Friday, 6 December 2019

From Fiction to Folk Song: Tom Cox’s Help the Witch

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 154, January/February 2020.

There have long been clear associations between poetry and song, but the connections between music and more long-form prose storytelling have been explored less often. An upcoming collaboration between author Tom Cox and Stick in the Wheel’s From Here Records makes the case for a closer relationship between the fields.

Cox has written on many subjects, from golf to musical subcultures to cats to the British landscape, but his 2018 book Help the Witch is a collection of charming and engrossing horror tales steeped in the tradition of the folk tale. “I’ve started to think more of my books as albums themselves, almost,” says Cox. “I feel like they all have the narrative that you get on an album where the actual order of the tracks is really important and they tell a story. People ask me ‘can you suggest a soundtrack, do you have a song for each chapter or each section?’ and when I was writing Help the Witch I thought, well, I could do that, but what if it was totally new music and people actually taking these stories as just a jumping-off point, and seeing where they could go?” So that’s exactly what he did.

Digging out his address book, Cox assembled ten artists from across the folk-psychedelic spectrum – including Gemma Khawaja, Jim Ghedi, and Dan Davies and Jack Sharp of Wolf People – to interpret, retell or reimagine each of the stories of Help the Witch from their own musical perspective. From Here Records stepped up to create the album itself, and they are now running a crowdfunding campaign to release it as a fancy gatefold LP.

Nicola Kearey of From Here Records and Stick in the Wheel (who naturally contribute their own piece to the compilation) sees this coming-together of different artistic realms as an exciting opportunity that is starting to gather steam. “Within the creative community these opportunities for cross-pollination are coming up and people suddenly are realising ‘oh, we can do all this stuff’ and actually it could involve more than one type of audience. You don’t just have record buyers and book lovers, often those people are the same person.

It’s not just the audiences that are one and the same, either. Cox believes that the album itself is so successful in its aims because of the shared terroir between folk music and his own work. They’re connected by ancient tales and shared lands, echoed accurately in the contributing musicians’ offerings. “I feel like they understood the atmosphere of the book. They’re all people who read, they’re all people with a sense of the countryside, a sense of rural history, a sense of social history. I think that’s apparent in the way they approach the songs.

With Kearey believing that “each makes the other a richer experience,” the pairing of folk album and fiction book is an unusual partnership, but one that could become more common in the near future. And what better place to start than one immersed in the creepier side of English folklore?

Folk Supergroup Warm Up the Winter

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 154, January/February 2020.

Two of the most exciting groups to emerge onto the English folk scene in recent years have teamed up to make winter that little bit cosier with the release of an album and a tour.

Together, Lady Maisery – the trio of Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Hazel Askew – together with the duo of Jimmy Aldridge & Sid Goldsmith make up a formidable supergroup. Their release Awake Arise: A Winter Album (out December 6 on Many a Thousand Records) is a collection of traditionals and originals that explore winter and the festive season as they have been lived and celebrated for centuries. The pieces include old folk carols, poems and even a recipe for making traditional wassail to bless the trees – and also to make sure you’re kept warm and jolly in the cold evenings.

Lady Maisery’s Hannah James says of the idea behind the project: “Both of our groups are really interested in nature-based music, so it seemed quite natural for us to create a project related to a particular season. We wanted to create an album that really celebrated the different aspects of Christmas and old winter traditions. Many of our winter celebration are to do with bringing warmth and joy to a cold and seemingly lifeless time of year; this album reflects the need to hold onto hope of brighter times, both in winter but also in this uncertain political season that we find ourselves in.

Photo: Lady Maisery and Jimmy Aldrige & Sid Goldsmith, by Elly Lucas.

British-Born Musician Finally Allowed to Stay in the UK

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 154, January/February 2020.

In Songlines issue #150, we looked at the plight of Glasgow-born, London-based Afro-jazz singer Bumi Thomas, who was denied indefinite leave to remain in the UK after discovering that she did not qualify for birthright citizenship. Instead, she was threatened with deportation to her parents’ country, Nigeria. Since then, a positive outcome: on October 23, a judge ruled that to remove Thomas from the UK would be against the public interest, saying “I am of the view that the appellant’s life is in this country where she has made a valuable contribution.” Thomas played her first concert since the decision by joining Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi at the Royal Festival Hall on November 22. Thomas’ case gained much exposure from the media and resulted in petitions and crowdfunding for legal fees due to her recognition as a musician. How many others are in the same, unfair situation who cannot benefit from such public visibility?

Photo: Bumi Thomas, by Emre Levent Malkoc.

Various Artists - Protobilly: The Minstrel & Tin Pan Alley DNA of Country Music 1892-2017

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 154, January/February 2020.

Various Artists
Protobilly: The Minstrel & Tin Pan Alley DNA of Country Music 1892-2017
JSP Records (3CD, 226 mins)

This compilation is an amazing and expansive labour of love that traces the journey of country music from the very beginnings of recorded music to the present day. However, with its focus on the influences taken from the early days of pop – from the music halls and vaudeville shows – it steers clear of the most well-trodden ground in the examination of one of America's most valuable folk traditions.

The sequencing of the tracks across the album’s three discs really shines a light on the evolution of the genre. Each piece is represented by between two and four different recorded versions across various styles and time periods. You can hear the development across each example. Warbling voices turn into close harmonies; brass bands and string orchestras are replaced by banjos and guitars; polkas, early jazz, jump blues, Viennese marches and show-tunes transform into folk ballads, bluegrass and good ol' cowboy songs.

The package has an explicit disclaimer warning of the period sensibilities at play on the recordings, which should not be judged by modern standards. It’s nice to go in prepared, but it definitely raises some interesting conversations: it's one thing to safeguard these recordings for posterity and research, but do we really need a song entitled 'N***** Blues' (uncensored, naturally) in the context of this album? Would the compilation have suffered from its omission? I'm not sure it would.

Nevertheless, Protobilly is a collection of awe-inspiring scope and depth. What is clearly the result of years of research has been distilled into nearly four hours of music and a 76-page booklet with detailed descriptions and histories of each song and recording. Entertaining and intriguing in equal measure, this is one hell of a listen.

Lyaman - Abyati 19

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 154, January/February 2020.

Abyati 19
Buda Musique (61 mins)

I have a keen interest in the music of the Comoros and in music associated with Islam, so when the opportunity came to review an album of Sufi chants from the Indian Ocean islands I jumped at the chance. What it contained was completely unexpected – and unlike any Comorian or Sufi music I’d heard before.

Lyaman are a four-piece a cappella ensemble who sing the music of the Shadhuliyya Sufi brotherhood, originally developed by the Comorian population in the north of Madagascar. Where most Sufi vocal music is based on single melody lines, the music of Lyaman sounds much closer to a choral tradition, with each voice singing their own part, creating harmonies and countermelodies as well as incorporating the powerful, rhythmic breathing of the ecstatic Sufi dhikri ceremony. This surprising polyphony even bears resemblance to that of Corsica and Sardinia. It’s a very unique and unusual sound, but the music nevertheless situates its geography very well, with clear shared elements with Arabic, Malagasy and East African music.

The presentation of this album is similar to a field recording, its music completely unadorned by production to allow for a full appreciation of the culture in focus. This is the perfect introduction for an astounding and astonishing musical tradition.

Nahawa Doumbia - La Grande Cantatrice Malienne, Vol. 1

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 154, January/February 2020.

Nahawa Doumbia
La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol. 1
Awesome Tapes from Africa (33 mins)

Awesome Tapes from Africa began its life as a record label with a reissue of Malian Wassoulou singer Nahawa Doumbia’s third album back in 2011. Now with 30 releases under their belt, the label returns to Nahawa’s catalogue to examine her earliest recordings.

This album was Nahawa’s debut in 1981, released as Mali’s entry into the Africa-wide ‘Discoveries 81’ competition run by Radio France Internationale. Although she later became known for her combination of traditional instruments from southern Mali with heavy bass, electric guitars and synthesizers, this first album is beautifully stripped back.

Featuring only Nahawa backed by her husband N'Gou Bagayoko on acoustic guitar, this album has a real intimate vibe that lets both musicians’ considerable skills shine through. All ears are of course on Nahawa, whose powerful young voice is more than capable of taking the breath away multiple times per song (just listen to the introduction of ‘Djankonia’) but N’Gou’s guitar, in echoing the styles of both the kamelengoni (youth harp) and ngoni (lute), also provides an amazing example of Mali blues.

The recording here isn’t the best – it struggles with Nawaha’s voice on the high notes – but there’s no doubting the music it contains. This album is a fascinating look at a different side of the Wassoulou sound.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Transglobal Underground - Hami’s house, West London

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 153, December 2019.

