Thursday, 7 December 2017

Introducing Super Parquet

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 134, January/February 2018.

This is the sound of village halls and warehouse raves; rural fêtes and squats; past, present and future.

Super Parquet play folk dance music from the Auvergne region of central France, hallucinated through a lens of distortion, dissonance and dirty electronica. The fusion makes sense considering their line-up: cabrette (bagpipe) player Louis Jacques and banjo player Antoine Cognet both came to French traditional music as children; Simon Drouhin and Julien Baratay, the group’s electronicists, knew nothing of it before the four met. But it works because the two worlds share so much in common. Drouhin recalls the realisation: “Electronic music has the same repetitions, the same drones. We came to the conclusion that it’s the same music!

The Super Parquet M.O. is clear: “Drones and loops, drones and loops, drones and loops…they are the most important things about our sound!” says Jacques. It’s true. While the classic French dances weave in and out, what stands out are the layers upon layers of sound. It’s as much Éliane Radigue as it is EDM. For Cognet, “drones and loops complete each other.” Drones provide a base for loops, and loops add a concept of time to drones: each gives meaning to the other.

The sounds themselves are harsh. Timbres bounce between the ears as whining cabrette grinds against sawtooth synths and twanging banjo spars with retro drum machines. Then there’s the boîte à bourdon, the ‘bumblebee box.’ It’s a hybrid offspring of a hurdy-gurdy and a shruti box that gives a continuous buzzing drone, to be tuned and detuned at will. It provides deep, complex flavours and some perfectly ear-jangling dissonances. Altogether, it creates a spectacular soundscape.

In this way, the band reclaim folk from its critics and its overbearing lovers. For them, traditions are not – and cannot be – stuck in the past, they evolve with the musicians and with society. As Jacques loudly proclaims, “traditional music is always the music of the moment.

But talking this much about the intricacies of the music misses the point, really. “We don’t want the audience to think, we want them to dance!” laughs Jacques. Quite right. When Super Parquet play, it’s all about the atmosphere. It makes you dance, yes, but the thrill comes from the suspense. They’re masters of it. With every layer of pulsating loops and discordant drones, the tension builds and builds. The audience swims in that tension and it becomes a transcendent experience. There’s a reason so many religious ceremonies revolve around repetitive, circular chanting. On top of it all, the traditional tunes and songs of the Auvergne transport that transcended mind to another world altogether, at once past and future, city and countryside. It’s an exhilarating experience, and the band curate it expertly.

They don’t have an album just yet. They’re in the recording studio in 2018, but until then, they do have a substantial 43-minute EP from 2015 to keep you busy. If their recent reception at WOMEX is anything to go by, you can expect to see them at many festivals and concerts over the next few years – we can’t wait for our next trip to the upside-down village of Super Parquet.

Photo: Super Parquet live at WOMEX 17, by Jacob Crawfurd.

Batch Gueye - Xamle

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 134, January/February 2018.

Batch Gueye
Self-released (45 mins)

Growing up as a dancer in Senegal and reinventing himself as a singer in the UK, Batch Gueye is starting to make a name for himself and now comes out with his second full-length album.

Most of the album has an acoustic feel with twinkling guitars, kora and xalam (lute) creating a bright field of sound for Gueye’s high-pitched Wolof vocals. Backed by traditional drums and percussion instead of a drum kit, it all adds to a laid-back vibe that runs all the way through.

Unfortunately, compared to his impressive debut album, 2015’s Ndiarigne, this follow-up falls a little flat. On Xamle, he seems to have played it too safe, rather than improving the good thing he had going. Every track here seems to have the same atmosphere to it, making it all somewhat repetitious and unexciting by the end.

A small exception is an interesting bonus at the end of the album: ‘Fans Club’ is a club-focused track with drum machines and synths galore that shows Gueye in a different light, which is quite fun. It’s just a bit of a shame that Xamle doesn’t live up to what came before.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Place of Live Recordings - Songlines Soapbox

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 133, December 2017.

On April 7, 1968 at the Westbury Music Fair in New York, Nina Simone performed a new song called ‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead)’. Written by bassist Gene Taylor and taught to the band just that afternoon, the song was a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, which occurred just three days earlier. It is a 13-minute exploration of sadness, anger and solidarity, performed by the immaculate Dr Simone. It pulsates with emotion and power. The song was never recorded in a studio; it didn’t need to be. The show was recorded live and this first rendition was perfect. It has become known as one of Simone’s greatest pieces.

I have been playing that song almost daily over the last few weeks, so of course it’s right at the top of my mind. But I’ve also been listening to some not-so-good concert albums lately too, and these joint experiences have got me thinking about the place that live albums occupy in our record collections.

There have been amazing live albums through the years that have become essential additions to any collection; some concert-recorded versions of pieces have even become definitive over those from the studio – Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’ is a prime example. But when you think about it, the live recording is a rather strange phenomenon.

It’s because the quality of live albums can hardly ever stack up to that of studio albums. First of all, the musicianship on display at a gig is rarely at the same standard. In a studio, an artist can spend days recording the same pieces over and over again and that will necessarily yield near-perfect performances, but if you have just the one chance and one take to record a concert, then the rough edges of a performance will be there to hear forever. And then there’s the sound quality: until recently, live recordings have usually sounded far inferior to those made in-studio. An exciting stage presence and a large, unpadded room makes setting up microphones a less precise science than in the controlled environment of a recording studio. It means that the end results are often noisy or muddy-sounding, instruments don’t sound as sparkly as they should do, and lyrics are harder to discern. That’s not even mentioning the dreaded feedback that still manages to find its way onto albums now and then.

Nevertheless, we love them. The live recording has an enduring popularity. Many artists release live material at some point, whether as an album, as bonus tracks or as special downloads. If they never get released, there are always bootlegs floating about. So…why?

Watching an amazing concert is one of the pinnacles of being a music fan. When everything lines up just right – the music is excellent, the crowd is up for it and the chemistry between the artist and their audience is flowing – it is simply a sublime experience. It’s the reason why the received wisdom is that most bands have to be seen live to fully understand their music. It is natural, then, that both artists and fans want to capture and relive this feeling in some way. But surely reliving only works when the listener went to that specific concert (or at the very least, the same tour). What about everyone else?

It may well be something deeper than our conscious opinions on the quality of art. Maybe live recordings trigger a more instinctive reflex of our animal brains; a subliminal reaction to the unnaturalness of multi-tracked recordings. Perhaps our brains recognise the ‘uncanny valley’ aspect of a piece of music made by musicians who do not occupy the same physical or temporal space as one another. The live album is a reaction against that: music as it was meant to be made ‘naturally’, a group of people communicating communally with each other through sound and song. It is, as humans tend to strive towards, an authentic (as opposed to synthetic) experience.

And humans love to be part of something. It’s one of the thrills of being at a great gig. Audience and artists all experiencing the same moment together, collectively and socially, and that’s a special thing. Live albums can’t replicate it thoroughly (you can’t get that unique heat or smell of a close crowd, especially if they’re in dance mode), but it does let you imbibe some of that same feeling, receiving an amount of that same connection to the artist in their most heartfelt moments. It tells some quiet part in the back of your brain that you are part of this very special group who understands this music in a very special way.

For all their flaws, it could be that we just like it that way. It’s those imperfections that make it sound natural and communal to us. The latest album of a shall-remain-unnamed West African artist was stitched together from material from several dates of a tour. Listening to it, I realised that something about it seemed not quite right. I’d heard all of the pieces before and I felt I knew these versions. These were live recordings, but the sound quality was so good, the audience so quiet in the mix and obviously the best takes used that it didn’t have the live vibe at all. The tracks just sounded like re-recordings of those I already knew.

It seems to me like we crave that imperfection. To err is human, after all. When we hear that not every note is spot-on, when the sound is a bit off and there is a slight bubble of crowd noise in the background, it reassures us that the musicians are real people, and that our emotional connection to them and their music is well-placed.

So, basically: live recordings have to be bad to be good. Within reason, obviously. But so what? Let’s revel the bizarreness of our human brains and enjoy good music, bad or otherwise! After all, some of it may be the best recordings ever made.

