Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Boomtown 2019: Five Ones to Watch

Boomtown is a festival that I’ve had my eye on for quite a few years. Its reputation is immense, and so, by all accounts, is its personality. The whole thing is a giant performance art piece with a narrative that slowly reveals and trundles along year after year, with so many plots and subplots playing out in what has grown to be a city of music. Like any city, there are loads of districts in Boomtown (up to 14 this year), each with their own character, architecture and culture = and each with their own set of stages. There’s over 25 main stage and 80 smaller ‘street venues,’ all with their own programmes – that means there’s a LOT of music, of all sorts of styles.

And excitement – I get to go this year for the very first time! This year, it’s held over 7-11 August. The line-up looks amazing – as it does every year – and, yes, it’s absolutely humongous. So in my excitement, I thought I’d give you a run-down of just five artists that I cannot wait to catch there…now I’ve just got to hope that none of them clash!

Ozomatli feat. Chali 2na
Ozomatli are basically a globetrotting party. I’ve seen them live a handful of times now and every time they have absolutely blown me away – they’re still some of my favourite live shows to date. Their mix of hip-hop, rock, tropical pop and all sorts of Latin music from son to cumbia to samba to norteño and more is just so infectious, their shows turn into a joyful riot, it’s absolutely amazing. Even better: they’ve now reunited with Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 and an original Ozo band member – he’s got one of the most recognisable voices in hip-hop and his thoughtful lyrics and supreme flow put him, for me, right up there with the greatest rappers. I can’t wait to see them perform together.

Prophets of Rage
Okay, I’ve never actually heard any recordings of this group, but their pedigree is unreal. They’re a supergroup featuring members from Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill. Do I really have to say more? Yes yes, I know supergroups usually come out as less than the sum of their parts, but I’m willing to risk it. Come on: Chuck D and B-Real battling it out between funk-metal solos from Tom Morello – inject it directly into my veins.

BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) are a group from Soweto that combine all the music of their neighbourhood, from traditional dance styles, church music and beerhouse songs to hip-hop, soul and rock. The group have been getting so much hype over the past 12 months, and I’ve got friends who are absolutely mad about them, saying they’re the greatest live group around right now. I saw them myself at WOMAD last year, and the crowd went nuts; thing is, their forever-looping riffs and heavy beats didn’t strike me at all, and I left, bored, after about 10 or 15 minutes. But the hype train has continued, so I fully admit I’m the one in the wrong – I’m looking forward to seeing them again in August to give them (and me) another chance.

Nubya Garcia
The UK jazz scene has been booming in the last decade, and saxophonist Nubya Garcia has been one of its leading lights. Her music brings in modal and spiritual jazz in the Coltrane way together with the contemporary styles being fermented in places such as Trinity Laban and Berklee as well as hip-hop, soul and electronica. I’ve never seen her show before, and festivals are all about new experiences – I reckon Nubya Garcia is one I can bank on to be a winner.

Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip
Would it really be a festival season without Mik Artistik? The loony Leedsman* has been a staple on the festival circuit for many years and he’s the perfect act for when you’re quite drunk, quite muddy and just a little disorientated. He’s absolutely bananas, he’s hilarious but he’s also touchingly earnest when he wants to be, all while making music behind his trusty little Yamaha keyboard. The man is a legend, and if you’ve never heard or seen him before, you owe it to yourself to go and experience this true institution of British festivals.

…and then there’s so many others. Gogol Bordello, General Levy, San Sebastian, Bassekou Kouyate, Napalm Death, DJ Yoda, Asian Dub Foundation, The Streets, Skream and the man behind it all AAA Badboy…there is so much great music happening everywhere that it seems pretty much impossible not to see some amazing and unexpected artists wherever the current takes you. And really, what I’m most looking forward to is that atmosphere, and diving into the huge, deep and bonkers world that is created at Boomtown every year. Basically, I can’t wait! So if you’re heading over, I’ll hopefully see you there, and either way I’m sure you’ll hear about my exploits on here sooner or later.

*Okay, I just looked it up and the actually demonym for someone from Leeds is a Leodensian, which is awesome but also completely impenetrable, so I’m leaving it as Leedsman, and all of you Yorkishers are just going to have to deal with it.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Cultural appropriation row ignites the IMAs

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

A collective of Inuit womxn musicians are boycotting the Indigenous Music Awards (IMAs) in a protest against cultural appropriation. The IMAs, which are run as part of the Manito Ahbee festival in Winnipeg, Canada, aim to honour the best in music from First Nations, Inuit and Métis musicians in Canada. Awards are presented in 19 categories covering a range of musical styles from pop to electronic to gospel and more traditional styles of hand-drum and pow wow music, alongside awards focused on music videos, producers and radio programmes.