Transglobal Underground
Hami’s house, West London
28th September 2019

House concerts are usually the domain of quiet, acoustic musicians rather than percussion-heavy electronica bands. But then, Transglobal Underground have never really taken the usual route. The group came to prominence in the early 90s as pioneers of world dubtronica and have stayed at the forefront of the scene ever since.

On a rainy September night, 20 fans – who had pledged in the band’s crowdfunding campaign in April – crammed themselves into TGU founder Hamid Mantu’s living room for a night of beats, bass and barminess. No quiet acoustics here.

Tonight, TGU were a five-piece, with keys, samples, electric sitar, spoken word and no fewer than three drummers (kit, tabla and darbuka), all put through a small PA. It was thoroughly antisocial in the best way, yet rarely has a club been so cosy. Lit by candlelight and fairylight, air perfumed with nag champa, and walls covered in records and TGU artefacts – the whole thing was a touch surreal.

The set was as special as the setting. Older repertoire that hadn’t been played live for years was featured alongside pieces so new they’d not even been named yet, together with extended spur-of-the-moment jams. They even took requests. To share such an intense evening with a small group in a tiny space is an incredible experience, and created a beautiful camaraderie between everyone involved, band and audience alike. On top of all that, there’s not many gigs where you can periodically switch from chilling on the settee to totally entranced four-limb dancing. What better way to see a genre-defining ensemble?

Photo: Transglobal Underground play in Hami's front room, by Simon Partington

GoGo Penguin - EartH Hall, London

First published on

GoGo Penguin – Koyaanisqatsi
EartH Hall, London
21st October 2019

Godfrey Reggio’s 1986 film Koyaanisqatsi was a revolutionary piece of experimental cinema, and it remains both hugely influential among filmmakers and a potent reference point throughout popular culture. With no dialogue or plot, the film is driven by variously juxtaposed footage of the natural and the artificial, brought together in a way as to render the familiar abstract. Equally as well-known its own right is the film’s score, written by Philip Glass. It is a masterpiece of minimalism and rightly regarded as one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. When GoGo Penguin rescored Koyaanisqatsi, they had big shoes to fill. First commissioned in 2015, it was so successful that the group have continued to tour their rescore, with a live screening of the film itself, ever since. As part of their October tour, they brought the show to a sold-out EartH Hall.

Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (basses) and Rob Turner (drums) have created a work of their own recognisable idiom, a cool combination of icy jazz, sparse electronica and that same minimalism as pioneered by Glass and his contemporaries, by way of driving cinematic funk and classic-style jazz rock. For the work of just a trio, the score fits the epic nature of the film to an impressive degree, and they’re not afraid to employ their own juxtapositions as well, most effective when countering frenetic visuals with forebodingly calm Satie-esque soundscapes. This way they reflect the film’s title, a Hopi word meaning ‘life out of balance,’ and the wordless laments of human destruction presented within.

Comparisons to the original music are unavoidable. In fact, the music was such an integral part of the experience of the film that it’s difficult not to hear Glass’s pieces in the mind’s ear during the most iconic sequences, the images acting as a mnemonic for the sound in a reversal of the usual order of things. GoGo Penguin’s score is gripping throughout, and especially so during the final third where driving grooves are alternated with hypnotic passages and culminate in a slow, poignant finale. Nevertheless, the original score was horrifying in its immensity and inevitability, emotions that the reworked version delivers with a little less power. Taken as a standalone show, GoGo Penguin have done a great job of scoring such an impactful film; it’s just a shame that Koyaanisqatsi’s original soundtrack casts such an indelible shadow that is hard to escape.

Food for the Ears, Music for the Tastebuds

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 153, December 2019.

Cerys Matthews is a person of many talents – singer-songwriter, BBC radio DJ, festival curator, author…and if her latest book is anything to go by, she’s also a mean cook.

In Where The Wild Cooks Go, Matthews discusses food and drink from all around the world, offering simple and sustainable recipes collected during her travels and honed at home. Each chapter is filled with thoughts, history and poetry from the region at hand. Music obviously plays an important role, too: “I’ve always cooked, and I always cook to music, as so many of us do – I get messages from people from their kitchens every Sunday when my radio show goes out,” says Matthews. “This exchange made me want to publish this kooky kind of cookbook: full of the recipes, curiosities and nuggets of wisdom I’d been scribbling in my song book for ever.

The musical connection is harder to put across in the writing, so Matthews has also curated Spotify playlists of music associated with every culture covered in the book – 15 in total – to listen to as you cook, eat… or any other time. Where The Wild Cooks Go is less a recipe book and more a multisensory travel guide, as well as offering a glimpse into how Matthews herself views the world: “It’s a kind of ‘folk' cookbook, inspired by those who've stirred over fires and conversations shared over the ages. It’s turned out to be almost like a world history book through the prism of food – and makes the idea of hard borders and absolute identity laughable when you read these.

Obituary: Chartwell Dutiro (1957-2019)

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 153, December 2019.

Chartwell Dutiro was a key figure in the repopularisation of the mbira in Zimbabwean society after decades of its proscription by Rhodesian authorities. As a member of Thomas Mapfumo’s iconic chimurenga band Blacks Unlimited, Dutiro originally played saxophone and percussion but pushed for the inclusion of the mbira, an instrument he had played since childhood. It was a revolutionary act. The sound of the mbira would become crucial to the power of chimurenga music.

After leaving the Blacks Unlimited in 1993, he moved to the UK. He gained a degree at SOAS, University of London, where his work was published as a book, Zimbabwean Mbira Music on an International Stage. He went on to teach at SOAS for some years before setting up his own dedicated school, the Mhararano Mbira Academy, and running international mbira gatherings across Europe and North America. All the while, Dutiro continued to perform and record solo and with a number of his own bands, and was featured many times in the pages of Songlines, including a profile right at the beginning in issue #2.

Dutiro died from cancer at his home in Devon on September 22. He had just learnt that he was to be awarded an honorary doctorate from Bath Spa University.

Photo: Chartwell Dutiro (right) performs with Thomas Mapfumo (left) and Blacks Unlimited in New York in 1989, by Banning Eyre.

Haymanot Tesfa - Loosening the Strings

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 153, December 2019.

Haymanot Tesfa
Loosening the Strings
Vacilando ’68 Recordings (53 mins)

When I saw Ethiopian singer and krar player Haymanot Tesfa perform at SOAS last year, it was very disappointing. She did one or two solo pieces that were lovely, but the rest of the concert was in collaboration with improvisatory jazz musicians. It was disjointed and chaotic, and didn’t work at all.

I was very relieved, then, to discover that this album – her debut – is almost completely solo and, as expected, it is beautiful. Her voice flutters around the Ethiopian scales like a small bird or butterfly while the resonant plucked strings of her krar create a steady platform on which her voice can alight from time to time.

It’s not entirely solo, though. Haymanot is joined on half the tracks by Arian Sadr on the tombak (Persian goblet drum). It’s a strange but well-chosen accompaniment; the drum’s warm tones unobtrusive while blending Persian and Ethiopian rhythms with aplomb.

Listening to the gentle yet powerful combination of voice and krar, it’s hard to avoid thoughts of the legendary Asnaketch Worku, but Haymanot’s skill and subtlety of string and song allows her to live up to such weighty comparisons. Luckily the jazz was left in its box this time around.

The Kutimangoes - Afrotropism

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 153, December 2019.

The Kutimangoes
The Kutimangoes (40 mins)

Although Danish seven-piece the Kutimangoes originally aimed for a crossroads between Afrobeat and jazz, further adventures have edged their sound further west towards Mali and Burkina Faso. Now on their third album, their music is built up from Mande dance band riffs with added Fela-inspired horn lines and topped off with wild jazz solos. Add in a few more influences from here and there and bring it all together with some complex percussion patterns and the Kutimangoes are ready to rock.

The second track, ‘A Snake is Just a String’, shows this off well: the guitar groove is very Songhoy Blues (who seem an important influence this time around), but we’re also taken to New Orleans with the horns and Morocco with Gnawa-inspired rhythms in the percussion. There’s also an amazing, distorted synth solo sounding like a space-age Hendrix.

However, a few too many of the tracks descend into more atmospheric vibes and vague melodies drenched in shimmering reverb. That’s good for the occasional breather, but it occurs a little too frequently here; it often feels like you're waiting around until you can get back into dance-mode, where the band really shine. Afrotropism is cool enough, but at their best, the Kutimangoes can be red hot.

Various Artists - The Rough Guide to World Jazz

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 153, December 2019.

