Thursday, 13 December 2012

Obituary: Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)

First published on in December 2012.

Sitarist and composer Pandit Ravi Shankar, KBE, died on Tuesday, 11th December 2012, at the Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego, USA.

A true innovator of Hindustani classical music, Shankar learnt to play in the Maihar gharana of his guru Ustad Allaudin Khan, which he used to adapt his own style, fusing dhrupad, khyal and thumri genres as well as incorporating elements from the Carnatic (South Indian) style of classical music, one of the first Hindustani musicians to do so.

But Shankar also expanded his repertoire far and beyond the classical music of his training. Being influenced by European classical styles, to which he was exposed during a period in France as a child, he composed ballets, concertos, a symphony and several original soundtracks for film. He also collaborated with Western art musicians and composers such as Yehudi Menuhin, André Previn and Philip Glass.

He was most well-known throughout the world, however, for his introduction of Indian music into the Western popular mind-set through collaborations with rock musicians, most famously George Harrison, to whom he taught the sitar, as well as recording several albums together. His association with Harrison lead to his appearances at festivals such as the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock and, famously, on the American TV show the Dick Cavett Show. He also opened the Concert for Bangladesh, organised by Harrison, in jugalbandi (duet) with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Shankar had continued to tour until 2011, and was still performing concerts as recently as last month, his final performance coming on 4th November, near his home in California.

He is survived by his wife, Sukanya and his two daughters, both famous musicians in their own rights, pop-jazz singer Norah Jones and sitarist Anoushka Shankar. His son, Shubhendra ‘Shubho’ Shankar died in 1992.

Photo: Womadelaide 10 Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar (India), by PeterTea. Used under licence CC BY-ND 2.0.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Fanga & Maâlem Abdallah Guinéa - Fangnawa Experience

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 89, January/February 2013.

Fanga & Maâlem Abdallah Guinéa
Fangnawa Experience
Strut (59 mins)

In an era where collaboration is the key to some of the most exciting musical styles around, some fusions remain surprisingly under-represented. Such a fusion is explored in this album, in which Afrobeat collective Fanga (led by Burkinabé singer Korbo), and Mâalem (Gnawa master) Abdallah Guinéa and his band Nasse Ejadba from Morocco perform a selection from the former’s 15-year back-catalogue.

Although some similarities can be drawn between Moroccan Sufi Gnawa music and funk-laden Afrobeat such as their repetitive and insistent backing rhythms, it would seem that the two styles are too different to easily mould into one, and indeed this album seems to prove as much.

At its high points, the ensembles gel in a very pleasing manner: in ‘Kononi’, by far the most effective track on the album, qaraqab (metal castanets), drum kit and congas create a strong percussion section while Hammond organ, guitar and guimbri (bass lute) provide a hypnotic backing for melodies from Guinéa and the Fanga horns. Such highs are, however, somewhat hard to come by. Tracks such as the 14-minute opener ‘Noble Tree’ suffer from sounding more akin to medleys of Afrobeat and Gnawa songs rather than a melding of the two; the Afrobeat not getting a chance get one dancing, nor the Gnawa room to hypnotise with its loping rhythms.

The overriding feeling given is of a fusion that could yield magical fruit if treated carefully, but this album misses that mark somewhat; a sequel may well prove a more intriguing affair.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Son of Dave - Bedroom Bar, London

First published on in December 2012.

Son of Dave
Bedroom Bar, London
27th November 2012

In the cosy, low-ceilinged Bedroom Bar in Shoreditch, the crowd slowly fills up during the evening’s opening act, Into the Moon. This Parisian ensemble, led by American singer Leander Lyons, take music from the place where rockabilly, hot jazz and gypsy music from throughout Europe meet. Having studied with gypsy musicians in France and Turkey, the violin of Mirabelle Gilis swings in and out between the vocals and guitar-work creating an attractive melding of styles that works equally well being played fast and furiously or in a more relaxed and contemplative manner.

After receiving much appreciation from the at that point packed venue, Into the Moon made way for the event’s main act. Originally from Winnipeg, Canada, Son of Dave (stage name of one Benjamin Darvill) graced the stage in a white suit patterned with old-style newspaper lingerie adverts, bolo tie and silk dressing gown, together with his usual shades and wide-brimmed fedora. The rest of his stage-show is no less eye-catching.