Photo: Nina Simone, by Victor Pineda. Used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Toko Telo - Toy Raha Toy

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 133, December 2017.

Toko Telo
Toy Raha Toy
Anio Records (36 mins)

Toko Telo means ‘Group of Three’ in Malagasy, and indeed, the band is a super-trio of Madagascar’s top-level musical stars: D’Gary, Monika Njava and Régis Gizavo. With three of the country’s most well-known artists on one record, the high level of musicianship on display is no surprise.

The interplay between D’Gary’s choppy, valiha-like guitar and Gizavo’s thoughtful accordion is tight but relaxed, and with the soulful voice of Monika Njava and the group’s gentle three-part harmonies, they sound much bigger than a trio while still keeping an intimate atmosphere. The title track gives the best example, with each musician shining on their own as part of the whole.

The music on offer here isn’t quite as dancey as a lot of Malagasy music; there are quite a few laid-back pieces across the album. The sun shines through on every track though, whether the subject is raunchy or rueful.

Sadly, Gizavo never got to see the release of this album, as he passed away in July. This lends the album a bittersweet edge, but Toy Raha Toy nevertheless serves as a great memorial for the veteran musician. Toko Telo have promised continue in 2018, keeping Gizavo’s legacy alive.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Oumou Sangaré - WOMEX 17 Artist Award Winner

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2017 delegate guide.

It’s a special artist that can stand out from the crowd in a country with as many musical heroes as Mali. It’s an extra special artist that can be a superstar in both their own culture and around the world. That’s exactly what Oumou Sangaré does. When she performed at WOMEX 1995, we called her ‘one of the few true stars to come out of the world music movement’. More than 20 years later, our movement has had more global stars but Oumou has remained bright among them.

Oumou Sangaré takes a special aura wherever she goes. Even if she’s working silently in a corner, her presence fills the room and everyone seems to orbit around her. She is regal, and when she opens her mouth to sing, everything makes sense. Her voice shimmers and soars above the audience, showering them with emotions and taking on many shapes and colours. One moment delicate and gentle, the next roaring and fizzing with electricity.

Oumou’s grandmother was a famous singer in the Wassoulou region of southern Mali, and that baton passed to Oumou’s mother when she moved to the capital city Bamako. Of course, Oumou was never far behind, kindling her interest: “I was always there with my mother when I was little. I sang at weddings, baptisms, I was learning all the time. That’s when I fell in love with music.” Even though she was small, her voice was big. When she was only six years old, she won a country-wide singing competition in front of 3,000 people in Bamako Stadium, dressing up and performing as her hero Coumba Sidibe.

Her transformation from child singer to next-big-thing did not take long. Her voice made her the main breadwinner of the family by the time she was twelve. After being persuaded to record a tape, it sold more than 250,000 copies, was picked up by World Circuit Records and released worldwide in 1991, catapulting her into international fame – all by the time Oumou was just 22. She has since released four more albums and a critically-acclaimed retrospective. The rest of her time is spent touring the globe, tending to business concerns, organising festivals and undertaking community projects.

Oumou’s music itself is very special. Throughout the years, her sound has encompassed every form of Wassoulou pop, and pushed boundaries too. Her range stretches from down-to-earth styles using only traditional instruments, to fully funked-up renditions with synthesisers, drum kits and full horn and string sections. It’s part of how she has been able to command such huge and diverse fanbases. “We’ve got a culture that is very rich and can adapt to all cultures of the world,” she says, “Mali has a super rhythm, and I have always kept the origins of that rhythm, I always keep the traditional instruments. When I collaborate with people, they will bring their own music. But I never take anything away from my music. Always the kamalengoni (harp), always the karignan (scraper), always the djabara (shaker).

Oumou’s power comes not just from her amazing music, but the messages she uses it to convey. As a child, watching her mother suffer in a polygamous marriage, surrounded by jealousy and distrust, Oumou vowed to make a change in any way she could. That way was through song: her lyrics are unceasing with their support for women’s rights and fierce criticism of abuses wherever she sees them. Topics she explores include polygamous and forced marriage, the place of women within the home and family, and female sexuality and sensuality. Scandalous stuff in a conservative society, but these points are the core of her work. “I am the most proud that I have been able to denounce injustice, that I have got strong values. I have been able to stand up for Malian women and street children. I am proud to speak on behalf of African women. I take my energy from that.

At the beginning, she was not universally loved. Older men in particular were annoyed by her; she was upsetting societal rules that had stood for hundreds of years. But the women got it, and agreed, and the young men soon came around too. Now Oumou’s concerts are full of both women and men who love her music and support her message. Although she sings primarily in Bamana, her words reach far beyond Mali. They are heard throughout Africa and the world. Attached to her irresistible voice and supreme musicality, her messages and lyrics have been translated widely. “When I release an album, it is a big occasion for women in Africa. Not just in Mali – the whole of Africa! Of course not just the women are happy, but the men too.” Her ability to touch hearts and minds even surprises herself sometimes: once, arriving at a Mexican airport, she was greeted by a delegation of 400 women. “I said, ‘Why are you here? You don’t know who I am!’, but they all knew my songs and the meanings of my lyrics, and they were very important to them.”

Oumou is tireless in her actions to improve society: she owns the first hotel in Bamako to cater specifically to people from Wassoulou; she runs a farm where she grows her own-brand ‘Oumou Sangaré Rice’; she was even the first to import decent, affordable cars into the country, known as ‘Oum Sang’ cars. All of these have the aim to make life better for Malian people. In 2016, she founded the first international festival in Wassoulou, to promote the region’s music within Mali and abroad.

It is the theme throughout her life: she uses any tools she can – extraordinary music, international connections, business acumen – to improve lives both short- and long-term. To honour her dedication to activism and advocacy for the underprivileged in Mali and beyond, her exciting and innovative developments in Wassoulou music and her longevity as an internationally-beloved star, we present the WOMEX 17 Artist Award to Oumou Sangaré.

Special thanks to Jenny Adlington for translating the interview.

Photo: Oumou Sangaré receives the WOMEX 17 Artist Award, by Yannis Psathas.

Petr Dorůžka - WOMEX 17 Professional Excellence Award Winner

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2017 delegate guide.

It is common that some of the best journalists escape notice. Their writing works to channel their subjects in such a captivating way that it makes a direct contact with the audience. It’s an important skill, but it often renders the work of the journalist as part of the background. But arts journalism, in particular, is not just an invisible, honed skill for the entertainment of its audience; it is also one of the integral gears in our machine, opening our eyes and ears to music and culture that would otherwise have never reached us. For this reason, it is important that we honour journalists for their crucial work. Petr Dorůžka is a shining example of the role that great journalists play.

When Petr was growing up, his father was already celebrated in the Czech music scene as the country’s premier jazz expert. Lubomír Dorůžka’s career in journalism started clandestinely during the Nazi occupation, publishing illicit magazines with the latest news from the jazz world. Being brought up in that environment, it is little surprise that the young Petr gained the same enthusiasm for music. His father was that early influence, “especially in realising the importance of music,” Petr says. “When I was a teenager, I remember he had to leave our skiing vacation and return to Prague to stage a concert with Ella Fitzgerald.

Such influence notwithstanding, Petr’s tastes were different. His personal musical journey started with Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground. The sort of bands you would imagine for someone coming of age in the 1960s. The difference was that most of these artists, world-famous as they were, had not yet managed to reach many ears in what was then communist Czechoslovakia. That urge to tell people and talk about exciting bands eventually led to the start of his journalism. His first experiences of writing were about off-kilter, less well-known rock artists. Like many of his generation, Petr came to ‘world music’ (before such an idea existed) through the Beatles, or, more specifically, George Harrison, through the film of his 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, which featured North Indian classical music: “I remember watching [Indian sarod player] Ali Akbar Khan. To play classical music and smile on stage – that was such a sweet shock 50 years ago.

From that spark a passion ignited and the direction of his work reflected it. Now he is well-known for his world music programmes on Czech national radio, as well as writing for many publications and maintaining his own website full of material. His work is always meticulously researched – no fake news here! – and with clear passion and knowledge. It is obvious why he is regarded as the leading expert in world music within the Czech Republic. His expertise and reputation have led to him becoming a member of many important panels in world music – he has been a part of the World Music Charts Europe almost since its inception (he came on board in 1992), has served in fRoots Magazine’s critics’ poll since 2001, and several times on the jury of the Sayan Ring festival in Siberia…as well as serving as one of WOMEX’s 7 Samurai in 2007.