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to World Jazz
World Music Network (72 mins)

For a long time, the Rough Guide series was indispensable for world music fans. Within one CD, they would take you through everything you needed to know about the music of a certain genre, artist, culture or country. They showcased the best and most typical tracks of each subject, as well as throwing in some interesting outliers to highlight the breadth of music on offer. The tracks came from a wide range of sources, even including ones that were difficult to come across.

Those days have passed. For the last few years, the Rough Guides have been including more and more tracks from their sister label, Riverboat Records. Now, we get The Rough Guide to World Jazz, of which all 13 tracks are taken from albums on Riverboat Records. It’s very frustrating. The music included is good enough, with a wide range of artists from India, Poland, Tunisia, the US, Bulgaria and more (and including Debashish Bhattacharya’s 16-minute epic with John McLaughlin, ‘A Mystical Morning’), but when it boils down to it, this is little more than a label sampler masquerading as an essential, genre-spanning guide.

As a former devotee of the series and someone who has learnt a great deal from them, this is a disappointing low in the impressive legacy of the Rough Guides series.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Kayhan Kalhor - WOMEX 19 Artist Award Recipient

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2019 delegate guide.

For Kayhan Kalhor, the kamancheh is his voice. When he plays, he creates whole languages in which to communicate with people from all over the world, from centuries past and far into the future.

Born in Tehran to Kurdish parents, it was quickly clear that Kalhor had a special talent for music. Although he started by playing the violin, it didn’t take long for him to become entranced by the kamancheh, switching his studies to the ancient Persian spike-fiddle by the time he was 10. Just three years later he was working with the National Orchestra of Radio and Television of Iran, and his career as a professional musician took flight.

Since his prodigious childhood, Kalhor has rightly been regarded as a true master of Persian classical music, but that mastery doesn’t come only from his immersion in the tradition. Without innovation, the tradition cannot exist, and Kalhor has been at the forefront of innovation in his field for decades. For him, there was no other option. “This happens in every generation and in my generation, I’m one of the people who tried to do that,” he says. “It comes very naturally. You don’t decide to do it, it just happens because you don’t want to sound like your teacher. At some point you have to translate your tradition to how it’s supposed to sound in your own generation’s voice.” The way he develops the tradition and makes it his own comes in part from the wide range of styles he exposes it to. Throughout his career, he has worked with the best musicians from across Iran and studied the folk musics of Kurdistan and Khorasan, allowing all of these voices to permeate his own sound; eventually, it all grew together into playing techniques and methods of improvisation that were entirely unique to himself.

This spirit of innovation extends far beyond the borders of his own culture. A globally-focussed way of working took seed when he studied Western classical music in Italy and Canada. There he gained useful knowledge of different ways of approaching music, while taking pains not to corrupt his own style. “I was so careful not to learn anything that damages the traditional way of thinking or playing. I was so conscious of that during those years, just to get good things that I need and not absorb things that might change my direction.” This way of picking only those elements that would enrich his style and identifying those that would weaken it became an important method when performing with other, distinct cultures.

On the international scene, Kalhor is most well-known for his world-spanning collaborations. From Shujaat Khan, Yo-Yo Ma, Erdal Erzincan and Toumani Diabaté to the Kronos Quartet, Brooklyn Rider and the Rembrandt Frerichs Trio, Kalhor’s musical partnerships are many and varied, and the results are invariably world-class. When he plays with these musicians, he stays true to the sanctity of his musical culture but deconstructs it in a way that creates new, entirely sympathetic fusions with those of his collaborators. Together they create an intense, improvisatory music that is not from one culture or the other – it is always both and always neither. “I can say it’s a new language, and I want to get deeper in that language, to create a vocabulary. It’s give and take…I’m after creating a language where you can know this is old music, but at the same time, there are new words that are comprehendible, not so new that they are beyond recognition. One foot in the old traditions and one foot in the future.” His collaborations are so successful because they are more than just an album or a concert, they are full, holistic relationships where music is just one part: “I stayed with these musicians for years and years. I’m living with these people. I’ve been with Shajaad Khan for 24 years, Yo-Yo Ma for 21 years, Erdal Erzancan for 13 years. I look at these collaborations as a process, something that breathes and lives. That is why I was so meticulous in choosing musicians, someone I could live with, someone I could understand, be a friend of their family, have a non-musical trip with. These were all factors, and that’s why I had to choose someone who was exactly like me, in their own country, musically and non-musically.

With so much thought, philosophy and concentrated effort that goes into preparing his work – whether solo or in collaboration – when Kalhor plays, the music flows as easily and gracefully as a swooping bird, a completely natural phenomenon. For him, all the work simply allows the music to manifest itself. “It’s difficult to explain it,” he ponders. “I think we’re all devices of goodness and beauty in this world. The beauty comes through us and we’re responsible to project it, that’s all. The beauty comes from another world. We have to work, we have to rehearse, we were given the talent and the gift, but that doesn’t mean we are the creator of it.

With his music possessing a power unto itself, Kalhor has neither the intention nor the choice to stop that ethereal flow. “[I’ll] keep on playing, until I die! Because I cannot leave music and music cannot leave me. When I’m not able to be active as a concert musician as I am now, I’ll teach more and I’ll write. There’s a young generation here that needs attention and direction, and I’m doing a lot of that whenever I can, and I will do more. But I’m staying with music. I cannot leave music, music is for life.” Together, he and his music will ensure that the renaissance of Persian classical music will not slow down any time soon.

It is for his mastery and virtuosity of the kamancheh, for his ceaseless innovation and collaboration to create exciting new musical languages, and for bringing the Persian classical music tradition to the ears of people all over the world, that we are delighted to award the WOMEX 19 Artist Award to Kayhan Kalhor.

Photo: Kayhan Kalhor (left) performs at the WOMEX 19 Awards alongside Erdal Erzincan, by Eric van Nieuwland.

Julie's Bicycle - WOMEX 19 Professional Excellence Award Recipient

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2019 delegate guide.

The world is burning, the ice is melting and the oceans are choking, and it’s our fault. Those that argue otherwise are not only working against humanity but against the world at large.

But all is not yet lost. We still have the opportunity to kick back against these changes to our world, and our efforts work best when we move as one community. Julie’s Bicycle is an organisation that are rallying the creative and arts sectors in shouting with one powerful voice against the environmental crises we currently face. Like most good ideas, Julie’s Bicycle came about through a meeting with friends. A beautiful utopian vision was dreamed up, ‘where festivals were powered by solar, venues were off-grid and covered in flowers, museums were community energy providers, artists were united as beacons for change.’ That was in 2006. Since then, Julie’s Bicycle (named after the location of that first meeting) have worked tirelessly towards that vision, in London (where they’re based), in the UK, and in the world. Venues may not be covered in flowers just yet, but under their diligent watch and intense work, the arts world is slowly becoming more and more sustainable.

From their very first project – a calculator for arts professionals to work out and understand their carbon impact, which has since become a go-to tool in the creative arts industry – Julie’s Bicycle have approached their task in three main ways: working with businesses individually to improve their environmental impact management; researching and developing resources for the use of all; and introducing, promoting and performing outreach for new ideas and sustainable business models. The holistic nature is not only important to making a real impact, but is one of the strongest ways that people and businesses can make a difference, says Julie’s Bicycle CEO and founder, Alison Tickell: “One thing I’ve learnt is that there isn’t a single way of doing it. We actually need to work on many dimensions all the time. But if we simplify it down, the first thing is to recognise that we can act, and then work out what we can do personally and professionally. They can be small things or big things, but they can accumulate to be quite a powerful collection of actions that are about real change. It leads to a different understanding of agency in this space. It’s this wonderful experience of giving yourself an opportunity to act, and it becomes a really exciting, deepening endeavour.

To move and work within the music industry is often to feel disempowered when it comes to the concerns of higher powers of national governments. There is usually a disconnect between the creative community on one side and policy-makers on the other – we often speak very different languages. Julie’s Bicycle is a translator. Not only do they act to bring together many facets of the industry with one voice, they also help those in power to understand our wants, needs and demands in ways that may not be otherwise understood, or taken seriously.

The great thing is that Julie’s Bicycle aren’t just working alone. Their message has been spreading and their successes have been building and gaining influence across many fields. “Over the last six months it’s been fantastic feeling that things are changing, and I think we have been a bit of that change,” Tickell says. “We were very lucky to pick up on this one quite early on. The way we work is so collaborative, we work with everyone. We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to gather this community.” They have played an enormous part in turning small ripples into tides of change, and this was made starkly evident in July of this year, when they, together with Extinction Rebellion and Culture Declares Emergency, launched Music Declares Emergency. This declaration reached every facet of the music industry – artists, labels, publishers, venues, festivals promoters, managers and agents – with more than 1500 signatories calling on international governments to ‘act now to reverse biodiversity loss and reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by no later than 2030,’ as well as pledging to support, share and work towards a sustainable music industry. The work of Julie’s Bicycle is key to this goal.