Darvill has been credited with popularising the use of the loopstation to create every part of a track from scratch, live and with minimal musicians – as opposed to its previous use of layering sonic textures, usually on guitar, to create dense soundscapes – and he provided a fine demonstration of his trademark skill here. Pieces emerge from beatbox, shakers and basslines (created by pitch-shifting his vocals), giving room for the driving harmonica and a voice that can range from squeaky and playful to low and menacing.

Although he’s rightly known for his mastery of the blues harp, Son of Dave’s music seems to take more musical influence from grooved-out funk than anything else. The dry humour, stage presence, and other intricacies are taken from the blues, and the genre can be heard more obviously in some songs than others, but a blues label would probably do a disservice to a man whose repertoire far exceeds it.

Mostly playing a selection of tracks from his past three albums on the night, Darvill also previewed new material from his latest album, currently in post-production. As well as a few covers including the track ‘Black Betty’ (“written by some guys in a field, recorded by Leadbelly years later, and then ruined by Ram Jam”), he also performed new compositions such as the bluesy track ‘Shake Your Hips’.

While most of the crowd were fully immersed in the grooves emerging from the stage (even being able to be led on a sing-along on the second song of the set), Son of Dave seemed irate at several points in his set due to the amount of chatter coming from the back of the venue. Ever the comedian, however, Darvill used his sharp wit to make light of the situation and channel the energy even more so into his music. By the end of the gig, the supercharged wave of music and madness had raised the temperature by what felt like 10 degrees, and the crowd were cheering for long after their one-man-band had left the stage. And all that from one man in a big hat.

Photo: Son of Dave, by Andrew Dubber. Used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Mulatu Astatke + Criolo - Koko, London

First published on in November 2012.

Mulatu Astatke + Criolo
Koko, London
18th November 2012

Mulatu Astatke is widely known as the father and king of Ethiojazz and in recent years has started to become regarded as one of the pioneers of jazz itself, Africanising the hard-bop ensembles and sensitivities of the late 50s/early 60s America with traditional Ethiopian scales and rhythms.

At the converted theatre that is Camden’s Koko, Astatke played a relatively rare UK date joined by a London-based jazz band. Without a particular album to promote, the 69-year-old percussion player led the seven-piece ensemble through somewhat of a ‘best of’ concert, showcasing highlights of his long career, from his classic pieces used in the Éthiopiques record series, such as dark grooves of ‘Yèkatit’ and ‘Yèkèrmo Sèw’ (the latter a take on Horace Silver’s ‘Song for My Father’ and ‘Señor Blues’) to tracks from his latest ‘modern jazz’ albums with the Heliocentrics and the Either/Orchestra such as ‘Motherland’ and ‘Chik Chikka’.

Due to the nature of the ensemble, each track had many different influences as various members of the band took their turns to solo: James Arben of the Heliocentrics on saxophone, bass clarinet and flute moving effortlessly from bebop to free jazz and back; double bassist John Edward, seemingly of the Charles Mingus school of madcap bassery, not limiting his playing to the strings of his instrument; ‘Mr Alex’ on cello sounding like anything between an electric harpsichord and an entire, joyfully discordant horn section. Meanwhile, Astatke’s vibraphone, as well as the obvious comparison with Milt Jackson (both for his instrument and the flowing quality of his melodies) also evoked thoughts of Thelonious Monk in his playful use of dissonance and the heavy textures of more contemporary musicians such as Django Bates, all the while keeping the grounding firmly in Ethiopia.

Due to an odd bit of scheduling, the evening’s support act performed after Astatke and his band, creating effectively a double-header. Criolo, a rapper and singer from São Paolo, Brazil has been recently hailed as one of the brightest young stars on the scene, and, having collaborated with Astatke earlier this year as part of the Back2Black festival, seemed an exciting addition to the bill. Indeed, Criolo’s band fit the evening perfectly with their take on jazz funk whilst including bossa, tango, free jazz and reggae influences. Unfortunately, the same cannot really be said for Criolo himself nor his hypeman. Between the rapper’s rhythmically unimaginative raps and awkward stage presence and the frankly irritating hyper’s seemingly uncontrollable urge to shout obnoxiously over any of the musicians’ solos, one could be forgiven for thinking they were doing their best to ruin the ensemble’s work. The rapper’s set seemed to divide the audience, with those staying going wild, while others left in disappointment.