Petr doesn’t see the journalists’ place in the musical party as in their own bubble, observing the various happenings but never deigning to interfere. Instead he sees them as part of a wider group, bound by a common cause. Into this group he puts eclectic radio DJs such as John Peel and Charlie Gillett, as well as researchers/producers such as Francis Falceto and David Lewiston: “In general, [journalists are] people who build bridges between as yet unknown music and the adventurous audience. We should also include artists like Sam Lee. When he sings old travellers' songs, in between the lines we read: here are the values that should be respected!

At the core of journalism is a delight in giving people new information – whether to excite and tantalise or to expand world-views and pose interesting questions. With this outlook, it is natural that Petr is also an educator. He approaches this role with that same delight as his journalism, bringing new aural and cerebral experiences to his students. He developed the course entitled ‘World Music for Non-Musicians’ at Univerzita Karlova in Prague. “I wanted to offer a kind of ‘cultural vocabulary’, explain how specific genres function in the original context, and offer a key how to understand them. David Lewiston once said: "I think of an ethnomusicologist as someone who takes wonderful music and analyses it until all the joy has been lost." In my lectures I wanted to issue a warning against this method, and present the music in a more friendly way.” And the passing on of musical knowledge is not just Petr’s job, it is his life. He is now the middle rung of a celebrated musical family. While he and his father found their acclaim in the journalistic spheres, Petr’s son David Dorůžka is considered one of the Czech Republic’s foremost jazz guitarists – in fact he will be performing at WOMEX 17 with Marta Topferova & Milokraj.

Petr is a well-known and well-loved face in the world music community. In honouring the journalists in our own branch of the music world, his name can never be far from the lips. The high esteem in which he is held across the scene is both hard-earned and much deserved, yet he retains a profound and genuine modesty. In that way, he represents those deeply committed but often little-noticed communicators that open ears around the world. It is for all these reasons that Petr Dorůžka is an ideal recipient of the WOMEX 17 Professional Excellence Award.

Photo: Petr Dorůžka receives the WOMEX 17 Professional Excellence Award, by Yannis Psathas.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Fanfan - Séga Ravanne

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 132, November 2017.

Séga Ravanne
Ocora Radio France (58 mins)

This is the latest re-release from Ocora’s wonderful and extensive catalogue of field recordings from around the world, stretching back 60 years. Séga Ravanne was originally released in 1999. When it was made, this was Fanfan’s very first recording, made in his own living room in 1998. The production of the album is typical of Ocora’s style: it’s simple and down-to-earth, as if you are there in the room, Fanfan singing directly to you.

His style is sega, developed hundreds of years ago in Mauritius by African slaves as a way to keep their culture intact and spread news as well as to forget their cares. Although the style became creolised – it’s now sung mainly in local French – it still holds much importance to Afro-Mauritians as a symbol of resistance.

Fanfan’s songs reflect sega’s origins: there is social commentary, political reportage and gossip, as well as folk stories, advice and morality tales. These he sings in his sweet, old voice, accompanied only by himself on his homemade ravanne, a large, low-pitched circular frame drum that bringing to mind the drums of the Arabian Peninsula.

Séga Ravanne is a lovely album of traditional music as it has been played for perhaps centuries, performed by a master.

Cory Seznec - Backroad Carnival

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 132, November 2017.

Cory Seznec
Backroad Carnival
Captain Pouch Records (42 mins)

Cory Seznec first made waves as part of the wonky American roots group Groanbox and has since cropped up in many bands including the recent Ethiopian-Malian fusion group Damakase. After living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the last three years, creating and fermenting his musical ideas, Backroad Carnival sees him jump back into his solo work.

The album features a grab-bag of styles and influences from his own roots and travels. Blues and country music are the prevailing sounds, but the style shifts on every track, from the Tom Waitsian opening number, to country pop and Scottish folk flavours later on.

Most of the songs take inspiration from Seznec’s experiences in Ethiopia and his journeys throughout Africa, but there is surprisingly little musical influence from these cultures in the music. There are only little ripples of Congolese guitar here, the occasional West African percussion there, and none of the recognisable scales or rhythms of his adopted home of Ethiopia. The music is really at its best when the rootsy blues is the main focus of the song, such as the piece ‘Sell You My Soul’, which also includes some tasty blues harpistry from David Chalumeau.

Ramon Goose - Long Road to Tiznit

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 132, November 2017.

Ramon Goose
Long Road to Tiznit
Riverboat Records (37 mins)

Blues guitarist and serial collaborator Ramon Goose, most recently heard with the West African Blues Project, is back with a solo album. As the title suggests, this was formulated on his journey from Marrakech to Tiznit, building upon his experiments with Senegalese blues by adding Moroccan influences. Not that he’s left the collabs behind. Guest slots here feature guitarist Justin Adams and British-Indian singer Najma Akhtar, as well as local Moroccan musicians.

A theme of travel threads through the album, its songs tracing journeys across the Sahara and the Sahel. Goose bends his guitar around several styles from the region along the way, from Berber and Tuareg sounds from the north to mbalax in Senegal, via Songhai blues and Mauritanian tones too.

The album works best when the African elements – be they Moroccan or Senegalese – come closer to the fore, as in the track ‘Futa’, featuring the Wolof vocals of Abdoulaye Samb, but too often they drift into a piece only to drift out again. There are interesting sounds and combinations here – the mix of Baroque folk and Yazid Fentazi’s Algerian oud on ‘Marrakech Sunset’, for example – but they don’t quite reach the mark on every occasion.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Africa Oyé 2017 - Sefton Park, Liverpool

First published in fRoots issue 412, October 2017

Africa Oyé
Sefton Park, Liverpool
17th & 18th June 2017

Africa Oyé has the rather clunky tagline of ‘the biggest live free African music festival in the UK’. All true, but it is also one of the best UK festivals full stop – a joyous celebration of music and culture and a true community event. Every year, an audience of families, friends and music fans of all ages and backgrounds head to Liverpool's beautiful Sefton Park for a weekend full of legends and up-and-comers of African and Afro-diasporic music.

The festival has long been seen as a jewel of the city’s cultural calendar, and with 2017 marking their 25 year anniversary, they pulled out all the stops for this special edition, inviting back some of the many stars who had graced the Oyé stage over its history. They were helped by some good luck, too. After last year's event was rather dampened by a torrential downpour, there was much relief that this year took place during June’s heatwave, and not a single cloud could be spotted all weekend. An estimated 80,000 people came by, making it the biggest edition yet.

The line-up featured twelve artists from eleven African countries – from Madagascar to Mauritania – as well as the UK and Jamaica, and special slots for community music and dance projects from across Merseyside. Unlike most summer festivals, though, missing an artist is not a problem at Oyé: there’s just the one stage, and the field is encircled some of the best Caribbean and African kitchens in Liverpool. They add the tastes and smells of jerk barbecues and curry goat to the colourful costumes, the beautiful sounds and the beating sun to complete the multisensory party.

Saturday set the bar with wonderful performances from Angolan semba legend Bonga and the new stars of Zimbabwean music, Mokoomba. Sunday, however, took everything to another level, every artist fitting the vibe to a T.

The day kicked off with the discovery of the weekend: the duo of Kenyan oud player Anwar Ali and British guitarist Dave Owen and their laid-back, romantic Swahili songs were a lovely start to a sweltering Sunday afternoon. The day continued and the knock-out acts kept coming, including the overall highlight, Jupiter & Okwess International. The powerful figure of Jupiter presided over some of the heaviest and darkest Congolese funk you’re likely to hear, and provided an interesting contrast with the band before, the Odemba OK Jazz Allstars, representing the DRC’s golden age of dance band music. Two groups playing very different takes on the same traditions, and both making the Oyé crowd bounce.