For Julie’s Bicycle, outcomes are more subtle than large-scale ‘achievements.’ Instead, they are slowly, surely (and with an increasing pace) changing the way that the music industry thinks, feels and acts in regards to ecological emergency. There’s a lot there to be proud of, and it’s clear that their legacy is only just beginning. “What I am pleased about is that people are much more ready than they would have been because we have been developing the ‘how’ for such a long time,” says Tickell. “The amount of people and organisations who are ready for this moment of change and want to do more has been really gratifying. We’ve been inundated with ideas and interest, requests for help. The fact that we have been working on this for some time has given people the confidence to step into this space much more easily, and that’s been terrific.

The work that we have at hand is to literally save the world. But we can do it. There is a lot to do, and we all have our own roles to play – especially in our own position as music professionals – and Julie’s Bicycle are here to help us. They have plenty of room to expand, too. As we all look ahead to what we can do now, and what solutions may be coming, we need to future-proof our business model as well as the world, and Julie’s Bicycle will be there with us, doing whatever it takes, at all times, to help us succeed, together.

For their forward-thinking strategies to speed up the attainment of environmental sustainability in every facet of our industry and professional lives, for their rallying of artists and arts professionals from all over the world to speak and act in one powerful group, and for their status as a figurehead in the global arts movement in the face of climate change and ecological disasters, we are delighted to present Julie’s Bicycle as the WOMEX Professional Award recipient for 2019.

Photo: Chiara Baliali of Julie's Bicycle (left) receives the WOMEX 19 Professional Excellence Award presented by Sam Lee, by Yannis Psathas.

Friday, 27 September 2019

My Instrument: Stella Chiweshe and her Mbira Dzavadzimu

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 152, November 2019.

Stella Chiweshe is widely known as the first woman to gain recognition as a master of the most important instrument of Zimbabwe’s Shona people, the mbira dzavadzimu. It is a lamellophone – also called a thumb piano – in which steel keys made from beaten-flat bicycle spokes are mounted to a wooden board and plucked with both thumbs and a forefinger. This technique creates an interlocking pattern through which circular melodies begin to shine through.

The mbira dzavadzimu is, literally, ‘the voice of the ancestors,’ the instrument that works as a go-between for many past generations to speak to the living. It was through this contact that led Chiweshe to the instrument when she was 16 years old. “One day in a ceremony, my mother’s fifth-great-grandfather said through her that four of his greatest grandchildren would play the mbira. I am one of those four,” she told me. “But when he said that, nobody believed we could play. Exactly two years after that ceremony, I started to hear the mbira that was played that day afresh in my head. All the other music that I liked was locked out. I was locked into mbira for two years. I could only hear mbira in my head as if somebody was really playing.” When she first began to learn the ways of the mbira, there were challenges from all sides: the instrument was illegal in then-Rhodesia and her status as a female player was unacceptable in Shona tradition, but when she learnt to play, it became obvious that destiny was being fulfilled.

I met Chiweshe in London after an entrancing concert at the Jazz Cafe. The instrument she’d used on stage didn’t look like I expected. Traditionally, mbira dzavadzimu are housed in a large half-calabash for amplification, and covered in cowry shells (or, more recently, bottle caps) that rattle and add a different dimension, making it sound like the gentle lapping of waves on a shore. But this mbira was different. While it plays in the traditional way – it has 32 keys, tuned in the standard way – its body is much smaller, without any shells to buzz and, crucially, it can be plugged into an amplifier. In other words, it’s perfect to perform abroad. Although the instrument isn’t right for all occasions (“I wouldn’t play this for my elders because they would say it’s naked!”), its spiritual nature is not compromised, according to Chiweshe: “I think every mbira is sacred because their purpose, even if it has three or five or 15 keys, the purpose is still the same.

This deeper meaning of the mbira dzavadzimu is impossible to weaken for Chiweshe, because it’s part of nature: “Mbira gets in touch with everything, even the birds. Sometimes I go to the forest to play for the trees, sometimes I go to play for the water. Water likes mbira, the birds like mbira, the trees like mbira.” When it’s human ears that she’s reaching, she teaches her audience how to listen correctly. By singling out the sound of one particular key, and listening for that one resonance in the rolling, circular patterns, you allow your mind to receive the meaning of mbira. “If you listen to all notes at the same time, you will get lost. But if you let your ear choose a note that is being played continuously, then everything will fall into place. It puts you in a meditative state. When we are meditating, we are trying to clear all thoughts that are scattered and focus on one thing. Mbira gives the direction by itself.

The mbira dzavadzimu will always be the instrument of the Shona ancestors, no matter where it’s played or what shape or size it happens to be. In the hands of Stella Chiweshe, its spiritual and meditative powers will continue to reach the ears and souls of listeners across the world.

Photo: Stella Chiweshe and her mbira dzavadzimu, by Ilka Schlockermann.

Spotlight: WOMEX

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 152, November 2019.

Maybe you’ve never heard of WOMEX. Or maybe you’ve seen it referenced opaquely in the pages of Songlines and elsewhere but always wondered what it was. Whatever the case, your listening habits, the artists you see live and even the music you get to hear about have almost certainly been affected by WOMEX’s existence. So… what is it?

WOMEX stands for the World Music Expo. It’s a meeting of delegates from the every corner of the world music sphere (and from all over the world), who get together to discuss the state of the industry, create and develop new concepts and ideas for the future and map out the next steps to be taken to ensure the continuation of this healthy and exciting musical scene – and to listen to music, of course. It’s held in a different European city every year, and this October, for their 25th anniversary, WOMEX is heading to Tampere in Finland.

The WOMEX programme is made up of many components, from conferences, mentor sessions, film screenings, network meetings, an awards ceremony and a huge trade fair. But the most visible aspect of the event comes in the evenings, when dozens of up-and-coming artists of every region and style perform at the showcase festival. Playing a showcase at WOMEX can be a career-maker: when your audience consists of hundreds of the world’s most important festival organisers, concert promoters, record labels and international media, a stand-out performance can lead to big things indeed. In recent years, WOMEX showcases have kickstarted the international careers of Jambinai, San Salvador, Blick Bassy and Maarja Nuut among many others. But a WOMEX showcase isn’t like any other show.

The strangest things happen in showcases, one being that professionals get up and leave halfway through, or they come in for ten minutes and then walk out again. Artists are quite ruffled by that,” says WOMEX founding director Ben Mandelson. “At a regular concert, people come in and stay, so the set is built in a way to reach a climax at the end. Showcases are not like that. If somebody walks out, it doesn’t mean you’re bad; the fact that they stayed for ten minutes means that they made the effort to see you and they’ve seen what they need. You have to share them with everyone else. It’s hard for artists. But it’s much more than a gig.

With so many potential careers at stake, the WOMEX programme is not curated like a normal festival. Instead, the performances are chosen by the ‘Seven Samurai,’ an ever-changing independent jury of WOMEX delegates who craft the line-up from the hundreds of artist proposals received every year. This process allows for a balanced approach that creates a line-up best suited for revealing new stars. It also means that the programme, by design, moves with the times. “We try and make sure that different styles and regions of the world are given access. For every club banger, we would be very interested in having intimate, small, deeply traditional performances. And everything is negotiable within that. I think it succeeds because every delegate has a different concept of what the right balance is. I would be horrified if everyone had the same idea of what the programme should be. What changes is not the balance itself, but the things on offer for which you have to make the balance.

For an event with a tiny attendance compared to even the smallest of festivals, WOMEX and its showcase festival create ripples that are felt through the world music scene and beyond for years to come – we’re still talking about artists who appeared at the inaugural event back in 1994 (Baaba Maal and Cesaria Evora, anyone?). The world music scene will be very different in another 25 years’ time – maybe we’ll even get rid of that pesky label by then – but there is no doubt that what happens at WOMEX in the past, present and future will have a huge impact on the shape of things to come.

Photo: Santrofi live at WOMEX 19, by Eric van Nieuwland.

Boomtown 2019 - Matterley Estate, nr Winchester

A shorter version of this review was first published in Songlines Magazine issue 152, November 2019.

Matterley Estate, near Winchester
7th-11th August 2019

Boomtown is madness and mania. It’s unlike any other festival I’ve ever been to.

While Boomtown is smaller than Glastonbury in terms of attendance and footprint, the sheer range of delights for the ears and eyes gives Pilton’s finest a close run. With 14 separate ‘districts,’ each with at least one main stage and many smaller and hidden stages totalling more than 100 venues overall, you’re never likely to end up with a gap in your schedule.