An evening of two halves then. One gets the feeling that in a different slot, venue or roster, Criolo may be viewed more favourably, but then, following a master doing as he does best is never easy.

Photo: Ethiopiques, by Howard Stanbury. Used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Seckou Keita - Miro

First published on in November 2012.

Seckou Keita
Astar Artes Recordings (48 mins)

Senegalese kora (harp-lute) player Seckou Keita here presents his fourth solo album, Miro, featuring many musicians who were involved with Keita’s Bantamba Syndicate project, which was presented as part of the BT River of Music festival in London earlier this year.

The album’s first track ‘Rewmi’ (a Wolof word meaning ‘country’) was a hit in Senegal before the February presidential election which saw the end of Abdoulaye Wade’s 12-year premiership. Whether the track (which calls for peace and beckons listeners to fight disease and hunger) had a hand in this result as the album’s press material seems to suggest is another matter, but the piece itself is a strong album opener – the interplay between Keita’s kora and Cuban bassist Michel ‘Pata’ Salazar is tight and an effective accompaniment to the vocal harmonies of Binta Suso and Mariama Kouyate.

Unfortunately, after this promising opener, the album seems to settle into something less exciting. Seckou aligns himself with the griots lineage of his mother (a Cissokho) rather than the royal heritage that the name Keita implies, and sees Miro as an attempt to “step back towards [his] tradition”. However, in practice, the album seems tempered towards European tastes and ideas of what makes ‘world music’ and as such seems to assume a fairly middle-of-the-road sound dissimilar to his previous albums of slightly more challenging, and thus more interesting, music.

Which is not to say that the album lacks its standout tracks, however. Aside from ‘Rewmi’, the highlights for this reviewer are incidentally the most stripped-back pieces on the album, both featuring Keita’s kora as the only instrumentation, helping to showcase the talent of guest singers. The track ‘Tara’, a traditional Mande piece, is given a new edge by the soul-inspired vocals of Ivorian singer Mohamed Diaby. Diaby also features on the track ‘Hino’, but defers lead duties to Spanish singer Inma La Carbonera. This Mande-flamenco cross-cultural collaboration is perhaps the album’s most effective track, La Carbonera’s voice aching beautifully in front of the kora; it’s also where Keita is at his most innovative, having had to adapt a new kora tuning to be able to play in the flamenco style.

Miro certainly has its moments, but a seeming lack of decisiveness between a fully-traditional sound and a Western-market friendly release leaves many disappointing tracks in between, meaning that the album perhaps lends itself more to the pick-and-choose ideology of digital downloading than a purchase of the whole album as a piece of art in its own right.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Dizraeli and the Small Gods - Jazz Café Camden, London

First published on in November 2012.

Dizraeli and the Small Gods
Jazz Café Camden, London
3rd November 2012

Through the chatter of the capacity audience of the Jazz Café breaks a quiet but harsh sound. As the crowd hush, a bagpiper wearing a balaclava and rabbit ears makes his way to the stage, heralding a short a cappella piece in five-part harmony from the rest of the band. If any of the crowd were under the impression this was going to be a straight-up hip-hop gig, this introduction should have been enough to silence such thoughts.

Dizraeli and the Small Gods play folk and hip-hop, occasionally separately, but most times in perfect harmony with each other as well as any other style that takes their fancy, from modern jazz to drum-and-bass to Turkish music. Usually a seven-piece, each member of the band is highly talented and creative within their role, with members coming from hip-hop, folk, classical and jazz backgrounds variously. Tonight, however, the band were eight: missing their violist Jules Arthur, the Small Gods featured both of their regular bassists Bellatrix (who also happens to be the UK female beatbox champion) and Nathan Feddo and introduced Philippe Barnes, the above-mentioned rabbit piper who also contributed versatile flute and keys.

