul Salam Kheir. Hopefully more and more people are going to discover this beautiful music.
Sarah Savoy was dressed in a bright red dress and hair tied back, looking much like Judy Garland, for her Cajun music set with the Francadians. But her brilliant stage banter – about beer, women throwing their knickers at Belton Richard and other great characters of Cajun music wasn’t Dorothy’s territory. Thankfully there was some sly dancing going on, adding to the atmosphere, and Sarah played so hard she broke a guitar string. She told me afterwards that she had sent a message to her mate Steve Riley (one of the best-known Cajun musicians) about Robert Plant being in the audience. “Go on Sarah, rip it up” he responded.
Songlines Encounters – endorsed by the top musicians!
Royal Festival Hall, London, March 8
I’ve been to many memorable concerts in the Royal Festival Hall, but few as special as this. Fatoumata Diawara, from Mali, having been a newcomer (and awarded in our Songlines Music Awards last year) has become a mature artist. She strode onto the stage with stature – elegantly dressed in red and yellow robes and turban. It was International Women’s Day and every mention of the fact drew applause. But Fatoumata has also become a musical ambassador.
As the South Bank’s artistic director Jude Kelly pointed out in her introduction, Fatoumata has recently pulled together many of the top Malian stars to record ‘Mali-ko’, a peace song for Mali and speaks for the women of Mali in many of her songs. ‘Moussou’ is a song paying tribute to the women of Mali – “women give birth to rich people, poor people, heads of state” – and she said she hoped to see a female president of Mali one day. Seeing the success of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia and Joyce Banda, President of Malawi – and given the current situation in Mali – one hopes it’s not too long.
Towards the end of her set, Fatou took off her turban and started dancing, flinging her head backwards and forwards, sending her beaded hair flying. One of her new songs, ‘Tounkan’, was a celebration of African women and African dance. Fatou neatly demonstrated the rhythmic and dance links between her native Wassoulou region and other styles in Ethiopia, Morocco, Congo, South Africa and more. “We are from the same African roots”, she said. The only disappointment was a muddy sound on the electric guitars, which would have been gorgeous if the musical lines had rung out clearly.
“We all come from Africa,” said Angelique Kidjo, in what made a natural progression from Fatou. Angelique, from Benin via New York, just exudes stage presence – she’s tough and pugnacious after Fatou’s stately elegance, punching above her weight. She entered singing solo, followed gradually by her band on piano, percussion, bass and guitar. The topics of her songs include freedom, education and the horrendous custom of female genital mutilation. She paid tribute to her father who encouraged his daughters to do what they wanted to do and paid tribute to Miriam Makeba, a role model for Angelique, who used music to further a cause.
Kidjo took a circuit through the audience and then invited them on stage – much to the disquiet of the security guys – for some joyous final numbers, including her signature song ‘Agolo’ (which features on our Songlines Music Awards CD). Fatou returned in casual civvy clothes and many other girls from the crowd did spectacular dancing to Mamadou Sarr at the front of the stage on djembe. It really was a night to remember.
Bellydancing and the Blues should be an ideal escape from the inevitable Christmas fare. First broadcast on Boxing Day on BBC Radio 4, it examines the roots of bellydance and baladi music – the down-home sound of urban Cairo. The programme is presented by Guy Schalom, the charismatic percussionist who leads the London-based group Baladi Blues. With sax player Ahmed el Saidi and quarter-tone accordion player Sheik Taha, the group animate bellydance evenings and conjour up the romantic sound of old Cairo.
‘Baladi is Egyptian dance music at its most dynamic,’ says Schalom. ‘Soulful accordion, saxophone and trumpet solos energised by powerful Egyptian percussion rhythms give baladi its distinctive sound. The music reflects the fast-paced, urban lifestyle of Cairo yet has its roots in the countryside.’ In the programme Schalom explores the contradictions inherent in bellydance and examines its role in post-revolutionary Egypt today.
But the deepest contradictions rest with the very people who perform baladi. What seems to us a provocative, alluring, even licentious dance for women in fact has roots in a ceremonial dance for men. As we discover in Cairo, deep divisions remain between those who think it is a vital expression of the Oriental spirit and those committed to regenerating sexual stereotypes. So what is the reality of bellydance and baladi in the new Egypt? Can it find any place amongst the street rappers and pop artists or is this an art form about to be consigned to realms of the tourist-pleasing cafes? As with so much in this rapidly changing culture, the answers prove difficult to find.
If you like the music then we’re also delighted to break the news of the appearance of Guy Schalom and the Baladi Blues Ensemble at the Songlines Encounters Festival at Kings Place on June 6.
Bellydancing and the Blues
BBC Radio 4, Wednesday December 26 at 11am and Saturday December 29 at 3:30pm