The bulk of the musical programming revolves around drum’n’bass, EDM, techno and other electronic music, but there’s plenty of other sounds for those that want it: on my wanderings I came across top-level death metal, grime, punk, hip-hop, soul and jazz of all colours, as well as the largest reggae stage in Europe, set within a huge, naturally-occurring amphitheatre provided by the picturesque South Downs. And of course, there’s more than enough to set a Songlines reader up for the weekend too.

Much like the rest of the line-up, Boomtown’s world music offerings were many and varied, from the mosh-fest of premier Gypsy punks Gogol Bordello who provided an electrifying retrospective headliner set, to San Salvador, the voice, drums and nothing else Occitan sextet who came fresh from two storming sets at WOMAD to a just-as-impressive show at Boomtown. Scottish folk was particularly well-represented all throughout the festival this year, and Talisk and Elephant Sessions gave a wonderful double-bill in a flame-heated medieval town square with back-to-back sets of pumping, clubland-inflected instrumental folk that got the crowd rowdier than any of the electronic stages.

On the Sunday afternoon, it was Grace Petrie’s turn to blow the crowd away. With her mix of English folk and singer-songwriter roots with a punk attitude, her ultra-political songs in defence of butch lesbians, transfolk, the welfare state and the young and angry (and against the Tories and all their works) gave visions of a millennial’s Billy Bragg. With a stand-up’s wit and defiant but cautiously optimistic lyrics, her set prompted tears, fury and joy from this reviewer. Other highlight sets included Asian overground pioneers Asian Dub Foundation, dub-soaked jazzwoman Nubya Garcia and Soweto’s hottest BCUC – I also spent a particularly glorious 3am submerged in the festival’s psytrance forest curated by Bristol’s Tribe of Frog.

You can have an amazing five days of festival entirely absorbed in the brilliant and varied musical line-up that Boomtown has to offer. But if you do, you’ll barely be experiencing half of it. Because Boomtown isn’t just a festival, it’s an entire immersive universe.

The Boomtown storyline has been developing for 11 ‘chapters’ (years) now, with an evolving plot of political wrangling, internal tensions and, this year, the presence of an unsettlingly benevolent AI overlord. This story is not just a vague, hinted-at theme though, but a full-blown, interactive theatre piece spanning every district and the whole weekend.

Every district is fully built-up from amazingly detailed sets – there’s a Wild West town, a medieval/pirate area, an opulent rich-kids’ playground, a huge and gritty downtown with all manner of dystopian inner-city architectures and more. They’re not just soulless façades either; they’re packed with interesting nooks and crannies and intriguingly unmarked doors that can lead you to a raucous Irish pub, or maybe a sophisticated burlesque show or an extremely loud techno club made from an old caravan with a shoulder-to-shoulder capacity of ten. The whole thing is a masterclass of maze-making. Each area is populated by scores of actors acting out in-depth plots relevant to their district – I was particularly engrossed in the saga of the American Old West-style Copper County, which saw town drunk Willie elected by festival-goers to the rank of mayor, only to go mad with power and set up roving vigilante gangs to rough up his political opponents and former allies.

There are so many layers to it. Not only are there the surface stories happening around you, but if you talk to the right characters and ask the right questions, you will get directions and codewords and other interesting folks to meet, uncovering a vast, under-the-surface conspiracy that brings together every aspect of the festival’s lore in one. It’s dizzying in its scale. Just as you can spend the entire festival without touching the more fanciful elements at all, you could easily leave having seen no music but still had an intensely profound five-day experience.

I’ve been to many festivals in my life and seen so much amazing music at them, but my first visit to Boomtown this year will stay with me for a long time. The music was brilliant, undoubtedly, but when it’s experienced in conjunction with an entire reality-bending story, it becomes much more than a music festival, but a wonderful, self-contained world. It’s madness, but I can’t wait to go back.

Photo: Boomtown's epic reggae stage, The Lions Den, by Scott Salt.

The UK – “Open to Musicians from Everywhere”

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 152, November 2019.

Making Tracks was one of the most exciting purveyors of international music in the UK in recent years. Founded in 2010 by Katarina Pavlakis, the organisation arranged 30 UK tours with established and respected artists from 29 countries, who also gave workshops, lectures and outreach sessions, providing valuable context to the music performed in concert. It was a real shame when, due to funding cuts, Making Tracks announced that their 2018 season would be their last.

But luckily, flashing forward a year, Making Tracks is now reborn and ready to continue its impact – albeit in a slightly different shape. In its new form, the organisation put a focus on new talent, encouraging cross-cultural exchange among young and emerging artists from around the world. For this first year of its new model, Making Tracks invites eight inaugural ‘fellows’ – representing a wide range of traditions and styles from across the UK, Kenya, Armenia, Estonia, France, Spain, the Czech Republic and Turkey – to take part in a ten-day residency in Snowdonia before setting off on a two-week UK tour. The programme will culminate in a performance at Kings Place as part of the London Jazz Festival on November 17.

The collaborations aren’t just musical. When artistic director Merlyn Driver talks about Making Tracks, it is within an all-encompassing, holistic worldview. “What I love most about music,” he explains, “is the way it can be a window to society, nature, politics, history – pretty much anything. The music industry is a lot more fun when you find ways to connect music to all the things it arises from.” In this spirit, the residency will be a musical meeting, but also a place for the fellows to discuss and develop ways in which music can impact society and the environment for the better. “Encounters between the ‘strange’ and the ‘familiar’ have the power to foster greater empathy, tolerance and understanding across social, cultural and geographical divides,” says Driver. “Given the current political climate, it’s vital to have a UK-based project that’s open to musicians from everywhere. We also want to address the void within music-making with regards to environmental engagement. As young people mobilise and climate discourse becomes increasingly mainstream, music has an important role to play.

For the musicians, the opportunity to work with cultures – and audiences – that may previously have been out-of-reach goes hand-in-hand with the broader considerations. Luna Silva, French-Spanish ukulele player, singer and Making Tracks fellow, says, “I'm really excited about meeting other musicians from completely different backgrounds and sharing our common experiences. My role as a musician is often on my mind, our role in society and how environmentally conscious we can be. Music is an incredible driving force for that. There is something universal about sound and emotion which is really exciting to play with.

By focusing on the next generation of musicians moving and playing within the international scene, the new-look Making Tracks is promoting the sustainability of world music in the UK – musically, socially and environmentally. The music these fellows make will hopefully echo for a long time to come.

Dying, Laughing, Playing: Belinda Sykes

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 152, November 2019.

When Belinda Sykes was diagnosed with terminal cancer, there was no question what was going to happen next: she started booking dates for her next tour.

Sykes is the director, singer and double-reeds player for the band Joglaresa. The band formed in 1992 and quickly became the UK’s premier early music ensemble for their open-minded interpretations of the genre: instead of sticking to the medieval sounds of Western Europe, Joglaresa expanded horizons by exploring the musical viewpoints of Sephardi and Ladino Jews of Iberia and the Maghreb and the early Muslims of the Levant, the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. Sykes herself is also an ethnomusicologist, and has conducted fieldwork in Morocco, Bulgaria, Spain, Jordan, Israel, Syria and India.

After a series of misdiagnoses that led to operations preventing her from performing during the summer of 2018, Sykes was eventually diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma and embraced palliative care to enable her to play again. She plans to spend her remaining time performing as much as possible with Joglaresa, with dates confirmed in the UK from November until April. From this point forward, 100% of sales from Joglaresa’s back catalogue will be donated directly to the charity Sarcoma UK – as well as raising money for a very important cause, Sykes doesn’t want to leave her family with thousands of spare CDs!

Sykes’ cheerful and humorous outlook on life has not been stifled by her circumstances – her JustGiving page is dedicated in memory of ‘Belinda (not dead yet!!!!) Sykes’ – and the music into which she has suffused her passion and joy has created a living legacy that will help people in similar situations for a long time to come.

Photo: Joglaresa with Belinda Sykes (centre), by Graham Wood.

Friday, 23 August 2019

The Soundtrack to a Real World

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 151, October 2019.

In a scene dominated by a plurality of smaller record labels – which often burn bright and fast – there are few world music labels as respected and long-lived as Real World Records, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2019.

The label has always had strong ties with its sister organisations, the WOMAD festival and the Real World Studios. When the label started back in 1989, it was to coincide with the opening of the state-of-the-art recording studios in the idyllic village of Box in Wiltshire, which became a haven for some of the best musicians in the world to record, experiment and collaborate. Label manager Amanda Jones recalls: “We had a vision of a kind of ‘in sessions’ record label – taking the opportunity of artists coming into the UK for WOMAD to record live albums in the huge, wonderful ‘Big Room’ studio. This led to a vision for a record label that worked together with artists from all corners of the world – without a specific genre in mind; bringing together musicians who share an empathy with music in general, rather than simply a shared cultural background.