Throughout their whopping hour and forty minute-long set, the Small Gods switched between dancey and chilled, joyous and sorrowful, playing with the emotions of the audience before building the mood up for the grand finale, a raucous and extended edition of the band’s single ‘Never Mind’, whose launch (as well as the group’s signing to Afro Celt Simon Emmerson’s ECC Records) the gig was based around.

Dizraeli himself said in a 2010 interview that “rap is a subgenre of poetry – poetry isn’t necessarily rap, but rap is necessarily poetry”, and at this gig he seemed determined to prove it, slipping seamlessly from full band pieces to often off-mic poems and then further blurring the division between the two forms by spinning yarns over the Small God’s accompaniment. Indeed, a highlight of the set was a solo spoken word version of ‘Maria’, a heart-breaking and beautiful modern-day folk story from the group’s debut album Engurland (City Shanties) which was joined spontaneously by almost the entire audience during the sung refrain – just one of many spine-tingling moments of the concert, along with ‘White Rum’, a tale of love between two cheating parties, and basically any time songbird Cate Ferris opened her mouth.

Joining the Small Gods for their piece ‘Sailor’ was Cambridge-based rapper Jam Baxter. Although Baxter’s verses are as witty and intelligent as Dizraeli’s, he seemed to lack the musicality that really makes the Small Gods frontman stand out from the crowd. Nevertheless, Baxter’s contribution went down well with the ever-appreciative crowd.

Dizraeli and the Small Gods are often referred to as one of Britain’s most ‘exciting’ young acts, and it’s certainly true, as well as ‘intelligent’, ‘funny’ and ‘musically-gifted’. Keep your eyes peeled for these guys, you won’t regret it.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Various Artists - Orient Noir: A West-Eastern Divan

First published on in October 2012.

Various Artists
Orient Noir: A West-Eastern Divan
Piranha Musik (64 mins)

The first two tracks of this compilation work effectively as its mission statement, with French band Watcha Clan’s brooding Jewish-and-Electronica opener blending seamlessly with Salwa Abou Greisha’s mix of Egyptian classical music and Nubian song.

And so the album goes. Orient Noir brings together music from around the Arabic cultural sphere and the Jewish diaspora. Genres featured range from the classical to the modern, including fusions with dubstep, Latin and Balkan music, amongst others. Although the album seems to have the vague structure of moving from older to newer styles as it progresses, the latter seem to take more of a precedence.

The stand-out track of the album is ‘Pakistani’, a Zanzibari piece performed by ‘Queen of Taarab’ Bi Kidude Baraka. As well as the fusion of Egyptian classical music with East African styles that is taarab, this example also uses a strong tango influence, much akin to the Arabic string orchestras of Beirut and Damascus. Another highlight is the full version of Watcha Clan’s cover of Ofra Haza’s ‘Im Nin'Alu’, in which they effortlessly combine Sephardi vocals, Balkan brass and Arabic percussion with a grounding of dubstep bass and beats.

That such contrasting tracks can sit together on an album pleasingly and without jarring is a testament to the skills of the compiler, Dr. Bertram Nickolay. However, while the tracks of the album and their position in relation to each other create an enjoyable and interesting listen, the compilation itself seems to lack focus. If the goal was to highlight and celebrate the similarities between Arabic, Jewish and Balkan music, then tracks such as Maurice el Médioni’s Maghrebi Latin track ‘Ya Maalem/Kelbi Razahi’ fit somewhat uneasily with such aims; similarly, if a Mediterranean journey was intended, then the offerings from Bi Kidude and The Klezmatics undermine this.

Overall, for a pleasant album of great music with an ‘oriental sound’ (whatever that somewhat troubling term may imply), this compilation hits the spot. Just don’t think about it too much.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Terry Scott Taylor - Return to the Neverhood

First published on in October 2012.

Terry Scott Taylor
Return to the Neverhood
Stunt Grafx (32 mins)

Back in 1996, a PC game, The Neverhood, was released. A point-and-click adventure game, it set itself apart from the competition by being animated entirely in claymation. Unfortunately, although critically-acclaimed, the game was released towards the end of the adventure game boom, and sales suffered; it has been regarded ever since as a ‘cult classic’ for its interesting puzzles, witty and unusual humour and award-winning original soundtrack by Terry Scott Taylor and The All-Clay Band.