Filling Oyé’s traditional Sunday-night reggae headliner was the oft-sampled reggae legend Max Romeo. The singer’s Jah-laden roots music had the crowd – by now including a large portion of Liverpool’s Rasta community – dancing as hard as they had all day and brought the festival to a fitting close.

After 25 years of music and dance, and hopefully many more to come, a sunburnt and rather merry punter was the one to sum up just what the festival means: “I love Africa Oyé, it's like Christmas for Scousers!"

Photo: Odemba OK Allstars live at Africa Oyé 2017, by Mark McNulty.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Maalem Said Damir - Gnawa or Never

Previously unpublished.

Maalem Said Damir
Gnawa or Never
1001 Knights Production (82 mins)

The Gnawa people of Morocco can trace their ancestry to the Bambara (or Bamana) people of West Africa. Their music serves as a clear connection between the past and the present, between the North and the West of Africa, and between the cultures of the Bambara, Berber and Arabic populations.

A master of Gnawa music is given the title of Maalem, and on this album, Maalem Said Damir lives up to it, leading the Gnawa Allstars through a wonderful set of some of the tradition’s most iconic pieces. At its core, this is religious music. While it may not have been recorded as part of a full ceremony (known as a lila), the swirling rhythms of the clattering krakeb (metal castanets) and the skyward hollers of the Maalem and his chorus invoking the saints are at once hypnotic and ecstatic.

Within and throughout it all, the Gnawa’s West African roots are easy to hear. The trademark instrument is the guimbri (bass lute). The bluesy tones of this not-so-distant decedent of the ngoni underpin the whole thing and flow with the mood of the pieces. At times, the guimbri can be mellow and surprisingly delicate, before slowly building up to a blistering pace that is positively thumping.

Gnawa or Never was recorded in Marrakesh by British-Moroccan DJ and beatmaster U-Cef together with Jason Emberton in 2011, and released as a digital-only album later that same year. Given U-Cef’s pedigree on the club scene, the production on display here is surprisingly down-to-earth. It is obvious that the aim has been to simply convey the music in its most natural way and in the highest fidelity. Everything is well-mixed and easily heard, which is somewhat of a rarity: the krakeb often drown out all else on a record, but here they sit easily alongside the guimbri and vocals, integral without being overwhelming. Bonus points for going easy on the distracting reverb that is often heaped on similar recordings by the spadeful.

This unfortunately overlooked release is possibly one of the best presentations of the music of the Gnawa out there. If you need an introduction to this wonderful tradition, look no further!

Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Beginner's Guide to Mulatu Astatke

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 131, October 2017.

Across the late 1960s and early 70s in Addis Ababa, musicians experimented with various styles of jazz in an Ethiopian way. But there is only one that can be called the ‘Father of Ethiojazz’. Much more than simply ‘jazz from Ethiopia’, the sound of Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiojazz is his own, a distinctive blend of traditions and innovations, of particular textures and timbres, scales and rhythms.

Born in Jimma, Ethiopia in 1943, with Addis Ababa as his spiritual home, Astatke’s personal connection to the streets and sounds of his country is obvious across his art. It is from this point that his musical adventures abound. Like all innovators, Mulatu Astatke takes influences from every step of his journey to create his style, and his musical education kick-started this: playing with Ghanaian, South African and Caribbean musicians while studying classical music at Trinity College, London; playing with Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians while studying jazz at Berklee. These experiences solidified his resolve to make his own sound – the musicians were all making music that reflected both their backgrounds and their adopted countries, and Ethiopia was absent from that scene. So it was up to Astatke to put it there.

At every step, the traditional sounds of Ethiopia have never been far away for Astatke. Large parts of what makes his sound so recognisable are the contrasts of the five-note Ethiopian kiñit modes and twelve-note Western chromatic scales, of Ethiopian heterophony and Western harmony. It’s a delicate balance. Speaking to Lucy Wilson in Songlines issue 68, he said of his fusion: “When you are mixing different cultures, you really have to be careful that one doesn’t dominate the other. You have the beautiful notes that were there at the start of Ethiopian music; if the twelve tones dominate the five, then the whole thing is lost.

It’s not just the scales that make Ethiojazz. What set Astatke apart from his contemporaries in Ethiopian jazz was his addition of Latin rhythms of the congas, timbales and güiro to the ride-cymbal swings of jazz and kebero drumming rhythms of Ethiopian music. It was the first time Latin music made its mark on Ethiopia, despite the Cuban craze that had been sweeping the African continent for decades.

And so his sound as a composer is recognisable as Ethiojazz. But his sound as a musician is just as striking. That comes from his tool of choice: the vibraphone. He also plays electric piano and percussion, but it is his vibraphone, with its warmly undulating tones accentuating his music’s inherent dissonance and revelling in it, that immediately marks a piece with his involvement.

Astatke’s first heyday came in the 70s, at the height of so-called ‘Swinging Addis’. Jazz, soul and funk were all the rage in Addis Ababa, and he was in high demand as a musician and arranger, appearing on many recordings under his own name and as an accompanist. This exciting period saw him performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Alice Coltrane on their visits to the city, and with traditional Thai musicians in a project for Ethiopian Airlines.

But this period came to an abrupt end as the Soviet-style Derg regime deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and imposed draconian laws on its citizens, hitting musicians especially hard. The vibrant scene shrank, musicians either played it safe, moved abroad or abandoned their craft altogether. As well as the domestic scene, this period also resulted in a dearth of Ethiopian music in the international consciousness. Astatke carried right on, but his influence and a promising international career waned. Even as late as 2006, in his chapter on Ethiopian music in the Rough Guide to World Music, Francis Falceto wrote 'No other musician in Ethiopia is anything like Mulatu, and it looks like his style will die with him'. Luckily, eleven years later, it is obvious that he spoke too soon.

Astatke is now one Africa’s most popular musicians in the West, and his rise to global stardom can be pin-pointed to two moments: the release of a dedicated compilation of his music in the now-legendary Éthiopiques series in 1998 (the first album in the series to spotlight a single master musician) and the inclusion of his music in Jim Jarmusch’s comedy drama Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray, in 2005.

Since coming back into the spotlight, Mulatu hasn’t slowed down. In fact, some of his most vital work has been in the past decade. Now in his 70s, he still plays sell-out tours across Europe with his UK-based Step Ahead band, as well as performing regularly in his own club in Addis.

His triumphant return started with Inspiration Information Vol. 3, his 2009 album with open-eared UK jazzers and serial collaborators The Heliocentrics. The album set the blueprint for his subsequent releases: mostly new compositions with a handful of reworked Swinging Addis classics thrown in, European contemporary jazz players meeting with traditional Ethiopian musicians, all under the stern gaze of Astatke behind his vibes and percussion. His subsequent solo albums follow this format and take the musical experiments to the next level.

Outside of Ethiopia, Astatke’s music has been a revelation. His impact on both the world music and jazz scenes as well as more mainstream culture is obvious: there are now bands all over Europe and America dedicated to playing Ethiojazz, covering classics and forging their own takes on the style, and his influence can be heard on artists from Dengue Fever to Dr John. The hip-hop community have certainly felt an affinity with Astatke’s work too, his unmistakable sounds finding their way into pieces by Nas & Damien Marley, K’naan, Busdriver, Cut Chemist and more.

And above all, the sound is coming home. There is a burgeoning young jazz scene in Ethiopia whose sound takes in elements of Astatke’s Ethiojazz and other styles of Swinging Addis, together with all eras of jazz to make their own sound, headed by the wonderful pianist Samuel Yirga.

Reports of the death of Ethiojazz were greatly exaggerated, and, as he has been from the very start, Mulatu Astatke is still its driving force.

Best Albums

Mulatu Astatke
Éthiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974 (Buda Musique, 1998)
The compilation that reminded the world of Mulatu Astatke. Made up of pieces recorded at the height of Swinging Addis, this instalment of Buda’s legendary Éthiopiques series remains the essential album in Ethiojazz.

Mulatu Astatke / The Heliocentrics
Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (Strut Records, 2009)
The young pioneers of UK jazz meet the old master of Ethiopian jazz. Astatke’s return to the scene came in the form of this collaboration with The Heliocentrics. You can hear the crackle of creative electricity throughout.

Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu Steps Ahead (Strut Records, 2010)
In his first solo album for several decades, Astatke obviously enjoys the free reign here. It is everything he is known for turned up to 11 – traditional instruments and scales, free jazz, dance-floor salsa and experimentation to the brim.

Mulatu Astatke
Sketches of Ethiopia (Jazz Village, 2013)
The ceaseless adventure and experiment continues with a more pan-African feel on this album, including a guest spot for Malian songbird Fatoumata Diawara.

Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu of Ethiopia (Strut Records, 1972/2017)
Strut Records have remastered and reissued this classic from 1972. Recorded in New York, this album marks the birth of what we now call Ethiojazz.

If you like Mulatu Astatke, then try…

Arun Ghosh
Northern Namaste (Camoci Records, 2008)
India-born, Bradford-raised, Arun Ghosh uses his clarinet to explore South Asian and cosmopolitan themes through the medium of jazz. Although Ghosh’s music is very different from Astatke’s, their common approach towards jazz and traditional music create similar atmospheres.

Gétatchèw Mèkurya
Éthiopiques, Vol. 14: Negus of Ethiopian Sax (Buda Musique, 2003)
A different take on 1970s Ethiopian jazz. Mèkurya based his style on shellela battle cries and used his sax to imitate the masenko one-string fiddle, creating a sound that’s not a million miles away from Albert Ayler or Eric Dolphy.

Photo: Mulatu Astatke, by Mário Pires. Used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Various Artists - Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 131, October 2017.

Various Artists
Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa
Ostinato Records (80 mins)

Sweet as Broken Dates is a collection of Somali-language pop recorded in Somalia, Somaliland and Djibouti from the 1960s right up to the 2000s. Somali music has a very distinctive personality. Many of the tracks on the album are based around an interplay of synthesiser and voice, a tradimodern take on the traditional kaban (oud-like lute) music. But as with any pop music, it has absorbed what is popular at the time – it’s dripping with soul and funk, as well as influences from Ethiopia, the Arabic peninsula and even Bollywood.

The most fascinating selections here come courtesy of Radio Hargeisa, which in 1988 managed to protect thousands of tapes during the civil war by sending them into neighbouring countries or burying them in the ground. They were eventually retrieved and now many of those tapes are kept as part of the 10,000-strong archive, the Red Sea Foundation in Hargeisa. Archaeological musicology, indeed.

The CD comes with a 32-page booklet featuring several essays and interviews with the artists. It’s very detailed and informative, and a great addition to the music. This is a wonderful album for both listening and learning, serving as a jumping-off point for people wanting to start their own journeys into Somali groove. It will be interesting to see if any other compilations – or perhaps full albums – come from the Red Sea Foundation’s amazing haul in the coming years.

Oumar Konaté - Live in America

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 131, October 2017.

Oumar Konaté
Live in America
Clermont Music (48 mins)

Over the last few years, Oumar Konaté has been making his own place on the Mali guitar scene, his guitar-bass-drums trio mixing traditional Songhai grooves with raucous Jimi Hendrix-esque solos.

For this album, three performances were recorded from Konaté’s US tour back in 2014. Given the year, it is no surprise that there are no as-yet-unheard tracks; all the pieces included are from his first two albums, 2014’s Addoh and 2016’s Maya Maya. Normally for a live album, that would be no problem, except here, although everything was recorded in-concert, it’s difficult to tell that just by listening. The high-quality recordings and the barely-audible crowd noise remove that electric atmosphere of being at a great concert, and make the album feel more like a set of alternate takes from past work.

Musically, Konaté’s skills as a guitarist are not in doubt, and he pulls off the different styles with ease, but what is lacking is any great originality that would take these particular performances from proficient to exciting. Maybe you had to be there.

It’s probably a better move to check out Konaté’s earlier studio albums and wait for some new material instead.

Massa Dembele - Mezana Dounia

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 131, October 2017.

Massa Dembele
Mezana Dounia
Izniz Records (34 mins)

Massa Dembele is a Mandinka jeli (griot) from Burkina Faso who plays the kamalengoni. It’s a bridged harp not dissimilar to the kora, but with significantly fewer strings and a more twangy sound. It’s not a traditional jeli instrument, but in Dembele’s hands, it sounds perfectly natural.

This album – and especially the title track ‘Mezana Dounia’ – are lovely examples of his stripped-back, minimalist sound, often featuring just his multitracked and interlocking kamalengoni lines and haunting falsetto voice with occasional percussion.

There are guests on two pieces playing the balafon (xylophone) and folikan flute, which, like all else here, are used simply but effectively. Apart from these, though, Dembele plays all of the instruments on the album. While his skills as an instrumentalist are obvious, a griot’s real trade is their stories, so it’s very useful that this release has gathered English translations of every song, available to view online. The songs – which are all self-penned – are tales of changing cultures, emotional ponderings on the modern world, and calls for social justice.

This is a very short album, only just passing the half-hour mark, but it is nevertheless a very impressive debut from a musician putting his own spin on an ancient tradition.

Takeifa - Gass Giss

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 131, October 2017.

Gass Giss
Keyzit (36 mins)

Takeifa keep it in the family: the five members are all siblings. Four brothers and a sister of the Keita family from Senegal bring together guitar, drums, bass, voice and a bit of rap to create a mix of pop, soul and what they call ‘Afro*Rock’.

Gass Giss – Wolof for ‘Whoever Searches Will Find’ – is the band’s third album but it doesn’t offer much to help it stand out in the crowd, even with special guest Baaba Maal providing vocals on ‘Ndanane’.

The heavier the music gets, the more fun it becomes, so it’s a shame that it doesn’t flex its muscles more often. The track ‘Fire’ has a heavy beat and distorted guitar melting into a blasting flute solo, but falls back into bland pop before too long. There are enjoyable moments here and there – ‘Supporter’ has some cool raps, for example – but if you want cheerful and cheesy Afro-pop, there are many better examples to choose from.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Various Artists - Pop Makossa - The Invasive Dance Beat of Cameroon 1976-1984

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 129, July 2017.

Various Artists
Pop Makossa – The Invasive Dance Beat of Cameroon 1976-1984
Analog Africa (67 mins)

Makossa united the tastes of a divided Cameroon, not least because it was a musical style that could bend around almost anything the country’s musicians threw at it. From super-tight funk to full-on drum machine and synthesiser disco, makossa embodied it all. There were also healthy doses of rumba thrown into the mix, the Congolese influences plain to hear.

The focus of Pop Makossa – as with many releases from Analog Africa – is on rediscovery. The album presents the lost hit-makers from the genre’s defining era, who have too often fallen into obscurity – sometimes out of choice, sometimes not.

This album does a good job of spanning the diversity of the style, and even includes some gems that have never seen an official release, such as Dream Stars’ ‘Pop Makossa Invasion’, a piece recorded for a radio station and promptly forgotten until now. The accompanying booklet is also filled with great stories of the artists and the Analog Africa crew’s adventures in tracking them down.

A clue to the popularity of makossa is in its name: the word means ‘I dance’ in Duala, and when you listen to this compilation, you won’t be able to argue with that.

The Heliocentrics - A World of Masks

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 129, July 2017.

The Heliocentrics
A World of Masks
Soundway Records (46 mins)

The Heliocentrics rose to prominence through high-profile collaborations with old masters such as Ethiojazz king Mulatu Astatke, Afrobeat saxist Orlando Julius and pianist and santur player Lloyd Miller. A World of Masks sees the ensemble continue their own journey.

These collaborations haven’t been left in the past, though. The influences from these pioneers can still be heard in the group’s own sound, together with vibes of Congotronics, raga, gamelan and more from across the world. This album also introduces a new aspect for the band, as they include a permanent singer into their fold for the first time: Slovakian vocalist Barbora Patkova provides warm, dreamy melodies over the various soundscapes.

It’s all held together convincingly in the group’s own brand of jazz that mixes vintage film noir tones with bop, free jazz with Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock. It works without contrivance, because above all else, the Heliocentrics deal in atmospheres. In fact, although the medium is jazz, the way the group build up their soundworld has perhaps more in common with psychedelic rock.

The best way to enjoy this album is to lie back and let its sound wash over you – let the Heliocentrics take you to their hip island among the clouds.

