Posts Tagged ‘Songlines Encounters’
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.
Photography by Haydn Wheeler
The Shikor Bangladesh All Stars and Lokkhi Terra brought the fifth Songlines Encounters Festival to a lively finale
The fifth Songlines Encounters Festival was hugely enjoyable; from the cheeky songs of the Cypriot trio Monsieur Doumani to the captivating singing of Iranian sisters Mahsa & Marjan Vahdat, the festival was chock-full of outstanding music. However, the third and final day offered something a bit different – music that rarely makes it outside of its own country’s borders and a joyous big band fusion.
The evening started with Shikor Bangladesh All Stars performing their UK premiere. With some impressive manes to go around – from Rob Fakir’s bushy beard to the dhol player’s luscious locks – the Bangladeshi band brought the traditional sounds of their home country to Kings Place.
Labik Kamal Gaurob – who played the distinctive khomok, a combination of a percussion and string instrument – introduced the band members one by one throughout the set. There was Rob Fakir on the four-stringed dotara, Nazrul Islam on the dhol and his brother Mobarak on mandira (finger cymbals), Jalal Ahmed on the bansuri (flute) and Anup Kumar Mandal (aka Bappi) on tabla. The singing was shared between the lived-in, husky voice of Rob Fakir and the more velvety tones of Gaurob. Gaurob also introduced each song, trying to explain the significance of the poetry, though he admitted that the concepts were hard to translate. It was an excellent set of traditional music seldom heard outside of Bangladesh.
For the second half of the show, Shikor were due to join London-based collective Lokkhi Terra for a special collaboration. But first, Kishon Khan, Lokkhi Terra’s pianist and frontman, wanted to “show off the band” before Shikor came back onstage. After two tracks by Lokkhi Terra, Shikor’s flute player, Ahmed, and dhol player, Nazrul, came back onstage to join in.
It was easy for an audience member to sceptically raise a brow at the thought of combining Shikor’s traditional Baul music with Lokkhi Terra’s feisty Cuban-Bangladeshi mix; Kishon even joked with the audience, “you might be wondering how this will work.” But, and perhaps this is a testament to the outstanding calibre of the evening’s musicians, what followed was a match made in heaven.
With Ahmed and Nazrul back onstage, they played an excellent percussion-driven track in an unusual 13-time, which showed off some jazzy flute and excellent drumming, particularly on dhol. Next, Fakir, Gaurob, and Mobarak returned to stage for a bluesy number – a poem by the Baul saint Lalon Fakir that lent itself splendidly to a bluesy mood. That in turn was followed by another Lalon song, this time jazzier. It was astounding how jazzy the odd little khomok could sound!
There was a little bit of everything throughout the set (even a touch of reggae), but both bands held together the pieces of their multi-layered fusion with a deftness that only top-notch musicians can manage. And in true Lokkhi Terra fashion, audience members were up in the aisles by the end – the comfy seats in Kings Place were no match for these grooves.
All in all, it was an outstanding conclusion to the Songlines Encounters Festival, which leaves us counting down the days until 2016’s festival.
Photography by Haydn Wheeler
Jo Frost revels in some extra special encounters
The second night of Songlines Encounters Festival started with a screening of the excellent documentary film, Sisters, by Andrew Smith, about Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat from Iran. It shows them at home in Tehran, talking about the ancient Persian poems they sing and the censorship they face. It’s a beautiful, reflective insight into their lives.
Following this in Hall One was the Scottish fiddler Duncan Chisholm (featured in #106) who really conjured up the atmosphere and beauty of his home in the Highlands. Superbly accompanied by fellow Scot Matheu Watson on guitar and Jarlath Henderson on uilleann pipes and flute, Chisholm’s playing has a real grace and delicacy. His trio of albums, The Strathglass Trilogy are named after the glens of Affric, Farrar and Cannich where the Chisholm clan have lived for 700 years.
Following the trio in the second half, were the aforementioned sisters, Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat (featured in #107). They are normally accompanied by musicians, but on this occasion Mahsa played the setar (Iranian lute) and Marjan, the daf (hand-held drum). But most of the time, it was just the voices – strong, deeply intense and when they sing together, the harmonies are exquisite and enthralling in the way that only two siblings who have been singing together all their lives can be. “To sing a capella, you feel completely naked,” said Mahsa at one point, and it’s true, the sheer power and sentiment conveyed is remarkable.
One of the aims of Songlines Encounters Festival has been to try and encourage the artists – regardless of their origin and musical traditions – to perform together, to create a real musical encounter. Of course, these sorts of collaborations cannot be forced and have to happen naturally, albeit with a little help and suggestion from Songlines. So it was incredibly gratifying to see Chisholm, Henderson and Watson joining the sisters onstage for two songs, including ‘The Moon of our Beloved’s Face’ by Iran’s national poet, Hafez. “It was hard not to be mesmerised by their voices,” said Watson afterwards. But the subtle addition of the trio’s Gaelic melodies brought another beautiful and intricate layer to the songs and the soaring flute and violin a gorgeous lightness, perfectly appropriate for their final song, ‘Twinklings of Hope’.
After such an intense and emotive set, it came as a bit of shock to wander into Hall Two and find Afriquoi (featured in #108) were bringing the house down with their full-on, African party music. The band’s energy onstage is infectious and the fast and furious rhythms on an array of instruments, including the Congolese guitarist Fiston Lusambo and kora played by Gambian Jally Kebba Susso, brought the evening to a rousing and glowing end.
Photography by Haydn Wheeler
Simon Broughton reports on the excellent artists performing at the first evening of Songlines Encounters Festival
Songlines Encounters Festival kicked off with our favourite Cypriot trio: a turban, a top-knot and a flat cap. These were Antonis, Demetris and Angelos, otherwise known as Monsieur Doumani. Do they perhaps represent the Sufi, the hippie and the labourer? Whatever, they play a wonderful reworking of traditional Cypriot repertoire and numbers of their own.
The common theme last night was Southern European musical cultures with a twist. Monsieur Doumani have a love of the tradition but delivered with a mischievous irreverence. Their song ‘The Bland’ is directed at politicians who don’t do what they preach. But what comes over to us non-Greek speakers is the sense of enjoyment and the striking instrumental arrangements for mini-bouzouki (tzouras), guitar and trombone (occasionally flute). They play with a fire that got the audience animated from the start. Monsieur Doumani are a terrific band with an infectious sense of fun.
Gisela João – pronounced Ju-wow – also delivers fado with a twist. Not for her the traditional black shawl. She’s wearing blue sneakers and a short white dress of her own design, which looks like what an angel might wear while playing tennis. For her fado is life. “We are not always smiling,” she says, “and we are not always sad.” For João, fado reflects all of life, including chance meetings with interstellar aliens in the garden – a highlight of last night’s show. Her band are brilliant musically, with Ricardo Parriera on Portuguese guitar, but they need to look like they’re having fun – like Monsieur Doumani do.
But what is special about João is the way she can send up the genre yet perform some of her emotional numbers, like ‘Madrugada sem Sono’ and ‘Meu Amigo Está Longe’, so they go straight to he heart. Justifiably she got a standing ovation. Gisela is a star. Ju-WOW!