However, controversy arose when Cikwes, a Nehiyaw Cree performer, was nominated in the category of Best Folk Album for her album ISKO. On the album, Cikwes uses a technique of throat-singing that imitates an Inuit style. The Arnaqquasaaq Collective, which includes Inuit artists Tanya Tagaq, PIQSIQ and Kelly Fraser, argue that such an imitation of a tradition with deeply-held and sacred meanings for Inuits is cultural appropriation, and reached out privately to both Cikwes and the IMAs requesting a withdrawal of the nomination. When withdrawal was refused, members of the Arnaqquasaaq Collective publicly announced a boycott, withdrawing their own nominations from the awards and refusing to submit to any further awards until Inuit people and artists are properly represented on the IMAs’ board of governors and a policy on cultural appropriation is adopted.

As a response to the boycott, Manito Ahbee released a statement, saying ‘We don’t presume to agree or disagree on this matter at this time, as it requires great reflection, ceremony and discussions on how we move forward in a good way, to ensure that we as Indigenous people uphold our teachings, and do not provide a platform for negativity and separation. We have been taught that our gifts from the Creator should be honoured and that we do not ‘own’ what is gifted to us, but that it is our responsibility to share those gifts.’ The festival’s director, Lisa Meeches has also been quoted as saying she did not believe that cultural appropriation between Indigenous people was possible.

Tagaq responded to the statement with a lengthy Twitter thread, saying ‘Do you know that Inuit have our own ceremonies and religion? Or did you assume that the creator origin could be applied to anyone kind of brown? Acknowledging these differences in culture isn’t an act of division, it’s a sign of respect. If we respect each other’s cultures and EDUCATE each other, the rest of the country may follow suit. Artists choosing to omit their own artwork and presence at an awards show in peaceful protest to show displeasure at bureaucratic procedure is NOT negative or inflammatory.

Later on, she followed up: ‘Regardless of any outcome to this nuanced conflict, I am resting assured that we have conducted ourselves with dignity and patience. Our voices HAVE been heard by the right people.

Photo: Tanya Tagaq, by Rebecca Wood

Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali - Barbican Centre, London

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali
Barbican Centre, London
30th March 2019

When the great qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died in 1997, it fell upon his nephews to continue his legacy. Since then, Rizwan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan have secured their status among the most highly respected qawwali musicians on the international scene. That reputation was on show at their recent concert in London. The event was sold out far in advance and the musicians’ reception was incredible. The crowd was raucous, cheering each song as it was announced with wild enthusiasm.

The massed voices of the ten-man qawwali party is one of the world’s most powerful musical spectacles, and it was again tonight. Soaring and roaring above the chorus were the solos of Rizwan and Muazzam themselves, who amazed with feats of breath, tongue and vocal control. There’s no getting away from the fact that this was undoubtedly a concert instead of a traditional mehfil-e-sama. Because the party were on stage, they were very much separated from the audience, leading to a slightly sterile atmosphere at times. No-one in the crowd was transported to spiritual ecstasy or got up to present offerings to the party. It reflected musically, too, with aspects of the arrangements and performance obviously Bollywoodified to some degree.

Nevertheless, the group’s experience allows them to give the audience just what they want, and the crowd duly responded. The concert’s two-and-a-half hours passed in what felt like 30 minutes. It wasn’t the most solemn or devotional occasion, but it was certainly a great night of wonderful music.

Photo: Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, by Stuart Bruce

Pulo NDJ - Desert to Douala

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

Pulo NDJ
Desert to Douala
Wonderwheel Recordings (36 mins)

Pulo NDJ is a project that broadcasts from the musical midpoint between N’Djamena, Chad, and New York, USA. DJs Nickodemus and djbuosis met with musicians in the Chadian capital and recorded many hours of music with their portable studio before remixing it all together with house and electronica, with the full blessings of the musicians.

Desert to Douala perfectly reflects the nature of the project’s two cities; there are all sorts of music thrown into Pulo NDJ’s pot. There are traditional instruments like the garaya (calabash lute) and balafon (xylophone), but also retro keyboards and electric guitars, and then the programmed drums, deep basses and massive synths from the producers. It’s especially exciting when the Chadian sounds merge seamlessly with the electronics, such as on ‘Mbaoundaye’, where the buzz of the balafon blends with the synth bass, traditional drums are sampled into dance beats and ululating singers caress the lot of it.