Mulatu Astatke - Mulatu of Ethiopia

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 129, July 2017.

Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu of Ethiopia
Strut Records (58 mins)

Mulatu of Ethiopia is the record where the ‘Father of Ethiojazz’ really solidified his signature sound and earned himself that weighty title. Studying jazz at Berklee and splitting his time between Boston and New York, Mulatu Astatke created and honed his new style as a unique blend of jazz, Latin and Ethiopian elements.

This is a reissue of Astatke’s third album, recorded in New York in 1972. Astatke directs the action from behind his vibraphone and electric piano, with a band made up of American and Puerto Rican musicians – their identities have sadly been lost to time. Luckily the album hasn’t been, and the music slinks along, mixing playful dissonances with a solid groove and top-notch solos from all involved.

This new CD includes the album in its originally-released form, as well as a mono mix-down of the original tapes, providing two distinct experiences of the same album. The mono mixes have a drier, there-in-the-room feel, a contrast to the original’s more ethereal production. Unfortunately, there are also production errors: one track cuts abruptly at the end – it’s jarring and not a hold-over from the original album, either.

That aside, it’s a fun gaze into the origins of a style now considered one of the coolest out there.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Nawal - Aman

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 128, June 2017.

Warner Music (66 mins)

It’s not often that you hear music from the Comoros, and this reissue of singer and gambusi (oud-like lute) player Nawal’s second album is a treat and an opportunity not to be missed.

The album offers an insight into the historical international connections of the Indian Ocean islands – subtle influences can be heard from here and there: from Madagascar and East Africa to the Arabian peninsula and island neighbours such as La Réunion.

Originally released in 2007, Aman is Nawal’s dive into her Islamic, ‘Afro Sufi’ heritage, and Islamic themes are evident throughout, including the evocative zikr – rhythmic repetition of the name of Allah to induce trance – at the end of the piece ‘Kweli II’. It’s one of several stand-out tracks: the haunting a cappella ‘Dandzi’ stirs the soul, while on ‘Meditation’, Nawal’s guitar, mbira and bass create mystical clouds over a drone, giving an endearingly old-school world music vibe.

It’s a shame, then, that it ends in a somewhat clunky remix from the French DJ Click. With its synth sounds and four-to-the-floor beat, it really sticks out as the last track and harshes the vibe created over the rest of the album. Otherwise, this is a very worthwhile listen.

Khamira - Khamira

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 128, June 2017.

Recordiau Bopa (55 mins)

Khamira is a coming-together of Welsh folk and Hindustani classical styles through the unifying medium of jazz.

Seven musicians are involved: trumpet, piano, bass and drums making up the Welsh contingent, and guitar, sarangi and tabla, the Indian. All are well-versed in jazz; however, on this debut album, Khamira’s various styles peacefully co-exist, rather than fuse. There are portions of jazz followed by sections of Indian music, but they very rarely meld together in any significant way. ‘Dance of Nothingness’ is probably where the styles are most intertwined, and as such, it’s the best track of the bunch. The Welsh element is the most elusive: most of the pieces are based on Welsh folk tunes, but that can only be clearly heard in one track, ‘Y Gwydd’.

There are stand-out moments, to be sure. The duet between Suhail Yusuf Khan’s tender vocals and Tomos Williams’ Miles-style trumpet that is ‘Ffarwel i Gymru/Morey Nain’ is a delight, and there are individual moments of brilliance in the solos across the pieces.

This is a good album with some interesting ideas; a little more musical cohesion wouldn’t go amiss, though.

Jennifer W. Kyker - Oliver Mtukudzi: Living Tuku Music in Zimbabwe

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 128, June 2017.

Jennifer W. Kyker
Oliver Mtukudzi: Living Tuku Music in Zimbabwe
Indiana University Press (304 pages)

Oliver Mtukudzi – often known simply as ‘Tuku’ – is a living legend of Zimbabwean music, both within the country and out. His unique mix of traditional Shona styles, soul, jive and South African music consistently defies any other categorisation than simply ‘Tuku music’, and his lyrics have spoken to the hearts of several generations of listeners in Zimbabwe.

With this book, Kyker gives an account of Mtukudzi’s musical life, but to call it a biography would be misleading. While it does take a mostly chronological journey through Tuku’s story, it uses his life and music as a jumping-off point to talk about the role of music across various facets of Zimbabwean social life and history.

The major theme of Living Tuku Music in Zimbabwe is the Shona concept of hunhu – the idea of personal identity based on communality and constant renegotiation, or in Tuku’s words, “being a person among others”. Due to the depth and poetry of Tuku’s music and lyrics, his songs can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, often leading to different groups taking away different messages, even if they are the opposite to Tuku’s stated intent. As such, each chapter focuses on a specific topic (such as politics, HIV/AIDS, the Zimbabwean diaspora), which is then viewed through the dual lens of Mtukudzi’s songs and his audiences’ interpretations of them, demonstrating the hunhu inherent in his music.

As an essentially ethnomusicological text, the theoretical extrapolations and dense technical language may be off-putting for some readers, but there isn’t too much of this to render it completely opaque. Scattered throughout are plentiful lyrics, interviews, photographs and other assorted miscellanea, which provide nice breaks in the wall of words. This is a work that has been in the making for 13 years (including nine years of research), and Kyker has created a thoroughly fascinating book.

UK Festival Guide 2017

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 128, June 2017. Copy deadline 13 April 2017.

May 12-28
Norfolk and Norwich Festival

Various venues in Norfolk

Norfolk and Norwich Festival’s 245-year history makes it one of the most venerable arts events in the UK. This year’s musical line-up is made up of 27 concerts across the 17 days, including such luminaries as Afro-Colombian cantadora Totó la Momposina, Welsh harp and Senegalese kora duo Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita and a genre-breaking collaboration between Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. The festival also features a full literature programme (check out Guyanese poet John Agard), as well as dance, literature, theatre, visual arts and physical performance.

May 19-29
Alchemy Festival

Southbank Centre, London

For ten days, the Southbank Centre plays host to the largest festival of South Asian culture outside of the region itself. Alchemy Festival lets you explore a wide range of subcontinental and British Asian art; many of the events are completely free. There’s comedy, film, art exhibitions, dance recitals and courses (both classical and popular), board games, lectures and discussions…and that’s not even mentioning the music! Concerts include Pakistani kafi singer Abida Parveen, a night of top hip-hop entitled ‘Beats Without Boundaries’ and an afternoon-long sitarathon. A focus this year is the life of Ravi Shankar, including a performance of his opera Sukanya.

May 25-28
Orkney Folk Festival

Various venues, Orkney, Scotland

For more than 30 years, Orkney has opened its doors to folk music from across the UK with this wonderful festival. Homegrown heroes the Chair and Lau’s Kris Drever join the bill in 2017, alongside acts such as Eddi Reader and Blazin’ Fiddles. The most vibrant aspect of the festival, though, is its sessions – what’s more inviting than an Orkney pub filled with folk music? The pubs of Stromness will be the home to all-hours playalongs: don’t be surprised to see some of the ‘official’ line-up taking part. Bring your instrument and jump in!

June 2-4
Wychwood Festival

Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire

All neatly contained within the Cheltenham Racecourse, what Wychwood lacks in size it makes up for in energy. The headliners are of the rockier variety, from the Buzzcocks to original punk-folkers the Levellers, while elsewhere on the card you can dance to Congolese soukous with Kanda Bongo Man, North Indian party music with the Rajasthan Heritage Brass Band and Celtic folk from Canada with the East Pointers. On top of the musical offerings are renowned comedy and children’s programmes (CBeebies’ Kate Ashworth has already been confirmed) plus film and literature sides to give everyone something to enjoy.

June 3
Field Day

Victoria Park, London

Slimmed down from a weekend to a one-day affair for 2017, this über-cool gathering will nevertheless bring an outstanding and heterogeneous mix of hip-hop, electronica and alternative rock to East London’s Victoria Park. The line-up is full of crowd-pullers such as Aphex Twin, Run the Jewels and Flying Lotus. The worldier side of the menu is no less on-point, with Nigerian juju pioneer King Sunny Ade, Syrian dabke king Omar Souleyman, Afrofuturist jazzers Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids and more.