Taylor, founding member and lead singer of Christian rock bands Daniel Amos and the Swirling Eddies, responded to director/animator Doug TenNapel’s request to make the music sound ‘clay-like’ with aplomb, creating a mix of blues, folk, vaudevillian jazz and not a small amount of sheer nonsense. The soundtrack was released as a standalone album in 2000 under the title Imaginarium: Songs from the Neverhood.

The Return to the Neverhood, then, is the artistic sequel to Imaginarium, and it takes the form of a story album – the music complements (and comes with) a short story written by Taylor with artwork from TenNapel. The style of this album is quite different from its predecessor: gone are the most mind-boggling pieces (an announcer drily introducing short periods of silence; deranged screaming of the basic plot of the video game) but the overall craziness remains in droves. The introduction of meaningful (or, at least, understandable) lyrics to the repertoire alongside the trademark Leon Redbone-style scatting adds another element to the humour. The musicianship seems, for neither better nor worse, much tighter than in the previous offering, and the All-Clay Band’s stylistic horizons have been broadened, with calliope-style waltzes, mariachi and klezmer all making appearances.

Although the tracks are rather short, (out of 19 tracks, the longest clocks in at 3:11, the total run time standing at 32 minutes) the highlights are numerous, owing to the expanse of genres presented. ‘Ode to a Hunch’ (the first track of the ‘Love Sweet Love Suite’), a delightful jazz blues with wonderfully weird lyrics and a face-melting trumpet solo, is definitely one of these, as are bass clarinet-led ‘Let’s Get This Ball Rolling!’ and the album’s overture and finale – probably the squelchiest waltzes you’ll hear for a while. Those familiar with the first album may also be interested to hear subtle references to such in the Return, such as the track ‘Huh?’ taking its melody in part from the track ‘Jose Feliciano’.

Fans expecting to hear an album akin to an Imaginarium, Vol. 2 may find themselves somewhat disappointed at the slight change in style – after a 16-year gap, as much is to be expected – but can rest assured that both the ethos and result are very much the same – fun music to make you laugh, with or without lyrics.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Staff Benda Bilili - Bouger le Monde!

First published on in September 2012.

Staff Benda Bilili
Bouger le Monde!
Crammed Discs (52 mins)

Three years after their widely-acclaimed debut album, Staff Benda Bilili are one of the most recognisable African acts in the world at the moment, for both their music and their striking image. Having toured Europe and North America several times since the release of Très Très Fort, their new album has been almost as awaited as their first. So does it live up to such hype?

The sound of the satongé, the electric one-stringed musical bow invented and played by Roger Landu, is probably the band’s most distinctive musical element, and it’s emphasised further in this album. Roger, now 21 years old, has both refined and matured his technique and sound – his solo on the track ‘Kuluna’ is simply masterful, utilising subtle wah-wah and echo as well as the usual distortion to create a sound somewhere between a Jimi Hendrix solo and a theremin. His singing, heard in live shows but not featured in Très Très Fort, makes an appearance this time around and to brilliant effect. His voice probably the smoothest out of the seven singers featured on the album, proving that this prodigy always has more to offer.

One of the most obvious changes on this album is the large influence of Latin music, most particularly the rumba Lingala that was for so long the DRC’s signature music before the ‘Congotronics’ sound came to the fore. The Latin element is probably used to best effect, and at its most noticeable, in the track ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, a highlight of the album and a much darker sounding piece than some of the more traditionally soukous-like tracks such as ‘Libala Ya Mungwa’ and ‘Mutu Esalaka’. Another addition is the electric guitar of Amalphi Masamba, most effective during its roaring solos, providing a delicious contrast to the lo-fi electro-acoustic sounds of the famous Socklo guitars of the rest of the band.