The music of Chad is rarely heard outside of the country itself, so it’s great that this project is giving it wider attention. With the amount of recordings that were surely made, it’s strange that the album is so short. Hopefully it’s just the beginning of Pulo NDJ’s journey.

Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band - Pedal Steal + Four Corners

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band
Pedal Steal + Four Corners
Paradise of Bachelors (3 CDs, 145 mins)

Now here’s a fascinating one. Terry Allen is an artist of many forms: a conceptual artist, painter, writer, playwright and (most prolifically) a country musician. This release is a collection of five performance pieces recorded between 1985 and 1993. The works are each based around spoken word performed over musical beds and frequently interspersed with songs. Allen’s stories revolve around the lives of people at the fringes of society, usually within his native Texas; laced together with the music, they create extremely riveting and evocative set-pieces.

The first piece is ‘Pedal Steal’. Originally written as a soundtrack to a dance performance, it tells the tragic tale of ne'er-do-well pedal steel player Billy the Boy. The narrative is punctuated and accompanied by a mixture of country music, Navajo songs, Tex-Mex conjuntos and jazz as well as abstract soundscapes and found sounds.

The ‘four corners’ of the album’s title are four radio plays, each following a different set of outlaws, peasants and down-and-outs. They are as charming, wistful and bittersweet as ‘Pedal Steel’ with the exception of one. ‘Torso Hell’ is as evocative as the rest, but completely unpleasant, a dark, disturbing and ultra-violent critique on war narratives in Hollywood. Good art maybe but that doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable – a shame compared to the rest of the set.

Rob - Rob

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

Mr Bongo (37 mins)

The opening track of this album starts with a chant of ‘Funky, funky, funky Rob! Funky, funky, funky Rob, yeah!’ and I’ll tell you what – they’re not wrong.

This album was the 1977 debut by the monosyllabically mononymic Rob, freshly back in his hometown of Accra, Ghana, after honing his skills in Benin as part of the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Originally enjoying only a small number of pressings, Rob passed into record collectors’ legend; it was reissued once by Analogue Africa in 2011 in limited numbers, and now Mr Bongo is finally giving it a full-scale international release.

With Rob on organs, synths and vocals and backed by the wah-wah guitars, interlocking percussion and blasting horns of the Mag-2 band (and as those opening lyrics tell you), funk is the main ingredient here. A lot of the music is very much in the James Brown mould, but highlife plays an important role too, and the traditional rhythms of the drums root the sound unmistakably within West Africa.

There’s a range of moods across the album, and although it feels as if the musicians are more comfortable playing for the disco than the lounge, each track is as cool as the next.

Friday, 5 April 2019

The Voice of a Generation: Girma Bèyènè

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

The phone line to Addis Ababa is bad – it’s muffled, noisy, and sounds of the hustle and bustle of Ethiopian city life often get in the way of what you’re actually trying to hear. But through the garbled frenetic sonorities of the intercontinental phone call rises the calm voice of Girma Bèyènè. He is softly spoken, his voice rounded with age and baring the scars of his life – his English still retains a smooth American accent. In theory, he is retired back in his beloved Ethiopia, but really, he’s busier than he has been in many years.

Girma’s talents – as a singer, a pianist, a composer and an arranger – were foundational in what became known as Swinging Addis, the golden age of Ethiopian music from the 60s and 70s. He was obsessed with American music, more than any composer on the scene in those days – crooner jazz, soft rock, soul and lounge music could all be found in his record collection and in his songs, mingling with unique Ethiopian pentatonic melodies. At the heart of all of his work was his girlfriend, Ségèné. “My subject is always my girlfriend,” he says. “I was inspired and all the songs belong to her. And I’m proud of that. They’re all love songs. All the way, everything is about her.”

Together with his group, Walias Band, Girma took part in the first all-Ethiopian tour of the US, in 1981. The tour was successful, with the band performing mostly to Ethiopians who had fled the Soviet-style Derg regime, but after the tour was over, the band had a tough decision. Return home to political and artistic repression, or stay in the US and build a new life? The band split in half, and Girma stayed behind.