The success of this vision is evident not only in the quality of Real World’s 200-plus releases, but also the sheer talent contained within – world-beating artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Misty in Roots, Terem Quartet, Afro Celt Sound System, Totó La Momposina and Thomas Mapfumo all made Real World Records their home. But the label’s philosophy has been to always take risks. “We were happy to support artists and music that are potentially challenging and will never reach a really significant wider audience, as well as those we feel should cross over with a much bigger appeal. Our expectations of commercial success vary a lot.” That’s why you can scroll through the catalogue and discover albums by still-little-known musicians – the Tsinandali Choir of Georgia, say, or Bhutanese Buddhist priest Lama Gyurme – and still be guaranteed of hearing a gem. “In some small way we have helped to introduce to a wider audience inspirational and beautiful music that may never have been heard.

To celebrate their 30 years, Real World have remastered and re-released two albums by Khan – his first WOMAD performance in Live at WOMAD 1985 and his second collaboration with Canadian producer Michael Brook in Night Song – alongside a compilation, Worldwide: 30 Years of Real World Music, but you can be sure they’re not looking back for too long. Speaking of future plans, Jones simply says, “Keep on keeping on. [We’ll] embrace the wonderful music that comes our way and support it as well as we can, battle the current challenges of running a record label and continue to be brave and take risks in choosing the projects we support.

Photo: Real World Records discography, by York Tillyer.

Sinkane - Dépaysé

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 151, October 2019.

City Slang (41 mins)

Sinkane’s Ahmed Gallab was born in London to Sudanese parents, moved to Omdurman at age five and then eventually to the US; it’s a story that will be familiar to millions in diaspora communities around the world.

Gallab’s contemplations on his identity as an Amreekee-Sudani (Sudanese-American) are the theme that runs through Dépaysé. His lyrics ponder of his place in a world full of unities and divisions that come in these times of Trump’s Muslim ban and the recent overthrow of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir; despite these weighty topics, the feeling is one of cautious positivity and hope.

This theme of multi-identity isn’t just expressed in words. Sinkane’s overall sound is one of indie rock and pop, but there are nods to Sudanese music ingrained throughout the album. This usually comes in the subtle forms of polyrhythmic percussion, pentatonic scales and occasional Arabic refrains, but some tracks, such as ‘Stranger’ and ‘Ya Sudan’, are full-on tributes to the music of Gallab’s parents’ generation. It’s sort of like if Vampire Weekend were obsessed with vintage Sudanese pop rather than Congolese soukous.

The result is compelling on each level: the lyrics are thoughtful and insightful, and the music turns them into feel-good summer anthems.

Attarazat Addahabia & Faradjallah - Al Hadaoui

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 151, October 2019.

Attarazat Addahabia & Faradjallah
Al Hadaoui
Habibi Funk (36 mins)

Al Hadaoui was the debut album of Attarazat Addahabia, recorded in 1972 but for some reason never released – now we get to hear it in all its glory. The group are from Casablanca, Morocco and their music is a mix of psychedelic and experimental rock and funk that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the San Francisco or Los Angeles of the same time period. Of course, they also bring in a unique African flavour to it.

The title-track opener shows this off the best: it starts with that recognisable rhythm of the Gnawa played on the qaraqab (metal castanets) before they’re joined by bluesy-funky electric guitar (which is stunning throughout the album), Afro-Latin percussion, an all-female chorus and eventually Faradjallah’s charismatic vocals. If it weren’t for the Arabic language, you could even be forgiven for thinking this record came from Nigeria or Cameroon, such is the importance of its large and interlocking percussion section.

A great thing is that the band obviously don’t take themselves too seriously, making this record is a lot of fun – keep an ear out for the track ‘Aflana’, based on Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ – and that helps to bring it all to life and really drive home that 70s sound.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Michael Brook - Night Song

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 151, October 2019.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Michael Brook
Night Song
Real World Records (48 mins)

Night Song was the second time that Pakistani devotional qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had worked with Canadian producer Michael Brook. Although their first album Mustt Mustt was a huge hit, it came with a fair slice of controversy for its hack-and-slash remixes of Khan’s deeply religious poetry. Night Song came out six years later, in 1996, with much more careful and collaborative production, but less fanfare. It’s often overlooked in Khan's discography and that's a real shame, so it's great that it’s being reissued as part of Real World Records’ 30th anniversary.

Brook’s production is very sympathetic, adding his own elements of chilled-out electronica, prog rock, dub and West African music around Khan and his musicians. The result is less bombastic than its predecessor, and more subtle. Stand-out tracks such as ‘Sweet Pain’, ‘Lament’ and ‘My Heart, My Life’ work so well because they ebb and flow in the same manner as qawwalis while tuning into a completely different vibe.

To produce Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is to gild refined gold, but of anyone, Brook probably did it best, and this album is proof of that. Now’s a perfect time to listen to it with fresh ears.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Theresa May’s ‘Hostile Environment’ Strikes Again

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 150, August/September 2019.

With a year past since the eruption of the Windrush scandal, the government’s aggressive, unfair and illogical approach to immigration and citizenship shows no signs of improvement. One of the latest victims of these policies is London-based Afro-jazz singer Bumi Thomas. On June 7 2019, she was given notice that she must leave the country voluntarily by June 21 or face detention and deportation.

Thomas was born in Glasgow to Nigerian parents, who relocated to Kano, Nigeria when she was three. She moved back to the UK as soon as she could – when she got her passport at the age of 18 – and went on to study fine arts at Bath Spa University before moving to London to pursue her successful music career. Her style is based around jazz, but she brings in elements from soul, folk and many African styles too; her career has seen her work with musicians such as Tony Allen, Nneka, Muntu Valdo and Keziah Jones.

Thomas’ deportation notice comes after a decade-long legal battle for her indefinite right to remain – which was denied. The problem arose from the fact that she was born just months after Margaret Thatcher’s government revoked the UK’s birthright citizenship; parents instead had to apply for citizenship for their children. As Thomas’ older sister received dual citizenship, her parents didn’t realise the law had changed. The situation is being seen as a continuation of the ‘hostile environment’ policies enacted by Theresa May as Home Secretary, which have continued throughout her premiership.

Luckily, the singer’s popularity has led to her case receiving a lot of attention in the press and on social media, and the #JusticeforBumi campaign is gathering momentum: a GoFundMe page set up to help cover Thomas’ legal costs has smashed targets, and she has been invited to the House of Lords to discuss her case as well as the wider issues surrounding it. It should be remembered that Thomas’ case gained visibility due to her public profile; there are many people in the same situation that are fighting this system alone.

Thomas herself is taking positives from the struggle: “There is a surreal sense of displacement,” she says, “yet I have never felt more connected to the UK. I am tethered by my art and music, which enables me to heal, connect and make sense of my emotions. It has been a pretty traumatic ordeal, offset tremendously by the overflow of support, love, compassion and advocacy I’ve received from the London creative community, reaffirming my belief in the kindness of the human spirit.” On June 21, she officially filed the first stage of her appeal and, as of writing, is awaiting confirmation of a court date in which a final decision will be made. The thoughts and positive energy of all of us at Songlines are with Bumi in this turbulent time, and we hope her case can be resolved quickly and positively.

Photo: Bumi Thomas, by Ade 'Ásiko' Okelarin.

Kayhan Kalhor & the Rembrandt Frerichs Trio - It’s Still Autumn

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 150, August/September 2019.

Kayhan Kalhor & the Rembrandt Frerichs Trio
It’s Still Autumn
Kepera Records (55 mins)

The collaboration between Iranian kamancheh spike-fiddle master Kayhan Kalhor and Dutch Baroque-jazz ensemble the Rembrandt Frerichs Trio has been a long time in the making: even the recordings that make up this album were made back in 2015.

The trio had been experimenting with Persian pieces alongside Baroque repertoire even before linking up with Kalhor, and when they’re all together, it’s easy to hear why. There’s unusual instrumentation going on here: Frerichs plays the fortepiano, a cousin of the piano that sounds closer to a harpsichord; Tony Overwater plays the violone, a large bass viol with frets; and Vinsent Planjer’s drums are a ‘whisper kit’ featuring antique-style drums. These timbres put them in a space beyond geography. Is that a piano or a santur? A double bass or some sort of giant oud? Together with Kalhor’s peerless kamancheh, at once fragile and powerful, the four musicians enter a unique sound-world.

It’s Still Autumn is split into two larger works – ‘Dawn’ (which contains five movements) and ‘Dusk’ (which is four). The former is quiet and beautiful, the music slowly waking up as if with the world; the latter has more of a hubbub about it, echoing urban environments in the more rhythmically focused sections. This album was definitely worth the wait; let’s hope the relationship continues to bear such exquisite fruit.