One element lacking from Bouger le Monde!, however, is the feeling of wide originality. Staff Benda Bilili’s first album was a great listen primarily because of its exciting freshness of sound – each track had its own personality that set it apart from the rest, a feeling that stretched to the album itself. Their follow-up, however, seems rather samey in comparison; most tracks feel as if they would either belong on Très Très Fort stylistically, or that they could have been played by a typical rumba band (albeit an incredibly talented one).

Taken on its own, this is a great album – in fact, of Congolese rumba, one of the best. Yet as a second album to a debut which quickly attained classic status, it falls slightly short of that very high bar. But not by much.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Jupiter & Okwess International - Momo's Kemia Bar, London

First published on in September 2012.

Jupiter & Okwess International
Momo's Kemia Bar, London
10th September 2012

Just two days after disembarking from the momentous week-long, train-bound jam session that was Africa Express, one could be forgiven for taking a well-earned rest…but for those with party in their veins, like Okwess International, that’s never an option.

The set grew into being one musician at a time: Alberto Makossa makes an abrupt cymbal crash before slipping into a typical funk rhythm on the drum kit; Cubain Kabeya joins in with Latin-tinged percussion in the form of congas and bongos; followed by Yendé Balemba on bass, Choulé Mubiayé on rhythm guitar and Richard Kabanga on lead guitar, each introducing themselves musically but with little fanfare before dropping into the groove, which has been aided by Nelly Eliya adding her shakers to the mix. Finally, a lanky, powerful-looking man walks slowly onto the stage and assumes the central position in front of a pair of yuka drums. This is Jupiter Bokonji, leader of Okwess International.

Although the band’s instrumentation is similar to that of their compatriots Staff Benda Bilili (their rhythm and bass guitars are even made by the same, increasingly famous Kinshasa luthier Socklo), their overall sound seems to owe more to the hypnotic repetition of the likembé, Richard’s lead guitar lines flitting between funk and something approaching dark soukous sounds through the typical distorted ‘Congotronic’ tone, sometimes even sounding like a particularly crunchy synthesiser.

Aside from a handful of tracks on which he takes lead vocal duty from Yendé or Nelly, Jupiter resembles a figure akin to that of a gospel reverend leading his choir – central to the band but not necessarily their music; the nucleus that gives meaning to the band’s cell.

As a venue, Momo’s Kemia Bar may seem somewhat incongruous for a central African band whose main export is dance – it’s very small, stuffy and Moroccan-themed – and perhaps a more open and relaxed vibe could have benefitted the music, but with the night’s capacity crowd (and the help of the four percussionists), the atmosphere felt perfectly intense. From their mid-tempo, groovy opener, each following track ramps up the atmosphere until, by the middle of the set, the audience was already bouncing to the track ‘The World is My Land’, and going wild by the time they tried to leave the stage for the first time.

Called back for the obligatory encore, the band proceeded to play a medley of two tracks over 20 minutes, echoing the shape of their set as a whole: starting fairly laid-back and ending in a riotous fashion.

Now in their 22nd year and umpteenth incarnation, it seems that Jupiter & Okwess International are finally beginning to get the recognition they, based on this performance at least, very fully deserve.

Photo: Jupiter & Okwess Internationalm by Pedro A. Pina. Used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Monday, 17 September 2012

Africa Express - Granary Square, London

First published on in September 2012.

Africa Express
Granary Square, London
8th September 2012

How does one even begin to attempt to review such a happening as Africa Express? A rolling, near-constant performance comprising of 6 ‘official’ gigs, tens of pop-up performances and countless hours of jamming and rehearsals in between. All featuring more than 80 musicians. On a train.

This reviewer’s experience of the tour extends only to the London date of the tour, what had been billed as the grand finale. The 5-hour performance was held at the newly-opened Granary Square behind King’s Cross Station. This was the only open-air venue for a paid-entry gig in the whole tour and, as such, there was a real festival feel to the proceedings, one not hindered by the blasting sunshine during the daylight hours of the show.