June 17-18
Africa Oyé

Sefton Park, Liverpool

Africa Oyé’s 25th anniversary is marked with cultural events across Liverpool throughout 2017, but the highlight will of course be the festival itself. As the UK’s largest free African and Afro-diasporic music festival, #Oyé25 invites some of the best artists to grace its stage over the years to return for the birthday bonanza in Sefton Park. Among the line-up are previous Songlines cover stars Jupiter and Okwess International (DR Congo) and Mokoomba (Zimbabwe). The festival is also an excuse for Merseyside’s best African and Caribbean kitchens to come and sell their wares, so remember to bring an appetite!

June 21-25
Glastonbury Festival

Worthy Farm, Pilton, Somerset

It’s the Big One. The UK’s biggest arts festival has something for everyone, from druids to ravers to metalheads. World music fans are well-served with some of the biggest names on the scene across more than 80 stages – of the handful of artists announced so far, Songhoy Blues and Toots and the Maytals will whet your appetite. Keep your eyes and ears peeled around the site – there is always something special, unlikely or out-of-this-world happening. Enjoy it while you can: this year’s festival may be the last at the iconic Worthy Farm for a while, with no 2018 edition and talk of an alternative site for 2019.

June 29-July 16
Manchester International Festival

Various venues, Manchester

This biennial arts festival specialises in the one-off. Artists of every conceivable medium will descend on Manchester to create new and innovative works. On the musical side, this means an exciting programme featuring artists such as La Mambanegra, Chassol, Bokanté and Portico Quartet, but also Colin Stetson and New Order with visual artist Liam Gillick. There’s audio-visual spectacle with world premieres of multimedia pieces by Phil Collins (the Turner nominee, not the other one) and Underworld, plus exhibitions, films, improvisatory drama and more. Put on your art appreciation glasses and expect the unexpected.

July 14-16
Tropical Pressure

Mount Pleasant Eco Park, Cornwall

With a different sonic destination each day – Latin America on Friday, Africa on Saturday and the Caribbean on Sunday – this is a festival to take your senses on a tropical voyage. Situated in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and with and some of the country’s best vendors and chefs offering 100% vegetarian cuisine, Tropical Pressure is guaranteed to be a feast for the eyes and taste-buds just as much as the ears. At last year’s festival, our reviewer said ‘It’s a sure-fire way to put a smile on your face’ – 2017 promises just as much.

July 19-22

Stornoway, Outer Hebrides

HebCelt attribute their success to three things: the passionate community, the outstanding beauty (the site has views of the harbour and castle), and, of course, the music. The cream of Scottish folk will play in 2017, including Peatbog Faeries, Lau and the hot young things, inter-Gaelic ramblers Ímar. A show to look out for is the opening concert, which will explore the fiddle traditions of the Scottish islands with musicians from Lewis, Orkney and Shetland. As well as the main arena, the festival also has venues across Stornoway and the Isle of Lewis, so don’t forget to take a wander.

July 27-30
Cambridge Folk Festival

Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge

The Cambridge Folk Festival has long been known as more than just a stage for British folk music. Having been founded way back in 1965, the festival treats their 14,000-strong crowd to some of the best artists on the world and folk circuits every year. In 2017, this includes folk legends from both sides of the Atlantic in Shirley Collins and Loudon Wainwright III as well as an interesting headliner choice in Olivia Newton-John. One to look out for is Amythyst Kiah, who has a unique take on country blues.

July 27-30

Charlton Park, Wiltshire

This is the calendar highlight for world music lovers. It’s a big year twice over for WOMAD – 10 years since their move to Charlton Park and 35 years of the festival overall. You’d imagine they would pull out all the stops, but that’s business as usual for WOMAD. Here, world music megastars like Angolan semba singer Bonga and Senegalese heroes Orchestra Baobab play alongside the best artists you’ve never heard of from across the planet. Already confirmed are legendary South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Benjamin Zephaniah’s live dub-and-poetry project and the Khmer Rouge Survivors’ Cambodian roots from before the war. Other highlights are workshops for adults and children, poetry, food demonstrations and, of course, the Songlines signing tent!

August 10-13

Nr Winchester, Hampshire

BoomTown has grown a lot since it started in 2009. Now it is a veritable city with its own vivid internal mythology of explorers, revolutions and alien contact. An impressively huge line-up is stretched across twelve distinct districts, each with its own personality and multiple stages: you can go from watching Cypress Hill and Ziggy Marley in Trenchtown to Chris Wood and Mbongwana Star after a short stroll over to the Wild West. Other highlights are Palestinian electronauts 47SOUL and Afro Cuban-Iranian adventurers Ariwo.

August 24-27
Shambala Festival

Secret estate, Northamptonshire

Named after a mystical Tibetan kingdom and held in an idyllic secret location, Shambala helps to give you a glimpse of utopia for one summer weekend with their ethos of sustainability, independence and creativity. There’s a big bunch of stages, each with a speciality in anything from deep dance beats to puppeteering. Good music guaranteed, with artists such as Malian diva Oumou Sangaré, Persian-Arabic jazz architects L’Hijâz’Car, hip-hop team-up Chali 2na & Krafty Kuts and Eastern Europe-meets-Middle East boogie explosion The Turbans.

August 25-28
Shrewsbury Folk Festival

West Midlands Showground, Shropshire

Recently named What’s On’s ‘Best Midlands Music Festival’, Shrewsbury Folk Festival showcases the length and breadth of folk music from Britain and beyond. For the 2017 edition, they’re launching their ‘Room for All’ initiative, celebrating cultural diversity. The 18-month project kicks off at the festival with O’Hooley & Tidow performing alongside an ensemble of refugee musicians. Other acts include John Kirkpatrick, the Unthanks and a performance of the folk opera The Transports with guests The Young’uns, Faustus and Nancy Kerr. Folk dance from ceilidh to morris is also a large part of the Shrewbury vibe, so bring your dance-appropriate footware!

August 25-28
Towersey Festival

Thame Showground, Towersey, Oxfordshire

When it was founded back in 1965, Towersey Festival was a one-day village event to raise money for the Memorial Hall. Now, it is great excuse to spend a (hopefully sunny!) long August bank holiday weekend with some of the brightest stars of folk and beyond. Eliza Carthy & the Wayward Band, folk stalwarts Show of Hands and the Blockheads are cases-in-point for 2017. The festival also promises 36 hours of ceilidh and a spoken word and comedy programme including ‘The Adventures of Andy Kershaw’, light-hearted ruminations on a life-long musical journey from the intrepid journalist, radio DJ and once-upon-a-time Songlines columnist.

September 16-18
Darbar Festival

Various venues, London

The aim of the Darbar organisation is to promote and celebrate the classical arts of India (both North and South), and their flagship festival succeeds in this year on year. The Darbar Festival is expanding its footprint in 2017, with events hosted at the Barbican and Sadler’s Wells as well as its usual home of the Southbank Centre. Highlights include master khyal and thumri singer Kaushiki Chakraborty and kathak dance from Akram Khan. There’s also a crash course in Indian classical music by broadcaster Jameela Siddiqi.

September 15-17
The Good Life Experience

Hawarden Estate Farm, Flintshire, Wales

The brainchild of Songlines family member Cerys Matthews, the Good Life Experience is a down-to-earth weekend of culture and outdoorsiness in the picturesque shadow of the Hawarden Old Castle. With a line-up so varied as to include those such as Tuareg rockers Ezza and wildlife TV presenter Kate Humble, you never know quite what surprises are coming next. This is a place to get stuck in: try your hand at campfire cookery or homebrewing, and take part in crafts and activities from candle-making to axe throwing. Hands-off is not an option!

September 22-30
London African Music Festival

Various venues, London

Every September, stars from every corner of the African continent make their way to London to perform at this city-spanning event, and for its 15th edition, the London African Music Festival will enliven venues across the capital. It’s a little too early to start guessing about line-up just yet, but with last year’s event featuring turns from Sahrawi songstress Aziza Brahim, Guinean guitar master Sekouba Bambino, London’s own Afrobeat legend Dele Sosimi and a harp collaboration between Fang mvet player Sally Nyolo and Mandé kora player Djeli Moussa Diawara, this year’s offerings will no doubt be similarly exciting and wide-ranging.