Atlas Maior - Riptide

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 150, August/September 2019.

Atlas Maior
Atlas Maior (59 mins)

This Austin, Texas-based band specialise in a mix of contemporary and progressive jazz with music from the Arab and Turkish worlds. At the core of Atlas Maior and Riptide is the intricate interplay between the alto saxophone of Josh Thompson and the oud of Charlie Lockwood. They take turns in soloing, they come together for unison sections and branch off into harmonies occasionally.

While similar Arabic jazz fusions can tend towards the slower, quieter and more pensive side of things, you won’t get that here. The default pace is driving and the energy is just tastefully short of bombastic. There are cameos from other styles such as cumbia, Ethiojazz, surf rock and reggae, and the sax sometimes has a Balkan feel to it, bringing to mind Yuri Yunakov.

There’s also a handful of guests joining the sax-oud-drums (Ted Camat) core of Atlas Maior. Roberto Riggio provides some beautiful double-stopped violin on the track ‘Chamber of Mirrors’ but it’s the album’s closer ‘Osman Pehlivan’ featuring Palestinian oud player Sari Adoni that is the overall highlight. The ten-minute epic allows for the development of emergent thematic material that draws on all the other styles found throughout the album, leading to a fulfilling conclusion.

Joshua Hyde - Sol: A Series of Reflections

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 150, August/September 2019.

Joshua Hyde
Sol: A Series of Reflections
Integrated Records (42 mins)

From the very first track, ‘Call’, it’s clear that in Sol: A Series of Reflections, Joshua Hyde intents to deal more in atmospheres than explicit melodies, and certainly more than rhythms. This opening track consists of six-and-a-half minutes of extended accordion chords, which slowly become more complex and add more passing notes to resemble proto-melodies as the piece continues.

Melodies and rhythms do emerge over the course of the album, but the whole thing retains a thoughtful introspection and calm. The focus is on the sounds of the instruments just as much – and often more – than the music they can make. This connection is maintained right down to the extended decay and silence at the end of the last track. Hyde even includes descriptions of the instruments (all of which he plays himself) and his relationships to them within the album notes. Not that it’s all about ambience and timbre. Hyde does take a pleasant detour into jazz when he gets his hands on a baritone saxophone, which stands apart from the stark piano harmonics that accompany it on the track ‘Dialogue’.

Sol is a very good meditation on sound, although it feels a little as if it takes the whole album to build up to a climax that never comes.

Massa Dembele - Alumaye

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 150, August/September 2019.

Massa Dembele
Izniz Records (33 mins)

The second album from the Burkinabé kamalengoni player Moussa Dembele has a much bigger sound compared to his mostly solo debut from 2017, Mezana Dounia. Here he is joined by a full band including balafon, folikan flute and bara, calabash, djembe and tama drums.

The album has a lovely organic, unplugged atmosphere, although there are occasional appearances by electric guitar and bass the further you get through it, used sparingly enough to add an interesting flavour without changing the overall vibe. There’s also these little burst of flavour from the folikan of Moussa Saifal Diarra, whose vocalisations draw sonic comparisons to the jazz flute of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

And allowing these sounds – and Dembele’s Mande (and sometimes English) lyrics – to flourish are the kamalengoni, balafon and drums, which build up grooves that are seemingly infinite but, like everything in life, end up ultimately disappointingly finite. Considering the brevity of this album, it feels as if there could have been room to extend some of the tracks a little bit to really dig deep into those grooves, and get them properly wedged deep into the subconscious.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

The Spirit of Tengri 2019 - Abai Square, Almaty, Kazakhstan

First published on and in Songlines Magazine issue 150, August/September 2019.

The Spirit of Tengri
Abai Square, Almaty, Kazakhstan
25th-26th May 2019

Even in Almaty – Kazakhstan’s cultural capital – the Spirit of Tengri festival is considered a highlight of the city’s cultural calendar. Now in its seventh edition (and with ever-attractive free entry), this year’s event drew in over 10,000 attendees of all ages, the already large crowd bolstered by boisterous (but good-natured) teenagers – the festival coincided with the last day of school celebrations. Over two days, 17 artists from 17 different countries took to the stage on Abai Square, overlooked on one side by the city’s famous Kok Tobe mountain and on the other by a giant statue of the renowned poet Abai Qunanbaiuly. The festival makers surely know how to put on a show: the audience were treated to very high production values that felt almost Eurovision-esque, from fancy lighting and giant screens all the way down to the cheesy short videos introducing each artists’ native culture… and on top of all that, it was very, very loud.

The festival’s ultra-broad remit is to present ‘contemporary ethnic music,’ and in practice that mostly seems to mean artists that play their national folk music with some sort of twist from other genres. It’s a concept that allows for a huge scope of artists and the mixtures range from the successful (Ezza’s Nigerien Tuareg rock, Svjata Vatra’s Ukrainian ska and Raghu Dixit’s Kannada folk-pop) to the cringeworthy (GeoTRAIN’s Georgian polyphony-jazz, Abbos’ Uzbek classical Europop). The Kazakh music scene was also represented by bands at the start of each evening ­– Ashina and Ethno5 – who blended traditional instruments such as the kobyz (fiddle) and dombra (lute) with synthesizers, rappers and heavy rock. Local DJs also provided entertainment in between the live acts, of whom Alena Lobastova – the only named woman on the bill – was the standout, and could certainly thrill festival crowds in the UK.

And the great thing is, the crowd loved every band. Whoever took to the stage, from whatever country, playing whatever instruments and mixing up whatever cultures (and no matter how successfully), the audience went absolutely ballistic. There were sections of the crowd that were never not dancing, and every piece was concluded to rapturous applause.

The musical highlight of the weekend came at the end of the festival’s first night, which was closed by Hungarian group Kerekes Band. The group play a furiously jazzy, punky funk based on the music of the Csángó people of Hungary and Romania, led by the charismatic Zsombor Fehér on the electronically-enhanced shepherd’s flute. In a banging set full of special moments such as a too-funky-by-far mash-up of their most famous piece ‘Csango Boogie’ and Kool & the Gang’s ‘Jungle Boogie’ and a special guest appearance from Radik Tyulyush of Huun-Huur-Tu providing Tuvan borbangnadyr, they blew everyone away when they led the whole audience in a singalong of the Kazakh national song ‘Kozimnin Karasi’ (written by Abai) learned especially for the occasion – a real spine-tingling moment.

This is a festival that knows what its audience wants and gives them exactly that for an entire weekend. As you might expect, that gives the Spirit of Tengri one of the most electric atmospheres you could hope for.

Photo: Ruslan Trochynskyi of Svjata Vatra gets down with the crowd at the Spirit of Tengri 2019, courtesy of

Friday, 14 June 2019

My World: Toby Jones

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 149, July 2019.

As an actor, Toby Jones has appeared in some of the biggest film series of the past few decades, including the Harry Potter, Hunger Games and MCU series. On television, too, he has worked on some of the most well-loved shows such as Doctor Who and Sherlock – and won BAFTAs and Olivier Awards along the way. Even on the screen, his love for music from around the world is clear. In his latest BBC TV show, Don’t Forget the Driver, a tragi-comic tale of a coach driver from Bognor Regis, it was his own influence that led to an eclectic soundtrack including Mulatu Astatke, Pentangle and Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita, whose music serves as an important through-line for the whole series.

Music influences Jones’s whole way of working. “When I’m writing something or making something in the theatre, music is often an incredibly useful way of thinking about space,” he says. “That way, you’re not just thinking about words, you’re also thinking about the mood and atmosphere of a piece, above and beyond what’s happening verbally, if you’re creating a script. There’s a specific track by Catrin and Seckou called ‘Listen to the Grass Grow’. God knows what they wrote it about, but to me it conjured up a shot of a coach bombing through English country roads, carrying this motley group of passengers, which is sort of what happens on our show. Although the track eventually didn’t feature in that capacity, it certainly helped me to imagine, physically, the space in which the series would happen.

Given this palpable link between music and acting, it’s appropriate that Jones’ first playlist selection, ‘Miradouro de Santa Catarina’ by Madredeus, is from a film, Wim Wenders’ Lisbon Story, although his personal connection is not necessarily that obvious. “It’s a film I’ve never seen but a soundtrack I’ve played thousands and thousands of times,” says Jones. “I remember it being played at the end of a very long day of filming in the south of France, someone just put it on. It was just such a beautiful day. We were shooting in the vineyards and this music just seemed to sum up how I felt at the end of that day. Just magical, you know. Like a lot of Madredeus’ music, it’s really haunting. And in fact, it inspired me, when I went to Lisbon, to go and check out some more traditional fado, which I also really enjoyed. But there’s something about Madredeus… yes, haunting is the best word.