The concert opened with a (very) short welcome from the project’s co-founder Damon Albarn and then a speech from a Malian friend, regarding the crisis in northern Mali, corruption in Africa and the need to come together as a people to stop these (and all) atrocities, highlighting the significance of cross-cultural collaboration and empathy such as that we were about to witness. After a hearty round of applause, the first piece gets under way, and it’s already an exercise in ‘spot the famous musician’ with a piece lead by desert blues guitarist Afel Bocoum and featuring an ensemble including Fodé Lassana Diabaté on balafon, John Paul Jones on bass and Albarn himself on acoustic guitar. And so it continued throughout the evening, my friends and I exchanging whispers of “here comes Amadou on guitar!”, “Fatoumata Diawara is singing with the Noisettes and Eliza Doolittle, wow!” and “hang on, is that Paul McCartney on bass?”.

Musically, highlights included Nicolas Jaar ‘and friends’ (who happened to include Baaba Maal, Bassekou Kouyaté, Lassana Diabaté and Fatoumata Diawara) presenting an extended West African journey, mixing traditional music from the Mandé world with a subtle electronic background; a version of Led Zeppelin’s 'Kashmir', led by rappers Kano and Bashy and featuring Mehdi Haddab on electric oud, Rokia Traoré on typically scintillating vocals, the horn section of the Fela! musical and Led Zep’s own John Paul Jones on synth; Amadou Bagayoko leading Okwess International with Baloji on the mic; Rokia Traoré singing a hauntingly beautiful track ‘Dounia’ accompanied by, yes, the ex-Beatle, taking the bassline behind the rest of the band, unannounced…and I could go on and on and on. The stand out performer, however, was Fatoumata Diawara. She was never far from the stage, and for good reason: every time she opened her mouth, fantastic colours flew out – even when she wasn't singing, her dancing lit up the stage.

Through the evening, only three songs somewhat missed the mark – Carl Barât’s offering a bit too noisy, in the wrong way; Eliza Doolittle’s otherwise beautiful rendition of Al Green’s 'Let’s Stay Together' slowed things down a little much; and Paul McCartney’s second lead number…well, it just didn’t work too well, in my opinion – but three pieces out of five hours’ worth still leaves a very large percentage of gold. One criticism I heard from friends further from the stage than myself was that the music was so quiet that a choice had to be made between seeing the stage and hearing the music from the back up speakers halfway back in the crowd, no doubt due to the recent controversies surrounding open air music in London. Complaints raised at other Africa Express gigs, however, seemed to have been addressed here, with ensembles being introduced to the crowd before or after a song, and a five-minute change over between pieces at the very most.

Altogether, the experience was one of overwhelming musical success, and one which wasn’t nearly as shambolic as could have been expected, with the sheer number of musicians and only six days (in between other gigs) to plan almost from scratch. This wasn’t Africa Express’s first triumph, and here’s hoping it’s far from its last.

Photo: Africa Express London Granary Square 2012, by Haydn. Used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Adrian Sherwood - Survival & Resistance

Previously unpublished.

Adrian Sherwood
Survival & Resistance
On-U Sound (40 mins)

After releasing his first two solo albums (Never Trust a Hippy and Becoming a Cliché) on Real World Records, Adrian Sherwood completes the trilogy after 9 years with this release on On-U Sound – the legendary label he founded 21 years ago, home to African Head Charge, Tackhead and many other influential names in experimental dub.

While Sherwood’s previous two records placed emphasis on global beats and guest musicians, Survival & Resistance focusses on the producer’s mastery of the avant-garde dub style he helped to invent. Dubstep and ambient minimalism provide the heaviest influence in the producer’s experiments with the ubiquitous dub sound, with individual tracks displaying elements of Brazilian bossa, blues and hints of Arabic music (Kerry Ava’s cello evokes comparison with Egyptian virtuoso Emad Ashour). Together, these elements define the overall feel of the album as tastefully minimalist – the sense is that this album is to be listened to and savoured rather than skanked to.

Compared to the producer’s other solo offerings, the cast of players on this album is relatively small, with most sounds being created or sampled by Sherwood himself. Other musicians include On-U favourites Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald, Ghetto Priest and Jazzwad providing guitar, vocals and programming respectively. The stand-out guest performance, however, is Alan Glen, whose blues harp is laid bare over the dark ambience of ‘Last Queen of England’.

As is the norm in the On-U family, Sherwood’s music continues to shift and change, and the pioneer’s made another cracker. The dub adventure continues…