He continued to make music for a while, but the inconceivable happened. Ségèné, his eternal muse, died, and Girma was inconsolable. All his music was for her, and without her, it was meaningless. He could not perform. He sank into a deep depression and eventually left music entirely. By the mid-80s, Girma was making his way in the world as a gas station attendant in Washington, DC, in self-imposed obscurity.

In the 2000s, a groundswell was brewing. Golden age Ethiopian music was finding new ears – not in the Horn of Africa, but in Europe and America. It was all down to French producer Francis Falceto and his immaculately-curated record series, Éthiopiques, which showcased the sounds of Swinging Addis and the style the became known as Ethio-jazz.

For Westerners that had never encountered Ethiopian music before, it was intoxicating. This was jazz, funk and soul, but like none you’d ever heard before. It was filled with mysterious dissonances and alien textures. The music seemed almost from another dimension – a time and place that no longer existed. The revelation that these musicians were not only still around, but still playing, was massive. Suddenly artists such as Mulatu Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed and Gétatchèw Mèkurya became international stars – the founding fathers of Ethio-jazz. For Falceto, though, there was a name forgotten from those conversations: “I consider the path of Girma Bèyènè and his influence as fundamental. He was there at the development of modern Ethiopian music. Girma has always been a very important character, but he doesn’t have the noisy charisma to self-promote himself very strongly.”

The Éthiopiques albums were heard around the world and the music took on a life of its own. No longer was it the reserve of dusty records made decades ago; it had become the hip new sound. Ethiopian music was heard in Hollywood film soundtracks and hip-hop samples, and groups dedicated to playing, adapting and updating the music began to crop up on both sides of the Atlantic. One of those bands was an instrumental quintet from Paris called Akalé Wubé.

News of the growing popularity of golden age Ethiopian music slowly reached Girma’s ears. The spark started to return. He took his retirement and moved back to Addis with little fanfare, but he began planning his return to the stage. “You know I stopped music for a long time, it’s true. I was almost buried. But then someone woke me up! I would say he’s one-of-a-kind, a real maestro, he picked me up for real.” He contacted Francis Falceto.

“He bothered me again and again, ‘Francis, why don’t you make a band, set up a band for me like you did with Mahmoud?’” Falceto had his doubts, “it’s difficult to imagine the revival of an artist who has been far from the stage for 25-30 years…I’d never even seen him live!” But it just so happened that he’d recently heard of a French band who were looking for a singer. Akalé Wubé jumped at the chance to work with such a legend.

Things were tentative at first, but as it went along, it was clear that Girma was beginning to find his feet again. For Akalé Wubé’s bassist Oliver Degabriele, it was thrilling: “He was literally starting to play again, his fingers were getting looser on the keys, he was getting used to the microphone again. The first time we played a show, he walked out to 200 people screaming, and he was like a deer in headlights. But suddenly he came to life. Girma is a very introverted, shy guy, barely looks you in the eye, but on stage he becomes someone else. He’s Mick Jagger! I’ve seen him unable to walk backstage, but he’s running around the stage by the end of the show. It’s incredible how he changed.”

The need for a recording was obvious. Akalé Wubé’s music keeps an Ethiopian groove at the centre, but they bring some hardcore influences, from funk to punk to Afrobeat. With Girma, they worked on a series of arrangements of his favourite and most famous compositions, all funked up to 11. Girma’s warm, sometimes croaky voice gives an interesting juxtaposition to the distorted guitars and roaring saxes, but he didn’t want anything dumbed down. “Girma has never been a conservative person,” says Falceto. “He’s a rebel, even if he doesn’t look like a rebel! He is a super modernist. He listens to a lot of music from Ethiopia, America and everywhere, still. So it was natural.” The resulting album worked so well, it was enshrined in the canon: it became the 30th title in the Éthiopiques series, released in 2017 as Mistakes on Purpose. They’ve not looked back since, playing shows around the world. “He keeps telling us ‘I am reborn, I am born again!’” says Degabriele, “it is so nice to hear. That’s the whole point in this, giving him new life.”

In 2019, Girma Bèyènè is an old man sitting outside a church in Addis Ababa, struggling with a poor international phone line. But he’s a star again. He’s hopeful, excited and he’s getting even better. He plays his first date in the UK in June, and he chuckles with glee just talking about it. “It’s true, it’s true! I’m looking forward to coming to your place, I’ve never been in the UK. It sounds bragging, but we will do it even better, I love it! And when I hang up the phone I’m gonna keep on singing, all day!”

Photo: Girma Bèyènè with Akalé Wubé, by Cyril Fussien.