As a child, Jones’ exposure to music came foremost from his parents, who enjoyed blasting classical music at top volume around the house. They encouraged this taste in young Toby, who grew up singing sacred classical repertoire in choirs, even attending choir school in Oxford. He resented it at the time (“your parents tell you you’ll be glad of it later. And of course, it turns out to be true. Curses.”), but it nevertheless instilled a fascination for the more spiritual side of music. He describes the Nyabinghi-jazz of ‘A Ju Ju Wa’ by Roland Downer & Count Ossie as ‘proto-reggae’: “It’s a fantastic introduction to the roots of roots, you could say. You get the sense when you’re listening to it of not-quite reggae, but of what became reggae eventually, something that is religious. Music is, I suppose, of all the art forms, the one that is most commonly employed to put humans in touch with the numinous. The unnameable, indescribable emotions around religion. It sounds so simple to say it, but that capacity of music to put one in touch with feelings and emotions that one doesn’t have names for is probably one of the things that makes it so useful to religion.

Jones’ appreciation for religious music stretches across continents, as his selection of qawwali from Pakistan shows. “Nothing I say can sum up the sheer absolute mastery of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it takes devotional music to a different level. It’s so different from our tradition of rapture in a way, but that’s what you hear, a state of rapture.” His choice of the Massive Attack remix of ‘Mustt Mustt’ didn’t just reflect the religious aspect of the music, though, but also Khan’s ground-breaking openness to cross-cultural exchange. “I suppose this choice was a nod to my interest in musicians collaborating and combining from different cultures. I could have chosen any number of his own tracks, but I just thought it would be interesting to hear the remix in case people had never heard it. I like Massive Attack very much, I’ve always really enjoyed their production. It’s an unlikely combination and I think it’s really successful.

The theme of unlikely collaboration comes up frequently when he talks about the music he enjoys, as well as discovering music in unexpected places. That’s how he first encountered ‘Jarabi’ by AfroCubism. “I was stuck for months doing a TV series in Vancouver not really hearing any music that I particularly enjoyed. But then I was in a coffee shop and that came on and I went ‘what is that?!’ This great, joyous sound. The AfroCubism album had just completely passed me by, the whole phenomenon of it. That great group of musicians, Toumani Diabaté, Bassekou Kouyaté and people, an extraordinary group of musicians working together, taking Malian and Cuban music and combining it. You can be delivered into a whole new world.

It’s not that all of his musical choices have deep roots in religion or some personal connection to a memory, though. For a track such as ‘Asaw Fofor’ by Ignace de Souza and the Melody Aces, from Analog Africa’s compilation African Scream Contest 2, his enthusiasm is simple and clear: “Well that is just dance music. It’s a great tune from Benin and it’s fantastic dance music in the same way as Afrobeat is, and there’s any number of Fela Kuti tracks I could have chosen, too. But I was trying to think of things that could lead people into more diverse areas. This little track, it’s squeezed between two much longer tracks on the double album and it’s just a beautiful little dance number. And I’ve tried it out and it works. Tried it out on my own, with my wife, and now at parties.” You have to admire Jones’ scientific approach.

During our tightly-scheduled chat (ah, the life of an actor), Jones’ sheer passion for music of every sort was palpable. As well as taking us through his own playlist selections, he can’t help but throw in so many asides of formative musical experiences or influential musicians. The Bhundu Boys and the Drummers of Burundi that comes from his love of new wave, the reggae and dub of his punk years. Watching gamelan in Bali, kathakali in Kerala and gospel and blues in Clarksdale, Mississippi. His love of Bob Dylan, Handel, Oumou Sangaré and John Coltrane, and his most recent purchase (just that morning) of Idris Ackamoor’s An Angel Fell. With such a commitment to the widest listening possible, it’s barely a surprise that is reflected in his day job. The next time you watch a Toby Jones show, keep those ears open.

Essential 10: South Asian Jazz

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 149, July 2019.

Debashish Bhattacharya
Beyond the Ragasphere (Riverboat Records, 2013)
By 2013, Debashish Bhattacharya was already known as a master of the Hindustani classical slide guitar, but with Beyond the Ragasphere, he takes the opportunity to spread his wings. Here, Bhattacharya experiments with flamenco, country and Hawaiian music, but the album is at its best during its frequent excursions into full-on cosmic prog-jazz. Highlights include ‘Kirwani One.5+8.Five’ and the 16-minute odyssey ‘A Mystical Morning’, featuring sampled beats and John McLaughlin on electric guitar.

Soumik Datta & Bernhard Schimpelsberger
Circle of Sound (Baithak, 2012)
Circle of Sound is a close collaboration between British sarod player Soumik Datta and Austrian percussionist Bernhard Schimpelsberger in which less is used to create more: a wildly experimental record playing with many layers of reverb, echo and other effects to create huge soundscapes through and in between the cues from Indian classical and jazz traditions. An intense and cerebral listen.

Jan Garbarek & Fateh Ali Khan
Ragas and Sagas (ECM Records, 1992)
Fateh Ali Khan was one of the foremost performers of khyal in Pakistan before his death in 2017. On this recording for the renowned ECM Records, Khan and his group – including sarangi, harmonium and tabla – are joined by Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Garbarek’s contributions are subtle and well-placed, slotting into the light classical idiom and bringing his own sound without imposing or taking anything away from the musical freedom of his hosts.

Arun Ghosh
Northern Namaste (Camoci Records, 2008)
Kolkata-born and Manchester-raised, Arun Ghosh uses his clarinet to explore his identity as a modern British Asian. Northern Namaste is a powerful opening statement as Ghosh’s debut album with some of the most promising young jazz musicians of the time including Corey Mwamba on vibraphone and Idris Rahman on tenor sax. The track ‘Longsight Lagoon’ especially provides a great introduction to Ghosh’s atmospheric and often cinematic sound.

Zakir Hussain / Hariprasad Chaurasia / John McLaughlin / Jan Garbarek
Making Music (ECM Records, 1987)
A truly legendary meeting between four of the greatest in their fields, led by Zakir Hussain on tabla and introducing his long-time musical partners in the acoustic guitar of John McLaughlin, saxophones of Jan Garbarek and the elegantly swooping bansuri flute of Hariprasad Chaurasia. Making Music set a high bar for future collaboration in the sphere of East-meets-West fusion.

Vijay Iyer
Tirtha (ACT Music, 2008)
Vijay Iyer is a true star of contemporary jazz. An American pianist of Tamil descent, his work has encompassed everything from hip-hop to electronica to contemporary classical. Tirtha, Iyer’s 13th album as bandleader, was created alongside Carnatic electric guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta and explores all three musicians’ connections between jazz, classical and folk styles across continents in a masterwork of non-contrivance.

Red Baraat
Chaal Baby (Sinj Records, 2010)
Jazz takes many forms, and so, of course, does its South Asian offspring. Red Baraat, led by dhol drummer Sunny Jain, mix up some of the world’s most potent party music into one. It’s bhangra and Bollywood as played by a New Orleans brass band, full of funk and with a signature New York flair. Jazz isn’t just something to scratch a beard to; Red Baraat prove it’s also for dancing your head off.

Sarathy Korwar and UPAJ Collective
My East is Your West (Gearbox Records, 2018)
Recorded live at London’s Church of Sound after just 45 minutes of rehearsal, this double album sees drummer Korwar and his cross-cultural ten-piece UPAJ Collective take on the spiritual jazz of the likes of Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders – who were inspired by Indian music in their own styles. The result is a sophisticated set that isn’t afraid to let loose, go wild and push boundaries.

Lokkhi Terra
Che Guava’s Rickshaw Diaries (Funkiwala Records, 2012)
Each track on this album is based on a Bengali song (mostly folk songs, occasionally cinema hits), which is taken on a wide-ranging journey of globetrotting jazz. Lokkhi Terra’s Bangladeshi-born pianist and artistic director, Kishon Khan, studied under some of the greatest Afro-Cuban musicians and has collaborated widely, so it’s no surprise that the band’s sound encapsulates son, rumba, jazz, reggae, Afrobeat and funk.

Best of Shakti (Moment Records, 1994)
Shakti was probably the earliest successful experiment in combining jazz and South Asian music on equal terms, and also brought together the region’s two big classical styles of North Indian Hindustani music and South Indian Karnatic music. Made up of tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, violinist L. Shankar, ghatam (clay pot) master Vikku Vinayakram and (it’s him again) jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, Shakti only recorded three albums but their impact on the worlds of jazz and fusion music is still felt today.