October 19-21
Manchester Folk Festival

Various venues, Manchester

The very first edition of the Manchester Folk Festival will take place this year, and they’re starting off on a high, with headliners such as Bellowhead frontman Jon Boden, fusionistas the Afro Celt Sound System and Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell. But it’s not all about the big names: the festival runs concurrently with the English Folk Expo (previously in Bury), so expect to see the great and good of the folk industry hunting Manchester’s clubs for the next big thing in folk.

October 20-22
Musicport Festival

Whitby, Yorkshire

There aren’t many music festivals that are also a shop, but Musicport is one. With a musical instrument shop and concert programme as year-round activities, the jewel of Musicport is the October festival, held in Whitby’s Victorian seaside Pavilion. Early bookings for 2017 include headliners Afro Celt Sound System, gypsy violinist Tcha Limberger’s Hungarian project and kathakali dancers from South India. Extra-musical offerings come in the return of Bob’s Blundabus, the comedy club that also happens to be a double-decker bus.

January 18-February 4 2018
Celtic Connections

Various venues, Glasgow

At the end of January every year, Glasgow becomes home to more than 100,000 visitors feasting from Celtic Connections’ international buffet: more than 300 separate events of British and Celtic folk and world music of many different flavours. Just one of Celtic Connection’s notorious highlights are its musical collaborations – this year, all eyes were on the meeting of Evelyn Glennie and Trilok Gurtu. Although it’s a bit early to know details of next year’s festival, a partnership with Culture Ireland has already been revealed, so Hibernian connections are definitely on the cards. Look out for the programme announcements in autumn 2017.

Photo: WOMEX flags, by Smoobs. Used under licence CC BY 2.0.

Friday, 7 April 2017

The Beginner's Guide to Johnny Kalsi

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 127, May 2017.

There are few people as synonymous with their instrument as Johnny Kalsi is with the Punjabi double-sided barrel drum, the dhol. The drum lends bhangra music its distinctive sound, and Kalsi has probably done more this amazing instrument’s popularity around the world more than anyone. It’s clear that there’s never enough music for Johnny Kalsi: he’s been involved with almost every world fusion group you could mention. If you’ve attended any sort of world or folk music festival in the UK, it’s likely that you’ve seen him do his stuff.

Born in Leeds and raised in London, Kalsi didn’t come from a musical family. But raised Sikh, songs and music were still part of daily life, from hymns and prayers to readings from the holy book. This exposure led him to learn tabla at age seven (“all the lads do at that age”), and music became a passion when he took up the drum kit in high school. The dhol came at 14 when he auditioned for a local bhangra band as a tabla player – they decided they wanted a dhol instead, so he tried it out and it stuck. By this point, it was obvious that Kalsi was something special, his experiences and skills from tabla and drum kit helping him develop a unique approach to the dhol drum. Within two years he was touring the world as a member of the biggest bhangra group at the time, Alaap.

From that point, Kalsi has blasted his dhol on the albums and stages of so many legends. Starting with Alaap, he was also there for the heydays of Fun^Da^Mental and Transglobal Undergound in the 90s. On the same touring circuit as these groups was the Afro Celt Sound System (ACSS), fresh from the success of their debut album. After many shared bills and becoming friends both on- and off-stage, ACSS asked Kalsi to play a few beats on their second album. He ended up contributing more than that – his dhol became an important aspect of the Afro Celt sound almost immediately, and he joined their ranks for good. He even took a step to the fore in 2016; since they reformed, Kalsi’s drum has shaped the band’s whole sound. When ACSS frontman Simon Emmerson embarked on a mission to create folk music to reflect the England of today, with its many international influences, Johnny Kalsi was of course natural for the project. That became the Imagined Village, and was hailed as one of the sparks of the latest English folk revival. Again, Kalsi’s sound was key. And, as if being a crucial member and sonic element of many of the most forward-thinking fusion groups of the last 25 years was not enough, he’s also taken part in seemingly endless collaborations with international artists. From world music favourites like Peter Gabriel, Khaled, Dimi Mint Abba and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, to more unexpected artists such as Avril Lavigne, the Kaiser Chiefs and Nelly Furtado, Kalsi’s dhol has enlivened hundreds of recordings and concerts.

But when he gets talking about his work, it’s obvious what Kalsi considers his real baby: The Dhol Foundation (TDF). First and foremost, TDF is a school for kids to learn the instrument, but they’re also an internationally touring and recording band, with four albums under their belt and another coming in June 2017.

It all started when he was touring with Alaap, being approached every night by people asking for lessons. He always said no, until he was convinced to make a one-off workshop to a couple of people in Slough. They persuaded him to come back once more, and there were six students. “By the time that happened, it was too much for me to look back. And that was The Dhol Foundation.” From that base, the project grew into the first ever institute of dhol, and with it, Kalsi created the first dhol-teaching syllabus, The Dhol Bible. His passion and excitement for the school is obvious. “People are teaching with that bible all over the country, and I’m quite proud of that! That bit was my fault.” At its peak, there were 14 schools and about 700 members. As with anything that grows, it makes branches: smaller groups formed and broke off, and from these more groups still. Now there are hundreds of schools around the world.

When they perform in public, TDF are second-to-none. Their live band is the ‘A-team’, those that have progressed through the ranks of the school to professional standard. This way, they are ever-fluctuating, featuring up to 30 drummers and giving opportunities to promising younger members. It’s a powerful spectacle, as Kalsi says: “It’s a massive wall of drumming noise, it’s wonderful to watch.” That noise has led them to perform on some of the world’s biggest stages; you may have seen them in the 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony, the Royal Variety Performance or the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

It’s on TDF albums that Kalsi really lets loose his creative side. These albums can be called Kalsi’s solo work, but they’re much more than that: “If it was just a dhol drumming album, it would become very monotonous and boring.” Instead, they echo the rest of his career, full of collaborations with international artists – musicians as disparate as Sultan Khan, Etran Finatawa, Michael McGoldrick and Natacha Atlas have graced TDF albums. It’s all mixed up, produced by Kalsi and with a healthy dose of dhol drumming to top it off. TDF have a fifth album ready to release this year – Besant will be a celebration of springtime – that will no doubt continue this trend. Kalsi sums his albums up well, saying “they’re all different flavours, they all sound different, they taste different, they look different when you close your eyes. And I love that!

With the latest album in the works, running The Dhol Foundation schools and now a member of the reformed ACSS, Kalsi has, as ever, got his hands full. But you’d suspect that’s just how he likes it.

Best Albums

Afro Celt Sound System
Volume 2: Release (Real World Records, 1999)
Kalsi’s first recorded outing with the groundbreaking world fusion group came at the height of their fame, and he brought the first Asian flavours to the Afro Celt ensemble.

The Dhol Foundation
Big Drum: Small World (Shakti Records, 2001)
The debut album under the TDF name was a tour-de-force of bhangra and electronica, and provided the groundwork for their future releases with guests including Natacha Atlas.

The Dhol Foundation
Drum-Believable (Shakti Records, 2005)
TDF’s second album continues with all the fun of their first, brings in more international influences and contains probably their most banging track to date, the Irish-Indian bouncer ‘After the Rain’, with fiddler Mairead Nesbitt.

The Imagined Village
Empire & Love (ECC Records, 2012)
The middle album of The Imagined Village’s trilogy, their first as a cohesive band and a classic of Anglo-Indian folk music. Kalsi’s dhol and tabla are essential to their sound.

Afro Celt Sound System
The Source (ECC Records, 2016)
The new-look ACSS, risen from the ashes and with Johnny Kalsi as a member of the leading triumvirate, returned reinvigorated with this amazing album, their first for 11 years.

If you like Johnny Kalsi, then try…

Tabla Beat Science
Tala Matrix (Palm Pictures, 2000)
Indian percussion-led dubtronica of the tabla variety. This masterpiece is the only studio album by the supergroup including Zakir Hussain, Trilok Gurtu, Talvin Singh and Karsh Kale, masterminded by producer Bill Laswell.